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What Would Thomas Merton Have Thought of Facebook? On Being Unplugged in a Digital Age

I would have really liked to have gone to the recent Catholic Media Conference which took place in Sydney last week, but a few different commitments made that impossible.  I’ve heard a few reports from friends who went, which were largely very positive.  And it got me thinking…

As a Catholic priest who blogs regularly (well, semi-regularly) I am clearly an advocate of the Church’s presence in the new(-ish) world of social media.  To say that the Church shouldn’t be a presence on the Web is to turn our back on one of the key places that people gather today.  As Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out, the new means of social communication are one of the new areopagi – one of the new sectors of society – that ought to be the focus of the Church’s new evangelisation.  We don’t want to disregard the potential of a wonderful tool for the communication of the Gospel.  In fact, the Church simply cannot ignore these new means of communication, because like it or not, this is the way people today will want to communicate with us.

At the same time, we cannot afford to be naive about the various concerns and questions raised by the new media, including matters of privacy and safety and the narrowing sources of our information as we are increasingly selective about what and who we read.  I’d also like to highlight a different concern.

In a world where everyone is always online and always connected, the Church may be, in fact needs to be, a ‘place’ where people are able to experience community ‘unplugged’.  I’m reminded of a comment by Thomas Merton, who suggested that watching television was the antithesis of contemplation. The gaze that the television produces is the polar opposite of the contemplative gaze.  What would Merton have made of Facebook?  I cannot help think that he would have thought that  it was an ersatz form of the community that is produced by the contemplative gaze.  Connecting all the time with friends on Facebook is like people forced to drink chicory in deprived, post-World War Europe.  Sure it’s a drink, but it isn’t really coffee.  Facebook isn’t a substitute for embodied relationship, or what we simply used to call friendship and community before the advent of ‘friends’ whom you never see face to face.

The link between contemplation and genuine community is critical, and being online for hours on end militates against both.  And without wanting to deny the human being’s virtually endless capacity for distraction (I’m recalling Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death here) I truly believe that the ersatz form of community to be found online will ultimately prove to be as unsatisfying for people as chicory substitutes for coffee.  Which brings us to a magnificent opportunity for the Church… to be the Church.  To be a ‘place’ which provides a space for genuine contemplation and which produces genuine community.  Our necessary presence on the web can and must meet people in their ‘world’, but it needs to invite them into a different one: the world that is opened up by the Gospel, that is incarnated especially in liturgy, and which produces an alternative and distinctive way of being human.  I’m completely aware of the apparent irony of using a blog to make this argument, but it is only an apparent irony.  It actually reinforces my point that we should make extensive use of the new media in order to connect with people, but we will do that in order to direct them to the contemplative and embodied community of the Church.

In particular, this means that we need to be careful of uncritically importing the practices of the new media into our lives and into the Church’s life.  Let me offer one example: the Facebook timeline encourages us to offer a chronology of our lives online in words and pictures going right back to the moment of our birth.  I am sure there are parents who are even now diligently adding to their infant’s Facebook page, getting them ready to present to their child when they are old enough to read or even see the pictures.  The timeline concept clearly raises questions about privacy, but the deeper reality is that it is also a liturgical practice in which we tell ourselves who we are – we form our own identity – through what we post about ourselves.  The Church offers another kind of liturgy, which cannot compete with the Facebook timeline for being slick, glossy or initially attractive.  But the liturgy of the Church and the other practices of faith like contemplative prayer offer a different account of who we are: that our deepest identity is that we are the beloved of God.

This does not mean dispensing with the exciting avenues that the new media offer for proclaiming the Gospel.  It means recognising that these avenues are subordinate to the Gospel and not the other way round. The evangelical task for the Church is not to mimic the practices of the new media, but to be authentic to her own identity as the community that is formed by gazing at the face of Christ, who is the face of God.

Grand Final Week: Footy and Faith

I’m a Collingwood fan.  That surprises many and shocks a few.  I have all my teeth, a tertiary degree and do not own a pair of ugg boots.  Furthermore, I do not think that any of the aforementioned characteristics make me an atypical supporter.  I’m pretty happy that my team has made the Grand Final.  For reasons passing understanding I am going to be in far western Queensland for the game, but as the brother in the MGL who was lucky(!) enough to watch the game with me on Friday night will testify, I don’t need to be at the MCG to make a fair bit of noise when the ‘Pies are playing.  To be honest, I think we’re up against it next weekend, but then I also think that we don’t do well when we’re favourites.  So I’m happy with the underdog tag for next Saturday.

Non-Victorian readers may not believe me, but it really is hard to appreciate just how seriously people take it down here unless you live in Melbourne.  And there are some, probably many in the churches who deride the obsession with footy as an idolatrous substitute for faith.  They’re probably right.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the footy is a secular liturgy.  The commentators resort to clichés when they describe the ‘G as a sporting cathedral, the fans converge on the ground like Sunday morning worshipers in suburban parishes, and the game itself is a delicate combination of ritual and pageantry that rival a high Mass in terms of spectacle.  And for many, the devotion and adoration for their team, maybe even for the game itself, is surely a substitute for worship of God.  The rabid fans who paint their bodies black and white or blue and white next weekend are proof that the the human being is truly homo liturgicus: we make liturgies, rituals in our lives, even when we don’t intend to.  The world is not divided into those who worship the divine as they best understand it and those who don’t, into theists of all stripes on the one hand and atheists on the other.  We are all worshipers.  What distinguishes us is not if we worship or not but what we worship.  And in a world where many regard God as far beyond their reach, the Pies or the Cats or some other team will sadly do for some as the focus of their devotion.

Any other week of the year, I would quite possibly be waxing far more lyrically about this, and of the pretty poor substitute that a footy team (even the Magpies!) is for the Lord of all Creation.  And for the record, I really do think it is a tragedy when people’s ultimate sense of happiness ebbs and flows with the fortunes of their team.  But it’s Grand Final Week, and my team are going to run out on Saturday.  So without rejecting the argument above, let me offer a different take on footy and faith.

Some of you will remember the movie Chariots of Fire which tells the story of the sprinter Eric Liddell’s attempt to win gold at the Paris Olympics. Liddell was a missionary, and refused to run on Sunday because he didn’t want to break the Sabbath.  My favourite moment in the movie is when his sister, a devout if slightly puritanical woman, asks why he is pursuing his Olympic dream.  She reminds him that his calling is to go to China, and tells him that she cannot understand why he is wasting his time with running when it is clear what his real mission in life is.  Liddell responds by saying to her that he knows that God has made him to be a missionary.  He then pauses and says, ‘but he [God] has also made me fast.  And when I run, I feel his pleasure’.  To believe that a human being excelling physically, or more accurately, that human beings excelling physically together in extraordinary displays of synchronicity that we usually simply call teamwork, gives glory to God ought not be a stretch for the believer.  Footy is really a riff on Irenaeus’ much quoted dictum that  ‘the glory of God is the human being fully alive’.  Think about it.  This isn’t about winning; it is about being in what psychologists call ‘the flow’, experiencing the intrinsic joy and even rapture of excellence.  Witness Buddy Franklin’s goal last Friday that nearly won the Hawks the match.  As a Pies fan I might have been horrified, but as a lover of the game I could not but be in awe.  And on a warm September afternoon, as the pill is sent up and down the ground at breakneck speed and as the sheer athleticism of the players leaves us spectators breathless, is this not a scene of great beauty?  Couldn’t it be a glimpse of glory? Am I going too far when I suggest that Augustine might have been thinking of footy when he recognised that all created things can be reduced to idols or elevated to sacramental signs of God’s presence?  Perhaps, but only just.  After all, it is Grand Final week, and my team are running out this Saturday.  Carn the ‘Pies.

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