On Facebook and Communion
By: Ágúst Symeon Magnússon
Earlier this morning I checked my Facebook news feed. (Given that there are over 2 billion monthly active accounts on Facebook, there is a good chance that so did you). I was greeted, as I usually am, with a dizzying array of information and content, ranging from the interesting to the absurd and from the pathetic to the poignant. A small sample of this content would include: a news article on the currently ongoing investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, a picture of the actor Nicolas Cage holding a baby seal (from which I have yet to recover), a video chronicling the plight of a young woman who has been unjustly imprisoned since she was a child. a long rant by a socialist on the effects of trans-humanism (of which I understood not a word, despite holding a Ph.D. in philosophy), a collection of sayings by Elder Aimilianos, and highlights from last night’s game between the Celtics and the Bucks.
The randomness of this selection borders on the insane. After scrolling through Facebook for a few minutes I was left, as I always am, feeling agitated, confused, and strangely exhilarated. It hardly ever happens that I open a social media site of any kind where I do not end up closing the browser window in a state of disgust. Yet I keep coming back. We all do.
Twitter, Facebook, and all the other social media platforms have come to dominate the way in which we communicate, consume news, express ourselves, and build identities. It is therefore worth contemplating social media in the context of what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. Paradoxically, Facebook has made us more confused about who we are and what we are seeking than ever before, yet it also illumines important aspects of our selves and of our need for communion.
The Catholic writer Evelyn Underhill in her work Essentials of Mysticism noted: “Christians believe in a God immanent and incarnate, who transfuses the whole of life which He has created and calls that life in its wholeness your union with Him” (italics mine). This notion of wholeness echoes St. Paul’s prayer for the Church in Thessalonike: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). The Christian life is a search for healing, which ultimately manifests itself as a kind of wholeness, the bringing-together of the fragmented and broken elements of our bodies and minds. This notion of union as inner-peace is common in many spiritual traditions (the primary meaning of the Sanskrit word for “Yoga” means to “yoke” or bind together, for example) but the Christian tradition is unique in presenting this union primarily in terms of communion (rather than merely through meditation or training our consciousness in a certain kind of way). It is in and through our attempts to reach out to one another, to bind ourselves together in love, that we are to achieve the kind of wholeness that is manifested in the life and works of Christ.
This notion of wholeness was one of the main themes developed by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, perhaps most prominently in Crimes and Punishment, where the name of the tortured protagonist Raskolnikov indicates fragmentation and division (raskol). Raskolnikov, much like Ivan Karamazov in the Brother’s Karamazov or the Underground Man in Notes from Underground, is a decidedly modern figure, a person who is completely stuck in his head and consumed by his alienation from both himself as well as other people. Raskolnikov finds himself completely unable to communicate his pain and confusion to other people and is increasingly isolated and alone in his spiraling reflections and anxieties. All of these characters are, to some extent, possessed by information and ideas and it is this possession that makes them unable to love or to accept love.
Dostoyevsky prophetically pointed towards the spiritual struggle of the modern person. We all experience this fragmentation. We often find ourselves manifesting one self (or version of our self) at home, another at work, another in our Facebook profile, another in our political discourse, and on and on and on. We are legion, rather than the unified whole that we wish to be. The alienation and isolation of the modern person is clearly manifest in our obsession with communication and in the rise of social media. But so is our need for communion, our reaching out to one another in an attempt to bridge that gap between I and Thou, to heal the fragmentation both within and without. Facebook holds the forth the promise that we never have to be alone. There is an eschatological dimension to social media. But as with so many attempts to create heaven on earth, there is also at least a little taste of hell in it.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger, in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology” (originally published in 1954), noted that technology should not only be understood as a tool or instrument but rather as a “realm of revealing, i.e., of truth.” Technology “unveils” (aletheia) essential components of our being insofar as it manifests our mode of being-in-the-world. Technology is a kind of event to which we belong. Things are reordered and reappropriated in relation to technology. An area of land that is used for fracking no longer reveals itself in terms of the beauty and grace of the natural environment but rather in terms of high-intensity forms of energy extraction.
This particular form of revealing has a violent and totalitarian dimension to it. Reality normally manifests itself in a variety of ways, as a horizon of possibilities. This is because revealing is a fundamentally poetic enterprise. A poetic disposition allows new and exciting possibilities to emerge. We can see a beautiful landscape in terms of our relationship to God, as a place for exercise or play, or in terms of our connection to the earth. Yet if we pull out our smartphone, the landscape is revealed as merely an opportunity for a selfie. The horizon of possibilities is closed off. Similarly, if we build a factory on this piece of land or use it for fracking, it no longer reveals itself as anything but a site for industry and production. The essence of technology, much like that of the natural sciences upon which it is built, is that of reductionism.
This is not to say that technology is inherently bad. Of course not. Technological and scientific developments have given us untold blessings and comforts (as well as opened the door to a profusion of horrors). Even these communication technologies, of which I so grumpily write, have a variety of good uses. It is nothing short of miraculous that I can communicate with my family in Iceland, an ocean away, instantaneously and effectively. I can take a picture of my son decorating the Christmas tree and send it to my mother in Reykjavik who sees it instantly on her phone. This is important to both me and her.
I am not suggesting that technology is evil. What Heidegger was arguing, and what I think is spiritually important to consider, is that technology has a particular kind of power in relation to how we view ourselves and the world around us. Technology is not simply a tool or an instrument or a natural extension of our scientific prowess, but rather a way in which our very being reveals itself.
Facebook, or any other social media platform, doesn’t just manifest a purely artificial reality (although it does that too) but rather reveals essential components of what it is truly real, even though it does so in a distorted and grotesque way. The fact that we are so afraid of being alone, of being unable to communicate, is an essential aspect of what draws us to social media. This in turn tells us something important about who we truly are. As the Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas has noted, our very being is communion. Our fundamental nature or essence manifests itself as a dynamic reaching-out towards the other, a profound yearning to overcome the isolation and individualism that are the effects of our brokenness and sin. The reason why Facebook and Twitter are so addictive is not primarily because of how they are designed, their entertainment value, or their use, but rather because they feed off our deepest, most spiritual desires. We need to connect. We are created in the image of a God whose very essence is love, whose life and being is so centered on communion and togetherness that he is revealed as a Trinity of persons rather than as a singularity. The life of God is a community defined by the free bonds of love, and being created in the image of this God we ourselves can only find fulfilment and flourishing in and through communion.
Given that we live in a fallen world, our attempts to bridge the gaps between me and you—and “us” and “them”—often fail in dramatic fashion. We constantly struggle to make ourselves understood, to recognize each other’s dignity and personhood, and to manifest the vulnerability and openness that are essential prerequisites for true communion. Instead, we guard our hearts with prideful ideologies, reducing one another to mere representations of a group, political party, race, nationality, or religion. Reaching out to a unique, individual person whose dignity and worth we fully respect is a difficult thing. It involves a fundamental risk. As Ivan Karamazov said: “It is exactly my neighbor that I cannot love.” It is much easier and much safer to deal with people as abstractions or ideas than as persons. But to do so means that we destroy any possibility of communion. If we deny the authentic personhood of another human being, we dehumanize ourselves at the same time.
Facebook and Twitter are, unfortunately, prime examples of this failure and of this brokenness. Our tendency to reduce one another to manageable ideas that we can either agree or disagree with run rampant on social media. Our loved ones, our friends, our co-workers, in all of their glorious complexity and ambiguity, are reduced to clearly definable categories: “liberal,” “conservative,” “Christian,” “atheist,” “pro-life,” “pro-choice,” and on and on. The rampant bullying, misogyny, trolling, and abuse that occurs online is a symptom of how difficult it is for us to truly respond to each other as persons and of the kind of violent unveiling that occurs when our communication becomes dominated by technology. Yet the fact that we keep checking that Facebook feed and our Twitter account also manifests the fact that we are starving for true communion, even to the extent that we will traverse the spiritual wasteland of the internet in the hope that we might overcome, if even just for a moment, our profound alienation and isolation.
What is the answer to all of this? I haven’t the slightest clue. I’m not suggesting that all of us delete our Facebook account and Twitter profile (although this would undoubtedly be a splendid idea). All I’m suggesting is that we need to consider this new technology in light of what we understand about our relationships with one another and with God. As an Orthodox Christian, I am inclined to think that the only authentic response to our personhood, the only viable path to healing, is found in the Eucharist. The liturgy presents us with an alternative mode of being-in-the-world, one where our authentic individuality is not a cause of separation but rather the locus of communion and love. When I step up to receive the Eucharist, I bring all of myself towards the chalice; my brokenness, my fear, my insecurity, my hope, my doubt, my pain. All of it is accepted, taken up, and transformed in the embrace of the God who revealed himself, his very body and blood, as the pathway of mercy and love. Christ did not die for an abstraction. He did not sacrifice himself for “humanity” or for “Christians.” He died and rose for me. And he died and rose for you.
The Eucharist represents the moment when all of the fragmented elements of the self are brought together, and we are made whole (in our “right mind,” as people described the Gerasene Demoniac after Christ’s healing). Unlike the violent and reductionistic revealing of technology, the eucharist reveals our being in terms of poetic possibilities, of thanksgiving and selfless love. What is so paradoxical about our modern communication technologies is that they promise to open the world to us, but they seem to primarily enclose us off in our own private worlds. Anyone who has had the experience of sitting at a table with a group of people, all of whom are looking at their phones, will sympathize with what I am trying to express. The life that is offered us in the Church represents an alternative to such “communication,” one where we can face ourselves, each other, and God in the fulness of our personhood.
As previously noted, these technologies are not inherently evil (except for cat videos, which are all clearly produced by the devil). But it might be worth asking ourselves exactly what it is that we are looking for on social media. I am increasingly starting to think that we are looking in the wrong place.