by Brian R. Gumm
Before my indoctrination into theological education, I was a professional web nerd. During that period, most of my 20s, I was the software developer and community leader for an online message board named after my high school rock band. The majority of users on this board were connected by the shared experience of having grown up in central Iowa - most of us were high school and/or college friends. This common experience formed the relational glue as we discussed topics categorized into separate forums: music, technology, sports, “serious stuff” like religion and politics, and “everything else.”
The life of this virtual community spanned 9/11 through the election and first year of Barack Obama’s presidency. By this time, late 20s for most of the group, the sands had shifted considerably in our lives, relationships, and in American society. Consumeristic and ideological perspectives diverged and hardened, while simultaneously, geographical moves, marriages, children, and careers eroded relational bonds from our youth. In American culture, the rise of 24-hour cable news and digital social media began to shift the nature of public discourse. By the end, discussion in our virtual community became marked by bitterness and apathy. Many had left for the greener pastures of the new face of socializing on the web, Facebook. In the fall of 2010, I put my 9 year-old “baby” to sleep, for good.
I start with this experience because it has served as a rich source of reflection on relationships mediated by the digital world - screens and keyboards, iPads and Androids, software and hardware, and the ever-impinging “cloud.” My virtual community phased out just as my induction into another community - the seminary - began. Recently graduated, I’ve begun to see my ministry in and for the church as one which brings my understanding of the digital world under some theological scrutiny. In this post, I hope to offer some reflections on the challenges to virtuous theological discourse in a virtual community such as this Theology Studio and its digital context.
My first point is to simply mention that the rather obvious Latin root for both “virtuous” and “virtual” is virtus, or in English “virtue,” understood as “excellence, potency, efficacy.” It’s only recently that the latter has gained the connotation of “not quite real,” often being deployed in reference to something digital technology is capable of producing. Why the split?
The entire digital world would not exist but for the logic and interests of capital markets and powerful nation-states, not least of which the United States. Adopting the ateleology of liberalism - rather the telos of the subject, not the commons - software platforms such as Facebook and Twitter appear value neutral and mostly utilitarian. You can organize social uprisings or share video of your cat acting ridiculous (and, really, who doesn’t “like” the latter?!). It really doesn’t matter which.
Or does it? Making use of Michael Novak’s metaphor of an “empty shrine” in American religious life, William Cavanaugh has pointed out that the shrine really isn’t empty at all, but has been occupied by consumer capitalism. The capitalist marketplace is itself a traditioned community of practice with a particular (albeit impossible) telos, that of unfettered economic growth. The virtues of this particular economic community and the particular (consumptive) practices which enable those virtues to be realized therein are, perhaps tragically given the depth of immersion, at odds with the kind of virtues espoused by life in another community, the body of Christ, the church catholic.
It’s also worth pointing out here MacIntyre’s notion of goods internal and external to practices. The individualistic nature of online social networking carries with it certain “goods” internal to the practice that work, as I pointed out above, counter to Christian virtue. So when people adopt a utilitarian approach to, say, spread the gospel of Jesus Christ on Facebook or tweet inspirational-devotional bits from Scripture, they’re opened up to a double fail of sorts. First, most people are ignorant of the formation they’re receiving by engaging in such a practice, what kind of “lovers” they’re being shaped into; namely lovers of consumerism, which could be described as institutionalized economic individualism. Second, this approach fails because as MacIntyre points out, external goods are such that “when achieved they are always some individual’s property and possession.” So the raft of “likes” you collect in response to that devotional (or snidely critical) status update on Facebook really does little if anything to edify the body of Christ, and primarily serves to make you feel good about yourself, which is exactly what the Facebook overlords intend since it keeps you coming back. (Full disclosure: I’m in need of this medicine just as much as anyone.) These two lessons from MacIntyre here show us that the common good for the body of Christ is something elusive at best to realize in digital “communities,” especially given their context and the forces exerted on benevolent ones such as the Theology Studio.
As Chad Pecknold and Pete Candler have recently commented on this blog, the theological academy - set as it is in the embattled university of late modernity - is not immune to the corrosive forces of such a context, and perhaps the recent comment storm on the Theology Studio Facebook group serves as a cautionary tale to this reality. Candler even noted “a social networking culture that often exaggerates our narcissisms” as being part of the challenges to embodying virtue in the work of theology, with an eye toward recovering a charitable, “boldly humble” view of it being “the queen of the sciences.”
So as the denizens of this Theology Studio sort out the kind of community it’s to be, this discernment must be done with an awareness that it’s taking shape in fairly hostile territory. Freneticism and narcissism are the virtues of the Facebook Timeline, where temperance and humility should - as Pecknold has argued - rule the theological roost. I’m happy to see the reflective process post-comment storm, when Tony Baker posted the light-hearted but not light-weight “9 anathemas.”
The call to ecclesia
In closing, I’ll note that most of what I’ve done above is negative. And as I’m nearly out of space, my constructive comments will be brief. As someone who is on the fuzzy line between Gen-X and Gen-Y, between digital native and digital sojourner, but with some significant immersion in digital technology, I’m convinced that “the cloud” will only continue to envelop us more, perhaps becoming a kind of fog. If the church is to be the church in the digital age, it must see how virtual communities cannot stand in for embodiment in local communities of Christian discourse and practices (even sacraments; a hard word for an Anabaptist to utter). Indeed, in order to protect against the vices of the digital age and realize the virtues of the Spirit - including within theological discourse - we must be committed and discipled to local expressions of the one, global body of Christ, the church. Virtuous online discourse must emerge from such communities, constantly forming and reforming social imaginations and bodies in the practices of Christian life together.
Brian R. Gumm is a licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren and a recent graduate of Eastern Mennonite University's Seminary (MDiv) and Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (MA). Now discerning future ministry, Brian is working at EMU in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and actively blogs at Restorative Theology (http://restorativetheology.blogspot.com/).
I think narcissism is not a virtue of Facebook or any other web platform. Narcissism is a vice of persons. Technological advancements may have made peoples narcissism more accessible, though it certainly did not create peoples narcissism. Clearly, the church has as of yet been impotent in forming persons to be virtuous (particularly humble) in most any environment; and this is nowhere more prevalent than in the explosion at the beginning of the Theology Studio. The virtual world exploited a weakness (or incompetence) in Christian formation. The answer is not for the church to “protect against the vices of the digital age,” it is not to go defensive. Clearly, the vices are in the church and the church can hardly defend against itself. Rather, it will take brave, thoughtful, humble practitioners who are equipped for discursive practice to engage, educate, and love in all facets including the web.We need not demonize technology as “institutionalized economic individualism.” We should rather, perhaps, be thankful that the inconsistences or inadequacies of Christian formation in the church are brought abruptly in full view by the virtual world. No longer will ministers be able to hide behind rhetoric, or liturgy, or process hoping that these will, by some miracle, transform practitioners. On the contrary, it will take brave, thoughtful, humble followers of Christ who are equipped for discursive practice to engage, educate and love the people made readily available by the web.