The theology of social media

A friend of mine is doing a presentation on ‘faith and Facebook – exploring the theology of social media’ (see link). The title immediately got me thinking about the gifts and challenges of social media. I’m not sure I can comment directly on the theology of social media, but being a good follower of Ignatius I am a firm believer in ‘finding God in all things’.

As a strong introvert I love social media. It gives me a way of interacting with a wide variety of people without the draining immediacy of direct contact. It is better than email because it is completely undemanding of my ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ – they are completely at liberty to engage or not with anything I post. If they don’t like the content I post they can even hide my feed. I therefore feel completely free to post what I want to – and different friends respond to different pieces of content. As someone who has interests in church, in spirituality, in science, in society, this gives me tremendous freedom.

What I value most as a consumer of social media is the array of content that now comes across my path without having to go and find it. On both Facebook and Twitter I have connections to people across the globe involved in a huge range of pursuits; a small number of them regularly post interesting content. This has opened my eyes to all sorts of subjects, and importantly, good writing on these subjects.

More recently, since starting a blog almost a year ago, I have made some good ‘soul friends’: a handful of people whom I have never met, but who have become a part of my ‘community’. These are people whose ministry and work I respect and support, and who similarly support me and publicize my work. I value these connections tremendously. There is no other way that I would have met these people. To use just one example, I have met one other person who shares my intersection of interests in chemistry, Ignatian spirituality and writing (you can read her blog here). To me it is both deeply affirming of what I perceive to be my own vocation and it challenges me in the way in which I am balancing the different elements.  With one or two of these connections, real world associations have begun to form.

At the same time social media has been a space which has been profoundly challenging to me. For example, discovering what it means to be an ‘online community’ for a real world parish community. There have been some bitter disputes which have rapidly become far more personal than a face to face debate would have. Responses which are probably 100-150 words long are far shorter than the conversational equivalent and positions quickly become polarized in a way that is not helpful. We have had to learn to be discerning in what we choose to post on that site.

Nonetheless social media has been a source of enormous blessing and grace. My world is certainly better for its existence, and I have caught glimpses of God through my interactions in this space.

On unconditional love

We do not really believe in unconditional love. We may believe that unconditional love is theoretically possible, but, if it does exist, it is only for some mythical perfect version of ourselves of which we continue to fall short. The truth is that we find it hard to love and accept ourselves with all our short-comings. We presume because we find ourselves to be less than lovable, that God also does the same. This idea is reinforced by judgmental faith communities.

As George Bernard Shaw once said – God made us in God’s image and we have been returning the favour ever since. This is absolutely true, we do create God in our own image, but this human-patterned version of God is a gross distortion of the reality. If unconditional love does exist, it must be unconditional. God must love us regardless of what we do. God must love us as we are today, with all the complexity and imperfection and failure that we carry. God must love us, even when we are disappointed in ourselves, even when we find it almost impossible to face ourselves, let alone love ourselves. This is not to suggest that God may not be disappointed by some of the things we choose, or that God may not experience profound sadness at some of ways we treat each other. But, God loves us nonetheless. The gospels are littered with examples of Jesus acting in precisely this way – choosing to engage in a caring and loving manner with those who, through their actions or lifestyle, have been found wanting by the faith community.

This is not to say that sin in not real or is not problematic. It is not to say that we don’t need to responsibility for the things we do which are less than loving. But we will get much further we allow ourselves to be loved. When we do catch glimpses of the love of God, which encompasses the whole of our being – the bits we celebrate and the bits we would rather hide – it enables us to see that none of us is wholly good or wholly bad. We all sit somewhere along that continuum. That realisation and acknowledgement is the first step towards real compassion. Both for ourselves and for others.

Maintaining equilibrium

I have ended up in a place where I juggle chemistry, spirituality and education. These different elements pull me in different ways. Sometimes the pull of two of the elements neatly coincides, other times they seem mutually opposed. Sometimes I can hold all three at once; more often one suffers at the expense of the others.

Whilst the combination of things I juggle is perhaps unusual, I think the experience of having to juggle different things is far more common. Very few of us have a single clear priority. More often than not we juggle career, family, passions and consuming hobbies. Depending on how serious our commitment to these various elements sooner or later we will have to choose the better over the good.

This is the challenge that I am beginning to face. I don’t have enough energy to give what I would like to all of these different elements. So where do I choose to put my efforts? I don’t have a clear answer to this – I don’t operate by rules. Rather with each opportunity that emerges I need to be discerning: in part this means weighing up the cost of the investment with the reward; in part it means noticing where the life is for me – where God seems to be nudging.

But my capacity to discern well is directly related to the care I am taking of myself. If I am over-extended I am much less likely to discern well. And therein lies the key to being able to maintain this dynamic equilibrium. My first priority has got to be maintaining my own spiritual, physical and emotional health. I have learnt tremendously from those times that I have neglected one or more aspects of this. And I still find my natural inclination is to try to get through by force of will – but that attitude is really choosing the good over the better.

I am not the only person in my environment who can make substantial contributions in the areas that I do. When I can remember that, I am able find the freedom to make a better decision.

Growing up

I am beginning to suspect that growing up or maturing is not what I thought I was.

I had hoped there would come a time when I would outgrow those parts of myself which frustrate me to the core; those parts of myself which I really wish I could set aside.

But I am beginning to think that this isn’t the case at all. Those parts of myself which I struggle with most will be my life companions. As a wise friend commented recently – the real cross we have to bear is pain of living with ourselves!

So where then is the hope?

I think that it comes in two different forms. Firstly, that I am far more able now to put my hand up and own my failures or weaknesses. If this is done as soon as the problem enters the public arena it defuses a whole lot of misery. Secondly, that I am just beginning to glimpse the importance of receiving the compassion of another when I am at my weakest.

Maybe, just maybe redemption is through these very places of weakness. In learning to live with myself I begin to glimpse the truth that maybe nothing is beyond the reach of the grace of God.

Nothing can be loved at speed

The phrase ‘Nothing can be loved at speed’ comes from a prayer by Michael Leunig (you can find the prayer and some of his artwork here)

I find the thought utterly arresting. It stops me in my tracks. It is so obvious and yet the phrasing somehow lets the message hit home anew.

Relationships must be fostered over time. And not just with the passage of time, but with the investment of time.

I cannot help but extrapolate this idea into many different areas of my life. Good solid research doesn’t happen quickly. Major breakthroughs and insights do come, but not usually from nowhere. A good piece of writing is very rarely the first draft.

We live in a world where there is such pressure to produce or to achieve or to tick off the list, that it is easy to forget that quality takes time.

Being present to someone is the greatest gift we have to give.

Nothing can be loved at speed.

Finding redemption through our brokenness

Richard Rohr often writes of the problem of the ego. In the reflection published today he describes the way in which we can use the pursuit of the spiritual as the perfect mask. (You can find the full text here.)

‘In the name of seeking God, the ego pads and protects itself from self-discovery, which is an almost perfect cover for its inherent narcissism.’

I am truly blessed to have the friendship of a few older and substantially wiser people. In conversation with them I am allowed to witness a tremendous humility. The recognition that our ego continues to be a stumbling block. It manifests in different ways for different people, but with each passing day we encounter our own poverty of spirit. In the end we are left with nothing to offer God but our naked vulnerability. And the God we encounter in that space is paradoxical – both immanent and transcendent; engaged and impassive.

In sharing these conversations I catch glimpses of the lived reality of the paradox in the Gospels – unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains itself. But if it dies it produces many seeds (John 12:24).

I have a long way to go on this particular journey!! But I know that an entry point is the capacity to recognise the areas where I am not yet free and to pray for the grace of interior freedom. The challenge with this prayer is that it requires that I let go of any particular outcome. I do not know what ‘shape’ interior freedom will take until it begins to grow in me – and it almost never manifests in the way I think it will.

The challenge in all of this is that the discovery of the places of internal ‘stuckness’ is never particularly pleasant. We cannot strip ourselves, we need to wait for God’s good time attending to the process living as fully as we can each day – and being discerning along the way. Noticing the invitations along the way.

We don’t ever ‘get there’, but it is important to understand that the end result is the discovery that we are loved in our wounded broken vulnerability not a restoration of ‘wholeness’. The journey is one of gradual integration of the parts of the ourselves we find harder to love rather than a removal of those parts. Because those very parts of ourselves provide a connection with our own deepest desires and those of God.

Unfortunately our ego craves ‘wholeness’ without integration. We want to transcend the mucky reality of living, rather than recognise that our best chance of real connection with God is through the places we make the greatest mess. There is no redemption without integration.