Is a Social Network a Spiritual Network?

As Oscar night approaches one of the questions that has kept coming back to me is this: “Is a social network a spiritual network?”

The answer is not a simple one and perhaps it isn’t a question that has an answer that will work for all time.  Like so many other generational changes and shifts in technology it could be argued that we will only understand the implications of social networks over time.  Already, for example, we have seen the implications of the technology for political interaction.  Who would have thought that a system invented on a university campus that traded in BFFs and reported to a small circle of friends that “Suzie just arrived at the coffee shop” could morph into something that overturned governments?

But, I think, for the moment, the answer is yes — and no.

Yes, social networks can function as spiritual networks and they can do so in surprising ways:

They facilitate conversation over time.  A conversation can linger longer than face to face encounters.  They can allow time to process a thought.  And for that reason a social network can produce a deeper conversation.  (I am talking here about one on one encounters, as opposed to more public posts, which are more problematic in that way.)

They can bring people together at a distance.  The thing that always made for spiritual communities, but was also their intrinsic limitation on their formation has been geography.  There may still be real numerical limits to how many spiritual friendships you can form — in fact, I’m convinced that there are real limits — but social networking eliminates the absolute limits imposed by geography and brings people together — potentially around the world.  One of the real delights of networking of this kind is the way in which it restores friendships and fosters spiritual conversations with friends we no longer live close too.  I correspond regularly, for example, with an old friend who lives in Tokyo, has had a home in Hong Kong, and can just as predictably reach me from an airport in Canada.

When you think about social networks in this way they can be described as a powerful tool for building robust spiritual communities and conversations that no previous generation of human beings could dream of crafting.

There are potential limitations as well, however.  Here are the ones that occur to me:

Social networks have a character limit —- on line communication tends to be clipped and abbreviated.  That can limit what we learn about what another and our communication can be superficial, rather than deeply meaningful.

“Friending” can be a filter we use to run from spiritual networks.   Most conversations about the body of Christ rightly include the diverse, God-given nature of spiritual communities.  The fact that I can friend you or unfriend you runs the risk that I will craft a community of my own making that leaves me unchallenged — and “un-enriched” — by a community of God’s making.

Facebook doesn’t need faces.  What social networks lack right now is the reality that is a face to face encounter with others.  Spiritual networks can’t do without them.  The power of the Gospel is the power of the incarnation and I am not convinced that ultimately the technology we have developed can satisfy that need.  In that regard, social networks may prove to be a powerful tool for enhancing spiritual networks, but they will probably never replace them.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.