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 Rueben 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, as well as several books: 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), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), live in Highland Park, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and four grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, and Sophie.


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