by Clark Elliston, Assistant Professer of Religion and Philosophy, Schreiner University
Friends are all-too-frequently taken for granted, both in everyday human experience and in theology. It seems that for many people friends simply emerge; a shared laugh or thought becomes many and through some unseen alchemy a friend is created. Theologically the situation is a little more delicate. The concept of friendship poses a problem for theology insofar as friendship, in both antiquity and early theology, remains largely a preferential love. We choose our friends based on any number qualities, but we nevertheless choose them. This is a good gift, but as Soren Kierkegaard makes all too plain, this can be problematic for followers of a Savior who commands a neighbor-love of all persons. A preferential love which by necessity excludes others (as no one can love the whole world equally) thus violates the universality of Christ’s command to love all. Yet even here there are perplexing tensions. After all, the New Testament repeatedly mentions “the beloved disciple” and Jesus suggests an appropriate category of friendship when he notes that the greatest love is laying one’s life down for friends. Nonetheless such difficulties, as well as the embedded character of human friendship, have made it strikingly absent from much theological discourse.
Yet like so many areas of human life in a technological world, sociality too has been affected. Study after study indicates that the social life of Westerners is suffering. We are more lonely, depressed, and anxious than ever before. We also know that self-reported social encounters are perhaps the greatest source of meaning and happiness available to us. Yet this is not to say that we simply need more social encounters – after all, we are in the midst of one of the greatest social revolutions in history courtesy of the Internet. Though we may seclude ourselves physically from the surrounding world, most people will have hundreds of online interactions a day. As we work harder, as traditional ties lessen, and as the allure of instant communication grows, we should not be surprised as social media opportunities increase. Yet this transition into an online context poses myriad problems. Not least is the devolution of friendship as a fundamental form of human relationship. Instead, social media technologies promise ever-greater connectivity to others while paradoxically eroding constituent elements of friendship classically considered.
Two immediate issues arise when considering the digitalization of friendship through social media. First, social media friendship lacks consideration of character and the time it takes to cultivate character. Second, social media friendship remains crucially limited in terms of its presence with the other as friend. These issues, to be sure, do not undermine the project of social media entirely – meaningful encounters with others can happen on several platforms. However, social media disciplines and forms our online relationships in crucial ways. When this disciplined thinking and formation creeps into other realms of life it becomes toxic.
When Aristotle wrote one of the most influential treatises on friendship, books seven and eight of the Nicomachean Ethics, he delineated between three types of friendship. Two are immediately familiar to us: friendships based on pleasure and on utility. In these we are friends with those whom we enjoy or who provide clear benefit to our personal projects. These are inferior modes of friendship, however, relative to friendships based on virtue. The friendship of virtue, in contrast, centers upon the character of the friend. We befriend those whose character we admire and who admire us for our character. While this emphasis on virtue possesses problems of its own, it nevertheless offers insight into a crucial facet of authentic friendship, namely that friendship should involve something other than deferred self-love. Friendships of virtue rightly privilege an other for their performance of virtue, rather than our own gratified desires or pursuits.
Social media fails to appreciate or develop character because it cannot account for time within relationship. Though the immediacy of social media provides instant feedback on every communicative overture, it cultivates its own set of values and virtues which may be antithetical to the cultivation of virtue classically considered. For example, wit serves as a key “good” on social media networks. The fastest and cleverest poster earns status through impressing other viewers. Yet, wit has never deepened a serious relationship. This may simply seem like an inefficiency, but for the fact that such a value militates against the sort of reflection that generates considered responses. Privileging a kind of communicative good (wit) precludes the pursuit of a higher good (reflectivity). Conversely, friendships of virtue require time as a prerequisite. As virtue constitutes a habit, it takes its form over extended time. To befriend someone else for their virtue, then, requires an appreciation for time which social media does not allow.
Second, social media cannot mediate the distance between persons. If time poses an immediate issue for the cultivation of relationship, then we should not be surprised that place does as well. More specifically, friendship is centrally related to presence with and for the other. This is poignantly and pastorally put best by Nicholas Wolterstorff when he writes about the death of his son:
If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief, but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench (Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 34).
The images of proximity in this passage resonate. It is not the demonstration of either wit or wisdom which mitigates the distance between self and other, but the sheer presence of oneself alongside another in suffering. Whereas social media, as a quintessentially intellectual exercise, exists primarily in the mind, genuine friendship becomes incarnate in the concrete situations in which we find ourselves. The sympathy that undoubtedly exists in social media communities is thus closer to pity than compassion. Pity remains, while deeply sympathetic, apart from the one being pitied. I can pity someone’s circumstance from a distance. In contrast, and as indicated above, the practice of compassion requires that I be both present and willing to get my hands dirty. This is profoundly difficult and undermines the easy deployment of what we commonly call “compassion.”
Social media can be engaged wisely, and it indeed allows for convenient communication. Yet, its value lies primarily in its capacity to support already-existing friendships – it is not generative of friendship. Friendship requires the patient cultivation of virtue alongside the courageous willingness to walk alongside another in their suffering. Such friendships school us for loving both God and world. Thus, “Nobody would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other good things.” (Nicomachean Ethics, VIII.i).