When Jesus Said “Follow Me” Did He Mean “On Twitter?” Ethics and Social Networking

When Jesus Said “Follow Me” Did He Mean “On Twitter?” Ethics and Social Networking March 12, 2014

When Jesus Said “Follow Me” Did He Mean “On Twitter?” Ethics and Social Networking

The Knudsen Lecture in Ethics, March 10, 2014, University of Sioux Falls

Roger E. Olson

Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics

George W. Truett Theological Seminary

“Our on line relationships are totally manageable and therefore shallow.”


Many years ago, when I was a child, I was fascinated by the cartoon character Dick Tracy—a fictional detective who wore a tiny watch-like, two-way television on his wrist. It was “Skype” in the 1950s—in miniature. Then people thought that was science fiction; it could never happen. Today everything seems possible. One cannot turn around without seeing and hearing about new technologies; few people doubt even the most improbable futuristic ones such as posthuman robots, half human and half machine. We are a society saturated with and fascinated by technology. The general attitude is “If it can be done, it will be done—eventually.” Unfortunately the general attitude is also one of resignation: “If it can be done and will be done, let’s get on with it.”

Long ago Christian thinker and prophet Jacques Ellul warned us about the pitfalls of technology and especially what he called the culture of “technique”—a social worship of technology, an idolatry of technology, an attitude that if it can be done we must do it, a lack of serious ethical reflection on the technologies that use us as much as we use them.

Today, as we all know and, to our chagrin experience too often, technology is racing ahead of us. Most of us are wondering how they could ever invent something while it’s being done. We find out a technology is already in place that we thought was a futuristic dream or nightmare. A recent example, of course, is our own government’s collection of all telephone call data. Such was just a pipe dream when George Orwell wrote “1984” in 1949. Now it’s reality. And unfortunately many people’s attitude toward such things is “It is what it is.”

Now let me talk a moment about that common saying “It is what it is.” I hear it all the time; so do you. What does it mean? I take it to mean “Don’t over think it; it’s here now and there’s nothing we can do about it. Just accept it.” In other words, it’s a-ethical resignation to reality, an active disinterest in ethical scrutiny. Of course, not everyone who says it means all of that, but that’s the impression it conveys and, I would suggest, the impact it has. We are tired of having to think critically; there’s simply too much to think critically about. Let someone else do it or just give in and go with the flow. Things will work themselves out somehow.

I would like to suggest that this unwise resignation attitude and approach sets the stage for catastrophe. If Christianity and humanism are anything they are calls to ethical reflection and commitment. Both say it is human to critique, to ask questions, to challenge, to be against certain things as well as for other things. The prophetic impulse drives Christians to subject everything to ethical examination in the light of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The human improvement and common good impulses drive humanists to subject everything to ethical examination in the light of human benefit. Christians and humanists can find much common ground in ethics even if we disagree about the deeper backgrounds of our commitments. We both care about the humanization of humanity, the welfare of community, the flourishing of people.

“It is what it is” is not a Christian or humanist statement except about the most trivial matters. When the pizza isn’t the best but it’s all that’s on the menu “It is what it is” is fine. But when faced with technologies that have the potential to degrade, spoil, oppress and de-humanize people “It is what it is” is not only insufficient; it’s an abdication of responsibility to speak up, to challenge, to think and to argue.

Our society has a not-very-well hidden bias against critical examination; it’s called “over analyzing” and “over thinking.” By-and-large we have replaced ethics with values clarification and inculcation of virtues—as if that were possible without ethical reflection. This cultural ethos encourages uncritical creations and uses of technologies.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not a Luddite or encourager of such. However, I live by a policy of not rushing to use the latest technology. I want to know all about it first and consider reflectively and critically whether it will enhance my and others’ humanity and my and others’ ability to glorify God and enjoy him or not. Unfortunately, there are few if any litmus tests; such decisions take investigation and critical reflection with the result that I’m almost always a few steps behind everyone else in my peer group. That often saves me money as technologies fly by—made obsolete in a year or two by something new. I didn’t waste money on it. Occasionally, however, I’m so concerned about a particular new technology that I just let it go—often having to make odd excuses because I can’t quite explain to others my reasons for not using it—at least not in less than ten pages.

An example for me is Twitter. I have been urged to “get on Twitter” by numerous people. But right from the beginning of my dimly dawning awareness of it I noticed some potential problems. Since then my observations of its even unconscious abuse has caused me to decline it. I’ll talk about the problems with Twitter and other social networking technologies later. Suffice it to say for now that this Christian and humanist ethicist is a Twitter teetotaler without condemning those who imbibe—even though I observe they imbibe far too much and far too often and say things to thousands of strangers they would never say to someone sitting next to them on a bus or airplane.

Technology uses us as much or more than we use it. That’s a basic fact to be grasped when we begin to subject it to ethical examination. We think of social networking software as a tool we use while, in fact, we often become its tools. It uses us. Like all technology, social networking technology, henceforth “SNT,” raises questions about what it means to be human, to be persons, to be good persons. The paradox of SNT is that it has the power to enhance community and to destroy community. Christians and humanists agree that community lies close to the center of what it means to be human; we are created for each other, for healthy relationships, for the common good. Our good depends on the common good; we cannot be islands. “It is what it is” will not suffice when thinking about SNT because it has such power. A better saying would be “It is what it does to us.” Of course, what it does to us cannot be divorced from what we do with it, but all too often even the best intentions can go awry with technology. How many of us have sent an e-mail to challenge or correct someone with love and concern only to find that they interpreted it as cruel and uncaring? E-mail seems to have a unique ability to distort intentions no matter how many emoticons we use. It can never replace face-to-face conversation—especially where more than mere information is being communicated.

SNTs such as Facebook and Twitter and MySpace can help renew and enhance relationships or destroy them. We are becoming more aware of this all the time. A well-worn television commercial shows a girl sitting alone at a computer bragging to the camera about her hundreds of “friends” and complaining about her parents’ boring social life while they are out having fun with another couple. I know of at least one church that exists only in Facebook space and nowhere else. Perhaps you can preach a sermon, give an altar call on Facebook, but you can’t put your arm around a fellow congregant’s shoulder and cry with them in real time. There is something distancing about SNT; it can promote a Gnosticism of relationships and community that denigrates the physical, embodied dimension of human existence.

Think of the recent movie “Her” starring Joaquin Phoenix. For all its sleaziness, the movie has a prophetic message about computer technology and especially “artificial intelligence.” Can you really have a loving relationship with a computer program? Can you have a humanly fulfilling relationship only in cyberspace? In the movie, of course, the main character played by Phoenix and his female friend seem meant for each other. But both are so obsessed with their “Ai” operating systems that they hardly notice each other—until their operating systems leave them. Then they sit together but lonely on a rooftop because they have lost some ability to connect with another human being.

So, if we are to examine SNT ethically and avoid the “cop out” of “It is what it is,” what questions should we ask about it and with what criteria should we examine it ethically?

First, we need to recognize, acknowledge, a division between secular ethics and Christian ethics. In spite of real and significant common ground they share, each approach will inevitably go in different directions at certain points. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism has it, the purpose of human life is to “Glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Secular, humanist ethics will inevitably disagree and emphasize enhancement of human well-being without appeal to transcendence. Still, I believe Christians and mature humanists can find their common ground even if their ultimate goods diverge. Early Christian “church father” Irenaeus said that “The glory of God is the human fully alive.” Thus, a primary way to glorify God is to humanize humans, to seek their full humanity, their fulfillment as persons created in the image of God. And what is the image of God? Well, there are several Christian views of it, but one I especially accept and emphasize is community—healthy, loving, other-focused relationships.

Many humanists find the “essence” of humanity in reason or ability to use reason. But what is reason for if not self-benefit and what is self-benefit if not full humanization, fulfillment of one’s own humanity? And what enhances one’s own full humanity if not relationships and community? Most thoughtful humanists agree that no person is an island and that self-interest and other-interest are inseparable except for the immature and unreflective narcissist.

Therefore, let me suggest that the common criterion both humanists and Christians can and should apply to SNT, as to most technologies, is human fulfillment in community. In addition to that I will argue that human fulfillment in community depends, at least in part, on physical, face-to-face togetherness. Not “Facetime” or Skype but bodily presence to and with the others.

What is the image of God, the imago dei, in Christian belief? Certainly Emperor Constantine was wrong to think it means physical, even facial, likeness to God. However, that his error led to banning the branding of criminals on their faces throughout the empire in the fourth century is a good example of how good can come from bad. Constantine did not properly understand the biblical meaning of “image and likeness of God.” But so have many Christians misunderstood it throughout the Christian centuries—as, for example, reason or creativity or having a soul. If Jesus is the perfect image of God, as we are told in Colossian 1:15, then “image of God” cannot mean primarily any of those traditional Christian theological definitions of the imago dei. Jesus was not a philosopher or an artist and, though he had a soul, that was not what stood out as especially human about him.

There are many other partially true but largely mistaken ideas of the image and likeness of God, but I think Karl Barth came closest to the truth when he identified it as being in community. His speculations about male and female aside, his emphasis on Jesus’ mission as restoring fellowship with God and between people comes closest, I believe, to the truth of the matter. The church, God’s people, is meant to reflect the triune community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “Man alone” is not good; the human person is created for fellowship with God and other humans.

We are given bodies for this purpose. For intimacy in marriage, for corporate worship and fellowship, for service to others, and for eschatological praise to God. Both Hebrew and Christian religion have always been, at their best, corporeal religions, shunning Gnostic super-spirituality that denigrates or neglects the body. Although God himself does not have a body, God took on bodily form to reveal himself to prophets. Ultimately, God took on bodily form in Jesus to reveal himself to us and have fellowship with us. The bodily resurrection teaches us that God cares about our bodies and we are intended for visible, corporeal, bodily life  in heaven with God.

Secular postmodern philosophy has turned away from Heideggerrian Gnosticism and toward the body as central, crucial to human identity and ethics. Emmanuel Levinas especially has taught us much about the importance of the “face” in ethics. “Face-to-face” relation with the other—the person not like me—is essential to my identity adjustment away from prejudice and self-centeredness to true community among diverse people. The “gaze” of one face upon another is inescapable insofar as one wishes to be in true community and not locked forever in sameness. And by “face” and “gaze” Levinas did not mean “in cyberspace.” There is something about seeing the other face-to-face in physical juxtaposition that brings about relationship and fellowship that cannot be achieved by gazing at a picture, however, animated and in “real time.”

Forgive me for interjecting a personal anecdote here. For the last year and some months I have had a grandson in Haiti. He was born there and lived his early life there in an orphanage where he was mistreated and neglected. Finally he was put in excellent foster care. From time to time my wife and I could see him and even talk to him on Skype. He could see and hear us. Occasionally he would utter a syllable or two. But we knew we would never really know him fully as our grandson until we could hold him and gaze into his face and he into ours. That we finally did just a week ago. It was a personally transforming experience that was a quantum leap beyond just seeing him on Skype. The bond of understanding that forms with direct, physical gazing face-to-face and touching hand-to-hand and even hugging is irreplaceable by any technology.

The image of God, then, involves the body and the face even if the likeness between God and the human person is not “feature” likeness—as in father and son or mother and daughter. The likeness lies in personhood and personhood involves physical community. This is borne out by experience. Children who are not frequently held develop abnormally. Contrary to the old saying, absence does not make the heart grow fonder. We are meant by God to reflect his own being-in-community; we are meant to be with others and, at least for us, that necessarily involves physical present-to-ness as much as possible.

From a secular humanist ethical perspective commitment to the other, even if for one’s own self-fulfillment and personal flourishing, involves face-to-face encounter as much as possible.

A major problem with SNT is that it seduces us into thinking that we are in community in cyberspace. It promotes Gnostic illusions of community. To be sure, it can be a wonderful tool for reaching out to old and new acquaintances, but it does not really facilitate reaching out to touch someone. That’s a metaphor and a misleading one. Rarely does it bring the truly “other” into view and certainly not into personal, physical proximity for face-to-face bodily encounter which is the only way to really perceive someone in all their different dimensions. Using SNT birds of a feather tend to flock together. The truly other easily drops out of view. Control over whom we encounter and how is increased to the point where serendipity and the challenge of otherness decrease to the vanishing point.

But can real community be enhanced by SNT? Sure, if it is used as a tool for real community and not as a substitute for it. Let me illustrate from my own experiences of teaching theology for thirty-two years.

I am very strongly opposed to preparing students for ministry solely through SNT and other forms of information dissemination that use only cyberspace. It’s called “distance learning” and is no substitute for the personal, face-to-face interaction of the classroom and the other bodily presence experiences that happen in traditional seminary education. I have seen many students personally transformed in positive ways through physical presence interactions that I am sure would not have happened in distance learning alone. Seminary education is not just information dissemination; for it to work transformatively it must include bodily, face-to-face interactions of physical presence. Seminary education (and undergraduate theology education) takes place best in community, not in insolation, and true community, as I have argued, can never be achieved satisfactorily via teleconferenceing using Skype or any other cyber-technology.

I have, however, found cyber-technology and SNT helpful in my instruction. I use Blackboard as an adjunct device to enhance learning. I post mini-lectures there following class to clarify and expand on something left unfinished during the session. I have used Skype to have guest speakers come to class—mostly only to do Q & A sessions when students have read their books. I use e-mail to help students outside of class when we cannot meet in my office due to schedule conflicts.

However, I do not believe transformative teaching such as Parker Palmer, for example, advocates can happen successfully in cyber space using SNT or any other technology that substitutes for personal, physical, face-to-face community learning. That’s especially true of theological education and ministry preparation.

In my wilder moments of despair about the future of education, especially theological education for ministry, I ask myself “What next? A monastery in cyberspace?” Could there even be such a thing? Not in any traditional sense of monastic life, of course, but I am willing to bet that if there was a demand for monastic life and monasteries needed new recruits, someone would establish such. Of course, it wouldn’t be the same thing. So it is with theological, ministerial education by SNT. “Facebook Theological Seminary?” Not yet, but possibly soon.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s underground seminary at Finkenwalde, which was somewhat like a monastic community, is described, explained, and justified in his book Life Together which is often used by Christian learning communities as a model. Life Together cannot be replicated in cyberspace, with “distance learning,” because one of its outstanding features was the physical proximity of the participants. Their learning experience was not just soaking up information; it was training together in the wisdom of community and an indispensable feature of that was bodily presence to one another. Even when they were alone, which Bonhoeffer thought paradoxically essential to community, they were alone together. My point, of course, is that learning communities that admire Life Together, the model of Christian education at Finkenwalde, fall into irony, if not outright contradiction, insofar as they succumb to teaching and learning by means of SNT and “distance learning.”

Marshal McLuhan famously said the medium is the message; we still haven’t allowed that fully to sink in. God and the gospel are meant to be studied together, in community. Such study cannot be reduced to information acquisition. “Iron sharpening iron” just doesn’t happen as well in cyberspace.

What does happen all too often in cyberspace, using SNT, is dissimulation and offense—hardly community builders. Most of us know of cases where people have used SNT to pretend to be someone they aren’t. There’s something about the potential anonymity SNT affords that sometimes brings out the worst in people. Whether it be posturing or stalking or ego-boosting or seduction, much behavior using SNT is repulsive and harmful. Too many people, especially adolescents, are unaware of these dangers.

Also, most of us know of cases where long-time friendships were ruined by normally gentle people’s use of SNT to trumpet their own political preferences or prejudices or religious beliefs in ways that offend. During the last two presidential elections I knew many people who “unfriended” others because of their offensive pontificating on Facebook or Twitter or MySpace. Too often people seem unaware of how their posts or even e-mails sound to others. And they put them out there without considering that they have just said some of their friends aren’t “real Christians” because they support the wrong political party (or whatever).

Gossip, slander, bullying, all and more are all too common with SNT. In fact, I would go so far as to say that SNT requires a lot of maturity and good will to use rightly. It’s a powerful tool for harm in the hands of thoughtless, uncaring and immature individuals.

All that is to say that “It is what it is” is a dangerous attitude to take toward SNT. SNT is far too powerful a tool to leave there. From a Christian perspective, SNT falls under the rule that “If Jesus is Lord at all, he is Lord of all” or, put more classically and in the words of Abraham Kuyper “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” If Christ is sovereign over Facebook and other SNT, then, “It is what it is” is an anti-Christian statement. Unfortunately, too many Christians do not think in these ways; they do not really reflect on what the sovereign lordship of Christ means for entertainment, communication or leisure activities. We American Christians are very good at compartmentalizing our lives and only critically examining certain areas in the light of Christ. We may know and believe that internet pornography, for example, is dangerous and wrong, but how often do we subject our Facebook activity to the same critical scrutiny?

Secular humanists should also never say “It is what it is.” Ethics is everything and everything is ethics. A mature humanist is an ethical humanist who looks hard, long and critically at every tool and activity and asks about its dangers in light of the human telos—human life fulfilled in community. Most secular humanists agree that bullying, stalking, and slandering are wrong using SNT or any other technology or means. But how many consider the ethical implications of SNT in general for human flourishing and community-building?

Another ethical ideal shared by Christians and at least some secular humanists is hospitality, which is, of course, also closely related to human fulfillment in community. Jesus spoke much about hospitality; it has always been a Christian ideal even if it has often been neglected. Postmodern philosophy and ethics has brought hospitality back to our attention. According to Jacques Derrida and his American interpreter philosopher John Caputo hospitality is one of the very few “undeconstructibles”—ideals that can never be perfectly achieved but that stand over all our achievements as critical principles by which we deconstruct social constructions. True hospitality is opening the door, so to speak, to the “other”—the ones unlike ourselves and allowing them to reconfigure our identities.

So, rather than saying of SNT with a shrug “It is what it is,” whether we are Christians striving to be Jesus’ disciples or secular humanists seeking to reconfigure our identities in openness to the radically “others,” we ought to examine SNTs and our uses of them critically in light of hospitality. Can we really practice true hospitality via Facebook? Does accepting a friend request fulfill the call to hospitality? Does Facebook friendship constitute hospitality? Or does hospitality mean personal risk in reconfiguration of self-identity? Is that possible using SNT?

I would like to suggest that the answer to those questions is no—at least not adequately. Real hospitality, the kind that challenges our self-enclosed identities and puts them at risk for the sake of the “other” requires face-to-face encounters. Again, the body matters. Sure, you can reach out and touch someone with a substitute for real friendship using Facebook, but the inherent distance involved will always inhibit the risk required for real hospitality.

The ethical problems with SNT, including Facebook, lie not in the technologies themselves, of course, but in their subtle tendency to provide substitutes for real community and hospitality.

So how can SNT be used ethically—whether in the sense of Christian ethics or secular ethics?

SNT can be addictive; there is even a new personality disorder being used by psychologists—internet addiction. Some people become so wrapped up in social networking, to say nothing of internet browsing and pornography viewing, that they lose touch with reality and let family, friends, church, school and other important activities fall by the wayside. Many people spend as much as twenty hours weekly using SNT. Some spend much more time than that. I would suggest ten hours weekly as the maximum and occasional one or two day breaks from it altogether. If you can’t go two days without it, something’s wrong. If you spend more than ten hours weekly using SNT, there’s probably something wrong.

SNT can be relationship enhancing or relationship destroying. Ask yourself whether you have lost friends due to your or their misuses of SNT. When you are tempted to post a flaming message, perhaps about politics or religion or some socio-ethical issue, let it sit for a day or two before you post it to Facebook or “tweet” it.

SNT can spread friendships too thin and too evenly. Ask yourself how many “friends” you have on Facebook and how many “followers” on Twitter. Why that many? Is your social life becoming shallow because of the volume and the time you spend keeping up with people you barely know? Do you announce to all your friends and perhaps the whole world news of your life that should be shared first with close friends and family? How does that make close friends and family feel? Are they, in effect, being reduced to “Facebook friends”—a notoriously shallow category no matter how broad?

SNT can seduce people into misrepresenting themselves and into using it as a space for whining or gossiping or ego-posturing. Are you putting things on Facebook, for example, that represent you wrongly or play up a side of you that isn’t your best or truest side?

SNT is no good substitute for real relationships even though it can be a poor one in a pinch. It can be a great tool for developing community but not a space for real community. Therefore, ethically reflective people, Christian or not, need to examine what their uses of SNT are doing to community. If the result is that SNT is replacing community in their lives or luring them into the illusion of community, then they should walk away from it for a while and join a club.

On the positive side, SNT can help facilitate wider and deeper relationships if its use is intentional. It can be a tool for encouragement, inviting prayer, offering hope, even correction—if used with wisdom and love.

As I see it, however, SNT is presently mainly a threat to community and thus to personal fulfillment—whether in terms of spirituality or secular ethical living. Not because it is itself bad, but because people generally do not recognize its dangers and are seduced by its ease of use and popularity into thinking real, profound, personal relationships and community can be developed by means of it. We are not meant to be alone—and we are alone, whether we realize it or not, when we are on line. Our on line relationships are totally manageable and therefore shallow.

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