Being Authentic in the Digital Agora
On the feast of St Francis de Sales Pope Benedict released his Message for World Communications Day, “Social Networks: portals of truth and faith; new spaces for evangelization.”. In recent years the message has focused on some aspects of digital communications. This year’s letter looks at “the development of digital social networks which are helping to create a new “agora”, an open public square in which people share ideas, information and opinions, and in which new relationships and forms of community can come into being.”
I love these brief messages from the Holy Father because they help to give me direction and focus, to remember that being present online can be integral to my mission as a follower of Christ and not just wasting time. I love that the Holy Father doesn’t dismiss social networks and online connections as “unreal” or as a distraction from “real life.” Instead he acknowledges their importance in the way people really live today. They are the new public square, the marketplace where people come together:
These spaces, when engaged in a wise and balanced way, help to foster forms of dialogue and debate which, if conducted respectfully and with concern for privacy, responsibility and truthfulness, can reinforce the bonds of unity between individuals and effectively promote the harmony of the human family. The exchange of information can become true communication, links ripen into friendships, and connections facilitate communion. If the networks are called to realize this great potential, the people involved in them must make an effort to be authentic since, in these spaces, it is not only ideas and information that are shared, but ultimately our very selves.
The development of social networks calls for commitment: people are engaged in building relationships and making friends, in looking for answers to their questions and being entertained, but also in finding intellectual stimulation and sharing knowledge and know-how. The networks are increasingly becoming part of the very fabric of society, inasmuch as they bring people together on the basis of these fundamental needs. Social networks are thus nourished by aspirations rooted in the human heart.
He acknowledges that we share ourselves, we can foster communion. We can also bring Jesus to people where they are.
Believers are increasingly aware that, unless the Good News is made known also in the digital world, it may be absent in the experience of many people for whom this existential space is important. The digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world, but is part of the daily experience of many people, especially the young. Social networks are the result of human interaction, but for their part they also reshape the dynamics of communication which builds relationships: a considered understanding of this environment is therefore the prerequisite for a significant presence there.
And yet he calls us to “a considered understanding”. It behooves us to think about what we are doing, how we present ourselves, how we build relationships and community.
In social networks, believers show their authenticity by sharing the profound source of their hope and joy: faith in the merciful and loving God revealed in Christ Jesus. This sharing consists not only in the explicit expression of their faith, but also in their witness, in the way in which they communicate “choices, preferences and judgements that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically” (Message for the 2011 World Communications Day). A particularly significant way of offering such witness will be through a willingness to give oneself to others by patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth and the meaning of human existence. The growing dialogue in social networks about faith and belief confirms the importance and relevance of religion in public debate and in the life of society.
Most of all we bear witness to the source of our hope and our joy and we are willing to patiently and respectfully give our time and attention to others. A reminder that the spiritual works of mercy can be accomplished in this digital medium:
- To instruct the ignorant;
- To counsel the doubtful;
- To admonish sinners;
- To bear wrongs patiently;
- To forgive offences willingly;
- To comfort the afflicted;
- To pray for the living and the dead.
Most of all, I love his reminder that what matters most is not our own effort but the power of God:
Ultimately, however, if our efforts to share the Gospel bring forth good fruit, it is always because of the power of the word of God itself to touch hearts, prior to any of our own efforts. Trust in the power of God’s work must always be greater than any confidence we place in human means. In the digital environment, too, where it is easy for heated and divisive voices to be raised and where sensationalism can at times prevail, we are called to attentive discernment. Let us recall in this regard that Elijah recognized the voice of God not in the great and strong wind, not in the earthquake or the fire, but in “a still, small voice” (1 Kg 19:11-12). We need to trust in the fact that the basic human desire to love and to be loved, and to find meaning and truth – a desire which God himself has placed in the heart of every man and woman – keeps our contemporaries ever open to what Blessed Cardinal Newman called the “kindly light” of faith.
I have done all of the above at one time or another on my blog, via email, on social networks. In this way I constantly strive to being Christ with me when I approach my keyboard, and I strive always to see him adnd to serve him in the people I encounter there.
Be wholly, unapologetically yourself
Jen Fulwiler brilliantly anticipated the pope’s message in her blog post this week, One for the bloggers, which focused on authenticity in blogging, but which holds just as true for other online activity as well (Hello, Pope Benedict where was the h/t Conversion Diary?):
Some people are very open and just can’t hold back on all the details of their personal lives; others are more formal and reserved. Some absolutely love creating beauty and couldn’t imagine a blog that wasn’t filled with big, beautiful pictures and a lovely design; others would be happy with a bare bones style where the beauty is in the words alone. Some people feel most passionate when they can write long, wandering posts that release all their thoughts on a subject; others naturally lean towards sharing their ideas quickly and concisely. Some find that they’re never more in the zone than when they express themselves through visuals; others prefer words alone. Some have lifestyles that allow them to update frequently and predictably; others don’t — and their readers still love them.
It doesn’t matter which category you fall into, or whether your own passions are in line with what the experts say you need to do to have a big blog. The only thing that’s really important is that you know who you are, what you love, and which unique charisms God has give you, and you express that on the page.
This idea is summed up beautifully in one of my favorite quotes, from Howard Thurman:
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
Especially in this disconnected society where there’s so much loneliness, I think that we all naturally gravitate toward people who strike us as deeply human. In the age of digital living and on-screen personas, we’re desperate for that unmistakable sense of connectedness you can only find when you’re around people who are honest with you about who they are. We’ll even listen to the ideas of someone whom we otherwise wouldn’t agree with, just to be in the presence of a person who is passionately comfortable in her own skin.
Like It Was Part of His Name
And then while we’re on the subject of relationship in the digital medium, consider this sweet piece by Simcha Fisher, Like It Was Part of His Name:
My husband and I both work at our computers off and on throughout the day, and we email back and forth a lot. Every once in a while, I get what looks like an empty message from him—just a series of dots in a box. This makes me laugh every time, because I know what happened: It’s just Gmail being too smart for its own good again. When you end every email the same way, Gmail thinks it’s your signature, and thinks it doesn’t have to include it in every email, especially if it’s a response to a response to a response to a response to a response. The recipient must know who it’s from by now. So smart, right?
And so, when I get an empty email from my husband, I know it’s because he wrote “I love you.” He says it so often, at the end of so many emails, Gmail thinks it’s part of his name. Gmail thinks that’s who he is.
Love, real love, can take root and flourish here. We can cultivate it in this world of ones and zeroes, of flashing words on a little screen. Because behind the screens are people and words are ultimately just words whether they are spoken or written, they all can be echoes of the one Word who is Love.
Also, check out Lisa Hendey’s thoughts on Pope Benedict’s message: The Pope Wrote Me (& You) a Letter Today