The Internet Community of Faith
I have been most blessed lately through the community of faith I see on my Facebook and Twitter activity. It is most certainly a positive way for immediate communication. It also has some pitfalls. I mentioned this through a comment about mutually respectful and civil dialogue on my FB pages, and it had a huge response. I have been asked to write something about it. This will just be a thumbnail, and far from complete. I will limit my remarks to my Facebook and Twitter activity, but some of it applies to other such tech vehicles and e-mail as well.
The Internet, and specifically FB and Twitter, is a great tool for immediate communication among those who would probably not normally correspond. Pope John Paul II encouraged the use of the Internet in general as a means to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. It is also just a good tool for human communication on a personal, or business level. FB and Twitter are by nature less formal than e-mail, and e-mail less formal than snail mail letters. Both FB and Twitter are limited to the length of a normal entry, and Twitter is more limited than FB. On FB you may, however, post " Notes" like this one, and refer folks to them. So, there are limitations.
These can allow people to communicate without finding hard addresses and such. Folks are pretty easy to find if they want to be found. There are also plenty of privacy controls to keep the general public from finding out private things you would prefer stay private. But you must use the privacy controls. Without them you can place yourself at some real risk by allowing all the world to know more about you then it needs to know.
Communication does build community, thus the similarity of the words. It is also where we get the word "communion." I am blessed by being able to get to know folks from all around the world of every faith persuasion. I find common ground with all, though admittedly greater common ground with those who are closer to my own faith. But we all share our humanity in common, and most believers share one God. At the very least most on my page are seeking a higher and deeper spirituality based on God, and usually Jesus Christ.
But this is no substitute for face to face human relationships if at all possible. It can be a great alternative, especially for shut ins. But if at all possible face to face relationships are what humanity, and faith communities are really all about. We share a living God, and we are a living humanity. Virtual community remains just that: virtual. We Catholic Christians emphasize the need for being the "body of Christ." So do many other Christians.
The Eucharist is the Presence of Jesus under the appearance of physical elements, the Creator under the appearance of the created. Jesus himself is fully God, and fully human. Eucharist is a sacramental way to bring the spiritual and the physical together in complete love union. To receive Communion ideally you must be physically present and actually receive Him into your entire being, spirit, soul, and body. It is like a marriage. You must be physically together in order to fully consummate the love union. And if you do not want to be together, that raises serious issues about the love behind the marriage. The same is true of the Church. There is no substitute for actually being there with brothers and sisters in Jesus. Even Christian hermits are communal in that they support one another in their life of solitude, and come together from time to time to share their insights with one another. To see their faces, to hear the tone of their voices, to see their body language and such are all very important to good communication. However, if you really cannot be there, there is a Communion of desire, and a community of desire as well. This is helped remarkably through the use of the internet, and FB and Twitter in particular.
On the other hand this anonymity is sometimes helpful, kind of like the old confessional where the face of the penitent and the confessor were hidden from one another. Sometimes we can speak more freely when we do not see the facial responses, or hear the voice inflections. This is especially true with race or ethnicity. Some have said that due to their self consciousess about their appearance these means are a great way for them to converse with others wo might be a bit put off by their appearance otherwise. Or it is a way for the uneducated to converse with a university profesor and such. This can be a good thing.
But it can also backfire. Anonymity sometimes brings out the worst in people. We can be a bit too bold with folks that we would be more polite with if we had to look them in the face. Thus, the need for civility and mutual respect. I have heard some truly nasty remarks directed towards me and others on my pages. Usually this is just one or two individuals. But it skews the spirit of the whole thing. And no matter how loving the rest of the community might try to be, it rarely does much to pacify the anger in the other.
As a rule of thumb I always say do not say anything that you do not want the whole world to hear, because it just might, and say it like Jesus is in the one you are addressing, because, whether you know it or not, He is!
I also advocate the monastic ideal of listening obedience. We really listen to one another before we respond. Otherwise it is just reaction, and reaction is rarely helpful in communication. In this medium listening means really reading the full text of a post before reacting when one or another part of a post sets us off, or makes us angry. It also means trying to really empathize with where the other person is coming from, and listening to there spirit through self emptying mediation and prayer. For the Christian this is united with the kenosis, or self emptying of Jesus Christ. Only through such meditation and prayer can we really let go of our ego about our own opinions so that we do not get angry when someone disagrees with us. Then we can respond selflessly and lovingly.
I also recommend stating differences with a certain moderation of tone and with real polite civility. I advocate a return to civility! What does this mean? It is not a good idea to emotionally attack another person because of difference of opinion about evn major issues. It lacks what the monastic tradition calls "decorum." Stating your understanding of an issue is generally better than stating a point absolutely. Asking questions with respect is better thatn accusing. Sharing how another person's position or answer makes you feel is better than striking back. We are not perfect, and some have the actual authority to teach as teachers and professors and such, but I have found the above rules of thumb helpful in dialogue.
On our tours we often employ musicians and crew that hold many different beliefs and approaches about God. My rule of thumb is: You can share anything, but we will argue about nothing. Ironically, the only person I have ever had to threaten about this was a very conservative Catholic who was implying the need for Eucharist for salvation in an excessive manner!
I pretty much use the same rule on my FB pages. If folks cross over from time to time it is OK. But if they persist, we suggest that they go elsewhere. If they do not, we eventually just block them.
Arguing is something St. Paul says that we should almost never do. It usually leads nowhere. Scholastic arguments are best left to scholastics in scholastic settings of controlled debate. FB and Twitter, or even e-mail, is not for that. Most of us are relatively well educated laity at best in an uncontrolled environment. It is very easy to hurt another's feeling here.
This leads to another point: Grammar and such. Due to the immediacy of such communication there is often some truly terrible grammar and spelling in most folk's posts. On one level some feel that this is contributing to the further breakdown of the art of language and writing in our civilization. True. But on the other hand, immediacy means by its definition that we often do not proof read our posts like we would a letter or book. I use no copy editors on my FB entries! I think that is part of the beauty of it. It is immediate, and personal, and lets us see that everyone is most human. But we need to retain a higher level of the art of language and writing in our other more serious forms of communication. I am always blessed by the beauty of the lyrics of ancient hymns when compared to modern worship choruses, though these are also good in their proper place. Or simple soldiers writing home to their loved ones displays a use of language that has long since been lost to the god of efficiency. Regrettably, the sound bite rules our day.
These are just a few initial thoughts on internet communication through e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and the like. I hope they are helpful.