Joho the Blog » A gift from God

A gift from God

I know I’m late to the love fest, but I’ve been under the flu. I read Pope Francis’ Message for World Communication Day when it was issued on Jan. 24, and I only get happier upon re-reading it.

NOTE please that I am outside of my comfort zone in this posting, for two reasons. First, I am not a Christian and I know I may be misreading the Pope’s words. Second, I am going to evaluate and expound on what a Pope says. Chutzpah* has a new poster boy! So, please think of this only as me trying to make personal sense of a message that I find profoundly hopeful. *[The joke this links to is not really about chutzpah, but it’s a pretty good joke.]


The first thing to note are the ways the message refuses to go wrong. The Catholic Church put the “higher” in “hierarchy,” so it’d be understandable if it viewed the Internet as a threat to its power. Or as a source of sinful temptation. Because it’s both of those things. The Pope might even have seen the Internet quite positively as a powerful communication medium for getting out the Church’s message.

But he doesn’t. He sees the Internet as “Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter,” as the post’s subtitle puts it. This is because he views the Internet not within the space of communication, but within the despair of a fragmented world. Not only are there vast inequalities, but these inequalities are literally before our eyes:

Often we need only walk the streets of a city to see the contrast between people living on the street and the brilliant lights of the store windows. We have become so accustomed to these things that they no longer unsettle us.

Traditional media can show us that other world, but we need something more. We need to be unsettled. “The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity,” Pope Francis says, and then adds a remarkable characterization:

This is something truly good, a gift from God.

Not: The Internet is a source of temptations to be resisted. Not: The Internet is just the latest over-hyped communication technology, and remember when we thought telegraphs would bring world peace? Not: The Internet is merely a technology and thus just another place for human nature to reassert itself. Not: The Internet is just a way for the same old powers to extend their reach. Not: The Internet is an opportunity to do good, but be wary because we can also do evil with it. It may be many of those. But first: The Internet — its possibilities for encounter and solidarity — is truly good. The Internet is a gift from God.

This is not the language I would use. I’m an agno-atheistical Jew who lives in solidarity with an Orthodox community. (Long story.) But I think – you can never tell with these cross-tradition interpretations – that the Pope’s words express the deep joy the Internet brings me. “This is not to say that certain problems do not exist,” the Pope says in the next paragraph, listing the dangers with a fine concision. But still: The Internet is truly good. Why?

For the Pope, the Internet is an opportunity to understand one another by hearing one another directly. This understanding of others, he says, will lead us to understand ourselves in the context of a world of differences:

If we are genuinely attentive in listening to others, we will learn to look at the world with different eyes and come to appreciate the richness of human experience as manifested in different cultures and traditions.

This will change our self-understanding as well, without requiring us to abandon our defining values:

We will also learn to appreciate more fully the important values inspired by Christianity, such as the vision of the human person, the nature of marriage and the family, the proper distinction between the religious and political spheres, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, and many others.

(This seems to me to be a coded sentence, with meanings not readily apparent to those outside the fold. Sorry if I’m misunderstanding its role in the overall posting.)

The Pope does not shy away from the difficult question this idea raises, and pardon me for having switched the order of the following two sentences:

What does it mean for us, as disciples of the Lord, to encounter others in the light of the Gospel? How…can communication be at the service of an authentic culture of encounter?

That is (I think), how can a Catholic engage with others who deny beliefs that the Catholic holds with all the power of faith? (And this is obviously not a question only for Catholics.) The Pope gives a beautiful answer: we should “see communication in terms of ‘neighbourliness’.”

“Communication” as the transferring of meaning is a relatively new term. The Pope’s answer asks us to bring it back from its abstract understanding. Certainly the Pope’s sense takes “communication” out of the realm of marketing that sees it as the infliction of a message on a market. It also enriches it beyond the information science version of communication as the moving of an encoded message through a medium. (Info science of course understands that its view is not the complete story.) It instead looks at communication as something that humans do within a social world:

Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours. The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him. Jesus shifts our understanding: it is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other. Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God.

From my point of view [more here, here, and here], the problem with our idea of communication is that it assumes it’s the overcoming of apartness. We imagine individuals with different views of themselves and their world who manage to pierce their solitude by spewing out some sounds and scribbles. Communication! But, those sounds and scribbles only work because they occur within a world that is already shared, and we only bother because the world we share and those we share it with matter to us. Communication implies not isolation and difference but the most profound togetherness and sameness imaginable. Or, as I wouldn’t put it, we are all children of G-d.

Then Pope Francis gets to his deeper critique, which I find fascinating: “Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression…” And “Nowadays there is a danger that certain media so condition our responses that we fail to see our real neighbour.” The primary threat to the Internet, then, is to treat it as if it were a traditional medium that privileges the powerful and serves their interests. Holy FSM!

Pope Francis then goes on to draw the deeper conclusion he has led us to: the threat isn’t fundamentally that the old media will use the Net for their old purposes. The actual threat is considering the Internet to be a communications medium at all. “It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply ‘connected'; connections need to grow into true encounters.”

The impartiality of media is merely an appearance; only those who go out of themselves in their communication can become a true point of reference for others.

The most basic image we have of how communication works is wrong: messages do not simply move through media. Rather, in the Pope’s terms, they are acts of engagement. This is clear in face-to-face communication among neighbors, and it seems clear to me on the Net: A tweet that no one retweets goes silent because its recipients have chosen not to act as its medium. A page that no one links to is only marginally on the Web because its recipients have chosen not to create a new link (a channel or medium) that incorporates that page more deeply into the network. The recipient-medium distinction fails on the Net, and the message-medium distinction fails on the Web.

Now, this does not mean that Internet communication is all about people always encountering one another as neighbors. Not hardly. So the Pope’s post then considers how Christians can engage with others on the Net without simply broadcasting their beliefs. Here his Catholic particularity starts to shape his vision in a way that differentiates it from my own. He sees the Internet as “a street teeming with people who are often hurting, men and women looking for salvation or hope,” whereas I would probably have begun with something about joy. (I’m pointing out a difference, not criticizing!)

Given the tension between his belief that faith has a way to alleviate the pain he perceives and his desire for truly mutual engagement, he talks about “Christian witness.” I don’t grasp the nuances of this concept (“We are called to show that the Church is the home of all” – er, no thank you), but I do appreciate the Pope’s explicit contrasting Christian witness with “bombarding people with religious messages.” Rather, he says (quoting his predecessor), it’s about

… our willingness to be available 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.”

Since that seems to imply (I think) a dialogue in which one side assumes superiority and refuses the possibility of changing, the new Pope explains that

To dialogue means to believe that the “other” has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.

The Pope is dancing here. He’s dancing, I believe, because he is adopting the language of communication. If the role of the Catholic is to engage in dialogue, then we are plunged into the problems of the world’s plural beliefs. We western liberals like to think that in an authentic dialogue, both sides are open to change, but the Pope does not want to suggest that Catholics put their faith up for grabs. So, the best he can do is say that the “other’s” viewpoint be “entertained” and treated as worthwhile…although apparently not worthwhile enough to be adopted by the faithful Catholic.

There are two points important for me to make right now. First, I’m not carping about the actual content. This sort of pluralism (or whatever label you want to apply) takes the pressure off a world that simply cannot survive absolutism. So, thank you, Pope Francis! Second, I personally think it’s bunk to insist that for a dialogue to be “authentic” both sides have to be open to change. Such an insistence comes from a misunderstanding about how understanding works. So while I personally would prefer that everyone carry a mental reservation that appends “…although I might be wrong” to every statement,* I don’t have a problem with the Pope’s formulation of what an authentic Christian dialogue looks like. *[I simply don’t know the Catholic Church’s position on faith and doubt.]

I find this all gets much simpler – you get a nice walk instead of a dance – if you stick with the program announced in the Pope’s post’s subtitle: dethroning communication and putting it into the service of neighborliness. I believe the Pope’s vision of the Net as a place where neighbors can help one another lovingly and mercifully gives us a better way to frame the Net and the opportunity it presents. I assume his talk of “Christian witness” and becoming “a true point of reference for others” also gets around the “dialoguing” difficulty.

In fact, the whole problem recedes if you drop all language of communication from the Pope’s message. For example, when the Pope says the faithful should “dialogue with people today … to help them encounter Christ,” the hairs on my Jewish pate go up; if there’s one thing I don’t want to do, it’s to dialogue with a Christian who wants to help me encounter Christ. Framing the Net as being about communication (or information, for that matter) leads us back into the incompatible ideas of truth we encounter. But if we frame the Internet as being about people being human to one another, people being neighbors, the differences in belief are less essential and more tolerable. Neighbors manifest love and mercy. Neighbors find value in theirs differences. Neighbors first, communicators on occasion and preferably with some beer or a nice bottle of wine.

Neighbors first. I take that as the Pope’s message, and I think it captures the gift the Internet gives us. It is also makes clear the challenge. The Net of course poses challenges to our souls or consciences, to our norms and our expectations, to our willingness to accept others into our hearts, but also a challenge to our understanding: Stop thinking about the Net as being about communication. Start thinking about it as a place where we can choose to be more human to one another.

That I can say Amen to.

 


I apologize for I am forcing the Pope’s comments into my own frame of understanding. I am happy to have that frame challenged. I ask only that you take me as, well, your neighbor.

 


In a note from the opposite end of the spectrum, Eszter Hargittai has posted an op-ed. You probably known Eszter as one of the most respected researchers into the skills required to succeed with the Internet – no, not everyone can just waltz onto the Net and benefit equally from it – and she is not someone who finds antisemitism everywhere she looks. What’s going on in Hungary is scary. Read her op-ed.

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4 Responses to “A gift from God”

  1. As an avid reader of both Weinberger and Popes, as a Catholic (theology student) and a fan of the Internet, I really enjoyed this post! A few thoughts to add…

    First, it’s worth noting that there’s nothing super new about Francis’ approach to affirming the goodness of the Internet compared to either of the last two popes (even if there’s something kind of new in what he chooses to emphasize about the Internet). They both would typically start by affirming the great goodness and power of communications technology to bring people together, to access information, etc., while also emphasizing the challenges in making sure that the human aspects of communication are not lost, of access issues in some populations, etc.

    Some examples from World Communications Day messages from Pope Benedict XVI

    “Social Networks: portals of truth and faith; new spaces for evangelization.” (2013 BXVI):

    “I wish to consider 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. 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.”

    Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age (2011):

    “New horizons are now open that were until recently unimaginable; they stir our wonder at the possibilities offered by these new media and, at the same time, urgently demand a serious reflection on the significance of communication in the digital age. This is particularly evident when we are confronted with the extraordinary potential of the internet and the complexity of its uses.”

    New Technologies, New Relationships. Promoting a Culture of Respect, Dialogue and Friendship. (2009):

    “Many benefits flow from this new culture of communication […] While the speed with which the new technologies have evolved in terms of their efficiency and reliability is rightly a source of wonder, their popularity with users should not surprise us, as they respond to a fundamental desire of people to communicate and to relate to each other.”

    The Media: A Network for Communication, Communion and Cooperation (2006):

    “Technological advances in the media have in certain respects conquered time and space, making communication between people, even when separated by vast distances, both instantaneous and direct. This development presents an enormous potential for service of the common good and “constitutes a patrimony to safeguard and promote” (Rapid Development, 10).”

    And from World Communications Day messages from Pope John Paul II:

    The Communications Media: At the Service of Understanding Among Peoples (2005):

    “Modern technology places at our disposal unprecedented possibilities for good”

    The Media and the Family: A Risk and a Richness (2004):

    “The extraordinary growth of the communications media and their increased availability has brought exceptional opportunities for enriching the lives not only of individuals, but also of families.”

    Internet: A New Forum for Proclaiming the Gospel (2002):

    “For the Church the new world of cyberspace is a summons to the great adventure of using its potential to proclaim the Gospel message.”

    Mass media: a friendly companion for those in search of the Father (1999):

    “With the recent explosion of information technology, the possibility for communication between individuals and groups in every part of the world has never been greater. Yet, paradoxically, the very forces which can lead to better communication can also lead to increasing self-centredness and alienation. We find ourselves therefore in a time of both threat and promise.”

    Even on other technologies… Videocassettes and audiocassettes in the formation of culture and of conscience (1993):

    “Let me say again, and with emphasis, that the audiocassette and the videocassette are gifts of God, gifts, we may say, kept in His treasury through all the ages until our time, kept — for us.”

    And even pretty early on in the days of “computer culture” going mainstream… The Christian Message in a Computer Culture (1990):

    “Surely we must be grateful for the new technology which enables us to store information in vast man-made artificial memories, thus providing wide and instant access to the knowledge which is our human heritage, to the Church’s teaching and tradition, the words of Sacred Scripture, the counsels of the great masters of spirituality, the history and traditions of the local Churches, of Religious Orders and lay institutes, and to the ideas and experiences of initiators and innovators whose insights bear constant witness to the faithful presence in our midst of a loving Father who brings out of his treasure new things and old (cf. Mt 13:52).”

    Really, what they’re doing here is following the basic pattern of Genesis — first, the goodness of creation, then, the problem of sin.

    Shifts in emphasis are maybe on the purpose of technology… at least, that’s my hunch. I feel like JPII emphasized more the power for evangelization, or internally for education and formation and communication among members. BXVI may have emphasized more the human aspects of relationship alongside the technology. And maybe Francis is pulling that together, but focusing on the neighbour-to-neighbour communications and the personal engagement afforded by the medium. So, they’ve all emphasized the goodness of the internet, but yes, while JPII emphasized more the Internet as a “powerful communication medium for getting out the Church’s message,” that’s not where Francis starts. (In fairness, JPII did start to pick up on that, but I don’t think in his time he identified the Internet primarily as “an opportunity to understand one another by hearing one another directly.”)

    So, I do think your cross-tradition interpretation is onto something in Francis!

    Re: the “coded sentence,” you could maybe just replace all that language by “We will also learn to appreciate more fully what it means to be human” — he’s just getting at the Roman Catholic understanding of what it means to be human, referencing the Church’s theological anthropology (human identity) and social teachings (human communities).

    But I’d be hesitant to read into the message a particular critique of traditional media. I think his warnings about the “dangers of certain media” to condition are responses so that we fail to see our neighbour could just as easily have in mind superficial or destructive uses of Internet media… Though, certainly, the power he’s highlighting of the “authentic encounter” is not shared with traditional media, even if the dangers are shared

    Re: Francis quoting BXVI, I don’t think BXVI is at all suggesting “a dialogue in which one side assumes superiority and refuses the possibility of changing” — BXVI is talking about authentic dialogue, but just using the language of an academic theologian.

    Lastly, re: reconciling “Christian witness” with neighbourliness… to try to understand the Christian perspective, maybe think of the figure of Christ as the ultimate witness. Providing a Christian witness or helping people to encounter Christ doesn’t mean dragging someone to a Catholic mass or reading from a theology textbook. It means to do what Christ did and taught — to be a neighbour, to care for the poor, to offer the coat off your back, fundamentally to love. Christian witness and the encounter with Christ is not about differences in belief… it’s more about what you describe as neighbourliness: manifesting love and mercy (i.e. providing a Christian witness), finding value in theirs differences (think parables on the Good Samaritan and loving beyond differences), etc. As a Catholic, I don’t see the same tension between providing a Christian witness and leading people to encounter Christ and your description of neighbourliness — it’s precisely through neighbourliness that we understand people to encounter Christ.

    Anyways, just a few thoughts from a Catholic and a theology student… but I really enjoyed your analysis!

  2. […] who has a prolonged lane record of observant intelligent things about a Internet — has a unequivocally good commentary on a Pope’s words, that he found to be in a suggestion of a best a Internet has to […]

  3. […] commentary on the Pope’s message about the […]

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