When a technological wave crests, I’m not usually riding it. I’m in favor of reading, not binge-watching; dinner parties, not Google hangouts. I was late to own a smartphone and join Facebook, and I still don’t use Instagram. Embarrassingly, I have to call my teenagers to turn on the TV.
Since I’m a Luddite, you might expect me to pen the familiar essay arguing for less technology use rather than more. But this is not that piece. Although a lot of people are resolving (rightly) to curb their digital addictions in this new year, many of us might need an urging in the other direction. The most virtuous among us might not be those who conspicuously publicize their return to various forms of analog life. Instead, those most like Jesus might be the ones who decide to become more digitally available, not less.
Few of us want to hear the call to more digital “dirty work,” but nonetheless, answering texts, emails, and direct-contact messages (from Slack and other apps) is one of the ways that we follow the biblical commandment to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” These invasive messages are grueling to deal with, and though I might prefer a return to a world where the phone actually rang, that is not the world I inhabit.
As I watch public figures make choices about their digital lives, I sometimes have a cynical response when I hear them eschew the burdens of certain technologies. I wonder who carries the real weight of their monastic choices and whom their unreachability is meant to serve. I’m thinking of the megachurch pastor who answers his email once a week and whom no one, outside his family, can reach by text. I think of his administrative assistant, and even his wife, who are no doubt responsible for fielding the tsunami of emails and populating the calendar.
I’m thinking of another ministry leader who doesn’t own a cellphone and recently canceled her social media accounts. I wonder about that seeming wall of impenetrability and the bewildered, lonely people standing on the other side of it. I think, too, of the parent who, in an effort to engage in the touted practices of deep work, silences his cell during business hours and relies instead upon his wife to pick up the phone when the kids need something. Digital isolation is a privilege afforded to the few, especially when the capacity for insulating ourselves correlates directly to our ability to foist the hassle onto someone else.
Answering every single email isn’t the answer, of course, especially in a professional context. So how do we discern the difference between mindless interruptions (that serve as distractions) and meaningful ones (that serve as invitations)? How do we balance the personal need for silence with the sometimes-unwelcome needs of others?
The life of Christ gives us a model.
In the gospels, we see that Jesus was not always reachable when people needed him. He withdrew for prayer, and his frantic disciples often came looking for him, chiding him for his retreat. His example teaches us that a constantly interruptible life is not the most purposeful one.
Still, the Jesus of the gospels not only withdrew to lonely mountaintops for prayer. He also allowed himself to be hassled by helpless crowds who always seemed to arrive at the most inconvenient times: on the way to other urgent appointments, on the Sabbath day of rest, or in the middle of meals and naps. For as many desolate mornings as Jesus spent in prayer, he spent as many harried afternoons answering the clamoring demands of the blind, the lame, and the demon-possessed. His proverbial phone, in other words, was sometimes set to “Do Not Disturb”—and sometimes it constantly buzzed.
Jesus both protected his time and willingly gave it up, and in this digital age, we are called to do the same.
One critical step is understanding—and resisting—the boundless responsibilities represented by our digital lives. As Laurence Scott helpfully illuminates in The Four-Dimensional Human, the internet has redefined embodiment and presence: “We have an everywhereness to us,” Scott writes. “It’s astonishing to think … how the limits and coherence of our bodies have been so radically redefined.” In other words, access to the internet blurs how we understand something as elemental as presence. When I’m sitting in my living room, ignoring my children and scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, where exactly is here?
The question of presence is essential for understanding personal agency—and agency is essential for understanding responsibility. Perhaps the most critical question we ask in our digital age is, “For whom can I really be responsible?”
The ethics of digital engagement are complicated to assess, and we’re certainly not meant to bear social responsibility for everyone who crosses our Twitter feed. Social media posting can have an especially scattershot quality to it, with noisy shouting obscuring who is obliged to respond. By contrast, texting, emailing, and other direct-contact applications can allow for digital engagement that tends toward the real rather than the virtual, the near rather than the far. They are the digital equivalencies of more traditional, person-to-person communication: the phone call and the posted letter.
To be sure, these means of communication can expand rather than shrink our geographic boundaries (to the detriment of our sense of agency and responsibility), but they can also offer us ways to minister to the people in our most proximal circles of influence—not the high school friend living across the world, not the acquaintance recently made at a conference, but my neighbor, the friend in my Bible study, my own family members.
Truthfully, of course, no matter whom it concerns, I’d like nothing more than to blissfully silence my phone and move through my day without interruption. But this isn’t always the most loving choice. When we allow and answer notifications, respond to emails, and reply to texts, we practice the kind of ministering attention that Jesus was known for.
For me, this strategic technological engagement has meant deleting social media apps from my phone. I don’t allow myself to be interrupted by people I only know in the form of their headshots. However, I’ve downloaded other apps, like Slack and Monday, which facilitate work with a volunteer team at my church. I used to treat Sunday as a technological Sabbath, but for this season of my life, a purposeful yes to church involvement means that I now carry my phone with me to church. I’m reachable if there’s an operational crisis in the children’s ministry where I volunteer, and I’m available to be called on if I need to fill an unexpected absence in one of our classrooms.
Leaning toward digital connection has also meant allowing notifications from WhatsApp, which allows my small group to share prayer requests. When I’m notified that little Nathan has fallen down the stairs and his parents are rushing him to the emergency room, I pray in virtual chorus with others. Similarly, I try treating my inbox with a fair amount of deliberateness and care. Though I’m apt to ignore intrusions by strangers, I try answering, if only briefly (and always delinquently), the messages that arrive there. Each of these choices represents the purposeful decision to be reachable—and also responsible.
How we use our digital technologies is arguably one of the most important spiritual questions facing us today. As followers of the incarnate God, we want to favor an embodied life over a virtual one. We want to engage practices that cultivate patience when technology teaches us to crave speed. We want to resist acedia—that ancient word for spiritual sloth—and reject the moral listlessness induced by the digital age.
We want to be people of the here, not people of the everywhere and anywhere. And sometimes, that can mean more digital connection, not less.