The Church of Facebook

During the couple of years since I joined Facebook I have noticed a rather curious behavior developing among several of my short list of friends.  Aside from the posts involving political events, articles, and commentary of one type or another there has been an increasing tendency for appeals which are very personal in nature: asking the circle of FB friends to pray for someone for example, either a family member or a person of interest.   There are also a number of the usual kinds of requests or solicitations, such as copying and pasting a post of another into one’s own post.  I doubt there has been any data compiled on the efficacy of these actions other than continuing to increase the money stream to Facebook and its advertisers.

I can understand the zealous appeal for various social and political causes.  I must admit I have engaged in my own rants regarding some, in my view, untenable or irrational positions espoused by a politician or public figure.  In a democratic republic such as ours citizens are accorded the right, if not the responsibility, to speak out to maintain the public weal; however, part of the compact we are obligated to as members of our republic has been the concept of the separation of church and state.  While we have not always been as fastidious to maintain this separation as we ought, we have always held such a belief as one of the distinguishing characteristics that contributes to the uniqueness and success of our nation.

Facebook has rapidly become the pre-eminent social network and consequently one of the most dominant vehicles for communication and media exchange for millions of people all offer the world.  The social and political conflict in the Middle East that blossomed into the so-called Arab Spring was often documented on FB pages as it unfolded.  In fact oppressive regimes seem to target the availability of social networking as their first act of repression as a means of maintaining their unchallenged control.

Regime change may involve religion in some way although it seems unlikely that this involvement includes adopting a particular belief system or an appeal to a fundamental tenant of a particular religion other than to point out inconsistencies regarding belief and actual practice encoded in public policies.  The phenomenon I’ve noticed on FB is for someone to post an appeal for his FB friends to pray for a relative or another person regardless of their connection to each other.  The supplication for prayer is often followed by responses which range from the highly personal to a rather mechanical and impersonal standard reply of prayers coming your way or already sent.  Just as often the recipient of the prayers is the person who made the request while the person for whom the prayer was requested is relegated to a parenthetical consideration or none at all.  Upon reflection, perhaps, such expressions cannot be other than boiler plate sentiments since words can easily be formed into sentences but whole belief systems and the intimacy they require is something achieved over time and with personal contact.

What do we really mean when we go on FB and ask our group of friends to pray for someone?  Our FB friends may be our friends in the strictest sense of what we mean by establishing a bond of friendship with someone; however, it often means that we have accumulated names and profiles with less circumspection than we would in our everyday lives which involve personal—face-to-face—contact.  I have FB friends who are relatives whom I have never met and yet, in one very accurate sense they are not only “friends” but family as well; we share blood, although in some instances, little else.  Included in this far-flung cadre of FB friendship are people of varying religious beliefs and affiliations.  What is the basis then for the appeals which fail to encompass what such an appeal means to those of varying religious backgrounds?  What is the common ground upon which we all can respond that is both meaningful and efficacious?  Is any response, as long as it is uttered with civility, adequate?  Does it matter what our own religious beliefs are and will they effect the intended outcome?  Are our beliefs immaterial, except for our willingness to engage in a vague process of electronic ecclesia?

My father died this summer, a week after celebrating his 85th birthday; his life ended when what initially appeared to be a more minor condition deteriorated over the course of several months into one which became increasingly life-threatening.  As my father fought to regain his health—he was valiant in his effort and even showed signs of recovery on several occasions—some in our family and extended family submitted posts to FB asking for prayers for my father.  While it is obvious that the loosely constituted Church of Facebook and its liturgy of cyber prayer were impotent with regard to my father’s recovery, it may have helped those involved to be relieved of some form of misery or guilt or who knows what deep-seated or surface emotion; after all, other organized religious groups and entities fail or succeed at roughly equivalent rates as the CFB.  And, then there is the lament, the long-suffering electronic depression and anguish of loved ones lost that demands sharing with faces whose tears we cannot see or whose embrace we cannot feel.  I am reminded of the nascent television ministry of Oral Roberts, even he asked the  faithful to touch the television set to receive God’s blessing as he prayed.  Perhaps a more universal spirit was revealed to Mark Zuckerberg; one  that salves our injuries, secures our kinship, and whose essence is encoded in a language devoid of any human connection other than the cubicled coteries of its authors and revisionists.  There is no threat of eternal perdition or the temptations of Eve.  There are no theological gymnastics required to become one of the chosen and the only scarlet letter to bear is a U—Unfriended.

Whatever our beliefs are they are inescapably tied to who we are which means that the God we worship or do not worship can only be known as a referent of our own being.  In our world of joy and misery, life and death, well-being and suffering, we are the prerequisite for God’s existence or absence; without us, without human beings, a deity of any kind is simply irrelevant.  Without us God is simply alone regardless of whether it inserted itself into time and history or if we were the sole creators of such a grand myth.  In any case, the reliance  on FB to provide context, meaning, or authenticity to fundamental aspects of our inner life seems shallow and disingenuous.

Thou great star! What would be thy happiness if thou hadst not those for whom thou shinest!

Friedrich Nietzsche,  Thus Spake Zarathustra