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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Who Am I Really Meant To Be? Authenticity and the Internet

Surfing the net in the last few days, maybe you skimmed a headline saying something about the pope and social networks. What’s it all about?

The headlines referred to Pope Benedict’s Message for the 45th World Communications Day, a day that this year falls on June 5, although the message is customarily released on the Feast of Saint Francis de Sales, the patron saint of those who work in communications, which this year fell on January 24, this past Monday. The theme of the pope’s message for this year is, “Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age.” If you perused one of the news stories about this message, you probably read that the pope had some positive things to say about social networking, encouraging Catholics to get involved, though to be careful how they do so. This much is true, but there is much more to this brief message than this, and for anyone interested and involved in the new social media it is well worth taking a few minutes to read (it is not even three pages of single-spaced type). The pope writes that the new communications technologies “urgently demand a serious reflection on the significance of communication in the digital age.” Over the next couple of posts I want to engage in such reflection with the help of the pope’s message. I begin here with five thoughts that touch on how the pope understands the deep theological dimension of the new communications technologies, in particular social networks.

1.    The internet in general, and social networking in particular, is one expression of the “human spiritual yearning.” The virtual world, in other words, is one way that the human spirit looks to satisfy its fundamental longings. Longings for what? For transcendence, for truth, for communication with others, for “authentic forms of life, truly worthy of being lived.” Every human being, professed Catholic or not, wants these things, and many of us go looking for them on the internet.
2.    Authenticity is a key theme of the message. One of the things human beings have a spiritual longing for is authenticity. What does authenticity mean? Let’s begin with what it’s not. An authentic life is a life that is the opposite of phoney, disingenuous, hypocritical. So an authentic life is a life lived in the light of truth, a life in which one becomes who one is truly meant to be.
3.    In the most profound sense, authenticity can only be achieved in a friendship with Christ. “In the final analysis, the truth of Christ is the full and authentic response to that human desire for relationship, communion and meaning which is reflected in the immense popularity of social networks.” So that Facebook page, that Twitter account, that blog—all these are attempts (sometimes woefully misguided) of looking for something that can only be fulfilled in Christ. In Christ we make the “connection” that really satisfies. In Christ we discover who we’re really meant to be.  
4.    But the new communications technologies and social networks can also be a legitimate way of living out an authentic life in Christ. “If used wisely, they can contribute to the satisfaction of the desire for meaning, truth and unity which remain the most profound aspirations of each human being.” This is the positive point that the pope wants to make about these new technologies. They can honestly contribute to a life of authenticity. How do they do it?
5.    By being put in the service of (a) “the integral good of the individual”; and (b) “the whole of humanity.” We are made for happiness, a happiness that is realized by living in the truth in communion with others. Not every “connection” in a social network realizes this ideal. Consider risqué photographs shared on a Facebook page. They undercut the truth of human sexuality, and make for only the most superficial of “connections” between “friends.” They do nothing to help fulfill the best potentialities of human relationships. They project a “profile” that works as a mask, obscuring the person and his or her longing for authentic human connection. “In the search for sharing, for “friends,” there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.”     

More on what the Holy Father sees as some of the dangers of social networking in my next post…

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