By Chris Williston
August 30, 2006
There are those who rail against technology, blaming it for the evils of the world. I am not one of those people. Don’t get me wrong, I have my moments of frustration. Perhaps you’ve felt my pain if you have had the joy of using a self-checkout machine at your local supermarket. When I hear the polite voice declare the presence of an “unexpected item in the bagging area,” I long for the days of human interaction. To make matters worse, this isn’t the only place I find human interaction disappearing. Somehow, we have bought into the lie that self-service is better and more efficient than human service, and it’s the little things lost as a result that have me asking, “Can we have the people back?”
At some point, we decided it was just too much of a hassle to interact with other human beings, and we systematically began to remove them from our lives. We shut ourselves off to our neighbors and replaced our real friends with tiny pictures of strangers we hardly know. In the name of convenience we have created a society of anonymous individuals, moving around in the same time and space while seeking to avoid any meaningful human interaction.
In many ways we are not too far off from C.S. Lewis’ version of hell in The Great Divorce. Lewis describes a sprawling metropolis with ever-increasing borders. Its people are so divisive and hateful that they have to continually move further beyond the city to escape the ugliness of other humans. While we do not have the luxury of escaping each other physically, our anonymous culture has turned inward to escape emotionally. The result is a society full of individuals striving to be the ultimate autonomous being of their own little world. The focus is no longer on others, but on the self. It is now about me. I must have my space, and my music, on my iPod or my PDA, so that I can live my life without the inconvenience that is you.
We believe that by decreasing the amount of human interaction in our lives, we are insulating ourselves from the messiness that is humanity. Our true selves are fortified behind walls of technology and false intimacy. The promise of technology is more time and convenience to focus on the relationships that are truly important. In this technology, we have found little more than shallow bits of information that try (and fail) to connect us to those who were once worthy of at least a phone call. Slowly, we have lost our sense of what it means to be an integral part of real human community.There are many voices calling out from within the church, trying to emphasize and restore true community. And yet, we have failed to heed their calls. When we think about community, we focus on the cost. There is some difficulty involved in committing to real human interaction. Humans are messy, emotional and irrational creatures who often require much attention. However, with all this focus on the cost, have you ever stopped to consider the cost of not living in community?
In his seminal work, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Neibuhr says, "Community is an individual as well as social necessity; for the individual can realize him/herself only in intimate and organic relation with his fellow human. Love is therefore the primary law of his/her nature; and brotherhood the fundamental requirement of his/her social existence."
Niebuhr realized that the need for community is hardwired into the soul of every human. Though we cry out for autonomy, we are ultimately and intrinsically dependent on each other for self-actualization. There is no replacement for actual human interaction. Just as we are dependent on human touch for emotional growth and development, so too are we dependent on something that computer screens and podcasts just can’t offer.
In an era of great change and development in the way that people are thinking about and internalizing their faith, many have fallen victim to a critical mistake. In becoming apathetic and disheartened with the status quo of institutional Christianity, too many are turning their back on community and setting out on a spiritual path on their own. Rather than seeking community with others, Christians are retreating into the anonymous culture and being reduced to a cleaver pseudonym on a progressive Christian message board where they whine with other progressive Christians about how the church just doesn’t get it.
A community is a living and breathing organism that changes with the lives that make up its membership. Each of us is an unfinished work of art. However, we cannot reach completion on our own. The power of Christian community is the reality of transparent, authentic and honest interaction. It is about more than a group of people who simply belong, or believe, but is focused on the overall goal of becoming the people who God desires each of us to be. To give up and slip into anonymity is to deny yourself the possibility of living in organic relationship.