I think I may have used the phrase once or twice.
The fact that we use this phrase almost exclusively for romantic relationships interests me. We’ve reduced the complex mosaic of love to a term that essentially understood, means: “two entities able to communicate.” When a young lady waxes eloquent about her connection with so-and-so, she is trying to find language that adequately articulates a vast yet delicate concept. How do you communicate old-soul attraction to teeny-bopper attention spans? The opening of the heart, the tender and uncertain conversations, the thrill of newly discovered potential boils down to the language of mere connectivity. Maybe I’m being too hard on the young paramour. Again, I’ve done it, too.
But words matter.
Many Christian authors and speakers seem to be falling into a similar bear-trap when they talk about the newest forms of social technology: Because they do not define their working terms, they risk losing the impact of language altogether. The technophile theologian (Len Sweet comes to mind here…) will throw out words like “relationship,” “friendship,” “connectivity,” and “community” with near reckless abandon—and, as a result, is treating the common cultural use of the word as sufficient for the church. In other words, I am saying that:
Saying you have a relationship does not mean you have a relationship, unless you define relationship in the broadest of possible terms.
One who claims to have friends does not necessarily experience friendship, unless they accept Facebook’s “click and you’re in” approach.
And certainly, connectivity is not community, nor does it necessarily create community…….that’s it. It’s not. It doesn’t.
To be fair, I think folks like Len Sweet are encouraging the Christian Church to seek and save the lost in harvest fields that they formerly didn’t even know existed. Christ is the Christ of all nations, including those regions that can only be discovered through an Ethernet connection. The technophile Christians find those bits (bytes?) of culture that require a certain measure of optimistic assimilation; after all, the apostle Paul said (in a generous reading), “to the hackers, I became a hacker…”
Nor do I want to give the impression that I alone, from the dispassionate position of cultural observer, claim to adjudicate the real claims from the false ones. I do, however, want to point out the dangers of conflating cultural and theological terms, especially when Christians assume that the presence of connectivity necessarily implies that a community is being formed.
But words matter.
Connectivity is the state-of-being in which two entities are drawn into potential communication. I don’t think that we should assume that this communication is necessarily taking place, just that the lines of communication have no apparent roadblocks. I am connected to my brother in Bakersfield, although I only speak to him every few weeks or so. An online social network (OSN) user, I surmise, wouldn’t outright disagree with my definition here, although I imagine that he/she would view a connected system as one that necessarily creates community, for no one actually sits at the door of connectivity without walking into the room.
Community, by contrast, is the partaking of life together, something that is both experienced and shared. This is akin to the Greek term, koinonia, found throughout Paul’s letters in various forms. My definition, to be sure, but it has deep roots in the biblical conception of person and corporate life together. Community—Christian community, in particular—draws the best of what it means to be human (purpose, relationship, and embodiment) and opens that definition into a matrix of other people. Community emerges out of people who recognize and share this intimate kinship.
In the past, connectivity served as a means to an end. A man might pick up the phone (a medium of connectivity), call his buddy to meet for lunch, and then proceed out the door to fulfill the engagement. The end is community; being connected is only the means to this end. This, of course, still happens…but if you’re like me, you’ve noticed a change in the winds since Hurricane Facebook blew in a decade ago.
Now, connectivity serves as its own end—no community is needed. Or, even worse, no community is desired. At this point, I would imagine many of you are arguing that the OSN life is community—just not the type you prefer or recognize. Perhaps. But my definition of community explicitly calls for embodiment; that is, the most authentic and intimate forms of community necessarily require the body as the point of contact with our neighbor. Sure, actual community can be enhanced via technologies that enable contact through media—Skype is an obvious example here—but nothing that the online world has to offer can compare with the full complement of communal experiences that are realized in the face-to-face experience.
Now, connectivity serves as its own end–no community is needed. Or, even worse, no community is desired.
The hill I’m going to die on, at least in this area of Christian anthropology, is a commitment to two inescapable and inseparable facts about being men and women: We are necessarily embodied. We are necessarily communal. Bonhoeffer once wrote that God’s intentional embodying of his creatures shouldn’t surprise us: “The believer feels no shame…when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians. Man was created a body, the Son of God appeared on earth in the body, he was raised in the body, in the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God’s spiritual-physical creatures”. To remove the body from the community equation (or remove the community from Christian anthropology) would counter a vast corpus of biblical material which seems to imply the opposite: We are necessarily embodied and communal.
Perhaps connectivity serves as its own end because, for many, embodied community scares the hell out of us. We avoid community, and so connectivity becomes the acceptable substitution. If you sit in an anonymous position in the world of online social networks (OSNs), you may intervene at any point—without the shocking accountability and vulnerability that comes when you are physically present. You have effectively raised your status to that of a deity. Untouchable, unknowable, yet all-powerful. Why cede this power and return to the ranks of the mortal? For those who have experienced significant hurt in their lives, this is a remarkably attractive option that I do not begrudge.
But this cannot be the koinonia, the intimate fellowship of sharing, that God has in mind for his people. At that end of the day when all of the chips are down, we want to be known. Fully known. Access to community is not enough. We intensely crave others to know us and, by some miracle, still love us completely.
Which makes the following triumvirate in Romans 5 so stunning:
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
“For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”
Fully known. Fully loved. Called into embodied community with God himself.
 Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 19-20.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.