on Sept. 10, 2011
Can online communities like Jesus Daily take the place of offline religious life, like what happens at synagogues and churches? A debate organized by The New York Times.
The popularity of online religious networks makes perfect sense in our fragmented, consumerist culture. On one hand, the modern relegation of faith to the private realm of life has left believers starved for fellowship and community. On the other, Americans increasingly regard religious views as products to be adopted or discarded at will, depending on how they suit our personal tastes. We shop for churches, mix and match traditions and even hopscotch within a given tradition to find the pastor or rabbi or guru whose view of God meshes most closely with our own.
In such a religious marketplace, online faith communities understandably thrive. They offer a quick hit of fellowship without the hassles that characterize bricks-and-mortar religious communities: the rambling sermons, the grating fellow pew-dwellers, the squabbles over everything from doctrine and liturgy to the planning of the church picnic. If you don’t like the dogmas or moral rules touted on one religious site or Facebook page, you can click to another – or, better yet, start your own. Same goes for the fellow believers you encounter in virtual faith communities. You can confide in them your deepest fears, hopes and dreams, then unfriend them instantly if they prove annoying. In a real-world faith community, unyoking from fellow churchgoers is rarely so neat or clean.
But here’s the rub, the one Pope Benedict XVI was getting at when he warned social media users against “constructing an artificial public profile” and “enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence”: The same freedom from commitment that makes online faith communities appealing also can make them isolating and misleading. Technology, when used as a substitute rather than a complement for genuine religious community, exacerbates our natural tendency to present only the parts of ourselves we want others to see and to sequester ourselves from those whose different personalities and perspectives irritate or test us.
The virtual faith experience is smoother and more painless than the real-world one. But it is also less likely to foster the kind of deep spiritual growth that comes only from authentic, face-to-face community – from grappling with religious teachings and disciplines that challenge our natural inclinations and religious believers whose rough edges help us recognize and soften our own.
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Colleen Carroll Campbell is a columnist for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, the author of “The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy” and the host of “Faith & Culture,” a TV and radio show on EWTN.
Read more: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/09/08/will-online-faith-communities-replace-churches/beware-of-convenient-fellowship