Friday, January 28, 2011

A theology of social networking

Friesen, Dwight. Thy Kingdom Connected: What the Church Can Learn from Facebook,
the Internet, and Other Networks. Baker Books, 2009, 189 pages.

One of the assumptions of Friesen’s book is that social networking and the internet can offer some metaphorical resources for how we talk about the Trinity and our participation in Trinitarian relationality. Leonard Sweet in his forward to the book highlights this assumption by riffing on hyperlinks as that which makes light (the light of creation and the light of Christ) possible, for light itself is constituted by interlinked frequencies and the relationship between different kinds of particles and frequencies.[1]
            This is one of the best reasons to read this book, because any book that brings innovation in science, technology, or the arts, into conversation with how we talk about God and the universe can, if approached with creativity and faith, yield tremendous new insights. If there is a danger in such an approach, it is only that sometimes an experiment in this kind of theology can overstate its case, standing in awe at a wonder that is actually only mundane or pedestrian. But faithful readers can parse this distinction.
            Friesen recognizes the tensions inherent in his experiment, and describes it early in the book, “We might be fools to simply jump on everything early adopters to their hands to [avant-church and social networking], but we most certainly will be fools if we choose not to humbly listen to the hearts, motives, and explorations of these early adopters, for they are daring to live as risk takers as they take new terrain seriously.”[2] Which is to say that Friesen is worth reading not only because together with him readers may discover some interesting new ways of thinking about the church, and God, but they may also be emboldened to be explorers in new terrains.
            Friesen’s “hope is that this book can serve as a practical relational hermeneutic.”[3] It is important to listen to how Friesen phrases this, because it gives a clearer description of what the book is accomplishing than the title (a title probably suggested by the publisher or editor). The book is exploring relationality and networks as a hermeneutic for talking about God as trinity and the church’s participation in the divine life of the Trinity.
            Central to this thesis is his recognition that social networks like Facebook or MySpace are scale-free non-hierarchical, enabling us to reimagine the kingdom of God in such terms.[4] Perhaps the most radical insight arising out of this thesis is that networks are often more yeasty than we give them credit for. We prefer to think of networks as direct, so we try to leverage them to impact directly the people or groups we are directly in contact with. However, networks often have their greatest power and impact as they pattern out through indirect and secondary connections. Friesen offers one simple example of this, that most people get a new job through a friend of a friend, not directly through a best friend or acquaintance themselves.
            This has tremendous implications for how we think of the ministry of our churches. When we are organizing in networks of faithful ministry (for example, in a small group bible study) it may not even be the direct network of the group itself that has the most powerful transformative or redemptive impact, but what flows out in the synergistic nodes of relationality in which each of the small group participants is situated.
            Friesen believes and trusts that this emphasis on relationality in Christian ministry does simply come out of sociological patterns, but out of the God who exists in relationality, in communion. “The Christian understanding of a linking God is surely one of the most unique claims of any religion or system of thought in the world.”[5] By analogy, since humans are created in the image of God, their being is also in communion and relationality. Friesen’s radical insight is that each of us is a networked person.
            The reason this is a rich theological insight is because in much of the social networking universe, we tend to focus on ourselves, the node that we are, and then think that the connections between each node, the network, are simply a secondary resource to connect the nodes. But what if the reverse were true, and it were the network itself that were more constitutive of you are rather than you as the node itself? Or even if you as a node in the network or only a node because there is a network?
            Finally, I celebrate Friesen’s vision in this book because it is hopeful and lifegiving. Rather than approach social networking and technology from the perspective of a post-singularity scenario, Friesen simply grounds, practically and realistically, social networking in the sociality of God. “This biblical vision of a relationally connective kingdom holds the key to a profound sense of hope and possibility for you and me and the communities in which we live; for it reorients our vision of life, relationship, and ministry from the perspective of the Triune God who creates us in God’s own relational image… it sparks one’s imagination for incarnationally presencing oneself in the places of disruption within one’s own network.”[6]
            The resources for the kind of theology expressed here have already been present in the writings of an array of gifted systematic theologians, such as J├╝rgen Moltmann, Colin Gunton, John Zizioulas, etc. And I do recommend reading these theologians in conversation with Friesen, for a greater sense of the Trinitarian theology backside of Friesen’s proposal. But what I love about Friesen’s book is his bold attempt to bring the tremendous insights of these Trinitarian theologians into creative interplay (might I say networked with or linked?) with modern technological advances and new forms of human sociality. That he has done so is simply one more illustration of his goal of participating in God’s mission, which, “if you choose to live into it, is to boldly link where no one has linked before; this is the Christ conjunction.”[7] It is the creative work of the church and its leadership to steward space where this can happen.[8]

[1] 11.
[2] 26.
[3] 29.
[4] 31.
[5] 56.
[6] 88, emphasis added.
[7] 135.
[8] 113.

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