If your social media feeds are anything like mine right now, you may be experiencing some ideological whiplash. Ten years ago, Facebook was a place to view poorly-lit pictures of friends’ birthday parties, vacations, and pets; today it’s an ideological war zone. One friend might post a meme full of COVID-19 statistics that are directly refuted by the next meme that you see in your feed. Or perhaps two friends are posting the same news story, but the perspectives are so wildly different as to make the story almost unrecognizable. Even more troubling might be those posts that proclaim a message that is true on the surface (“sex trafficking is wrong”), but on closer inspection, have a source associated with QAnon, the cult-like conspiracy theorist ring to which religious folks are particularly vulnerable.
It is easy to long nostalgically for a simpler time when social media was about connecting with distant relatives and people from high school you didn’t really want to meet up with in real life, before it was being manipulated for political purposes by corrupt powers. But social media has always been a politicized space, simply because it is a social space. It is a sphere of our common life, and, as such, our ways of connecting virtually have never been innocuous. Social media contributes to our communal shaping of values, ideas, and knowledge.
Suspicion of the communal shaping of knowledge is deeply rooted in the DNA of the modern West, tracing back at least several centuries to when the Enlightenment brought about a radical shift in sources of authority for knowledge. Traditional sources of authority, such as ecclesial hierarchies and existing social structures, were replaced by new scientific methods and an understanding of knowledge as something that must be obtained for oneself. The Protestant Reformation emphasized this shift further, as faith became centered on individual decision rather than the communal, sacramental life of the Church.
When acquaintances on Facebook urge you to “Do your research!” or “Think for yourself!” while posting the latest conspiracy theories or news stories from their preferred ideological perspective, they are drawing on centuries of individualistic, self-authenticating ideals of knowledge. But none of the ideas being shared in social media posts were created in a vacuum. They are socially generated in communal spaces, with the biases inherent to those spaces. And the mis/information and ideas that we share have a continued impact on our collective life together.
Sifting the true from the false is not a new problem. The author of the Johannine epistles was concerned that the communities of believers to whom he was writing would be misled by false information and harmful ideas. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit,” he writes, “but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1, NRSV). He goes on to give his criteria for discerning the false from the true: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2, NRSV).
If you are like me, that might not be quite what you would expect to hear. “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh”? Affirm the Incarnation? If you are a Christian believer, this is something you do anyway. The Incarnation makes up a big part of the Apostles’ Creed. How can affirming this help us discern the true from the false? What does it have to say to our navigation of communal knowledge, ideas, and values?
What does it really mean to affirm the Incarnation, to believe that God took on a human body in the person of Jesus Christ? It means, among other things, that human persons, including their bodies, matter tremendously to God. And that other people and their bodies should matter just as much to us.
If our theology does violence to another human being’s body, it is not Christian theology. If our theology perpetuates systemic harm, it is not Christian theology. If our theology is racist, it is not Christian theology.
As you wade through the volatile terrain of social media in 2020, I encourage you to keep the words of 1 John 4 in your mind. Test the spirits. And ask yourself: whose bodies are at stake?