From the Second Book of Samuel:
Now Absalom had set Amasa over the army in the place of Joab. Amasa was the son of a man named Ithra the Ishmaelite, who had married Abigal daughter of Nahash, sister of Zeruiah, Joab’s mother.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 2 Samuel 17:24 (NRSV) – August 19, 2013.)
Reading a verse like this one from the Second Book of Samuel makes me feel like I’m sitting at my in-laws’ kitchen table, or even in my grandmother’s kitchen. Up until very recently, this is the way people connected with other people. I can hear my late father-in-law reminding my wife of someone in the small town where she was born and raised:
“Oh, you know Sally! She was married to Bob, Jim’s brother, and her uncle Fred was your second grade teacher’s (Mrs. Jones’s) husband’s brother-in-law, Bill. Mr. Jones’s sister Margaret was his first wife.”
Often as I listened to conversations like this I would find myself lost in the tangled web of interpersonal relationships, trying desperately to trace the connections between spouses, siblings, cousins, friends-of-the-family, business associates, church members, and the-people-we-don’t-know-but-talk-about that defined a person’s identity in the society of that small town and within my spouse’s extended community of family and friends.
With the advent of the internet, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Linked-In, Google+, and the list goes on . . . With the advent of social media and these means of connecting that are at once more direct but more tenuous, more easily understood but less well defined, how do we now understand personal identity or personhood?
Personhood is a social construct that entails the very relationships the writer of Second Samuel sought to portray, the relationships my father-in-law used to recall to my wife who Sally was. The ability to be in those relationships is one way to understand what it means to be a person. Personhood is defined by a human being’s ability to have relationships with other human beings and, from a theological standpoint, to enter into the special relationship human beings have with God.
Contemporary social media now allows me to be in relationship with more people more immediately than has ever been possible in the past. Some years ago in a course in pastoral practice, I read that the greatest number of close interpersonal relationships a clergy person can sustain is about fifty. We may “know” many more people, but the limit on the number of people with whom our face-to-face relationships can be meaningful in any particular sense is about fifty – maybe a little lower for an introvert like myself, possibly a little higher for an extrovert.
But now I have over 800 “friends” on Facebook and “know” maybe a similar number of additional Facebook users through discussion group pages . . . . “Oh, you know Eric! He’s friends with Michael, who’s in that glass collecting Facebook group started by Brad, who follows Sid on Twitter.”
We Christians are supposed to understand God through the metaphor of personhood — the Holy Trinity, a unity of three Persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). When our understanding of personhood is stretched (and some might say “warped”) by new technologies of relationship, does our concept of God change? How do we understand God and God’s Personhood in this new digital age?
I don’t know. I don’t have an answer. But I know this: I’m not just Facebook friends with God.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.