By Clint Little
Great, you’re thinking. Another think-piece bemoaning social media and the digital degradation of society. Well, not exactly.
We have all heard it before. The internet, smartphone and social media have decayed social discourse, weakened our familial bonds and interrupted our best efforts toward a prayerful and meditative life. If you are like me, you eat these articles up and are convinced Twitter and Facebook are not good for the world.
But to complicate matters, no sooner have I deleted Twitter from my phone (again) then I come across an entirely different message. Some argue that digital technologies have made the world a much better place and should be leveraged for the gospel. Communication, navigation and access to information are wonderful tools for establishing relationships, sharing the gospel, and discipling others. Thus, digital media is only a problem for the lazy and impulsive amongst us.
Both of these messages have a ring of truth to them, yet neither can solve our paradoxical relationship with digital technology. We love life in the digital age, yet we love to hate it with equal fervor.
I would like to suggest a change in focus in the conversation around digital technologies. These technologies can certainly be used for great good by a virtuous person — and can be exceedingly corrosive in the hands of those lacking in virtue. How, then, can we can go about developing virtue in the midst of the digital age?
Philosophers and theologians have long studied what it takes to live a good and virtuous life. Unfortunately, modern digital technologies have not been around long enough for the world to build up stores of collective wisdom about how to approach them. We as Christians need to lead the way in establishing principles for developing virtue in the digital age. I don’t pretend to have it all figured out, nor do I believe we can create cookie-cutter solutions. So, let’s discuss four principles for how to begin approaching the topic.
Do you treat your laptop like the door to a brothel?
1. We are responsible for living virtuously, even though it will always be brutally difficult.
We are not facing a new challenge. Ever since the fall of humanity in the garden we have struggled with the reality that the world around us and our own wayward hearts get in our way at every turn as we try to live as goodness, righteousness and virtue would dictate.
The external trappings may have changed, but the basic human realities remain the same. A quick perusal of Pilgrim’s Progress proves this slough of despondency has always existed. The fact that our modern slough looks like a three-hour YouTube rabbit hole does not change anything fundamental.
By way of application, you and I are not innocent and helpless victims to the whims of monstrous digital gods. We are fallen human beings with a personal responsibility for everything we do before a holy God. We must accept this responsibility and understand that, no matter what age we live in, virtuous living is always difficult.
2. The digital age does present unique challenges to the specifics of virtuous living.
While the deceitfulness of sin and the difficulties of virtue are present in every time and place, the specifics of how we must battle sin and develop virtue must be adapted to the challenges of digital technologies. If you ignore the new realities, you set yourself up for failure.
Lust is present in every age, but you cannot ignore that adultery is no longer just in a brothel but behind every screen in your home. Do you treat your laptop like the door to a brothel? The god of consumerism is no longer relegated to the shopping mall; he lives in your pocket. Do you treat your phone like the entry to a pagan temple?
Any strategy for developing virtue and rooting out vices must wrestle with these facts. We must get into the weeds of our computer location, Netflix practices, smartphone notifications, etc., if we are going to make real progress. It will require us to read widely, study our own habits, and seek wise counsel. We have to look to both timeless wisdom and current cultural criticism to help us along our journey.
3. Living a distinctly Christian life of virtue has always looked strange.
Once you and I get into the weeds of developing virtue in a digital age, we will more than likely discover extreme measures are necessary. We must be willing to cut off our digital hands and pluck out our digital eyes if necessary. And I must warn you that it will almost certainly be necessary in some ways, but more than worth it.
Do not be afraid to take digital measures for the good of your soul that seem strange, even to your Christian friends and family. Taking extreme measures is often particularly helpful when trying to displace the idols in our lives. Let us remember the Old Testament refrain for an idolatrous people to tear down their idols and burn them, not to merely exercise the willpower to walk quickly past what they used to worship.
Granted, most measures will of necessity be arbitrary. Suppose one person discovers they spend too much time on YouTube and blocks the website from their smartphone but leaves access to it on their laptop. Is YouTube only a sin when it is in your pocket? Of course not! But if access on your phone is what tends to be a problem for you then it makes sense as a solution for you, even if it appears arbitrary to others.
We must be willing to cut off our digital hands and pluck out our digital eyes if necessary.
4. The specific solutions for virtuous living in the digital age are often issues of conscience.
There will be many variations between individuals as we learn to develop virtue in relation to digital technologies. While we are all sinful humans with common strains of temptation, each person has unique varieties of besetting sins and strengths and weaknesses of character.
We should be charitable as we view the online habits of other Christians. They may not struggle with the same sins in the same way as you and me. We should also be cautious about thoughtlessly imitating the digital behavior of our Christian heroes. Just because they are able to build a large Twitter following without becoming prideful does not automatically mean I can do the same. Keeping this in mind should help guard against a kind of digital self-righteousness for the decisions we make, while stopping comparisons and allowing us to glean wisdom from the godly examples of others.
Moving the Conversation Forward
Digital technology is not the reason we are sinful humans, but neither is it irrelevant. The internet, smartphones and social media present unique challenges that must be addressed with careful wisdom and thoughtful principles. So let’s move this conversation forward and learn together how to develop virtuous lives in this digital age.