Swipe left: A theology of Tinder and digital dating

In Nancy Jo Sales’s eye-opening article “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse’” (appearing in September’s Vanity Fair), we see new expressions of human life in the digital wild west. Her astute report on newer “dating” apps—such as Tinder, Hinge, Grindr and more—outline a kind of lurid efficiency with which people (usually young people) navigate their desire for intimacy.  We have known for a while now that young people are as likely as not to begin any friendship via text; with apps like Tinder, we see this development in full bloom, or as one of Sales’s subjects muses: “It’s texting someone, or multiple girls, maybe getting very sexual with them, 99 percent of the time before you’ve even met them.”

I have taught Christian Marriage every semester for the last three years. It's a popular course; and, while I'd like to think this is because I’ve worked hard to fashion a sound curriculum that is delivered with keen insight and pedagogical panache, I know it's much more than that. Students are hungry for the content, are hungry for anything that gives them cause and space to ask deeper questions about intimacy, sexuality and commitment. They are also hungry for fun assignments—like going on a date—but more about this in due course.

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As a scholar, theologies of marriage and family are not part of my native "training set." Of course, it helps my instruction that I am married (with children)—and have been for 15 robust and life-giving years; but it has also become clear to me that the course is a perfect venue for introducing students to the basic questions of Christian theology, anthropology and spirituality. Exploring the complex mysteries of Trinitarian relationality and kenosis—to take just two examples—through the lens of love and marriage provide ample ground for both personal and communal reflection.

One popular unit in the course is the interrogation of “Hook-Up Culture.” So much has been written about this phenomenon—particularly as a popular mating preference of the Millennial generation—that it’s easy to shout intellectual “Eureka!” and dig in. The topic is low-hanging sociological fruit; and the subjects in question (i.e., those who are purportedly doing the hooking-up) are sitting right in front of me. Their data seems both inscrutable and lock-box credible. This is to say that there has been much occasion for self-study: “Is Hook-Up Culture real?” “Are Millenials having more sex than Xers, Boomers, or the Greatest generations?” “How did premarital coupling look before the sea change of digital culture?” And so on. Most students will grant that Hook-Up culture is a phenomenon with merit, but a heavy slice disagree and push back. These findings, not surprisingly, mirror the scope of results found in the many scholarly and anecdotal studies on the topic.

What is not debated, however, is how digital culture has decisively changed the very DNA of dating rituals—an insight that Sales does very well to articulate in her article. This can come as no surprise. The juggernaut of digital culture, which really has hatched the biggest cultural metamorphosis since Gutenberg’s printing press, affects every aspect of late modern life in fundamental ways—ways, moreover, that are often obscured from our perception. After all, the hardest chains to break, the saying goes, are the ones you can’t see.  

Sales’s piece resonates deeply on this score—particularly in her tale of apps gone wild. One of my pet intellectual interests is how the structural encroachment of digital (i.e. “virtual”) life into the real has subtly amplified certain corners of human life and spirituality—particularly in “developed” cultures. Virtual life is playing fast and loose with the physical realities of time and space and is creating a stress which is anthropologically (and therefore theologically) unsustainable. In our online lives, we certainly see new expressions of nobility and virtue; but we also see new expressions of human debasement and crass materialism. We have seen young people—particularly adolescent males—increasingly alienated by the fraudulent versions of sex and intimacy peddled by the porn industry. These young people, as Sherry Turkle writes in her excellent book Alone Together, dwell in a "vexed relationship between what is true and what is true in simulation”; and many of them, with these cheap scripts looping in their minds, are trying their hand in the bigger game. Sex historian, Christopher Ryan, who is cited in Sales’s article, is “troubled” by such developments: “The appetite has always been there, but it had restricted availability” he says. Now, “people are gorging. That’s why it’s not intimate. You could call it a kind of psychosexual obesity.”

Perhaps all of this may begin to explain why the dating project is so appealing to the students in my Marriage class. When I introduce the assignment (and kudos to Boston College’s Kerry Cronin for paving the way here), we are met with yet another occasion to integrate essential theological concepts—like I-Thou relationality, like being wary of using people as means to an end, like how consent (so often a red herring) can still lead to experiences that are unethical and damaging. Together, we become astute minds on the subject, and we begin to explore a new vocabulary, which even the most sex-positive students begin to use, words like "disincarnating," "inorganic," "prosthetic," "functional" and “unfulfilling.”

And we explore why it is that imagination is a most central faculty for thinking and behaving theologically. So much in digital media—imaginative conceptually and innovative in application—is also, paradoxically, a tireless thief of imagination. We think we see everything—a person, that is—but then we so quickly swipe her or him away to the nether regions as if they were a pair of shoes on Zappos. Going on a physical date with prescribed parameters (where phones stay in pockets and purses and side hugs are held in high regard) helps to reorient students and aids, ironically, in the restoration of imagination. As Adolfo Nicolas, Father General of the Jesuits, recently wrote, imagination always begins with the real, with “what is materially, concretely thought to be there; the world as we encounter it; the world of the senses so vividly described in the Gospels themselves; a world of suffering and need, a broken world with many broken people in need of healing. We start there. We don’t run away from there.”

We need refined imaginations to rid ourselves of the notion that what is new is somehow superior. When we enter into the vulnerability of casting aside digital profiles and preferences and meeting another person in all of her/his humanity, we enter into the beautiful mystery of friendship and romance that has fired the human heart for centuries. Sure, there will be a mess (as Pope Francis says) and things may not always work out; but there will also be surprise. 

This is what the students tell me anyway.

Michael P. Murphy, author of A Theology of Criticism: Balthasar, Postmodernism, and the Catholic Imagination (Oxford), directs the Catholic studies program at Loyola University Chicago.

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Kester Ratcliff
2 years 3 months ago
More please!! This is all very nice and easy to agree with. I'm currently personally struggling with this and I'd really like more specific, risky discussion. The way it feels to me is- the official Church teaching on human sexuality is so far from credible I just can't; my local parish priest is very wise and kind and has some solid sensible humane advice which I definitely have strong sympathies with although I also suspect he's being a bit narrowly idealistic; and I'm also, I think equally, willing to question and challenge my own current set of working assumptions or working rules, which I'm pretty clear are not adequate for me at present. Could list why fairly clearly, but that would be a bit uncomfortable even in the confessional. Last night - on one of those 'dating' apps - I met someone I also know from the parish community, and we had a bit of a beginning of a good discussion about ^^, but where can we have these conversations without being shouted down? Does the article author have a blog or somewhere with more detail and a way to contact him?
MIchael Murphy
2 years 2 months ago
Hi Kester: Apologies for the tardy reply. The semester just commenced and I'm all sixes and sevens. I think we can all be narrowly idealistic-- I know I am with regularity. As for the church and the catechism of human sexuality-- we really kick the nest there and it'd take much more than a chat box to sort through the vistas, valleys, nooks, and crannies of the mysteries of love and attraction--and, of course, committment. There are theologies, there are the credibilities(and lack thereof) of lived-experience, and there is the practice of a religion-- a kind of living out loud. Do you think the Church will evolve on sexuality so as to accommodate the wisdom of this age? Or does it remain an "expert in humanity" in any age? Have I given you a frustrating either/or? In any case, thanks for the comment. Best of luck on your journey!
Adam Gull
2 years ago
I think we should understand that nowadays everything is more practical and quick than before with the internet. Good old dating rituals are abandoned and even in traditional societies like Iranian or Indian, dating has become rather online and a simple game of meeting. I find it so amusing to see how quickly you can secure a date with an Iranian or Indian girl at sites like http://desikiss.com or http://iranianpersonals.com . Even those really traditional societies, even much more traditional than Christians, are now in a new era of girls and boys dating easily... I can imagine even more advanced technologies than Tinder or current dating sites in future and I think singles will become even more liberal with the advancement of internet even further.
J Hawkins
1 year 5 months ago
Dating is a vital part of an individual life. Before dating a person, it is really important to understand the person and consider various aspects related to culture, believe. And for finding the perfect match in this busy life one can take help from the matchmakers by visiting www.conciergeintroductions.com. That will help you to understand the person and then decide on marriage.

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