Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Terrance KleinApril 26, 2012

Strange, where generations divide. I’m an earlier version of humanity, one without the opposable thumbs needed for texting. When a younger colleague taught me to text, I asked why I would want to do it. “Wouldn’t it be easier to telephone?”

“Easier for the thumbs; harder for you.” The argument went something like this: When you text, you’re in control. You send a message — what you want the other person to know — and then you choose whether, when, and how to continue the exchange of data. In contrast, once you begin a conversation, you’re committed. You don’t know where it will take you.

I can’t help but to think of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and his famous distinction between I-It and I-Thou relationships. I relate to any possible object in the world around me as an “It.” I essentially use all objects that I encounter, wisely or not, as instruments of my will. Another person, however, cannot — or should not — be reduced to an “It.” Each is a Thou, someone who addresses me as an equal, who cannot be reduced to an object at my disposal.

With technology making it easier than ever to reach other people, one would think that I-Thou relationships would be blossoming, but a frost seems to be claiming the crop. New techniques like texting, and forums such as Facebook, leave many asking if we aren’t reducing each other to data flows and information platforms.

In the article “The Flight from Conversation,” appearing in last Sunday’s New York Times, Sherry Turkle, a psychologist, a professor at M.I.T., and the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other wrote:

Texting and e-mail and posting let us present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish to, we can delete. Or retouch: the voice, the flesh, the face, the body. Not too much, not too little — just right.

Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seem that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.

We are tempted to think that our little “sips” of online conversation add up to a big gulp of real conversation.

It’s not surprising that a technologically frenzied world, where I-Thou encounters become ever rarer, has difficulty understanding the nature of Western religious knowledge. We think that the scriptures, the Church, or spirituality in general, is about knowing information, about facts that we then adjudge to be true or false. Employing such a model, some conclude that all religions must be false simply because they differ. Or — almost as bad — religiously inclined folk feel compelled to produce some version of religions melded into a common muddle, which then prompts the question: what are we make of our own sacred scriptures, of St. Peter’s confident assertion, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4: 12).

The problem is the picture of religious knowledge. For Christians, it’s not ultimately knowledge about things; it’s interpersonal knowledge of another, an I-Thou relationship. When Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, he’s not proposing a proposition for inter-religious dialogue or debate. He’s expressing the identity he claims from those who know him to be a Thou, indeed, the very Thou of Thou’s, the one who calls to them. “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd” (Jn 10: 14-16).

A Thou is not assigned a place in the world. A Thou claims the world. You don’t fall in love because you’ve weighed up the merits of a friend, a spouse, or a child — though clearly you’re not blind to these. You fall in love because another calls to you, invites you into the uniquely human act of fellowship that, quite literally, forges the very self.

Does such an approach to religious faith unleash the hounds of fanaticism? Far from it. Religious fanaticism comes from the mistaken belief that faith is about primarily about facts rather than persons. Someone’s facts must be wrong if they differ from my own. This is not to say that debates within Christianity have no place; that doctrines serve no purpose. Christ comes to us in human history, and, as with all of history, to be human is constantly to question its meaning.

In the current issue of Atlantic, Stephen Marche asks, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” He concludes, “What Facebook has revealed about human nature — and this is not a minor revelation — is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world or a more liberated version of humanity.”

Bonds exist only in I-Thou relationships. And that’s why Jesus isn’t on Facebook. He can’t be reduced to a data stream, not even to the Sacred Scriptures themselves. When we name him the Good Shepherd, when we call someone the love of our lives, we aren’t assigning an “It” a place within our worlds. We’re rendering a Thou a heart that has already been claimed.

Rev. Terrance W. Klein

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
John Cunningham
10 years 5 months ago
Brilliant and incisive!  Rev. Klein is right on the mark.  Typing is not a relationship.  It reminds me so much of a recent cartoon of a virtually empty church at a funeral service.  The minister begins the service by saying from the pulpit:  "I can't believe there are so few people here today for the deceased's funeral.  After all, he did have 3,000 facebook friends!"
joseph o'leary
10 years 5 months ago
Well, yes and no. The behavior I've seen, but texting and Facebook are only media. Choosing I-Thou instead of I-it is always up to the individual.
10 years 5 months ago
I have used Facebook to strenghen the I-Thou relationship with family members and friends. Relationships that were maintained by conversations at a couple events a year have begun to grow with more frequent sharing. It is always easy to attack tools as somehow suspect and therefore at fault. I have no doubt that tools like Facebook can be used to live in an I-It world, but the I-It world existed before Facebook.

The latest from america

What is most endearing about “Hocus Pocus 2” is the way that it brings to the fore an aspect of the original film that you don’t often see portrayed today: sisterhood.
Jim McDermottOctober 06, 2022
America interviewed Father Holt at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, to learn a little more about his life and journey to the priesthood and his secrets to living a fulfilling and happy life.
Ricardo da Silva, S.J.October 06, 2022
A Reflection for the Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary, by Jill Rice
Jill RiceOctober 06, 2022
In an exclusive interview, Joe Donnelly, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, discusses his diplomatic work with the Vatican—including on the war in Ukraine—with America associate editor Colleen Dulle.
Colleen DulleOctober 06, 2022