Reflections: The Threshold of Hell and Social Media Discourse

In a time of pandemic and cultural disgust, I find myself returning (repenting) amidst current dialogues by looking to old books for a sense of self, and a sense of God. One of the books that I have returned to is Dante’s Inferno. The reason I have decided to read this particular work is because of Dante’s profound ability to raise a sense of moral consciousness; the images employed cause the reader to look at the ravaging effects of sin upon men, and the beauty that fills the mind when one contemplates the grace of God intensified by its ugliest contrast. Dante gives the reader a sense that the existential implications of people’s conduct far outweighs the situations of their lives. The phrase inscribed on the gate of Hell lays heavily upon the reader as virtue is looked for, but not found, in much of current dialogue. Those who engage in social media discourse would do well to hear these words: “abandon every hope, all you who enter” (Inferno, pg. 14).

The threshold of Hell is a place called “Nowhere.” Virgil takes us on a journey to a place that is full of people who have never made a decision to be faithful to God. These people are people who have lived for entirely for themselves, without being characterized by “no blame and with no praise” (Inferno, pg. 15). They are people who have preserved their lives through indecision. In Hell they are doomed to march around a banner that never stops ever leading them on through eternity while being painfully stung by insects to their eternal hurt.

This is Medieval imagery. It is stark and highly punitive. It can, however, delineate a phenomenological reality that often occurs in social media discussions.

Social media has come to be a place where people are defined by their opinions. It is a discarnate technological medium that unites people through what they write and images they use. It is a platform for individual self-expression. This is an effort at unity which often seems to unavoidably separate folks and polarize the people who engage in any sort of political discussion (paradoxically a collective discourse serves to further polarization among the collective). People are more rash, statements are more impatient, and the atmosphere among those who disagree can be characterized by an intense hatred of anything or anyone who is different. Ideology and political affiliation separate us in reality, and social media discourse furthers that separation because our opinions are held out so unaccountably from our lives. Part of this is because so much of conversation is based on a person’s tone of voice, or facial expression which is never a contributing factor in extremely tense and difficult conversations. In this way, a discarnate social media presence seems to be more susceptible to greater emotion and less charitable thought because charity necessarily involves bodily reality with all of its risks, discomforts, and rewards.

What am I talking about?

I am talking particularly about the constant barrage of dissent regarding racial issues and police violence (I do not want to expound on any particular issue now because it is likely to become forgotten among future outbreaks, and because it is important to reflect on the framing of an issue as well as the issue itself); I am talking about an incendiary conversation where patience and love for those who are different from you is obscured by unaccountable emotions of anger and outrage.

As someone who has been aware of social media since its inception, and subsequently aware of the collective outrage regarding social injustice, I have acutely noticed how social media is used to generate collective feelings of rage. What I have also noticed is how those feelings of rage subside and are cyclically rekindled when another social crisis occurs generating a congealed narrative, often resolving nothing. The movement takes priority over the incident and the wrong. People quickly forget what the past injustice was, and eagerly jump at the new opportunity they have to express their outrage. It is an dialogue that is “momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose” (The Present Age, pg. 3). Hence, the collective forgetfulness of those who use social media for political discord is just as important to notice as its collective outrage when considering this phenomenon objectively. The crisis serves a movement, and the crisis itself is not resolved, but enables a movement to undo the foundations of society without precise direction, or positive terminus.

Rage is generated, and rage is preserved, but memory is not. This is the degeneration of  social consciousness.

Because of this I am arguing that it is plausible to compare Dante’s threshold of hell to social media dialogues about racial inequality and police brutality. People march on to define themselves not by virtue, but by opinion. Opinion alone is something that is deceptively unable to grip with reality. Decisions must be made. Virtue can never be something displayed apart from actual interaction between physical people, and it is the quality of our lives displayed by what we do. Furthermore, the banner that marches us on and on is every injustice, real or perceived, generated by a soundbite or clip. All that is required of us is to passionately agree with what is being said with no specific bearing on our actual day to day lives. Through our participation in this void we have become a people with many opinions, few values, and even fewer virtues because we have ceased to speak and act in reality. No change is required of us when passionate opinion on social media serves as the dehumanized form of cultural currency.

The domain of social media is the “Nowhere.” It is a place where people can talk with little to no consequence for their words. It is a place without deeds. The “feed” marches us on with every new bit of information motivating us by a satisfying release of dopamine when we tell someone off, or get approval for what we post. This is truly an exploitation of the human experience. Jean Baudrillard speaks of “hyperreality” as a phenomenon which replaces the real (Disneyland); what I would call hyperunreality replaces not only the real through a substitution of the real with something purely simulative; through a disembodied experience of that simulation. Quality conversations, thoughts, and self-denial are things that have truly ceased to occur regular interaction because they do not regularly happen at dinner tables, or in living rooms with people we love, but on a digital platform with people that we may know, or may have no relation to at all. The platform has become as infinite as the masses using it. Therefore, the truth is lost in a flurry of voices that have no bearing upon life because the conversation is removed from bodily experience with the ironic goal of self-expression. Interactions like these that separate the mind’s voice bodily, interpersonal expression leave us with unfortunate stings of conscience and conflicting opinions within ourselves, or voiced by others. It is a journey without singular vision, and without beatitude.

What is to be done?

Throughout the Inferno Dante is patiently guided by Virgil. In many instances Dante loses his strength before the sights of horror that he witnesses; often he needs the words and prompting of his guide to cause him to see and understand greater and more terrible things. While painfully witnessing the godlessness of society we are called, like Dante, to leave cowardice and distrust aside in order to see the necessity of good through its most immanent opposite. We are called to seek God with all that we are. People today need guides who can speak to them in the stark reality of life encouraging them to be better fathers, neighbors, and friends. I turn to old books for guidance, to works of literature that have the ability to raise my mind above depersonalized mass movements, and social media contempt. I also turn to my friends who have been my instructors and source of life amidst the chaos of what is happening today and the grief that accompanies it. People need to actually develop a sense of virtue through the instruction of those who have actually pursued it in their lives and implement it in their respective spheres of life.

The vision of Dante requires us to pay profound attention to the end of human experience in order to comprehend its value and meaning in pursuit of the truth. I submit to you that this can only be done through what has long been known by human experience as friendship. Something that existed before the term was redefined in 2004 by social media promulgators and tycoons. Before Dante, there was a Roman statesman and philosopher who in many ways had a profound impact on Dante. The man’s name was Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero pointed out in his book, On Friendship, that society is held together by the bonds of friendship — friendship, Cicero noted, is not possible without virtue. A modern follow up to this would be that virtue is not possible in on a platform that stirs people’s passions because the discourse is too shortsighted for sustained conversation, or resolution. Virtue is not discarnate, it is deeply human because it requires bodily experience to enrich all of society. Friendship cannot be a reduction of human experience, or it is not friendship, but something far less. I hope that we can pause, learn, interpret, and decide upon how to live, instead of passively accepting an ever and ongoing sense of the present devoid of both respect for the past, or hope for the future.

 

An Open Letter to My Christian Friends

Dear Reader,

This morning I read a recent article posted by the conservative writer, Rod Dreher. It included some very insightful comments about the nature of certain people’s responses to Coronavirus described in a couple letters he received. His analysis of what was written to him is the most convicting line in the article. It is what I hope you will take away from this open letter to think about as we approach the Lord’s day. He says, “This, my friends, is what apocalypse does: it reveals.”

After I read this, I instinctively asked the question: how is my time of isolation revealing a preparedness for the coming of the Lord, or how is it not? What am I grasping at?

I must confess that my heart has been in desperate search for comfort, security, and a sense of normal routine. I find that the desire for this, and its highly regarded place in my life, often serves as a mask which hides the state of my soul from myself and others. I think this is the case for many Christians in America. We let our work define us. We do it in such a way that the presence of sin and the necessity of faith routinely sit on the back burner of our minds. Because of this, a sad irony persists in our lives. The irony is that too little attention is paid to who we presently are before God, even though our presence before God is what will finally be established when we step past death into eternity, or when Christ comes again. This will be what lasts of us.

In this crisis my sin appears to be more evident, and my resolve against it seems to be in short supply. However, I don’t think this is actually the case. My sin was always evident, and my resolve against it has always been in short supply. The only difference between the recent past, and the ongoing reality of life during Coronavirus, is that I am more aware of it because I have more time to think and less distance to put between me and my thoughts. Stated bluntly, not having what I want shows me what I really want.

Jesus says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). This is my heart’s desire that emerges from a cluttered mind: when the end of this pandemic comes (and it will surely come), I want to have passed through it by faith, as I want to pass though the rest of my life and death by faith.

Repentance means living a life that corresponds to hope. I know what I hope in, and I hope in a Christ who promises to sustain His Church through all seasons of life. In the slowness of my soul I am “slouching towards Bethlehem” to find a vision of life in the apocalyptic turbulence of these times. I hope that this is your desire and pursuit as well.

I will end this letter with the opening question from the Heidelberg Catechism: “what is your only comfort in life and death?” I leave it to you to look at the catechism for yourself and prayerfully appropriate the answer as we approach the Lord’s day. I will do the same.

May God be with you,

Stephen

 


Here is the complete article by Rod Dreher. I suggest you read it: https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/are-we-christians-the-rich-young-ruler-covid-19/

I think the 3b is an accurate definition of apocalypse: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/apocalypse

I quoted a line from “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming

Here is the Heidelberg Catechism for those who do not own a physical copy: https://students.wts.edu/resources/creeds/heidelberg.html

Ghost Machine: A Brief Phenomenological Portrait

I am an empiricist, and a limited one at that: I learn of the world through what I can touch. My fingertips are restless seekers for the relevant, the pertinent, the titillating and tantalizing; my palms the throne for the tiny window through which I view the world. Tiny it is, but what a light shines through it. Hours of effort are now condensed into a few-second swipes; I pay my bills, I read the Scriptures, I converse with those I love through it and with it and by it. Do I need anything else? It becomes difficult to see why I would. Everything I require is ready-to-hand.

Eventually, I engage in a phenomenological curation of reality. My perception, altered by the digital stream, begins to view the world outside that window as something to be melded to my liking. In the same way that I unfollow dissenting views, I learn to tune out those with whom I disagree. I imagine myself as bold, because I’ve got silicon courage; who needs wine to speak truth when a comment section will do? The beautiful shades in perfectly designed bedrooms, captured in a square photo, become my litmus test for authenticity. How long did it take that person to capture that “vulnerability”? It doesn’t matter; that’s what I want my life to look like. The comparison game has never been so easy.

Hours. And hours. And hours. They pass by and still I’m staring, still I’m stuck, still my thumbs have done all the talking and my eyes all the doing. My companion calls to me when finally I put her down. There’s something else I need to do, something I forgot, something…it would be different if I only ever entertained myself. But this companion of mine provides so much utility. She streamlines my life. And what else could be better than maximum efficiency in every area of daily existence?

And yet. 

I’ve lost my capacity for deep, sustained thought, for single-tasking. It’s easier to see what other people have accomplished than to make my own art. I used to communicate through more than memes and 140 characters. Where is my focus? My creativity? My passion? Where is my ability to engage in conversation without irony, without mockery, without a thousand tiny icons to represent my emotions? Where is meaningful action, purposeful reflection, silence, solitude, solicitude —?

I don’t know. I think I may have lost them in my ghost machine.

Facticity

It is the responsibility of every Christian to understand and actualize him/herself as an individual. One cannot properly serve God without understanding what it means to be, what a self actually is, biblically speaking; but we also have to “actualize” this information by putting it into practice. In other words, for all of our philosophizing, it does us no good if we cannot apply it to our lives. This is precisely why existentialism is the most necessary starting-place in philosophy, if I may be so bold; and we find the same emphasis in the Scriptures, when man is constantly “called out” of his context, his sin-saturated situation, to walk by faith. The primacy of individuality does not negate the call to community, but it is on the other side of the invitation’s divide that we come together; one cannot truly belong to the body without first having been separated from former binding ties.

One of the steps towards this necessary individualizing is recognizing the importance of facticity, in both a positive and negative sense: how it helps us make sense of God’s purposes, and how it can prevent us from obedience to Jesus Christ. 

What is facticity? Simply put, it is the concept of an individual’s context. It is the sum total of the facts about myself, the situation I find myself “in the middle of” when I engage in self-examination. These facts are my race, my gender, my age, my family situation, my particular point in the timeline of my ancestors and descendents. Facticity is the “factualness” of my existence in the world. I cannot change its facets, cannot alter them except through some kind of violence to my body or mind. 

We see facticity in the Scriptures when God approaches humans and speaks to them in their context. These details are always mentioned, sometimes to demonstrate God’s mercy, sometimes to show the faithfulness of the called. But they are unalterable realities in each case.

Facticity is heightened through the Incarnation. When God enters the world, He enters into a particular context, born to a certain family, taking on a particular occupation. Jesus was not a Chinese farmer or an American businessman, but a Jew living in the shadow of Rome’s occupation. It was as such that He lived and died. 

We see facticity, too, in our everyday lives. So much of our context simultaneously liberates and limits us. Many decisions — our birth parents, our initial geographical locations, where and how we are educated — are outside of our control. Even when we enter into the relatively wider freedoms of adulthood, we still find ourselves confined: our race and gender, for instance, may preclude us from certain privileges, or our intelligence may limit us from comprehending particularly difficult concepts in certain academic fields. 

It is worth noting that facticity is different from the concept of “intersectionality,” (1) which essentially reduces all socio-political interactions to degrees of oppression. Facticity is not inherently negative, as intersectionality is often perceived to be (and usually is): it is simply a “tallying up” of facts about myself that exist despite my decisions. 

With all of that said: what of it? Facticity at first seems to be a fancy way of pointing out the fairly obvious, and hardly seems like a concept worthy of stealing our time. However, a more detailed examination will evidence how facticity has some powerful theological and philosophical implications for the understanding and actualizing of the self. Particularly, we need to look at how facticity interacts with freedom, God’s sovereignty, and our obedience to him.

Facticity and Freedom. The first important lesson of facticity is a negative one: it exposes to me the limits of my freedom. Despite the abilities of the human spirit to exist beneath incredible psychological and spiritual pressure, the lengths to which people have gone to grow and gain new abilities, facticity stands as a guard against the autonomy which would have man become a little god. There are certain doors that remain slammed shut and locked against my endeavors, no matter how hard I strive. I, for example, would never succeed as a nuclear physicist; my brain is wired to tackle more linguistic, literary, and philosophical matters, and I struggle with material that is (to me) excessively technical, mathematical, or scientific. This is because of facticity, the genetic make-up of my psychology that I cannot escape. 

Of course, facticity must not be used to negate the power of choice. I always must choose: I have the responsibility to do so, before both God and people. What facticity does is establish the limits. There are not “boundless choices” in every moment, even if there are several, including those which I cannot properly perceive. 

Facticity and Sovereignty. The relation of facticity to God’s Divine purpose is closely tied to its relation with freedom: it is because of His sovereignty that my freedom is limited. We could even say that facticity is the “human” side to God’s sovereignty: we are in our particular context because He has so decreed it, always without explanation to us, for we are owed no answer from Heaven. All of Scripture, as said above, points to this contextualization of existence: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman…”

Recognizing facticity, then, is recognizing His sovereignty. It helps me to see the context into which I have been placed as my context, in which God desires to use me for the furtherance of His kingdom. Rather than complaining and kicking against the limits of my existence, I accept them, even with gratitude, as the lines of demarcation which implicitly guide me through my life. Of course, in this sense, facticity is difficult to understand “in the moment.” One can never step outside his or her context, and can only review it from a healthy distance. What may seem like a limit established by my facticity at the time may simply be a missed opportunity which, if approached again, would yield different results. 

What should also be recognized is that facticity does not equal fatalism, and should not lead to a state of infinite resignation. The person who takes facticity as a resounding cosmic “no” to his or her endeavors has misread the limitations of context. Humility should flow from us when we realize that God, in His wisdom and unalterable purpose, has fashioned the boundaries of our lives; but we should not take this as a sign to avoid action.

Facticity and Obedience. With all of that said, there is a negative side to facticity: if a proper attitude towards it is not cultivated, it can become an excuse to avoid obedience, to justify compromise and spiritual laziness. It can even lead to a loss of passion for life itself, a lack of drive, and contentment with that loss and lack that sediments and becomes integral to one’s personality. 

Any good hermeneutics will demonstrate that all of the ethical demands of the Gospel are situated in a context. Of Paul’s thirteen letters, only two of them appear to be unprompted by a specific crisis with the believers to whom he was writing; in the Gospels, Jesus is always speaking to a particular audience, in a particular time and place. With all of that said, however, the moral imperatives of the New Testament are just as applicable to us as they were to the original readers because they are concerned with the kinds of people that God has called us to be, regardless of our circumstances. While the situation in which I am called to be patient, for instance, may be quite different from the situation of a first century believer in Thessaloniki, the characteristics of patience as a virtue will look remarkably similar because patience as an eternal quality of genuine faith has not shifted in its appearance or characteristics. 

Therefore, facticity can never be wielded as a weapon to obedience. In fact, the call of Christ specifically transcends facticity, as we see in the Gospels when He calls the disciples and they leave their careers, their families, and their hometowns to follow Him. I must consider my context when I am considering obedience, because ethics always interacts with the environment. But the environment is not a true barrier to obedience. God always calls me in my context, often out of my context, in order to transform it. He who is Eternally Unfactical became facticity itself, that we may transcend the facts our existence, that which is merely earthly, and walk in the Spirit, undetermined by anything but the Divine will. 


Footnote:

(1) This is not to say that there is no legitimacy to some ideas put forth by intersectionality. Societal oppression is a reality for many people. The Scriptures constantly address caring for those who are at a disadvantage. Intersectionality becomes problematic when it only wants to view a person in terms of how they are oppressed. It is, in that sense, a negative spin on facticity, and does not recognize the ability to obtain freedom despite one’s circumstances. Not everyone who argues for intersectionality takes this line of thinking, but it is a danger, and it does occur.


PC: Photo by Michael Emono on Unsplash