By David BaggettWhat on earth do these three things have to do with one another? Well, I recently found myself looking at the work of Immanuel Kant, particularly his Religion within the Bounds of Reason, and a few thoughts occurred to me to pass along. In the third section of the book, Kant extends the discussion beyond the need for individual forgiveness and moral transformation to a more communal matter: participation in a community and its role, among others, to furnish eminently teachable moments.
It’s easy to think we’ve morally arrived when we’re sealed in like a hermit away from others, but we acquire patience when we actually have to practice it among other people. We learn love when we strive to have it for people not always easy to love. This is an important reason why community is vital as a sanctification tool.
Kant recognized that victory of the good over evil, and the founding of the kingdom of God on earth, occurs only in the context of community. He thought of such a “community of ends,” or “ethical commonwealth,” as a necessarily religious institution. Why?
When we live in proximity to others, we all too easily have a corrupting influence on each other. Consistent with Christian theology, Kant thought that, despite our potential for good, we’re all also afflicted with radical evil. Believers are in the process of being extricated from our “dear self” that can so easily beset us and derail our best efforts, but we remain susceptible to its allure. Only God’s grace can ultimately liberate us from it.
As I reflected on this, it dawned on me that we live in an interesting historical moment in this regard. Until about a decade ago, social media didn’t exist like it does now, and it has thrust us all, however unwittingly, into a novel relational paradigm, a new robust community. High school reunions don’t mean what they used to; rather than being out of touch with old friends and hankering to reconnect, we get hourly updates about their goings on. Much of this is wonderful, even charming, but it has its downside, and Kant can help us see why.
“Familiarity breeds contempt” is an oft-repeated adage for good reason. The more we’re around others—virtually or otherwise—the greater the temptation to find them a bit wearisome. Patterns emerge; idiosyncrasies begin to grate; and interpersonal conflicts owing to jealousy, selfishness, and a million other causes can easily ensue. This is unfortunate, but Kant also saw such inevitable conflicts in community as potentially redemptive, for they can reveal to us new things about ourselves—our need for deeper transformation, for learning to live with others despite their (and our) moral frailties and failures, and for coming to understand what it means to treat others as ends in themselves rather than as mere means.
Kant thought such communities are forged by a willingness to come together and agree to cooperate based on moral laws. He saw these communities as a kind of church in which we have the chance to learn and grow, becoming better, not worse. The possibility for both exists.
And the context of social media ratchets it all up a notch. Here the ugly underside of the human condition is often on full display: indulgence, rabid partisanship, off-putting communication styles, sophistry, dehumanization, unchecked incivility, shoddy argumentation, disingenuousness, putting on airs, projecting impressions, self-aggrandizement, addictive tendencies, unfiltered commentary, unprovoked tendentiousness, and the list goes on.
The littered trail of not just lost Facebook connections, but ruined friendships—even among strong professing Christians—is adequate commentary that too often social media has brought out our worst, not our best.
To my fellow believers, in particular, I’d like to say this as a word of encouragement and exhortation: of course social media isn’t the (or even a) local church, but we’re all part of the Church universal, and biblical truths apply. If social media is going to serve as a redemptive presence in our lives, we have to remember something that Kant recognized clearly. The ethical commonwealth—the contexts to which we belong, even on social media—is insufficient for true religion. We have to learn to allow God to guide all the members of a group together, all the disparate parts of His body. He’s the Head of the Kingdom of Ends able to coordinate and make cohere all the different roles we’re meant to play.
The same Being or Source is at the root of the moral deliverances to which we all need to heed, especially when it’s tempting not to. From this perspective, the level of cooperation between the members of the groups thus banded together will be a function of how faithfully they follow His lead in their lives. Garden variety conflicts are still sure to arise, but they needn’t—and they mustn’t—irremediably divide; they can instead be means of grace.
Kant offered a good test for actions when it comes to religious practice that would also serve as a useful rule for engagement on social media: Asking whether the word or action conduces to virtue, in oneself and others. If it doesn’t, best to refrain from it.
The Bible would up the ante even more: Is it an expression of love? Is it a way to obey the most important command to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves? If we speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, we are a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. And though we have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though we have all faith—so that we could remove mountains—and have not love, we are nothing.
In this wonderful and special time of year, a season of soaring hope and charity, and at the precipice of a new year, let’s do something countercultural: let’s allow a spirit of generosity to replace any animus and invective, exchanging harsh tones and cutting comments for words of healing and edification, renewal and mercy, reconciliation and restoration—extending to others the grace that’s been offered to us.
From all of us at MoralApologetics.com, blessed Advent, and Merry Christmas.
Image: Telephone exchange by Cristiano de Jesus. CC License.