“Let him deny himself and follow me”: Social Media and the Passions

Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, following His lead

Contemporary social media have been a driving force for effecting social change. Unfortunately, this change has been rather rapid. Even more unfortunately , a significant portion of it has been oriented toward removing western society away from its Christian foundations. Without a supportive Christian culture, in turn, it is not always clear to the individual Christian how he or she should interact with social media in a Christian way.

An effective way of addressing this dilemma is a renewed focus upon virtue and the interior life. Here, Christ’s maxim for His followers to deny themselves (Mark 8:34) should be a guiding principle. We must also acknowledge the link between the interior life, and the challenges of the new media in regard to evangelization. Let us begin with a couple of helpful historical facts to orient us in our discussion.

First: The Index. In centuries past, the Church maintained a list, an Index of Prohibited Books. If a book was on this list, then the book contained some errors regarding faith and good morals. The Church devised the Index in order to preserve the light of faith and its purity within people’s hearts and souls. The Index served as a disciplinary measure to help people to regulate their interior lives and be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Largely because of the proliferation of media, by the mid-twentieth century the Index was simply not feasible to maintain. Thus, the list was no longer updated or enforced after the Second Vatican Council. In its place, the Church largely relied on the “pastoral vigilance” of individual pastors of the Church and the “mature conscience” of the faithful to help maintain good order and discipline within the Church. 

Sadly, the needed “pastoral vigilance” and “mature conscience” was largely swept away in the tide of revolutions that arose in the mid-twentieth century. It was as if the infamous maxim of Aleister Crowley had been adopted instantly by western civilization (and infected the Church): “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

A second historical fact regards social media itself. Frances Haugen recently gave testimony before the U.S. Congress concerning some of Facebook’s business practices. Among other claims, Haugen spoke about how Facebook allegedly uses anger as a way to get people to click on links and stay on Facebook’s platform. Whether or not that is their actual intention, experience tells us it’s often the effect of the medium.

Here’s the deal: We are fallen beings, tainted by Original Sin. We suffer the consequences of that sin, especially concupiscence. As fallen beings, our passions are in disarray, no longer docile to the dictates of reason and the command of the soul which governs them. Jesus gives us the way out of this dilemma:

If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. (Mark 8:34) 

We find interior peace and security by denying ourselves. Why? Because we are created for order and reason, not chaos. Living a dissolute life, doing whatever we will, is not in keeping with our nature. Ultimately, it brings deep dissatisfaction.

Bringing our passions under reason’s dictates and living an integrated life is a daily struggle, but necessary. It is part of our penance in this life. But contemporary western society is inundated with social media, many of which are driven by a spirit that is contrary to the Gospel. We can become influenced by the secular ethos behind social media in such a way that our ability to carry on the struggle against our passions can be frustrated.

Contemporary social media provides us with an easy and instant opportunity to gratify our desires. This gratification usually comes in the form of expressing our opinion and making ourselves heard via commenting or replying. The invitation, many times, is actually a temptation to indulge our baser passions.

When will we accept our responsibility to act virtuously on social media?

Some time ago, I read some very astute words about the comments section on social media, that “on any platform, regardless of moderation, [it] is a foretaste of how the damned treat one another in hell.” How easy it is to get lost in responding to people we may never meet in person, tossing insults and hurling invectives! Speech without substance, opinions without bases—and God forbid that someone contradict us! How many people head straight for the comments section with a proverbial bag of popcorn just for kicks and giggles?

Even when we avoid the baser forms of social media interaction, many of us, driven by a vain desire to express ourselves (or for a morbid sense of entertainment through Internet Bloodsports), spend more time online than is healthy for our spiritual lives.

Yet, from a distance, on the royal road of the cross, the Lord Jesus beckons to us, “Deny yourself and follow Me!!”

If we are to be followers of and witnesses to Jesus Christ in this period of history, we must emphasize His command for us to deny ourselves. Souls are at stake. We cannot evangelize our corner of the world with efficacy if we are following the culture and giving ourselves over to our passions. The ills plaguing our society are destroying the fundamental mores of human life that keep us grounded in proper relationships — relationships with God, and others. 

We must be counter-cultural, but in order to do that, we have to recognize the situation for what it is and train ourselves in virtue. Denying ourselves, exercising restraint and making it a habit, is not just a good step, it is a necessary step. Let us ask ourselves, “what good will doing [X] serve?” Here, “X” could be something simple as publishing that comment about something on YouTube or turning off that reality show that makes fun of untalented people.

Christ calls us. How will you answer?

Author: Kevin Symonds

Kevin Symonds was born and raised in Massachusetts. In 2003, he received his B.A. in Theological Studies from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio with an emphasis on the Classical Languages. Three years later, he obtained his M.A. degree in Theological Studies also from Franciscan University. Kevin lives in North Dakota. He specializes in the Catholic Church’s theology of private revelation and has written books and numerous articles (print and Internet). He is a member of the Mariological Society of America.

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