Tim made some really good comments in response to this morning's mullings that have got me thinking more about the issues he raised in his post last night.
Last summer I spent an afternoon with a group of friends and we had a long conversation about community. We split into two distinct groups. For those of us born and raised before the age of internet (I only got email about 15 years ago) community was about eating meals together, taking soup to a sick friend, lending a hand with a chore, spending an evening watching a movie.... For the group born more recently community was about finding a like minded group, usually on line, to talk with. The conversation became quite heated as they argued that it wasn't safe, nor desirable, to get to know your neighbours.
Part of the issue was their perception of safety and vulnerability which is a whole issue in itself. But part of it was what Tim is raising and that is the tendency to disembodied or 'gnostic' relationships. I think he is right that we are tempted to find in internet 'community' relationships where we get none of the hassles, or the joys, of relating to real live in the flesh people. I don't think it is a coincidence that none of the younger folks in our conversation were involved in a church or community organization where they would be forced to work together with people very different than themselves. I too think that this is really problematic.
I guess my point in raising Paul and 84 Charing Cross Road was to say that it is possible to develop relationships of significance only through written form. But I certainly agree that in those relationships is also a longing for physical presence. Helen laments that because of circumstances she is unable to make it to London to meet Frank in the flesh before he dies. And Paul had visited these churches he would later correspond with. And I look forward to meeting Tim one day too :-)
Part of the issue Tim is raising relates I think to the issues of vulnerability and safety that my friends raised. Part of the advantage they see in relating through the internet is that they think that it is safer. They can conceal their identity, they can choose what they reveal of themselves to others, they can conceal themselves if things get creepy. We tried to argue that it makes you safer when you know your neighbours (never mind enriching your life in so many ways) but they didn't buy it.
What astounds me now that I'm on facebook and reading blogs is how often people don't seem to worry about safety (emotional, financial, physical) when they reveal all sorts of things on line. And as Tim points out people are often not very civil on line. One of the older participants in our conversation last summer made the point that people have a really odd inverted sense of 'privacy' when they don't want their neighbour to have their phone number but they talk about their sex lives on the internet.
I have discovered all sorts of interesting books, music, films, art by reading blogs. And I've 'met' some interesting people. I've read some interesting reflections and I have gotten some great ideas for my ministry. But I'm mindful of my friend who said she decided she should start spending more time with her 'in the flesh' family and less time on line with her virtual community.
Btw, our spring lecture series put on by the chaplaincy/university/college and public library this year will be on friendship and I hope one of the talks will be on virtual friendships. Stay tuned for more details.