Foerst: Only physical community fosters empathy, trust

Anne Foerst delivers Wednesday’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

Mary Lee Talbot | Staff Writer

“There is no demarcation of public and private space,” asserted Anne Foerst at her Wednesday 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture. Her topic was “Social Media and the Church.”

“Have you seen people texting in church or at a funeral?” Foerst asked.

Humans are physical, communal beings, and the universal presence of social media is changing how people interact.

“I went to a conference, and people were constantly texting. They seemed to think it was a waste of time to meet new people,” she said. “That takes away the joy of going to a conference.”

Foerst is associate professor for computer science at St. Bonaventure University, and she  has worked in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She said people have become addicted to technology, to always being connected. She has led service trips to Jamaica for many years and has always prohibited cellphones and TV in order to build community.

“But for some, it was impossible to be without their phones. They had to be connected to home,” Foerst said. “It was really sad.”

St. Bonaventure offers dinner manners classes for students, so they can develop social skills. In the past, some students could not even talk to a dinner partner, and, consequently, were not getting jobs for which they were qualified, because their prospective employers could not stand their behavior.

Forest said young people do not email, but generally use Facebook or text. She asserted that you have to be totally committed to Facebook or you are “out.” There is something “wrong” with you if you are not constantly updating your page. You can find friends and make friends disappear; you can create a reality online, she said.

Foerst quoted Nietzsche, saying people with the worst memory have the best memory.

“I am cursed with an elephant memory,” she said. “I can spend hours running through embarrassing moments in my mind. Forgetting serves a function, but there is no forgetting online.”

Foerst said that when she came from Germany in 1989, she reinvented herself.  In real life, someone can start fresh and learn from mistakes. Everything stays online forever; an online mistake is never gone, she said.

“Students post embarrassing photographs and forget that professors use computers too. You can delete it from your page, but employers will find it on someone else’s page,” she said. “How is it possible to grow? The problem with an online profile is that it defines you and keeps defining you. There is no privacy to grow and change.”

On Facebook, friendship can be a competitive unit. The numbers can be seductive.  Do people understand the difference between a fan and a friend? she asked. Some people support others because of their public personas and not because they are friends.

“Have you ever had someone answer the phone while you are at dinner?” Foerst said. “It is impolite, but why is a virtual person more important than the person you are with?”

Foerst said the technology is not to blame. The technology answers a need that ends up changing society and leads to newer technology.  She said we must look at human nature from theological and scientific viewpoints. Anthropologically, religion is the shared construction of meaning and symbols using shared stories and rituals.

“From that perspective, Facebook is a religion. From the perspective of the Abrahamic faiths, we have a transcendent God, a Jewish concept, who revealed God’s own self in shared scripture,” she said. “In Christianity, through the incarnation in Jesus, God becomes human. Through Jesus, God understands the human condition, and salvation is the gift of a loving, understanding God.”

Physicality is not just a Christian concept. Creation is a sacred part of reality. We see the imago dei in others. When we want to see God, we look others in the face.  We see black and white, old and young, male and female.  The image is not a sliver of humanity, but the whole range of physicality.

The Abrahamic religions are practiced in being physical communities. They have known what science has rediscovered, that there is no mind-body split. Our cognition is tied to our emotions. Intelligence is not the core of our being.

“When Deep Blue, a computer,  beat Garry Kasparov in chess, there was still no robot that could put butter on a piece of bread,” Foerst said.

Mammals are social by nature; mammals have a need for physical community. We recognize universal voice melodies — we can recognize whether someone is yelling at us or soothing us by tones in the voice. We have mirror neurons to recognize facial expressions. Empathy comes from that, Foerst said.

Humans are the only mammals that need midwives at birth and have long periods of learning and growing. We can learn our whole lives, and we need touch our whole lives.

“We are born into a family and a society,” Foerst said. “There is a reason we have a societal taboo against infanticide. It takes us a long time to grow.”

She said the dual nature of Jesus, human and divine, is reflected in the two natures of the church: visible and invisible. The visible church is necessary for the invisible, according to Paul Tillich. But there is no perfect church.

We ask ourselves, do we like the liturgy, the pastor, the theology, the people, the location, the architecture, the music? Online, we have a perfect community with no issues of interpersonal interaction. That is not a new problem, Foerst asserted. She recalled C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, where an older devil advises a younger one to keep his “patient” moving from church to church so he never commits to a community.

“Jesus said, where two or three are gathered together, not in a chat room —  in the liturgy we pray together, confess our faith together, so our own self-doubt is transcended,” she said. “Our singing creates a choir, and the music transcends our individuality. We talk about shopping for a church, but why do we expect perfection from a church?

“The Body of Christ is the key metaphor for the church. That is why we baptize infants — we promise to treat them as a person. The food and drink of the communion meal are another physical aspect of the invisible church.”

Empathy and trust are only built in shared physical space, she said.

“Facebook does not make everyone equal. Democracy works to weed out fringe opinions. If you are the only one in your community with a fringe opinion, you will not control things. Online, you can find other like-minded people, and whacked-out or stupid opinions are not weeded out,” Foerst said. “We only read what is entertaining. Screaming and shouting are entertaining. If something is funded by advertising, it has to be entertaining.”

For churches, she suggested that Facebook could be a good space for communication during the week. She also suggested having Facebook-free spaces for retreats, turning off cellphones during religious services, and forming parent-child groups to talk about the use of technology.

“You can give up Facebook for Lent,” she said.

During Lent, Christians are asked to sacrifice something valuable to them and to recover a sense of gratitude about things they take for granted.

“By giving up Facebook for Lent, we can face the fear of disconnectedness,” Foerst said. “We can learn gratitude for having so much time. Physical connectedness is a gift.”