How Not to be a Ghost

They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

It’s much more possible to be ghostlike right now than at any other previous time in human history.  Being a ghost doesn’t mean being without an image, or not being in people’s presence.  The disciples saw Jesus when he suddenly appeared in their midst, but they still thought he was a ghost.  Being a ghost means being insubstantial, somehow lacking the fundamental reality of a physical being.  And that is something that we contemporary Americans are managing to do brilliantly.

This past week, The Atlantic ran an article entitled Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?  Stephen Marche, the author, points out the ways in which we use social media in order to become less substantial.  Most people create a persona for themselves on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.  We spend a lot of time trying to be clever and showing that we’re happy.  Happiness is, in fact, the prevailing ethic of these media – they are places where we go to impress our friends and relations, where we post our best pictures or best thoughts, where we walk around with our heads held high.  There is something of a high school atmosphere to Facebook.  We may cry in the bathroom, but we always walk through the cafeteria with our defenses up.  Facebook is the high school cafeteria of our lives.

But study after study shows that these claims to happiness don’t actually make us happy.  They make us lonely.  35% percent of adults over the age of forty-five are chronically lonely.  Twenty-seven percent of American households have just one person in them.  Some of these people may be rejoicing in their solitude, but the truth is that there are fewer and fewer places for them to go for companionship.  American club life is in decline, as any member of the Lions or Elks can tell you.  American church life is also in decline.  The opportunities for people to form long-term, quality relationships with each other are decreasing.  We hoped that social media could be used as a replacement for these relationships.  But as Marche points out:

What Facebook has revealed about human nature—and this is not a minor revelation—is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world or a more liberated version of humanity.

There is one very interesting fact about religion included in Marche’s article.  Only some of the people who believe in God are less lonely – those people who know God to be helpful and abstract.  Those who saw God as an immediate and wrathful presence weren’t any less lonely, and I think this is because such a vision makes God into little less than a Big Brother figure, always weighing our actions and telling us that we don’t measure up.  Feeling judged is a very lonely thing.  But I don’t think that we should view God as abstract.  My guess is that the study that Marche is referencing (a German study) didn’t differentiate between people who believed in God and people who actually went to church.  The vast majority of Americans believe in God, but they’re not in church every Sunday.  A far fewer number of Germans believe in God, and even fewer of them go to church.  And this is not a small point to make.  Believing in God without going to church limits one’s faith.

Church is a place where we go to meet a God who isn’t abstract at all, but is real, fleshy, and as present to us as the person sitting near us in the pews.  Church is where we go to meet a God who can eat fish and digest it – Jesus made flesh, Jesus who isn’t a ghost.  And Jesus who isn’t just on Facebook.  Not an image of Jesus, not a presentation of Jesus, not a profile of Jesus or a timeline of Jesus, but Jesus himself, in the flesh.  Jesus is at church because Christians are at church.  As Teresa of Avila wrote

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

When we are Jesus to each other, we give each other a gift.  We choose to be something more than Facebook friends.  We allow each other to show the real pain in our lives.  And we allow each other to show the real joy.  Because we’ve moved beyond presentation.  We’re not ghosts anymore.  We’re face to face with each other, real to each other, able to sit and eat together, able to give each other our time and our true selves.  We’ve proven our reality to each other, just as Jesus proved his reality to the disciples.  We’ve learned how not to be ghosts.

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