On the Death of Facebook Friends: Some Reflections on Michael Spencer and Michael Johnson

I’m sure this is going to be more and more common a phenomenon as the years pass: I’ve now got two Facebook friends who are dead.

Certainly I can’t be the first to whom this has happened.  In fact, Spark, one of the CBC podcasts I listen to, devoted an entire episode some months back to the persistence of Internet identity after the mortal who generated that identity has died.  Not surprisingly, some folks have already started to make money from people’s desires to send messages to loved ones, to transfer Internet passwords to one’s survivors, and do other post-mortem Internet things.

Two Facebook Friends

Mike Johnson, d. 2009

Back in 2009, the first of the two died, someone whom I’d known somewhat in person, first in Johnson City, TN (he was the director of admissions at Milligan College while I was there) and later in Athens, GA (he became an administrator in the Graduate School at UGA about the time I moved to Georgia).  We knew each other in Athens as folks who were acquaintances “back home” know one another: when we would run into one another around town, we would ask each other about news from Tennessee, remember the old days with the Buffaloes, and talk in general terms about our families, jobs, and other such things.  I don’t know that we ever talked about books we were reading or about personal challenges or any of that; we were just casual passing acquaintances, the sort that one picks up here and there over the years.

Now, a year or so after his death, Facebook has the strange habit of putting his picture high on the list whenever it asks me to send results of this or that silly quiz to my friends, and his face reminds me that there was some sort of connection between us and that now, with his face staring out of my computer at me, we have a different sort of connection.

Just a few days ago another Facebook friend, another Michael, Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, died.  My experience with this Michael was entirely different, entirely mediated by the Internet.  I read his blog for a while, commenting on occasion and receiving responses not always but sometimes.  I listened to his podcast while he was recording it.  I noted back in December 2009 that he and I were both recording our Christmas episodes with colds. As far as I know, he approved my request “to friend” him on Facebook without knowing who I actually was.

What stands out as the main difference between my two Michael experiences, though, is not the fact that I’d never met the Internet Monk in person (I hadn’t) but that with Spencer, I knew that I was on some sort of intellectual adventure with him, both of us trying to make sense of the options open to Christians in our own historical moment, engaging with a strange cast of characters including but certainly not limited to N.T. Wright, John Shelby Spong, Mark Driscoll, Brian McLaren, Joel Osteen, Desmond Tutu, and all of the other public figures, folks who have the potential to reach millions of Christians very quickly by means of light-speed communications technologies.  We were both readers, both folks who would rather confront the status quo with joking winks than growling invective, both of us using relatively educated theological vocabularies with relatively thick coal-mine-midwesterner accents.  I knew all of this about Michael Spencer because part of his public project, part of his persona, was something like my own; as far as I could tell from the Internet Monk Radio podcast, he was, like me, trying to continue the work of what Flannery O’Connor called the “hillbilly Thomist[s].”

The Internet and the Anxiety of the Superhuman

What’s great about the Internet is what makes the Internet most horrifying.  Such is not a new insight; Neil Postman was warning for years before his own death (before the advent of Facebook, not that he would have used it) that every new medium for communication involved its own “Faustian bargains,” that teachers should think very carefully before deciding that computers are in reality good for education.  (My answer to Postman, which I articulate in practice rather than treatise, is that he’s right but that teaching reimagined can happen quite fruitfully mediated by computers rather than the no-less-technological technology of uniform printed textbooks, which by all accounts should have knocked the profession of lecturing/teaching out cold.)  In the case of the Internet’s influence on human connections, every story of a married couple who “met on the Internet” (something that had a strong stigma attached to it when web browsers became ubiquitous in the mid-nineties but now seems as normal as and perhaps even more normal than meeting someone in a bar) has its counterpart in stories of people who stop connecting with the embodied human beings around them in favor of online community.  The Internet has a certain sort of power that I don’t have a good name for, but I think it has to do with the speed and the range with which one can connect to human beings who as a race have become accustomed over the centuries to meeting and knowing a relative handful of people, the ability rapidly to extend one’s powers of connection well beyond human capacity to sustain connections.

The intellectual conservatives (and I count myself as one, with my fingers crossed as normal) often write about the theological concept of natural law in terms of imagining the world in “human-sized” terms: a proper human community, they maintain, is not limited by a number as Plato and Aristotle speculated but by the distance that a human being can reasonably walk or bicycle in order to conduct one’s life.  This conception of natural law, taking into account something like Heidegger’s formulation of Dasein, runs into problems, in those theories, when one’s dwelling becomes radically separated from one’s workplace or one’s marketplace or one’s worship-place.  I can resonate with these critiques (even as I commute fifty minutes each way to work–no, especially because I do so), and I have to think that telecommunications makes even more of an impact, and involves even more Faustian bargains, when one’s ability to transmit text, voice, and image becomes unhitched from the ability for a human being to walk up to someone with a letter in hand, to shout to one’s neighbor, or to point to a picture and expect that someone nearby will see that one is pointing.

So the Internet, imagined in these terms, while it does not expand human capacities to sustain friendship (our real capacity for human connection is still roughly small-town-sized), opens up human beings’ potential to connect with millions of people, making possible a radical sense of option for friendship and therefore giving us occasion for an anxiety that our forebears likely did not even imagine, namely the anxious sense that one is neglecting hundreds, perhaps thousands of people at a time, unable with our limited time and emotional resources to serve every one of our far-flung acquaintances with anything like the dignity that a human being deserves.

Faustian bargains are not without benefits, of course, and I’m not going to become one of those bloggers who blogs about the evils of blogging.  On the contrary, I think that my own link to Michael Spencer, not to mention those to Michial Farmer and David Grubbs and Jeff Wright and Mike Clawson and to everyone else who’s influenced my own thoughts on important questions, and whose company I’d miss out on if not for Internet connections, is a bit of technological wealth that God has given to folks in my particular historic moment, and we’d be a great fool to bury that wealth in the ground.  Rather we should do what Christian Humanists try to do, namely to seize the kairos and try to put such things in some sort of order that glorifies God.  The question is not whether to carry gold out of Egypt but how to adorn a Tabernacle with it rather than shaping a molten calf.

Aristotle on the Internet

Looking to the ancients for some guidance (as we Christian Humanists also tend to do), I think of Aristotle’s discussion of friendship in the closing books of Nicomachean Ethics.  In Aristotle’s formulation, there are three sorts of friendship, and as Aristotle does, he orders them in terms of the ends they serve.  The lowest sort of friendship (but not a bad one–the Greek philosophers were far less apt to reject things categorically than have been their Christian-era counterparts) is one whose end is some sort of extrinsic benefit.  Aristotle is willing to call my relationship with my car mechanic friendship, and my own experience bears that out: although we don’t actually talk Aristotle together, and although I must confess that I live daily in the hope that I won’t see him that day, I do trust him, enjoy his company (it’s the silver lining when I’m forking over money that could buy more books), and otherwise enjoy some of the goods that one can call friendship without crossing my fingers.  (I don’t always cross my fingers, after all.)

The middle sort of friendship, the variety that has survived most intact in the age of capitalism, is the friendship of affection, a friendship that treats the other person as an end in herself or himself.  Again, following Aristotle’s lead, I think that this sort of friendship is a genuine good: I like to think that, even in those moments when my wife Mary’s deliberations upon public school policies don’t directly interest me (since I teach at a Christian college, after all), still the joy I experience merely being in her presence is a genuine good.  Likewise, although my son Micah and daughter Miriam don’t have much interest in the intersections between rhetorical theory and post-Yale-school Christian theology, I have to think that my time with them is one of the better parts of my life.  (This, incidentally, is where Aristotle’s insistence that the best sorts of friendship must be between equals falls apart in the actual experience of enjoying one’s fellow human beings.)

What Aristotle would call the highest form of friendship is the sort of friendship that I can claim with Michael Spencer, namely the mutual pursuit of human excellence.  I’m certain that Michael and I would differ from The Philosopher when we articulated what the highest goods of the human being might be (Aristotle, as far as I know, had never had an encounter with a Jew, much less given any thought to the claims that the Jews’ God might have on his existence), but we can agree that when human beings share genuinely in the pursuit of what’s best about human existence, that constitutes a connection that an honest person must call blessed.

But to repeat what I noted earlier, the sort of blessedness that has resulted from my own connections with Michael Spencer and John Mark Reynolds and Tripp Fuller and Jeff Wright are in fact unimaginable in Aristotle’s vocabulary.  (That’s why intellectual historians describe certain changes but not all changes as revolutionary–they defy the ability for folks before the revolution to think about folks after the revolution.)  Aristotle’s (perfectly reasonable) working assumption is that intellectual friendship, the friendship of excellence, happens between men who are already part of the rich life of the polis, folks who have families and who see those families regularly.  In the Internet age, that’s not necessarily the case: the fifteen-inch (diagonal) screen of my laptop computer is in a real sense a window into a world almost entirely unconnected to Statham, Georgia or to Emmanuel College or to Athens Christian Church.

Aristotle, Faust, Gilmour

And that’s where my own inability to be my own moment’s Aristotle becomes most evident: on one hand, I’m tempted to declare that, for people engaged in the goods of intellect, a certain duality of one’s life is not inevitable (not everyone has to be on the Internet, after all) but certainly a good worth a controlled Faustian bargain.  (I know that Marlowe would laugh at my pride in assuming that Mephistopheles can be a controlled bargain, but I say so anyway.)  If one can maintain the sort of balance that work-away-from-home already requires, participating in Internet-mediated conversation while resisting the Siren’s call to abandon family and congregation and neighbor, that can’t but be a good thing. The ability to connect textually and by other digital means with those folks on the same intellectual quests, this part of my person wants to object, stands to enrich one’s contemplation of reality and deliberation on the good life, and there’s historical continuity with ancient letter-writing, Enlightenment-era pamphleteering, and other means that human beings have used to maintain intellectual friendship in the face of human limitations.

On the other hand, as Michael Spencer himself warned more than once, to the writing of blogs there is no end.  I realize that such might seem like a rotten thing to write mere days after one of my favorite bloggers and podcasters has died, but when I see the thought in his own work, I feel like I ought to take it seriously.  Even noting the irony that I got most of my ideas about localism from books written by people I’ve never met and on blogs that I’ve accessed through that magical laptop rectangle, I still have to take seriously the possibility that I’m exchanging, even when online interaction is at its best, the spheres with which I should interact, if I take certain articulations of natural law seriously, for a farcical attempt to escape my own bodily limitations.

Where do these deliberations leave me?  Writing a blog post, of course.  Many have noted the irony that Plato’s suspicion of writing is preserved in written form in the Phaedrus, and Alasdair Macintyre has noted the further paradox that in order to articulate a theory of morality that prefers sentiment to logic, one must do so in linguistic and logical media.  So, for the moment, I’m not so brazen as to say that I embrace the contradiction, but I do continue to try the sort of work that Michael Spencer was doing, aware of the strangeness that surrounds me even as I tap out post after post.

I’m not going to pretend that I’ve mourned Michael Spencer, even though I did mourn Michael Johnson.  The sort of friendship that mourns death is the sort that remembers bodily presence, and no amount of Derrida is going to convince me otherwise.  Though I’m going to miss Michael Spencer the Internet Monk, I’m not going to try to eulogize Michael Spencer the man.  That’s for his own family and the friends whom he knew by name.  I’m still enough of a localist that I try to save such sadness for family and (embodied, not Facebook) friends.  But just as his Internet-protocol-mediated voice and text have inspired some of my own work, so will his memory, though it’s a memory of a face on a screen and a voice over my car’s speakers, continue to inform the ways that I conduct myself as a Web-intellectual.  I’m no Aristotle, so that’s the best that I’m going to be able to muster at the moment.

There’s no such place as “high above the evangelical circus,” but in some sense I’m still dwelling there, and in some other sense so is Michael Spencer.

[Addendum: You can read several thoughts on Michael Spencer’s life and passing here.]

4 thoughts on “On the Death of Facebook Friends: Some Reflections on Michael Spencer and Michael Johnson

  1. Great topic. I have been thinking a lot about this. I just lost my first…a cousin, and the thing that struck me is that in death she suddenly and totally lost control of her internet personality. Within hours of her death the last few weeks of her thoughts and activities were replaced by the farewells and recolections of others. It was stark, but I guess it is just a microcosm of what happens at death. The story of who we’ve been and what we’ve done is left for others to tell with whatever fidelity or lack there of suits them.

  2. True enough. What struck me (and what inspired this post, of course) is that I’ll do more of the traditional “mourning things” for folks with whom I shared what Aristotle would call a lesser version of friendship than I would for someone with whom I shared intellectual pursuits but no embodied connection. At first I felt guilty for this (because that’s my default response to life experiences), but in the end I started to realize what I wrote here, that Aristotle’s hierarchy of friendship assumes bodily proximity that the Internet age has rendered unnecessary.

  3. I eventually had to delete my deceased Facebook friend because of the continual notifications popping up: “You haven’t talked to Mary in awhile, send her a message.” Or “Write on Mary’s wall.”

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