an open and relational alternative to selfie culture
God can't take selfies because God doesn't have a localized body to represent in pictorial form, and because God is too humble, too modest, to share in such a self-preoccupied way. God operates in "the tender elements in the world, which slowly and quietly operate in love." (Whitehead)
It is arguable, though, that the universe itself is God's selfie, because, as the objective content of God's ongoing experience, it is the answer to the question: "What does God look like?" God looks like the images released by the James Webb telescope, and like the face of a small child or single leaf.
One thing for sure, God is within each of us as a lure to transcend the narcissism of selfie culture and realize that what really matters is not achievement but love.
- Jay McDaniel, 10/7/2022
A good friend of mine, age thirteen, asks if God takes selfies?
She has grown tired of friends on social media taking selfies and sharing them, pretending that they are always happy or, if not happy, then at least unique and special. She is wondering if, as she puts it, "the Spirit of the universe" takes selfies? "Is the Spirit as obsessed with being liked as my friends are?"
As she talks I think of some friends of mine who are likewise obsessed with being flattered. And I think of myself, equally culpable. We, too, want status. We, too, want to be liked. We want others to notice us and think we are unique and special. We can be as obsessed with flattery as are her friends on Instagram.
I say to her that God doesn't take "selfies" for two reasons.
The first reason obvious to her and to me. God is Spirit and does not have a localized body which can be re-presented in a photograph. It's not that God doesn't need to be gratified. God, too, has emotions and aims. God, too, doesn't mind being noticed and, as it were, "liked." A relational God likes to "share."
But God cannot take a photograph of the divine self, post it on social media, and seek approval. God cannot share in this way. God can only share in other ways, by being an eternal Companion to each and all, sharing in their joys and sufferings and by being an inwardly felt lure toward wholeness for each and all.
The second reason God doesn't take selfies is a little more controversial. It is that God is not a narcissist. God is, as my friends say, "open and relational." Yes, God may appreciate being liked, but God is not obsessed with being flattered. God is not a status-seeker. Admittedly, some people will disagree. They imagine God as a king on a throne who is obsessed with being flattered. They say that God's primary aim in life is to be praised.
But I myself imagine God on the analogy of a loving parent, not a king on the throne. The the loving human parents I most admire are not preoccupied with being flattered. They seek the well-being of their children and don't mind being unnoticed when their children are happy. They don't need to be in the limelight. And so it is, I believe, with God.
I borrow the image of God as loving parent from Jesus, who addressed God as Abba, which means something like "daddy." Amma would also do; after all, the Spirit is genderless or, perhaps better, multi-gendered. As a Christian I see the Jesus as a window to God: especially his lovingkindess and his humility. I think one of God's most beautiful names is Humility and another is Modesty. The Spirit in whom I believe is found, to quote Whitehead, in "the tender elements in the world, which slowly and quietly operate in love."
The God of tenderness is so strong, so self-secure that she doesn't need to take selfies. I don't think Jesus would take selfies, either.
Back to my thirteen year old friend. I know that she cannot escape selfie culture completely, and that I can't either. And I know that, in some circumstances, taking selfies is harmless and, for that matter, human and humane. We humans do need to share things, including, I guess, images of ourselves sometimes. But the God of deep tenderness, who slowly and quietly operates in love, can give us an inner strength to transcend the worst aspects of selfie culture: its narcissism, its obsession with being perceived as unique and special, its self-centeredness. We can place our trust in, and feel the energy of, a God beyond selfies. This, I believe, is the God in whom open and relational thinkers place their trust. It is One in whom I place my trust, too.
I must add one caveat to what I have just said. It is that there may be one selfie that God takes all the time, continuously. It is that of the universe itself in its vastness and in its particularity. Each person, each animal, each plant, each living cell, each star, each galaxy, each particle - they comprise God's non-localized body. They have agency of their own; God cannot and does not seek to control them. But God loves them, like the Abba of Jesus and even after they perish they are carried in God's memory in appreciation for what they were.
Their memory, in God, in God's selfie. It does not make God proud or vain like a king. it makes God happy like a grandmother is happy when she sees photos of her grandchildren. Yes, the universe itself is God's selfie, and it is always in the making.
- Jay McDaniel, 10/7/2022
The Corrosive Effect of Selfie Culture
- David Brooks
We live in a world of social media. You broadcast yourself, you go for likes. I was seated next to a young woman on a plane who spent the two hours of our flight looking at her phone, looking at videos of herself pulling faces – a level of selfinterest that is unusual. And we’ve had a generation, a shift in moral philosophy from a culture that said you’re broken inside, you have to work on your own weakness, we’ve gone to a culture that says, you’re pretty wonderful inside. And the clichés of what we tell our young - follow your passion and be true to yourself - trust yourself, love yourself, have created an enlarged sense of self. We’ve told a couple of generations how great they are and they believed us.
And so in 1950 a polling organisation asked American 16 year olds, are you a very important person? And at that point 12% said yes. They asked the same question in the 1990s and at that point 80% said yes. Psychologists have a thing called the Narcissism Test where they say, I'm going to read you a bunch of statements - does this apply to you? And those statements include things like, “I find it easy to manipulate people because I'm so remarkable”, or “somebody should write a biography about me”; “I love to look at my body”; and the median narcissism score has gone up 30% over the last 20 years.
And with this has gone an increased desire for fame. Fame used to rank at the bottom of what people wanted out of life, now it ranks second or third after financial security. And so junior high school girls in the US were asked, would you rather be a celebrity’s personal assistant - Justin Bieber’s personal assistant, or president of Harvard? And by three to one they'd rather be Justin Bieber’s personal assistant. Though to be fair I asked the president of Harvard and she would rather be Justin Bieber’s personal assistant.
But the more serious effect is that people lose their capacity to conduct a sophisticated moral conversation. I don't think people are necessarily bad but I think they're morally inarticulate. A sociologist named Christian Smith asked people: can you name your last moral dilemma? And 70% of them couldn’t name a moral dilemma. They'd say, I pulled into a parking space but I didn’t have any money. We can tell by looking at all the magazines, all the newspapers and all the books that get published what words are being used and over the last generation economic words have been rising in frequency, moral words have been dropping. Gratitude is down 49%. Humbleness is down 52% and kindness is down 56%. We’re just talking about this stuff less and we talk about economics more. And so we live in a romantic culture. We think we’re wonderful inside and the problems of society are outside and the people of great character - it’s not because they have great self-discipline, it’s because they have an amazing ability to commit to other things.
The eulogy virtues are the things they say about you after you’re dead, whether you’re honest, courageous, straightforward, capable of great love and we’d all want to lead a life where the eulogy virtues are more important. We’d all want to be remembered for those. But we live in a society and certainly an educational system that spends a lot more time on the CV virtues and a lot of us are more clear on how to build a good career than how to build a good inner character