For those who strive to walk in the way of Jesus of Nazareth, the question of character formation is of paramount importance. Jesus Himself underscored the primacy of one’s character in His remark that “the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders” (Matthew 15:18-19). The apostles Peter and Paul follow the teaching of their master in taking the issue of character formation—the kind of person one is becoming—to be of fundamental importance for discipleship unto Christ (Ephesians 4:22-24; Colossians 3:1-17; 2 Peter 1:3-11).
Character formation is inevitable; one is being formed either for the better or for the worse. One either sows to the Spirit, reaps eternal life, and is increasingly formed into the likeness of the new self in Christ (Galatians 6:8), or one sows to the flesh, reaps corruption, and is increasingly formed into the likeness of the old self in Adam (Galatians 6:8; Colossians 3:9). The question of formation is ever-present, and there is no neutral ground.
The historic Christian tradition is a rich repository of moral wisdom concerning the dynamics of character formation. The notions of virtue and vice as proper and improper habits of character (respectively) occupied center stage in the history of Christian moral thought, from thinkers like Evagrius of Pontus (A.D. 346-399), Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), John Cassian (A.D. 360-430), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), to Dante Alighieri (1265-1321).
Traditionally, cardinal virtues (Latin cardo, meaning “hinge”) like courage, wisdom, justice and temperance, and theological virtues like faith, hope and love have been understood to be stable excellences or habits of character that enable human beings to live well or flourish in relation to themselves, to others, and to God (2 Peter 1:3-11). The moral vices, on the other hand, were understood to be corruptive or destructive habits of character that inhibit human flourishing (Ephesians 4:22; 1 Peter 2:11).
The standard list of the seven capital vices, or deadly sins, included pride, vainglory, envy, lust, gluttony, sloth and avarice. These vices in particular were called the “capital” (Latin caput, meaning “head”) or “deadly” sins precisely because they were understood to be the ultimate source or wellspring of the many diverse ways that human character can be corrupted or deformed by sin.
How might the above Christian moral tradition speak to those of us who strive to “put on the new self” (Ephesians 4:24) in our current digital culture? Our present digital age—driven by immediacy, instant self-expression, virality and virtual “friendships”—carries with it unique challenges for character formation. This is certainly not to say that it is impossible to maneuver one’s way through digital culture in a responsible and virtuous manner as a follower of Christ. But the reality is that an increasing number of people today (both young and not so young) are becoming relationally tethered to online digital platforms like Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook. As a result, for many people today, the digital stage is a (if not the) primary arena of character formation.
Saturation in digital culture has the potential to inhibit virtuous moral and intellectual formation. In his New York Times article “The End of Reflection,” Teddy Wayne writes that recent neuroscientific studies indicate that continual immersion in digital culture, including Internet connectivity and social media, impairs one’s ability to engage in sustained thought and reflection. In the same vein, Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, argues that excessive online connectivity fundamentally alters one’s ability to concentrate and process information, and thereby stunts one’s capacity for contemplation. Carr argues that since the modus operandi of the digital age is speed and immediacy, incessant Internet-use gradually shapes the process and mechanics of thought along these very lines. Carr notes, “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
Wisdom and prudence, by contrast, involve a deeply ingrained habit of thinking well for the purpose of living and acting well. The wise or prudent person exhibits sound judgment about the range of genuine human goods and how best to achieve these goods in the particular contexts of human life.
As wisdom, self-examination and contemplation are crucial to growing in one’s character into the likeness of Christ (Psalm 119; Proverbs 1; Romans 12:1; Ephesians 5:15), saturation in digital culture harbors the very real danger of becoming intellectually and spiritually anemic. Do the present attitudes of my heart and my actions reflect a genuine love for others? Have I become more gentle and humble in my character this year? Am I steadily growing in my ability to discern the will of God, “which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2)?
Perhaps the reason many fail to regularly hear from the Lord is that they regularly fail to hear from themselves. “If our condition were truly happy,” said the French philosopher Blaise Pascal in his Pensées, “we should not need to divert ourselves from thinking about it.” As our society becomes increasingly tethered to technology and social media, we must guard against using these digital mediums as diversions that direct our attention away from our anemic spiritual condition.
One drastic implication of all of this is that the contour of public discourse can be reduced to thinking and communicating in sound bites, i.e. statements that are short and pithy yet, more often than not, lack substance and ring intellectually hollow. But learning to think and communicate well in today’s culture as Christ’s ambassadors means that we cannot let memes and sound bites—standard ways of “thinking” and “communicating” in the digital age—do our thinking for us, for our children, or for those entrusted by God to our care.
Incessant social media-use also carries with it the danger of habituating ways of relating to others that are superficial and geared toward the vice of vainglory. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, in her excellent book Glittering Vices: A New Look at The Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies, defines vainglory as “the excessive and disordered desire for recognition and approval from others.” Of course, the mere desire for recognition and approval is in no way morally problematic; humans are social beings made for love in relationship. As is the case with the other vices in general, it is the immoderate or excessive desire for such things that lies at the heart of the vice of vainglory. The people who carefully and methodically micro-manage their social interactions so as to magnify their superiority in success, wealth, spiritual maturity, athletic ability, fashion sensibility, academic achievements, parenting skills, teaching and preaching abilities, etc., falls prey to the vice of vainglory.
While the vice of vainglory is longstanding and remains continuous across the social sphere, social media platforms like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram in particular tend to cultivate an environment that is conducive to the vice of vainglory. If we continue to navigate these digital spaces in an unreflective manner, we run the risk of habituating a pattern of relating to others solely on the basis of securing their applause and approval. As apprentices of the Lord Jesus; as those who first and foremost strive for the approval of God; and as those whose significance and worth come from our connection to Christ, we must actively monitor the way these digital mediums of social existence form our character.