What’sa Meta With This?

Mark Zuckerberg says Meta (from the Greek word meaning beyond) “symbolizes that there is always more to build.” Uh, not quite.

This past summer Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook will become a metaverse company. This includes changing the company’s name to Meta. “I used to love studying classics, and the word ‘meta’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘beyond.’ For me, it symbolizes that there is always more to build.”

Uh, not quite. Meta does mean “beyond.” But it doesn’t signify there’s always more to build. In fact, it signifies boundaries. There are times when there’s nothing more to build. Or when projects go unfinished. Or dismantled, starting over. Or when less is more.

Confused? Not if you’re in a faith tradition built on ancient foundations. They recognize God is Meta, beyond our understanding (Job 36:26). Augustine: “If you understand it, it’s not God.”[1] Thomas Aquinas: “God is absolutely beyond human comprehension.”

How then do we know God, know anything? By faith, opening our bodies receptively to whatever the infinite God reveals to us. This is why Augustine wrote, credo ut intelligam (I believe in order to know). Faith precedes knowing what we ought to build—and not build.

We see this in the Garden of Eden. The first couple is called to cultivate it, build it. But there are boundaries, forbidden knowledge—not eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen.2:16-17). Adam and Eve had to trust it’s a good boundary.

Somewhere along the way they didn’t. C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra widens how we imagine this might have happened. Weston tempts the Green Lady with the relentless drip-drip-drip of questioning God, eroding the Green Lady’s confidence in God’s good boundary (the Fixed Lands). No boundaries. There’s always more to know, to build. You won’t die.

Now please don’t think I’m saying Mark Zuckerberg is Lucifer. I’m saying it’s easy for anyone to be duped. This includes Aquinas. On December 6, 1273, after having reached Question 99 of the Third Part of his Summa Theologica, he put down his pen never to pick it up again. He felt God impress upon him a boundary: Enough. Write no more.

“All that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me,” Aquinas wrote. He was right. He had tried mightily to “Christianize” Greek philosophy. But in so doing, he had inadvertently separated faith from knowledge, what Augustine saw as seamless. The Third Part went unfinished.

This is what meta signifies. There are times when projects go unfinished. There’s nothing more to build. Or they’re dismantled, starting over. Or less is more—what research reveals often yields superior results. The opposite is additive thinking (what most people prefer), always more to build. So companies like Facebook add to the inhuman scale of the internet, assuming the rising speed and ever-widening breadth of viral content is an unalloyed good.

It isn’t. Even Zuckerberg recently admitted as much. In a telling remark, he said, “We’ve done reasonably well with the trade-offs” between its platforms’ benefits and the harmful and addictive behaviors that they cause. Trade-offs? The trade-off seems to be declining social wellbeing for the sake of increasing economic prosperity for advertisers and investors.

So what can be done? I have four suggestions.

First, every year I open my body to the Lord, asking him if he wants me to put down the pen. Close up my ministry. God doesn’t need Clapham Institute. If I hear nothing, I continue.

I did this a bit as a pastor. Our church grew rapidly but Gerald Nachman’s wry warning haunted me: nothing fails like success. So on occasion I’d tell the church if we’re not impacting our city, we’ll close shop. God doesn’t need one more church in Annapolis. I’d find work elsewhere. I meant it.

Second, I urge Christians to begin practicing the spiritual bodily disciplines. The internet creates bodily habits, which is why scholars like Clay Shirky say self-regulation is ineffective at this time. Most folks, including Christians, are bodily hooked on social media, the internet, you name it. And they’re blithely unaware of how they’re bodily hooked. Get unhooked.

Third, I urge Christians to recognize what meta means as well as what it signifies. It means the divine mystery is invisible, intangible, incommunicable, ineffable. It is so vast, so far “beyond” humankind that the only way one can possibly encounter it is if the Mystery chooses to come down to our level and reveal itself. The Mystery has.[2] The God who is Meta has. The Word became flesh. Sacramental churches embody this in their “thick” liturgies.

Fourth, I urge Christians to aim for a judicious use of the internet. Judicious means wise, prudent. A judicious use requires self-regulation, self-control, a fruit of the Spirit.

I’m not on Facebook but I recognize it has redemptive aspects (ex: helping connect Hispanic families to our local pop-up pantry). Shirky hopes to see more of this in the future. Smaller internet groups with local boundaries and slower speeds at which content moves through these groups. That sounds healthier than what Mark Zuckerberg aims to do.

 

[1] St. Augustine, Sermon 52, 6, 16; and Sermon 117, 3, 5: PL 38, 663.

[2] c.f., Christopher West, At the Heart of the Gospel (Image Books, 2012), 62.

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5 Comments

  1. Mike, if I am not mistaken, “meta” meant with, or among, and together with as well as beyond or after. Then again, it is approaching 50 years since I took Greek at college so quite possibly my memory fails me. Of course, I know Zuckerberg is grasping the “beyond” meaning of the word. But as Advent approaches, I like to think of “meta” in the manner that our God is “with” us. The again, “with us” does and does not really define the role social media plays within our society. It certainly has played a potent role in our culture but also has a backdrop of manipulation (acknowledged by its own software engineers) unlike the Creator who never manipulates us with His love. The “with-God life is certainly much more attractive and in a sense is what we intrinsically know we were ultimately designed for eternally.
    Your suggestions #2 and #3 seem to be essential for us to truly enjoy the “with-God” life.

  2. Mike:
    I abandoned Meta Mark and Facebook 9/27/2020. Best decision ever.
    Despite what Zuck thinks about himself, he is not Ineffably Sublime. I would even reserve that moniker for a rapper even if it was just “for fun.”

  3. You do know that when we old guys poo poo new technology – like movies, the telephone, radio, TV, and the internet that we sound like we’d be complaining about the printing press, cars, trains, electric lighting and indoor plumbing. Geez. Self-control is and always remains the issue – that and good parenting, where we mentor self-control. Speak as much against donuts and I’ll tell you the same: it’s not what goes into a man that defiles him but what comes out of him.

  4. Had to come back and briefly zero-in on identifying what bothered me so much about what I think is your not using your talent to identify why Facebook is so attractive. You can’t get away with calling out Zuckerberg for trade-offs. As if no trade-offs exist with any and all goods? That’s silly. Of course there are always down-sides to every good. Every good experience, product, person, law – I can’t think of anything that is inherently Good except God Himself. So to avoid those trade-offs you urge “less-ness”? “The trade-off seems to be declining social wellbeing” – Zuckerberg is responsible for this? Baloney. Good of you to supply four different ways to analyze if/when/where/how one might pause and reconsider what one is doing with/about anything. Being conscious is better than being unconscious. So how about this? Consciously consider what/why some enjoy Facebook. I’ll draw on just one favorite pastime of yours: something about your “likes” in your writing points me to reaching back and re-discovering traditions. Considering the church’s rich traditions of literary, contemplative practices, and the like. Let me offer you this: why would geezers like me enjoy “mini-reunions” with high school chums from 40+ years ago? Way back then we were building into our own souls the traditions we now live by: our habits of finding and making good relationships. Circumstances moved us away from each other but we find our souls are re-ignited by the passions we first encountered in our youthful explorations of friendship. This is a priceless good that is recovered thanks to Zuckerberg. We can consciously choose to be thankful for the experience or become lost in some unconscious disconnection and un-anchoring of our good habits. But y’know I doubt that consequence very much if we had those good rich connections from long ago. Most of us probably built on them year after year with new friends and soulmates. The rich, rich pleasure is to have a thin slice of memory come back to warm us and consciously remind us we’ve been doing well – we encourage each other – trade some stories about each other – and move on. It’s priceless. Frankly, the people I best know with so much animus toward Facebook didn’t have those rich friendships going way back and I think they’re jealous of those that do. I can’t imagine that being you, Mike, you practice a richness now that must have deep roots. So – with one of your “likes” being that Christians benefit from ancient traditions – by the time that we ourselves are ancient – re-awakening to our own traditions of “good” – and I mean that sincerely – is a good thing. Pull back from your chronic dislike of Facebook and other internet connections – it’s only good isn’t just soup kitchen connections. Dialogue with those “things” you find so offensive and you may discover that there is a need/want that is good. Any good can be over-done into soullessness, sure, but don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  5. I, too have deleted my Facebook Account for various reasons, one of which is the absence of allowing free speech. I do not want to be part of a communication platform that dictates what I see and hear, unless of course, it promotes inhuman activities, is unsafe or threatening someone or something. What I didn’t realize, until I went through the deletion process, is how I let Facebook be intertwined in various apps such as Uber, Our Neighborhood Marketplace, Words with Friends, etc. This is where FB has totally manipulated their platform to be a big part of your life, especially if you have a small business and communicate with your clients this way. It is hard to delete the way you communicate with your customers.

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