Confessions of a Christian Introvert

I’ve been thinking more about what I wrote in last week’s blog, about what it means to be human. After some more conversation with my brother, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t believe humans will ever create true artificial intelligence. In fact, I’ve become convinced that “artificial intelligence” is an oxymoron.

What I mean by this is that intelligence – that which makes us sentient – is part of the very definition of a living being, and a non-living machine could never achieve true decision-making capability, let alone become self-aware. That’s because every decision is unique, and it is not the case that all decisions (especially ethical decisions) can be reduced to if/then logarithms. A computer can only do what it’s programmed to do, and a programmer could never anticipate every possible scenario. Not to mention the fact that (as my brother pointed out) different people might disagree on the best course of action and propose different solutions to the same problem, so at best any program can only be created in the image of its programmer. Therefore, somewhere between the human programmer and a hypothetical non-human programmer (the programmed programmer) is the missing link of artificial intelligence, and I really believe it has about the same chance at being realized as time travel. Only God can create creators.

As I said in last week’s blog, being human means having a body, an interface with the real world that allows us to be in relationship with other humans. And since (as I argue in Spiritual Blueprint) relationships are the real meaning of life, there is no life, and certainly no meaning, without being engaged in the physical world through a human body. How could we emulate God’s creativity by creating new life without bodies? How could we emulate God’s love by loving our neighbor without human bodies? In fact, I think if there ever were a self-aware machine, it would be utterly self-serving (selfish), interested first and foremost in self-preservation (which was the problem with Skynet, of course), and ultimately it would not be capable of compassion (another important part of the image of God in us). No, the human person is more than information, and even more than the sum of the parts, because it’s all about relationships. But this brings me to two problems…

First of all, in the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I’m an introvert. That doesn’t mean I’m shy, it just means that according to the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, being sociable with a lot of people requires more energy than it gives me (for an extrovert, it would be the opposite: being with a lot of people is energizing). So while I can get up in front of a large lecture hall and speak without any anxiety, or sing in front of an audience (sadly, it’s usually not a large audience, but I digress), activities like that take a lot out of me and afterward I need some peace and quiet to recharge. So an introvert is one who’s more comfortable with a few close friends, rather than being the life of the party or a social butterfly.

So problem number one is: social networking. As an introvert, you would think that I would love facebook and other social networking technology because it takes some of the edge off of being social. But that’s exactly the problem – social networking is by its very nature less social than face-to-face interaction. I worry about the concept of trying to have relationships with people through a computer screen. Can you really have a relationship with someone without ever being in physical proximity? Without ever sharing a handshake? Or a hug? I don’t know. I have a lot of facebook friends whom I’ve never met in person, and that’s not bad – I love making these connections all over the world, and let’s face it, I could never keep up with this many acquaintances without “the facebook.” But that’s no substitute for really gathering with people. Jesus promised that when two or three gather in his name, he would be there with them (Matthew 18:20). But when they gather in cyberspace, does it really count? I’m leaning toward NO, but I would love to hear your thoughts.

Problem number two: passing the peace. I should start by saying that I love going to church. I love getting there early to have time to kneel and pray. I love hearing Scripture read, and I especially love the Eucharist. But I dread two parts of the service, and I can’t wait until they’re over. One is the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer, because we hold hands, and the other is the passing of the peace. Not that I don’t want these strangers to have the peace of Christ in their lives – I really do. But they’re strangers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m Italian, so in my family, men hug. But that’s different – it’s no problem because I’ve known these men all my life. Yes, I know that the people in church are my brothers and sisters in Christ, but still.

Do I really have to shake hands with people I don’t know, and make eye contact? Do I really have to hold hands with strangers while I pray? It seems like asking too much. I just don’t think Jesus would ask me to do something so uncomfortable.

Pause here a moment while I go re-read the gospels…

OK, my bad. As it turns out, Jesus does ask us to move outside the comfort zone. Darn. In fact, do you know what that radical did? He touched people. He touched lepers (social outcasts) and made them clean. He even put spit on a guy’s eyes to heal them! He stayed in the homes of people he hardly knew. Talk about uncomfortable – he probably had to share a bathroom! I don’t even do that when I go to conferences. And when I think about people who have really followed Jesus’ example – people like Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa – these are people who went out and touched people, showing them the compassion of God by treating them as equals – serving them, even – and by actually making eye contact (and not with a profile picture, either).

So here we are back to the body again – the body as the thing that makes contact with others and creates real relationships. The body as the thing by which we must be active in the world. It seems that to exist only in the life of the intellect would be too passive. Real life is active. Plus, you saw what happened to the people in Wall-E.

I think we have to stretch beyond the social networking – not that it’s a bad thing, but it’s not the real thing. We have to stretch beyond the technology and resist the temptation of thinking that virtual reality is some kind of purified reality. For me, stretching means (at least) reaching out to people and touching them, even if they’re strangers. I don’t know what stretching would look like for you, but I think Jesus is calling all of us to stretch in some way.

Maybe the technology can be a tool for reaching out to people – heck, even the Pope is tweeting now. I have seen many occasions where people had an opportunity to express empathy and support over facebook. And it could be the case that facebook helps us know when another person is in need. But to really meet that need requires real world contact. Jesus didn’t say be a pen pal to the prisoner, he said visit the prisoner. He didn’t say “friend” the hungry, he said feed the hungry.

I suppose that the proponents of artificial intelligence would try to convince me that in the future we will create a utopia where people don’t have needs like poverty and hunger. Maybe. But again it seems awfully optimistic (Pelagian, even), given human nature as we know it. A more realistic (Augustinian) outlook on artificial intelligence ends up looking more like The Terminator or The Matrix. I don’t think we’ll get to that point, though, because only God can create creators.

Jim Papandrea

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Jim Papandrea is an author, educator, and singer/songwriter. Visit his website at:
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4 Responses to Confessions of a Christian Introvert

  1. Kim Barrio says:

    I am chuckling. And not at your expense, but my own. Only because I am an extrovert, which isn’t news to anyone who knows me. So I cannot feel your pain, but I do get it. And I am the overly friendly Mass going type that hugs people who weren’t expecting it, and I hope they forgive my goofy Christ-loving self when I err on the love-y side. The handshake as greeting, as promise, as oath is as old as our ancient history or more. There is something to be said for that integrity.
    When our daughter died, the most powerful thing many people did was to simply hold my hand, and say nothing. The Spirit moves that way for me. Human touch heals, and connects us in an amazing way. Nursing as a profession calls us to touch and care for our patients, and the most ‘awkward’ piece for many new nurses is the physical intimacy in the nurse-patient relationship that is required to care for people and heal them. It is a calling for sure, to be okay with all that on a day to day basis. What a privilege!
    I also reflect and have delved into the Body of Christ as a faith centerpiece for myself, and the Scriptural references to the body of Christ and our human bodies are mysterious and wonderful. The central theme of healing in the Gospels, the command to ‘gnaw’ on His body (? still wondering), the Lord breathing on the disciples, living, moving, and having our being with Him, mud in your eye, spit in your eye, sharing a meal, the stunning intimacy of it all, and the call to be Christ to one another at that level. The sacred nature of the human body especially when it is ill and in need of personal care from me is very powerful, but complex, beautiful and a bit terrifying all at once. I love it. And yes it is a push out of my comfort zone at times, even huggy me.

    I feel a sense that the social network connects us to each other on a different level that is still evolving as to what it means, and how it affects us. I consider it to be the new ‘town square’ where we get a glimpse of how others are doing, the ‘check in’ on the pulse of our friends across the ‘cloud’. I also give and get a lot of support from friends that I wouldn’t normally get on a regular basis, because we live far away from each other, and life is just darn busy. I like the 15 minutes a day or (more likely) hour that I spend, just perusing the thoughts, hopes, and dreams, and frustrations of the people I know. Praying for those going through cancer treatment as I see their posts about it. 95% of my fb friends are flesh & blood humans that I have touched, hugged, and laughed and cried with. That is the real deal, the real Body of Christ that we physically see. If FB is a way to supplement our real flesh & blood connectivity, then it is a good thing. But if it’s the centerpiece, that’s off base. I think we as humans go in the town square to say hello, greet one another, and “check in”, but we go to each other’s home and go to church and gather in community to delve deeper into relationship and be the Body of Christ to one another. That is intimacy in Christ, and it’s wonderful. And a bit huggy too.
    I am goldiloxian about FB, I guess. Balance is key. Aren’t you proud? *still chuckling*

  2. Kim, that’s a very good image – facebook as the “town square” – and of course I can’t argue with you on finding balance! I do know that I could never be a nurse, but that just makes me respect nurses that much more!

  3. susanwbailey says:

    I’m an introvert too and crave peace and quiet, and my own company! 🙂 But I’ve noticed of late (as you have) in the gospels how Jesus, although He could heal from afar (the 10 lepers, the Centurian’s slave), He seemed to prefer touching people. Touch is intimate, it’s comforting, and you have to be vulnerable and open to give it and receive it. Jesus, as fully God and fully human, literally touched people with the Divine. It’s a wonderful thing to ponder.

    The eye contact thing (or lack of it) – BIG deal for me! I once asked Jesus to help me see Him in everyone I meet and He suggested saying hello with direct eye contact to people on the street that I meet. I can’t tell how you how DIFFICULT that is to do on a consistent basis (but I bet you know that!).

  4. Susan,
    Great stuff! I love how you bring in the two natures of Christ, because I really believe that the nexus of contact between God and humanity is the union of divine and human in the person of Christ. I sometimes worry that people might think I don’t care about them, or maybe arrogant because making eye contact doesn’t come easily. I’m going to follow your lead and pray about this. Thanks!

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