Guest column: Is touching believing?

(CNS guest column)

Brett Robinson is a guest columnist for Catholic News Service. He is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life. (CNS/courtesy Brett Robinson)

Brett Robinson is a guest columnist for Catholic News Service. He is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life. (CNS/courtesy Brett Robinson)

By Brett Robinson
Catholic News Service

As I write this, on the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, I am reminded of the Caravaggio painting in which Doubting Thomas places his hand in the wounded side of Our Lord. It’s a gripping scene in which the apostle’s disbelief in Christ’s resurrection is transformed in an instant, not by forceful argument, but by touching his master’s brutal wound.

In one of the courses I teach at Notre Dame, I often show Caravaggio’s painting next to a magazine ad for the very first iPhone back in 2007. The original iPhone ad features an index finger reaching out to touch the glowing screen of an iPhone with the caption, “Touching is Believing.” The students revel in the similarity between the painting and the ad, recognizing the shades of a more religious past that continue to show up in popular culture.

The correspondence between the Caravaggio painting and the iPhone ad is a parable for the digital age. Touching is not necessarily caring unless we enter into the suffering of the other. We are called to suffer with others by being as present to them as possible, even when it’s most inconvenient or harrowing.

It is all too tempting to “like” or react to a social media post that calls on our compassion and feel self-satisfied in doing so. I touched the “like” button for that story about the U.K. parents who don’t want to take their terminally ill baby off of life support. Was that a work of mercy? There was nothing corporeal about it.

The touchscreen gives the illusion that we are physically engaging the world through “touching” information, but the whole experience is rather discarnate. That’s troubling for a church that is founded on the Incarnation.

If we can’t believe everything we read or hear, perhaps we should pay more attention to the role touch plays. It certainly shapes how we interact with our devices, using our body’s own electrical activity to bring to life capacitive screens, but there is something more.

There is another scene in the Gospel in which touch is indicative of our longing for God. It is in the garden outside the tomb where Mary Magdalene, in her grief, mistakes the risen Christ for a gardener. She laments that someone has taken the body of her Lord and wants to know where it has gone.

In reply, Jesus simply says her name, Mary, and she immediately recognizes him. In an instant, she reaches out to touch him, but he says, “Do not touch me, for I am not yet ascended to my Father.”

The Latin “noli me tangere” is translated, “do not touch me.” But the Greek, “me mou haptou,” can be translated as “do not seek to cling to, or embrace me.” Herein lies the lesson for our touchscreen generation.

Our screens present transient information, here one second, gone the next. People pop in via text message or Snapchat and then disappear seconds later. There is nothing to touch or cleave to other than the device itself, which presents us with all of these addictive stimuli.

Reconsider Christ’s words in this context. We must not cleave to this instant contact and gratification. In one of those strange twists in the English language, the word “cleave” can also mean to divide or separate. It is in the heart of this paradox between attachment and detachment that Christ asks us to dwell.

Ultimately, we should be focused on the promise of Christ’s return. The same can be said for our use of digital communication. Focus on the promise of return when we can see and touch the friends and family that populate our social media feeds and messages, to offer them our full and sincere attention and compassion.

Make it a priority to make physical contact with someone or to read a book rather than a blog. Revel in the physical matter that makes up our life on this earth. Just don’t get too attached: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face” (1 Cor 13:12).

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Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life. He will become a regular columnist for Catholic News Service in August.

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