WHY FACE TO FACE IS ALWAYS BEST
The benefits of looking someone in the eye and making a connection are out of this world
News from Harvard that women who go to church more than once a week live longer than those who do not made the front pages of one or two print and online news sources in May 2016. As ever, the small print needs to be read carefully and the survey is open to interpretation.
A sample of 74,000 took part in the US Nurses’ Health Study covering a period of 16 years. All were women and the vast majority were white. A few Jewish women were included. The survey found that these women had a 33% lower relative risk of dying over this period compared to other women. The researchers rightly noted that it was impossible to quantify religious experience; the strength of religious conviction is thus not a reliable factor in determining life chances. Furthermore, there was no contrast with the congregants of other religions.
Surveys like this make the headlines from time to time and there is little new about the findings. The evidence that practising Christians live longer than those who do not attend church is much more interesting for what it suggests is going on than for the findings around longevity.
The biblical idea of shalom has much to do with a person finding healing, wholeness and flourishing in community with others. In this era of more people living alone and spending time alone apart from work, the old effects of genuine togetherness have been eroded. In her perceptive book The Village Effect (Atlantic Books, 2015), US developmental psychologist Susan Pinker notes the profound and documented healing and restorative effects of face to face encounter. People flourish in all kinds of physical and emotional ways when they are able to look others in the eye on a sustained basis.
These unimpeachable findings provide a different slant on the cost-benefit analysis of the digital revolution. While algorithms are providing us with amazing new ways of understanding the information we have about ourselves and the world, the social revolution this new era has precipitated is tempting us to relate more frequently through screens than face to face. It will be interesting to see what research tells us in the decades ahead about changes in levels of empathy, but the chances are that filtering our understanding of one another through the emoticon is not likely to help us interpret the astonishing variety of facial expressions we can pull.
Church offers people face to face relationships, which have their own inherent blessing. It brings people together in worship, offering a sense of awe, meaning and purpose. It encourages kindness, replacing competition with co-operation; it emphasises the equality of all people and unconditional love. In an atomised society and in a time where the stranger has become a threat, it fosters trust between different people. The Canadian psychologist, Michael Inzlicht has shown that people with religious faith show more sluggish activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of the brain. This is the area which registers social rejection and anxiety as well as the kind of joyful acceptance found in romantic love. Inzlicht found the ACC to be implicated in religious conviction.
St. Paul spoke powerfully of the metaphor of the body. Together we are one body. When one part suffers, the whole body suffers; when one part rejoices, so do the other parts. There is a remarkable intimacy about shared fellowship, demonstrated most visibly in the way Christians find an immediate bond with believers they meet from very different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Nothing is deeper than the shared identity in Christ.
All this presupposes the Church functioning as it should. The very blessings of shared faith can induce enormous stress when conflict is rife in a church. The value of face to face intimacy also asks questions of historic ecclesial architecture which ensures people do not have to look one another in the eye very much. Nevertheless, even a moderately functional church should be able to deliver on the promise of human flourishing.
Whether we live long or not is irrelevant to Jesus’ saying. He came to bring life and life in all its fullness. In the quality of what we offer one another now, we catch a glimpse of what is to be. God’s glory is manifest in a human being fully alive. I love, therefore you are.
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