How (Not) to Date Like Jesus

how not to date like jesus-tinder-okcupid-for-christiansContrary to the claims of dozens of books found in Christian bookstores, or perhaps evidenced by those myriad books, the Bible does not include an instruction manual for dating like Jesus. One cannot imitate a celibate man if one wants to take steps in a road different from that of celibacy. Even the married exemplars to be found within our canon are so culturally bound that it is hard to figure out what principles, if any, can be translated to our space within history and geography. Is there anything to be gleaned from the story of Ruth and Boaz? Is there an acceptable way within our modern context to uncover the feet of a sleeping rich man? If we turn to the New Testament, the advice on marriage, celibacy, and singleness is a bit confusing and often heatedly debated. What Biblical principles then can we find and apply to the pursuit of a holy marriage? The diversity of cultures, persons, and Biblical interpretations create a huge obstacle in outlining a universal system of Christian dating.

As it is nearly impossible to create some kind of universal a priori set of rules for Christian dating in the modern context, let us work towards a posteriori understanding by examining just one portion of one online dating application.

I am not ashamed to say that I have been on the online dating site okcupid for over 24 months. What started as an experiment in the latest social medium became a fun tool to meet new friends and partners in dialogue. Others have written on more general dangers of looking to online algorithms for a perfect match. But I want to focus on one specific aspect of the OKC mobile application.

In late August of 2013, when I reactivated my OKC account after a summer long hiatus, I discovered that the dating site was now available in a mobile application for my ipad. The mobile app was identical in content to the full online site with the addition of a Locals tab. Clicking on the Locals tab leads the user to a screen presenting a stack of pictures of potential people to date in the area. Similarly, in November I discovered the dating app, Tinder, which functions in a similar way. The app displays a stack of pictures of local people in the area. If one taps a picture, other pictures of that user are displayed along with a sentence or two of text.

At first I thought this was incredibly convenient, for one could see who was available based on proximity. However, the way that one sorts through this stack of pictures is by swiping either to the left or to the right. Those women who I swiped to the left were dismissed, and those women I swiped to the right were to be notified if they swiped my image to the right as well.

There is another feature on the website and application called Quickmatch in which one rates profiles with one to five stars. (There are problems with this method as well, but that is not the focus of this piece.) The difference with this feature is that one is presented not only with all of the user’s pictures but also all of the accompanying text in the user’s profile.

The Locals feature presents only the pictures, and furthermore it presents only the first picture on a profile unless one chooses to look at all of them. Tinder works in a similar way, presenting only an image, first name, and age. For most of the women, I would give one look and one swipe to the left or to the right in a snap judgment of whether or not I was attracted to that person.

I excused my action by reasoning that physical attraction is important in a relationship, and that I was weeding out those women to whom I was not attracted. And though shamefully shallow, I think if that was all that was going on, I might be justified.

Of course that’s not all that’s going on here as I swipe women to the left or to the right. The Bible does have a bit to say about casting people to the left and the right. The Son of Man, when acting as judge in Matthew 25:31-46 will separate the sheep from the goats. The sheep, Jesus’ elect, are swiped to the right, while the goats, the condemned, are swiped to the left.

I’m not judging these women on their morality, but perhaps worse, I’m judging them on the basis of their looks. As I said, if that was all there was to the ethical description we are trying to create, then perhaps my shallowness would be vindicated. But there is an effect that using this medium of finding a date has on the user.

When one sits as judge on the throne of the mobile device and casts people to the left or to the right, one reduces that person to an image and appearance. If one does not want to date someone based on lack of physical attraction there is no moral judgment other than the label of shallowness, but I contend that there are inherent effects inseparable from this action. The effect is this: one sits in final judgment of another person based on appearance alone.

There are two things happening here within the effect of this application. Let us examine the second half first. Every person is a complex being. We are each created in the image of God and are instantiations of the infinite. No person can be summed up or reduced to one text much less one image. Thus when a person is judged based on appearance alone, the infinite complexity of this person is denied. Through the OKC locals tab, one judges another without even a word of accompanying text in which this person can present herself or himself as a human being beyond an image. Similarly in Tinder, the user is generally evaluated by his or her image, not the line or two of text. One can take physical appearance into consideration when deciding to date another, but when one dismisses another in judgment based on image alone, one denies the other the infinite complexity of personhood. Cognitively one knows that there is a lot more to that person than a selfie iPhone pic. But in this presentation, the person is reduced to an image. And when one swipes to the left or the right, one is not judging the aesthetics of a photograph, but the aesthetic of the subject in the photograph. The person is being judged, not the image. Stephen Pattison notes that often an elision takes place in which the face becomes the symbol of the person’s entire self (Pattison 27). But when a person is judged without the capability of presenting any other information revelatory of her personhood, her status of an infinitely complex person suffers a violent reduction.

The second effect is connected to final judgment. What exactly is involved in the dating app judgment of a person? If one were acting solely to evaluate one on another’s appearance, that might be one thing, but the fact is the judgment of another as a person is collapsed into the motion of dismissing or approving that person in a single swipe. The very act of casting someone into one of the binary categories of elect or unelect is an act of final judgment. In the Locals feature of okcupid and Tinder, this dismissal is final. One cannot retrieve that person’s profile or images again. It is impossible to separate judgment of appearance from judgment of the person in this action. Without the possibility of that person presenting himself or herself as more than an image, one acts in final judgment without access to the person behind the image.

In summary, the action alone of evaluating another’s physical attractiveness is not inherently bad. But the medium of swiping an image to the left or to the right inherently contains a harmful effect. The complexity of the other is reduced to an image, and this inadequate reduction passes under final judgment by the user of the app. The philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas in his work, Totality and Infinity, offers us some helpful notes on the face, the most popularly presented image in Okcupid and Tinder images. Lévinas writes that the face is a doorway into the infinite alterity of the Other. The face simultaneously reminds us of the other’s common humanity as well as calling us to reflect upon the deeper, infinite transcendent expanse of personhood and divinity behind each face (Levinas 253).

This does not give us a clear illuminated path through all aspects of Christian dating. But it does give us a way to think about the way we use certain dating tools. It is not wrong to want to date someone you are attracted to. But dismissing another’s personhood on the basis of an image is a judgment that we are not entitled to make. This judgment is unavoidable when using the Locals feature of okcupid or Tinder. This is not to say that dating applications and websites are completely devoid of use for the Christian pursuing a date. As with all technologies, this medium demands a “use with caution” warning and a reminder to be in constant evaluation of the effects produced.

References:

Lévinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: an essay on exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingus. The Hague: Marinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1979.

Pattison, Stephen. Saving Face: Enfacement, Shame, Theology. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2013.

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About the Contributor

Michael Toy

Michael Toy
Michael Toy is an amateur theologian, studying at Princeton Theological Seminary. Having studied media studies at Wheaton College under Dr. Read Schuchardt, Michael hopes to more fully dissect and analyze the intersection between theology and media ecology within the academic and the ecclesial settings. 

Comments

  1. Greg Ayers says:

    Fascinating article, Michael. I took a couple classes from Dr. Schuchardt during my time at Wheaton (’09), most notably Media, Religion, and Society and loved every minute of my time learning from him I’m glad to see others taking media ecology and theology and applying it to all areas of life.

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