As an introvert at first I found online dating to be a relief. We go to an agreed upon forum to seek out romance. No unwanted public advances, no embarrassing moments of chatting up a lovely person at the grocery store when the partner walks up. We upload our most attractive photos and write a pithy caption of ourselves, and what we are looking for. We then scroll and swipe through people who seem more or less compatible with those desires. It’s quick, it’s efficient. Despite the many pay walls and cheap tricks the apps use to upsell users, one can scroll through age and distance screened members. Some accounts may be stale or even fake, but for the most part you get a tour of your local dating scene at the touch of a screen. Matching and then chatting is a low stakes way to get to know someone a little bit before investing the time and energy in an in-person meet up. So far so good.
Some profiles emphasize the user’s adventurousness, others their sex appeal. Some write precious few or even no words, others write a treatise on the qualities they expect in a partner, and their low tolerance for hook ups, games or pen pals. There are dog people, a few religious folks, lots of love for good food, travel, and plenty of spiritually minded folks who want to know your sign.
Once you hit your daily quota of free swipes, the waiting begins. Out of swipes all one can do is hope that one of the people you liked, likes you back. But even then, once I have matched with someone, there is no guarantee that they will respond. Women tend to get surges of interest, their inboxes quickly fill with messages from fishing-rod-toting, or shirtless dudes who initiate conversations with ‘Sup?’, or simply ‘Hi’. I typically go with a sincere compliment or question. But this is no guarantee that I will get a response. Once a message has been reciprocated, there are those who simply let them sit, or ghost. I have been ghosted so many times, I should start an exorcism practice.
Don’t get me wrong, I have had some lovely encounters through dating apps. Some that ended up being short term flings, others that blossomed into meaningful relationships, and still others that have become intimate friendships. Overall I am grateful for them, despite the strange, insecurity and exhaustion inducing nature of online dating. After a recent breakup, I couldn’t resist. I rebooted my profile and began swiping. But a sinking feeling quickly set in and I hastily deleted my profile. There is a darker side to dating apps that I am just now beginning to understand. It doesn’t mean I won’t be back! But I have some thinking to do first.
On display in every profile are windows and mirrors. Windows into the lives of people of all shapes, sizes and motivations. There are also mirrors reflecting our desires: beauty, success, sex, intelligent conversation, fun, adventure, security, progeny. Scrolling and swiping have become a kind of anti-sacrament. They represent the promise of something we long for at the tips of our fingers. Each profile, match and chat is an allurement into the hope of communion with another person. But these desires are not an end in themselves, each points to some biological or psychological need (or trauma), they are not fulfilling in themselves.
Like all social media which tries to keep our eyes glued to the screen for as long as possible, online dating keeps us hooked on the possibility of that perfect someone who fulfills our deepest longing. And yet the glut of choices available means that even if we do match with someone wonderful, we perhaps wonder if we could do better if we just kept swiping.
At a summer course on the poetry of desire I took several years ago, poet, musician and Anglican Priest Malcolm Guite suggested that our current social media and marketing landscape is as if we were on our way to a sumptuous feast, but we are constantly waylaid by junk food stops along the road, so we never actually get to the feast. We are stuck in a kind of spiritual hamster wheel. We scratch out a bleary-eyed sign of the cross with our thumbs to a false God that will never fully satisfy. In his lectures, Guite masterfully quoted scripture, medieval poetry, and contemporary literature; but he also peppered his talks with amusing pop culture references: The Spice Girls: “I’ll tell you what I want what I really really want.” Mick Jagger: “I can’t get no satisfaction” and U2: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” What is apparent in the theology of desire is that at their best, our desires and longings point not just to biological urges, but to the deep desire behind all our desires, the yearning beyond yearning, the desire for union with the Ground of Being.
Guite lamented that Christianity, the religion of the Incarnation, has been so skeptical of our desires for so long. As a result, marketing and social media were more easily able to convince us that what they offer could fulfil our surficial desires, and that wasn’t so bad after all. The excellent documentary ‘The Century of the Self’ (2002), shows how marketing in North America went from being about communicating information about a product’s usefulness (This is a very effective shovel, you are going to love how this shovel digs), to suggesting that a product would fulfill our desires, or even help us to become a better version of ourselves (This shovel will make you cool, it will make you sexy, it will complete you).
What has evolved is a kind binary between pushing down our desires and superficially fulfilling them, the way of God and the way of the world. The Church has ceded all of desire to the world, and taken on the position that the way to God is to rid ourselves of our desires. This does not create saints, it creates guilt, and a kind of binge/purge pattern of neurosis that traps us in narrative cycle of awful sinner in need of redemption. The church has been seen as being all about saying NO to our desires. But as Guite suggests, Jesus always framed his message in the positive: Love. All of the church’s no’s should clear the way for a greater ‘yes!’ Saying yes to the reality of our fundamental unity with a loving God.
Even within the faithful practice of religion, our desire to walk the way of God can often devolve into the worship of a vending machine God. The so-called Prosperity Gospel is a merger of Protestant Work Ethic, Capitalist consumerism and obedience=blessings theology. I was taught to pray by thanking God first and then moving into a litany of ‘please blesses’ which was inevitably a much longer list.
As Guite suggested, rather than extinguish or suppress our desires, we must learn to redeem them. As Guite said, “Pushing them down darkens them.” Rather we need to desire through our desires, past them, beyond them. We should engage them as signs of a greater desire beyond desire. In sacramental theology, we should recognize that there is a divine purpose in all our desires. Plato explored that purpose beyond the world, and Aristotle saw it within the world. Christianity should have no problem seeing that our desires are a kind of beyond within; a transcendent immanent.
If I scroll through dating apps in the hopes of filling a void in my life, I will probably never stop scrolling and I might be more likely to treat people as means to filling the end of my superficial desires. If I realize (still working on it) that I and the people on the other side of the screen are all Words of God expressing the beauty and diversity of creation, I might just be able to see beyond my desires and put my phone away long enough to experience the One truly worth swiping right for.