Hans Urs von Balthasar died in 1988, only a handful of years after the internet became mainstream. In the time since then, the online frontier has grown with breathtaking speed and imagination. Countless advancements have been made in thousands of different fields thanks to this newfound technology. Arguably, one such advancement is social media—websites or platforms built to promote the creating, sharing, and discussing content from one corner of the earth to the other. Instagram is one kind of social media platform and is unique in that it allows millions of users to share images that they find beautiful with the rest of the world. While the goal might not always be for the sake of sharing the beautiful alone (Instagram is also a means of sharing current events, advertisements, recipes; my mother-in-law follows a lot of fly fishing accounts . . . there’s a little bit of everything), the app itself has fundamentally changed how people—and I would specify young people—find beauty in the world around them and share it with others. With the words of Barron and Balthasar advising me to “start with beauty” ringing in my ears, knowledge of how popular Instagram is particularly with the young generation of “nones,” and seeing how this app attunes young people to finding beauty, I can’t help but ask the question: What would Hans Urs von Balthasar think about Instagram? Would he see it as a useful tool or a hazardous trap along the path to finding God?
An Insta Primer
Instagram is a social media platform that centers on the idea of sharing images and short videos. Users sign up for Instagram and assign themselves a username or a handle that starts with the “@” symbol. For example, Bishop Barron’s Instagram handle is @bishopbarron, Pope Francis’ (yes, he has an Instagram) handle is @francisus. Users post photos to Instagram to share with anywhere from a handful of close friends and family members to the 100 million (plus) Instagram users worldwide, depending on one’s privacy settings. When uploading images, users can choose from various “filters” to apply to their photo—changing the lighting, colors, brightness, or mood. Additionally, users can write a brief description beneath the photo and add one or more hashtags—words or phrases proceeded by a “#” symbol to connect photos and videos from several users. For example, Bishop Barron’s Instagram posts often include #Catholic, #wordonfire, or #Bishopbarron. Similarly, users can search Instagram by searching to see all images with a particular hashtag attached to it. More than 95 million photos and videos are uploaded to Instagram every day, making it one of the most popular social media platforms.
Instagram and the “Nones”
An important statistic for us to know is that 73 percent of US internet users aged thirteen to twenty-four are on Instagram and either looking or posting multiple times a day. That is a lot of attention paid to this particular app by the same age range of people who are currently leaving the Church in a mass exodus. We would be silly not to at least consider Instagram to be an evangelizing tool to reach these nones (or, soon-to-be nones). If beauty is the means to which we start the conversation with the unaffiliated, Instagram could serve as a familiar venue to have that conversation. We have already seen Bishop Barron, Pope Francis, and other Church leaders put this plan into action with great success. However, I believe that there’s something more to this Instagram connection, something in the rhythm or the process of posting images to the site. Balthasar believed that witnessing beauty compelled us to want to enter into communion with it, to consume it, to make it a part of ourselves. Users participate in this very process when posting a photo to Instagram. A user sees something beautiful and is so moved by what they witness that they are compelled to bring it inward, to make it a part of themselves . . . or part of their digital self. In today’s modern world, they do so by taking a picture or video of the beautiful thing and then posting it to their feed: a digital identity—something that tells others about who they are as a person. They have taken that experience with beauty and attempted to make it a part of themselves—to be in communion with it.The path between beauty and God is laid out before the unaffiliated; it is even well-trod thanks to apps like Instagram. Our job as evangelizers is to challenge and guide their understanding of the beautiful and its connection to God.
Beautiful vs. Pretty
While there is a lot of beauty on Instagram, I would argue that there is also a lot of prettiness mistaken as beauty. This could present a potential problem. Balthasar would be quick to point out that various “bottle cap challenges,” “outfits of the day,” or (as much as it hurts me to say this) my mother-in-law’s ten-pound brown trout are not true, revelatory examples of beauty. They are pretty, sure, but not beautiful. This is where the use of Instagram as an evangelizing tool becomes tricky, because young people often struggle differentiating between beauty and prettiness. True beauty stirs the soul; it forces us to ponder meaningful questions, and it draws us closer to the divine. Prettiness is visually satisfying but ultimately relative, temporary, and used to sell things like makeup or TV shows or various products—things that offer immediate satisfaction and temporary happiness, things that distract us from God. Pope Benedict XVI recognized this in his “Meeting with Artists” when he said, “Too often . . . the beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed; instead of bringing him out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons himself within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy.” Yes, tools like Instagram can lead us to understand the beautiful, but it could just as easily blind us with distractions or cloud our understanding of beauty.
Can Instagram Beauty Save the Unaffiliated World?
I hate to be so wishy-washy, but I guess the answer really is a kind of “yes and no.” Or, more specifically, a “yes, but.” I do believe that Instagram can be a useful tool for engaging and evangelizing people for two reasons. The first is that there is a lot of beauty to be seen on Instagram. Landscapes, art, music . . . yes, there are lots of examples of traditional forms of beauty that can be found and stir the soul of the viewer. However, there is also beauty to be found in other, less traditional examples that something only like social media could offer. I see beauty in communities banding together for just causes, I see beauty in strangers offering kind words to grieving parents, and I see beauty in the face of my daughter beaming with pride as she holds up her first fish my mother-in-law helped her catch. Additionally, and maybe more importantly, I think Instagram can be a useful tool to help train our ability to distinguish between prettiness and beauty. Using Instagram to strengthen our muscles of discernment can help us, and the nones, differentiate between what can bring us into communion with God and what can lead us astray. As Benedict continues from the quote above, “Authentic beauty, however, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence.”