Have you ever chatted to someone who glanced incessantly at their phone? Or has your flow of conversation been interrupted by checking a text message that has just come through? Does the presence of the mobile inhibit your ability to be truly present?
If so, it looks as though you’re not alone. Research last year suggested that having your phone in sight makes it less likely that you’ll meaningfully connect in a face-to-face conversation. The researchers suggest that the mere presence of the phone triggers thoughts of wider social networks, and the invisible (virtual?) presence of these ‘others’ means that people are less likely to engage with the individual in front of them.
The study is too small to be conclusive, but matches my own impression that online networks can distort our offline relationships. It’s not that they necessarily have that effect, but that there is always a temptation to allow virtual chit-chat to interrupt our engagement with another person, and so miss out on who is there in front of us.
In light of this, it’s interesting to reflect on the famous story in Genesis of Abraham’s encounter with three angelic visitors (Genesis 18:1-15). The story shows a quality of presence and kindness that reflects the ethic of hospitality within the Ancient Near East, and that also – perhaps – reveals the importance of attentiveness. We see in the story Abraham going out to greet the guests, preparing them food and drink, and standing by attentively while they eat.
It’s here that the story takes a turn into the miraculous, as Abraham discovers that his guests are – in fact – angelic visitors, messengers from God. The angels assure Abraham and Sarah that God will give them a child, a fulfilment of God’s covenantal promise (Gen 15:1-6). It’s not surprising that later writers saw the angelic visitors as the presence of the Triune God (as Rublev’s famous icon reflects), or that the author of Hebrews reflects that by welcoming a stranger you might end up entertaining angels (Heb 13:2).
Whatever we make of this passage, I wonder whether a key question around the use of technology is whether it hinders or helps our presence in the moment, our openness to the stranger, and even our hospitality to God?
Might it be that quality of our presence with another person is as important as the quality of the food we share? Might attentiveness be a gift that we can give to others, a quality of presence that – at times – means ignoring the siren call of our phones?