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Posted by on Sep 29, 2014 | 6 comments

Smartphones are turning us into animals (Or, why Gregory of Nyssa might say your iPhone is below your human dignity)


The other day as I attempted to make my way across campus as quickly as possible to avoid sweating out my entire body weight, I again and again found myself running into undergrads, fancy new iPhone 6 in-hand, who were entirely oblivious to their surroundings. The capable and intelligent next generation could not do the simplest of tasks (putting one foot in front of the other at a somewhat consistent pace and direction) because they were hunchbacked and curled over their phones. Upon arriving at my destination, I walked into the building only to find throngs of students once again hunched over their phones, this time sitting or leaning, waiting for the classroom to empty so they can pile in. Once arriving in this classroom, they will then likely find their seat, nod to a friend and check to see what they might have missed on Facebook or Instagram during their transition time.

In On the Making of Man, Gregory of Nyssa explores the theological significance of creation of the human person, contrasting humanity with all the others animals of creation. He writes:

man’s form is upright, and extends aloft towards heaven, and looks upwards: and these are marks of sovereignty which show his royal dignity. For the fact that man alone among existing things is such as this, while all others bow their bodies downwards, clearly points to the difference of dignity between those which stoop beneath his sway and that power which rises above them: for all the rest have the foremost limbs of their bodies in the form of feet, because that which stoops needs something to support it: but in the formation of man these limbs were made hands, for the upright body found one base, supporting its position securely on two feet, sufficient for its needs.[1]

The upright posture of humans differentiates them from the rest of creatures. Gregory sees the upright posture, the standing on two feet, as a sign of the unique position of humanity over the rest of creation. The human ability to look up to the sky, up into the heavens, distinguishes man and woman as being capable of contemplating God.

To be able to contemplate God, for Gregory along with the vast majority of the Christian early Church Fathers, the mystics, the Orthodox and the Catholics, is to participate in the divine life. It is through contemplation that God can be not only known (as much as God can be known) but also experienced.

I wonder if in this culture of bending downwards, of creaked necks and stumbled steps, we are missing out on some of what Gregory identifies as the “royal dignity” of humanity.

Maybe smartphones are making us more like animals?


[1] Gregory of Nyssa, On The Making of Man, VIII.1. Online edition available:

photo credit: Alexander Rentsch via photopin cc

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Studying theology, baking bread, enjoying the company of a handsome bearded man and two adorable pit puppies.

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  • Simon Aspray

    Reminds me of the man with a broom in the house of the Interpreter, Pilgrim’s Progress….

  • Eileen

    I enjoyed pondering this truth while hunched over my smart phone.

  • Very interesting!

  • I enjoyed reading this piece.

    Can we imagine that Gregory had a faulty premise? That posture is not a physiological mark of cognition or spiritual sensitivity? Was his proposal more closely related to the discredited study of forms and character, phrenology, than to a modern sense of how mind, spiritual consciousness, and distraction work? We meditate during yoga close to the ground or completely prone. Psychotherapy started with couch talk. For centuries Westerners have slept through expository sermons while seated.

    So yes I’d love to reflect on how inattention may undermine our natural human sensitivity. I’m not yet sure how to move Gregory’s thought beyond the realm of metaphor though. After all, what happens when the same technology is more common as watch or other wearable/integrated device? We’ll be just as distracted yet not bent over.

    And what about the human who moves through life via scooter or wheelchair regardless of their phone? Surely we’d not agree with Gregory that they were “less dignified”?

    • Thanks MackEnzian. My whole aim (though not entirely clear in this post) is to NOT move Gregory’s observation beyond metaphor. Rather, I wanted to somewhat snarkily point out that despite Gregory’s reading not directly relating to something as literal as bending over a cell phone there is still some truth the bringing the two alongside one another.

      I do think the way we live as bodies, embodied, has a direct correlation to how we understand and posture ourselves to the world and to God. There is something there for sure. That, of course, is just as true of someone who walks and someone without the use of their legs. But, the idea that there is a dignified way of being embodied in the world is a strong and important statement. Particularly in a culture of technology and hyper-sexuality that has disfigured what it means to be bodies.

      • Thanks for responding Rachel.

        I share your sense that our embodiment is a means by which we can understand ourselves, our place in relation to others, and the divine.
        My challenge is that I live in a world that only renders some created bodies valid, dignified, and worthy of praise, and that demonizes and marginalizes others. Invariably when the “very good” body is discussed it isn’t particularized in ways that are accessible to people like me.

        This is why when I hear some faith forefathers elevating “the body,” I’m inclined to ask “_Whose_ body”? Whose figure is the measure I’m evaluated against; by which standard am I or others at risk of being judged /dis/figured? What does that measure mean for people disabled by their environment or at variance from the majority of bodies? How might I ensure that my philosophy of embodiment does not unconsciously reify as ideal figures/bodies some will never match in this lifetime? And which images of God Godself are off-limits to me because of the embodied perspectives I’m most accustomed to hearing or sharing?

        You said you intended this to be a light post so I don’t want to pull it down a rabbit trail. I’m curious about whether any other readers heard the echos I did and wanted to share some of the questions the quote raised in me. Thanks for opening this space.