by Garrett Soucy
During the recent quarantine, the manager of a Christian radio station was commenting on how congregations were weathering their inability to assemble. In a genuine show of optimism, he made the comment that, despite all the drastic change, this shutdown has been one of the best things that could have happened to the churches in this country. The reality, he assured his listeners, is that church-goers have been given a chance to do some online shopping, and they’ve come to learn that, thanks to the streaming of services, they don’t need to have only one church. “Why,” he remarked, “I go to church seven or eight times a day. And it’s the real deal . . . singing and everything.”
COVID-19 has given birth to a wide-spread understanding that the normal we may return to will be a new normal. From the reasoning behind the ways in which Americans spend money, to the way we view someone who coughs in public, one new proverb has emerged ubiquitously: proximity is overrated. Perhaps, it is even superfluous. But before all twenty hardcover volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary are tossed in the dumpster just because a Kindle takes up less space, we must remember that what may be gained has to be weighed against all that is possibly lost. It is not simply a lesson needing to be re-learned from conservatism, but a lesson that is to be re-learned from the religion that originally shaped the American mind.
Christianity requires space and time presence to function per the will of God. We do not think spiritual things, as Christians, and transport ourselves out of this dirt prison. The arc of the Gospel is that Heaven comes to Earth. God takes on flesh. All creation is longing for its renewal, not its retirement.
The Christian faith stands in direct contrast to Gnosticism in many ways, but one of the most glaring is the view of the material. Gnosticism is the general worldview trajectory of all disincarnate thought. As a religion, it embraced the esoteric nature of truth as being exclusive and immaterial. Matter, thusly, was seen as a thing to be eschewed. In the message of Christianity, God entered into the material, and thusly opened a way for creation to have lasting meaning. Matter, remember, was declared to be good from the beginning. The doctrine of incarnation teaches that, because of the work of God in the created order, there is a right and godly way of operating in the material realm. The Gospel is good news for broken creatures. This truth touches upon many other great doctrines recovered in the Reformation, out of which come the nation-shaping virtues of the Protestant work ethic, the unifying principle for law, a sacred view of vocation, etc.
A host of media ecologists, from Jacques Ellul to Neil Postman, have warned us in no uncertain terms that the arc of image-based technology like the internet, if not guarded against, is one that leads to dis-incarnation and meaninglessness. We need look no further than the reality that more and more people feel confused by the presence of their bodies and believe their true selves to be something entirely detached from their bodies. This has to be kept in mind when facing the reality that social distancing and avoiding proximity to others are actions that are now being required of American citizens. We didn’t really need a reason; but, now that we have one, the further disintegration of the body politic is an inevitable fruition unless the endangered species of place and touch are vigorously preserved as crucial components of a healthy and thriving society. The church should be the most rigorous defender of space/time presence because the design of Jesus Christ is that His Church would occupy these dimensions as creatures both bound by the restrictions of space and time and yet free in the reality of an eternity that transcends them. Liberal Christianity has always emphasized the temporal to the neglect of the eternal and Fundamentalist Christianity has always emphasized the eternal to the neglect of the temporal. Biblical Christianity requires that we occupy both. In this, Christianity can show us the way forward.
The Scriptures teach that embodying the faith as the Lord has taught us requires the practice of incarnate obedience, which by definition cannot be virtual. That is not to say that a Christian cannot function as a Christian in a virtual realm. Of course, a Christian can and must. To suggest, however, that such a thing as virtual presence could be as viable an option as real proximity would be, not only a mockery of language, but a celebration of the absurd. The congregation may be communicating via certain media when it holds a Zoom meeting, but it is not assembling, and it should not confuse the two. Some communication and interaction is better than none, but it does not mean that all forums are equal to each other.
What happens when a body of believers is not allowed to physically assemble but is forced to only interact via media is that the church is experiencing a kind of fast. They are unable to assemble, and so they are therefore waiting for the opportunity to assemble once again. We should allow the hunger of the fast to have its work and not try to be satiated by virtual place-holders.
In the Christian faith, the laying on of hands, the consumption of bread and wine, and the employment of water are the physical components that have no avatars. In a way, they are the avatars. Communion cannot be celebrated online any more than baptism can be. If I, as a pastor of a church in Maine, baptize a young man in the ocean while his girlfriend streams the event for family members, three of us were at the baptism, and others watched. That’s what happened. Praise God that others were able to witness the baptism, but they were not present at the baptism, and our language must not confuse that distinction.
The infamous image of a man holding his hand out to the television set, while praying, and asking the watchers to place their hands on their own television sets is not only seen as a parody of something that at one time was understood to be true and real, but it signals the end of an era of reality and truth. Is this event the Biblical event of the laying on of hands by the elders for the sick? Of course not. Why? Because elders have local jurisdiction, not anonymous congregations who assemble by logging on. Similarly, the word communion should tell us, just in its etymological significance, that to celebrate communion in isolation from one another would be not only absurd but an act of violence against the very concept. Imagine what kind of logic could produce the thought that one could do communion all by oneself. It is the same kind of logic that recasts the understanding of society as a network of interactions between isolated individuals, primarily involving voyeurism and exhibitionism. This is not a society. And neither is it the church. Communion cannot be done in isolation, and if it is attempted, the product will only ever be irony in which the apparent meaning is the opposite of the literal meaning.
Someone may argue that Christ is physically absent from the table at which communion is being celebrated by Christians in any given space/time context; however, it is, nevertheless, unavoidable that the context for communion which is given in the Scriptures is established by the words “When you come together.”
The Christian faith, as framed in the Scriptures, gives meaning and import to touch; it does not validate an avoidance of it. Christianity teaches the individual that food is not only necessary, but it is good and to be received with thanksgiving, preferably at the same table as others. These are not only valuable lessons but essential ones in the work of rebuilding and preserving the most valuable habits of a nation pressed on all sides by disintegration. As the restaurants begin to open up again . . . when the theaters begin seating people side by side in packed rows . . . when the subways are crammed with people slinging their arms over each others’ shoulders to stay standing when the cars lurch, the people of this nation need something more than back to work orders; they need a unified understanding of why proximity matters.
Space/time proximity is an essential function of the church, and it cannot be sufficiently replaced with virtual alternatives. Praise God for telephones and text messages, for photographs and emails, for FaceTime and conference calls. But let Christians continue to be horrified by the image of a family seated in separate rooms of the same house, continuing to text their declarations of love and benediction, one to another, like some AI episode of The Waltons. Local churches are already struggling in coming to terms with how easy it is for people to be lost in the crowd. We don’t need to willfully turn our congregations over to more platforms of anonymity simply because the platforms attract greater numbers of consumers. Churches that err in this crucial way, simply build larger digital forests of disconnected people in which truly lonely sheep will have an easier time getting lost. The ordinary method of finding is best done in person. The ordinary methods of feeding and tending are to be done with true and physical presence.