Embracing the Sacred in a Virtual Age

Over these last few weeks, our church has met virtually for our Sunday gathering. As one who has reflected on social technology’s impact on human relationships, I was conflicted about this new approach. Yet because I was constrained by the intrusion of COVID-19 into my community, I–like many others–had no choice but to accept this new reality. As the practice of virtual church via livestream progressed, I have, through the experience, found cause to revisit three questions–relevant in this time, yet simultaneously enduring through history:

  1. What is the nature of the church body?
  2. How is corporeality, or physical interaction, important to being a church?
  3. If we as Christians are not able to gather together physically, how can we remain true to our unique calling as a church?

What is the nature of the church?

The nature of the church is a fitting fundamental place to start our reflection. The New Testament writers describe the church in several ways–the most prevalent of these is as the Body of Christ (Davison and Milbank)(Robinson 1977). In this image, rather than being gathered out of the physical world, the church1 (Ekklesia i.e., gathering in Greek) is grounded here, bound in corporeality among the diversity and unity of its motley members. In its textual context, the image seems to more specifically refer to all of those God has called to live united as the primary agent through which Christ acts in the physical world. In the words of Paul, the church is “his [Christ’s] body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23 NRSV).

However, opinions differ on how this description of the church as body should be interpreted philosophically. A brief exploration of these is useful as we discern how to live congruently with this identity in our congregational life. There are generally two divergent views–The Nominalist view, which leads us to a metaphorical interpretation, and the Realist view, which leans towards a more literal interpretation.2

Nominalists generally hold that there are no underlying universals or abstract items in reality (Rodriguez-Pereyra 2008). The metaphors we use are primarily rhetorical devices. Adherents of this view would interpret Paul’s metaphors analogically so that the church is not an actual body, but is instead similar to a body.

In contrast, Realists assert that there are abstract realities (forms) in which all things participate. The church is a single instance of the form of a body i.e., Christ’s body. Thus, it demonstrates particular properties common among bodies i.e. those associated with physicality. This means that the church is not just similar to a body, but necessarily must function within the confines of bodily existence to be healthy. This view will affirm that the Church is a palpable expression of Christ’s body through the spirit not an analogy to it (Torrance 1996)(Hastings 2020).

Over the last five hundred years, mainstream Christian practice has moved from predominantly realist to more nominalist leanings so that an emphasis on the church participating in the world as a “real body” is not as prominent in many modern churchgoing experiences. However, I have come to perceive both anecdotally and reflectively that identifying the church in this way, as a real mystical body, can both challenge and encourage us as the church attempts to wisely navigate modern social technology.

How is corporeality important to being a church?

As a graduate student, I visited an Orthodox Christian church building along with two other friends. We climbed through into the Narthex (spacious western front of the building) to be pleasantly welcomed into a distinctly sacred place. Even outside of vibrant human activity, this space seemed to teem with celebrations of the triune God’s gathering of his people into body, bride and temple. As we looked ahead towards the worship center, we could discern an icon of the Holy Trinity summoning us into God’s life.

As we progressed into the Nave (central worship sanctuary) of the church, we were immediately impressed with hundreds of sunlit iconic murals recounting the treasured stories of God and his people. The prophets, apostles, church fathers, relevant Christian characters and significant biblical scenes all made appearances, reminding us of how Christ’s body has been active through ages. As we finally reached the altar, our minds had little more room for wonder. High above us in the ceiling was a mural of the virgin Mary with arms extended in declaration of God’s faithful love to his bride (the church). Underscoring this icon above the altar were the captioning words, “More room than the heavens,” inviting the church to worship as we remember the immensity of God’s gift through Mary’s womb3 (Donne 2010).

As I passed through this church building, I was immersed in a re-enactment of the triune God’s activity in the world. Here, God’s love and God’s people transcend mere stories and become alive. A mysterious participation in the communion of the saints in a substantive (or sacramental) way is afoot. For my friends and me, this church visit was transformative. Nothing but the physical ambiance of the church space could have given us such as experience. I was enchanted by the holy mystery of Christ’s body here.

It is also here that my hesitations were finally alleviated. I was persuaded of the value of integrating a more embodied perspective of the gathered church into our ecclesiology–that is, the church is not just similar to a body, but is Christ’s functional body with many interacting physical members. In the language of the New Testament, not only was Christ made flesh among us, our union with him means he remains at work in the world mysteriously incarnate in the members of his body4 (Gay 2018; Torrance 1996).

My assent to this view was expressed in a certain repentance. I rejected what philosopher, Charles Taylor, has termed Excarnation (Taylor 2007)–the transfer of our religious life out of bodily forms of ritual, worship, practice, so that it comes more and more to reside ‘in the head– and instead embraced the sacredness of an embodied worship experience with the members of Christ’s body. As a firmly modernist Christian, I had unwittingly prioritized mind (reason, psyche, abstractions) over the matter of body and tactile experience. As a result, I developed an unhealthy penchant to reason or spiritualize away at the worst, resulting in an inability to be enchanted by the presence of God in his church, story and creation. Through the aforementioned experience and further rumination, I have now learned to cultivate what Marilynne Robinson has described as an ‘acknowledgement of the sacred’: the ability to experience a kind of holiness or blessing as we live in our physical world (Robinson 2004).

How do we remain true to our unique calling as a church?

How then do we apply these insights to live streamed church services and ministry? It is important to concede that collectively streaming from our homes (making the best of it) is distinctly different from the church community expressed when it is gathered in a single place. In other words, rather than upholding a lofty disembodied spirituality, we should humbly admit that since the church is a “real body”, the collective assembly of members of this body in space and time is essential (Heb 10:25). As one evolutionary anthropologist opines,

“Historically, we have maintained harmony by displaying compassion and geniality, and by fostering connectedness when we get together. Anonymity and the lack of face-to-face interaction on social media platforms remove a crucial part of the equation of human sociality…” (Fuentes 2018).

This means that the knowledge, intimacy and exhortation experienced in less “socially-distanced” interaction–seeing faces in three dimensions, the hugging of bodies and the hearing of real voices–really do matter. We, thereby, acknowledge the blessing, that is, the sacredness of embodied relational interaction with other images of God.

Further, in considering our spirituality, we should also reflect on the ways in which the particular embodied or liturgical aspects of our sabbath experience invite us into communal worship (Smith 2013)–uncovering the sacred moments in what has previously appeared ordinary.

For example, I have found that the tradition of collectively enjoying coffee in front of the church building before the service has ingrained a communal bonding that is irreplaceable via livestream. Also missing are the practices of collectively standing, reading, and especially partaking in the Lord’s supper together. I personally miss the sight of our few-windowed church building, the cross on its altar and the inscribed words there that remind me of whom we belong to.

Akin to the benefits of fasting, the temporary absence of these liturgical blessings (now that we have recognized them) should foster a deepening love, and precipitate an embrace of them when they are available to us in the future. We are temporarily in the shadow of the shadows that testify to our future with God.

Lastly, in availing us as we make the best of the new normal, we can wisely embrace new graces discovered in our new situation, while we also resist certain pernicious habits that the context of social technology naturally encourages. For example, while sitting in our homes watching a computer screen as we have all become accustomed to, we can fortunately see and acknowledge many faces at the same time. This is a welcome gift provided through the unique set up of a video call. On the other hand, the levity we often maintain when consuming social technologies (e.g “tuning in” to television programs or our latest viral video) rather than partaking in church service or community would have to be willfully resisted. Do we open up our hearts to partake in the midst of God’s continued call to discipleship and reconciliation or do we adopt a familiar spectator stance?5

Furthermore, live chats can potentially create a wonderful nexus of interaction and co-mingling across generations that is frequently unattainable in pews. Nevertheless, they are also often the breeding room for excursive conversations, undue levity and trolling. Such distractions should be wisely navigated and moderated to cultivate an acceptable space for reflection and reverence in the presence of God.6

Wisdom is then found in an attitude that humbly considers both the dangers and merits of social technology. We find such wisdom symbolized in one sacred Christian artifact–the circumscribed Celtic cross. In the traditional Roman cross, early Christians adopted a symbol of death to represent the centrality of Christ’s work and sacrificial love. The Celts, resourcefully importing their earthy spirituality, mutated the cross by encircling it; the added circle acutely signifies that Christ’s work is done in and for the cosmos.7 This emblem then is a fitting icon for the church to remember as it attempts to posture towards a world intoxicated with social technology. Through it, we can visualize two of our other identity markers–as an exilic people and as a resurrection community.

A traditional (circumscribed) Celtic cross. The cross here is symbolic of death. The circle connects this death to the healing and resurrection of the world for which Christ took on flesh.

In one way, the body bears the deathly cross by living in exile. Following Jesus, we go outside the city gates (Heb 13) in the cause of love. We wisely embrace the traditions of Daniel, the persecuted church, the desert fathers and monastic communities, in resisting the overreaches and misguided promises of social technology. We do so by prudently regulating how it is consumed in the social patterns of our personal and communal lives.

In a different sense, the body practices resurrection8 (Berry 1975). We live out God’s love as we partner with the Holy Spirit who faithfully generates eternal life in the world around us. Therefore, in Christ [the head of the body], we also pre-eminently embrace social technology’s aspirations to love the sacred, bring us closer to one another, and foster the healing and restoration of relationships on the planet9 (Stackhouse 2008; Wolterstorff 1983). We do so by shrewdly encouraging its attempts to approximate the embodied church through virtual streams. In doing this, we hope. As in the delightful and apt words of Gerald Manley Hopkins, “May he [Christ] be eastered in us” (Hopkins 1978).

Footnotes

1Three prominent metaphors are as the bride of Christ, the temple of Christ and the body of Christ. The metaphors of bride (2 Corinth 11, Rev 19,21 , Ephesians 5) and temple (1 Corinth 3, 2 Corinth 6, 1 Peter, Ephesians 2, 5) pull the church forward into future realities of consummate intimacy and glory with God respectively. Body keeps us healthily earthly minded.

2It should be pointed out that this a broad generalization.

3I borrow the “immensity” idea here from John Donne’s famous Annunciation poem.

4T.F. Torrance has described this as a stereoscopic view after the effect produced by a stereoscope where two instances of a body appear as one.

5To willfully participate, I have adopted more expressive postures such as standing during songs, closed eyes and open hands in prayer, reading the Bible out loud (when it is being read) and responding in words when prompted.

6There are other applicable contexts which I am not able to address here (due to constraints) e.g. expressive liturgical activities, other church meetings or ministries, study groups etc. The same attitude could be beneficial for wise practice. There are also more contexts (outside of livestreams) to consider how Christians should imbibe social technology. This is perhaps a greater conversation involving social technology’s interface with Christian fellowship (Koinonia) to be developed on a different post.

7There are a few conjectures concerning the original meaning of the surrounding circle. I get this idea from Prof. Benno van den Toren’s Developing the Christian Mind (DCM) lecture, “What is Salvation?”, https://dcmoxford.org/video/2017/9/25/alister-mcgrath-c36ek-4shn9-km2d5-86n3f-pb7tg-5ch5p-m6ehc-re7tw-2bwmb-r9k3y-zrrtl

8I get this phrase from Wendell Berry’s poem, Mad Farmer Liberation Front. In the context of the poem, the phrase is an imperative to faithfully and tirelessly sow loving actions into the world and trust that our love, however unrecognized, will bear fruit.

9I refer here to the concept of Shalom as developed by Nicholas Wolterstroff in particular.

Works Cited

Berry, Wendell. The Country of Marriage. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1977.

Davison, Andrew, and Alison Milbank. For the Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions. SCM Press, 2010.

Donne, John, and Robin Robbins. The Poems of John Donne. Longman, 2008.

Fuentes, Agustín. “Are We Really as Awful as We Act Online?” National Geographic, 19 July 2018, pgs17-20

Gay, Craig M. Modern Technology and the human future: A Christian Appraisal. SPCK, 2018.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley, and Robert Seymour Bridges. The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins: Now First Published. Pantianos Classics, 2018.

Robinson, John A. T. The Body: a Study in Pauline Theology. SCM, 1977.

Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. Picador, 2004.

Rodriguez-Pereyra, Gonzalo. “Nominalism in Metaphysics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 1 Apr. 2015, plato.stanford.edu/entries/nominalism-metaphysics/.

Smith, James K.A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Baker Academic, 2013.

Stackhouse, John G. Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018.

Hastings, W.R. “Three Bodies United in One: A Holistic Theology of the Body.” Regent World, March 31, 2020 / Issue Volume 31, Number 1, Spring 2020 / Leading Ideas

Torrance, Thomas F. Theology in Reconciliation: Essays towards Evangelical and Catholic Unity in East and West. Wipf & Stock, 1996.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Until Justice and Peace Embrace: the Kuyper Lectures for 1981 Delivered at the Free University of Amsterdam. Eerdmans, 2010.

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