Many speak of the digital world as a soulless unfeeling world. This place of ‘yes or no’ binary thinking is often juxtaposed by the physical world, the place where “real” community happens.
The word Incorporeal can be defined as being without or beyond physical existence. Are there possibilities for spiritual community in the online space? Incorporeal communities and collaboration are now a significant feature of Internet 2.0. Spiritual expressions of such virtual community are only just beginning to be explored. Ethics and morality in the social media environment seem for some to differ when the corporeal is left behind. Is there a God in the Machine? Can we find the divine in the cloud?
Early last year, I was exploring the ideas around spirituality and the digital environment in a playful and theoretical way. I was enrolled in ALC702: Making Online Communities At Deakin University. I had always suspected that there were opportunities for online worship that were not just a mere digitized copy of spiritual activities carried out in person and was excited to be engaged in the netnographic study of the God Squad Twitch channel Pastor Souzy, which allows for live interactive worship and social faith engagement.
In March 2020 the world changed almost overnight and now my local community of St David’s Uniting Church in Geelong, like so many other small suburban and rural communities is faced with the options of making use of digital online spaces for worship or having no worship at all. There was a sudden motivation for older members to learn to navigate Zoom and other online environments learning to unmute, start video and rename themselves. As a leader in this space I was called upon to connect with technology and train each member in the use of foreign concepts such as hyperlinks and passwords. This forced shift also created doctrinal issues for the church as it was forced to explore how sacraments, the embodied rituals of the church such as the Eucharist and Baptism might exist in this space along with funeral and weddings, after careful and prayerful community discernment St David’s made the decision to continue with Eucharistic practices through Zoom.
Having read the Resource for Theological Discernment Online Gathering for Worship with Holy Communion and The Guidelines: Online Gathering for worship with Holy Communion there is discussion around three main points:
(1) the gathering of the people of God,
(2) the issue of presiding
(3) the elements (“the body and blood of Christ”).
Our definition of what is it to gather is central to understanding Communion in a virtual or online setting. The question that underpins all of the arguments is about whether gatherings in realms other then the physical one are authentic and real.
Over the past 20 years I have had the opportunity to gather in online space with friends and family authentically through the use of digital communications and media. I am aware that there are some with little or no experience with online community development who question the authenticity of such gatherings. In chapter 4 of Johns Gospel is the story of Jesus and the Woman of Samaria. After having a conversation about the technologies involved in retrieving resources for living (water) the conversation turns from one of physical sustenance to that of spiritual sustenance through worship. In this conversation they begin to debate the correct physical spaces for gathering using history and tradition as a guideline. The conversation then moves from the corporeal to the incorporeal and transcends the lived physical reality with the statement.
‘But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’
Jesus meets people where they are and either by choice or necessity one of the places people are in our time is online. Can we disregard these gathered experiences just because they have not been ours?
To preside is to be in the position of authority in a meeting or other gathering If we are to accept that an online gathering is authentic in meeting in spirit and truth then we can be assured that the leader who presides over Communion can do so with the same authority as would be in place for physical gatherings and would be required to ensure that the liturgy and preparations are adhered followed and understood.
In the reformed protestant tradition, the elements in communion are symbolically representative of those in the last supper. In so many ways what we use as bread and wine today would bear little or no authentic resemblance to that set aside for the Passover meal in the upper room the night before Jesus was betrayed. The central purpose for the sacrament of communion is the recollection or anamnesis across time and space using each of our senses to enhance the experience of immersion. The concern the UK Methodist Church outlines in the theological reflection document are that gatherings in online spaces do not have unity or integrity and so negate the ability of the prayer of thanksgiving to blessed. There are so many instances where the symbolism of the one loaf and common cup have already been extended to embrace the needs of a gathered community for reasons of health, hygiene and convenience.
Further exploration of the theological concepts of Kenosis, the emptying of one’s self to encounter or create something profoundly new, and Zimsum, the choice to limit ones self in order to make space for another. While both of these theological concepts are used to describe God’s action in relation to humanity, they are explored by writers in the power to empty ones self (Farneth 2017) and God’s self-distancing (Ochs 2020) in relation to the human need to enter into authentic relationships both with God and each other.
The application of the Theological Doctrine of Kenosis and Zimsum have significant bearing on our own human need to experience faith and spiritual formation in the virtual digital space as we encounter the new social dilemma of information overload. How do we in this time of Media 2.0 determine what is to be believed as true when we encounter so many conflicting beliefs? What is real and what is not? How might we use the sacramental rites such as the Eucharist to experience faith and spirituality in virtually embodied ways to allow us to understand our entire selves in relation to the universe?
I would request that the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia allow space for the exploration of these theological questions in online and virtual space for communities who find gathering, community and meaning in such places and that this not be limited to our currently experience of COVID-19.
Merrin, W. (2009). Media Studies 2.0: upgrading and open-sourcing the discipline. Interactions: Studies in Communication & Culture, 1(1), 17–34.
Puntel, J. and Sbardelotto, M., 2020. From the Historical Reformation to the “Digital Reformation”. The Ecumenical Review, 72(2), pp.209-222.
Ochs, C., 2020. God’s self-distancing: what a global pandemic might teach us about God. Theology, 123(5), pp.353-360.
Farneth M. “The Power to Empty Oneself”: Hegel, Kenosis, and Intellectual Virtue. Political Theology. 2017;18(2):157-171.