The novel coronavirus has surely changed everything, including the way we commune in physical space. Since social distancing is the new normal required to flatten the curve, so much of what was normally in person is now online — work meetings, classrooms, cocktail parties, church, dissertation defenses and birthday parties. This is the perfect time to test out the arguments that what can be done offline can be easily converted to online spaces (and in fact, become more efficient). I wonder, are online spaces producing the same level of efficiency and focus than physical spaces? This analysis alone posits a greater question — what is the role of space and place in digital technology?
In other words, how does digital technology alter our spaces?
For example, though I’m usually attentive in real, actual class, I find it difficult to engage in online classes. Online class feels like a Netflix show — happening on my screen, but not an active classroom. When we engage online through phones and laptops, we are often engaged in other activities as well. The video camera for Zoom calls makes your physical surroundings the actual place of the meeting, and your physical surroundings become the actual site of the virtual meeting space. When we have the mentality that our laptops are spaces for passive engagement in Netflix, for example, we get used to the idea of being passive engagers with the laptop.
In the 2010 documentary “Digital Nation,” Douglas Rushkoff uncovers large companies whose massive headquarters are now just empty hallways. Their employees are at home, conducting virtual reality meetings through Second Life, an online virtual game world. To cut down on costs of flights and accommodations, business trips and international meetings convene in the comfort of employees’ own homes. What’s greater: the cost of flights or the cost of alienating a community? Suddenly these questions are brought to the forefront when they are no longer a choice, but a mandate.
The Church has gone online, too. Cuomo’s executive order requires non-essential New York state businesses and non-profit organizations to move off-site. In the last few years prior to COVID-19, many churches have made their content — videos and podcasts of sermons and other materials — available online, yet now they are entirely online.
The way churches migrated online before COVID-19 was not always out of necessity, but convenience. Churches wanted to maintain relevance by adopting the latest technology and sought to “go into” spaces where Christians are not in order to extend the message of Christ there.
But the medium changes the message, to quote Marshall McLuhan, the late media ecologist. The chief difference being that since COVID-19, churches are not adopting a digital platform to “try it out,” but simply to exist in an accessible way in the middle of a socially isolating pandemic by providing messages and a sense of community, without really any other choice.
Virtual reality churches have existed since at least 2016, which provides virtual space to convene and worship in but brings up the question of embodiment. When a church can no longer meet together, its congregants watch their livestreamed pastor on TV while sitting on their couch. While this new experience Sunday after Sunday is not what we expected, it reminds us of the joy of meeting together. In fact, it is core to Christian theology.
God manifested Himself in flesh through Christ, as human — embodied. Disembodiment means a separation of mind from matter. But when we communicate through disembodied mediums, we mediate the message of Christ incarnate, who needed no other medium but his flesh. Christ came in flesh, yet digital churches put their content on the screen, disembodying the embodied message of Christ.
Regarding sacraments of the Church, in 2002, the Catholic Church released an official declaration: “Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community. There are no sacraments on the Internet.”
The New Testament’s Epistles are letters (a type of media employed in the day), many of which are written by the apostle Paul. In a sense, Paul was disembodied in his letters written to different people and communities. Paul extended his thoughts through the technology of the alphabet to form words on paper with ink, which were then delivered to different groups of people that he was at the time physically distant from. His medium of communication disembodied him, yet it was a thoroughfare to reality.
In the Epistles, Paul writes “I want very much to see you… I miss all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus… I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy” (see Romans 1:11, Philippians 1:8, 2 Timothy 1:4 for example). There is always a point of actual human contact to come. In Paul’s disembodiment, he was not attempting to appear wholly in the scripted medium, but to acknowledge that present circumstances held him away from the community he addressed.
Today, while we long for physical presence and the sense of normalcy of communing together again, we also understand that the circumstances of a global pandemic require physical distance, and use the technology to bring us together in a somewhat fractured way, at least for now. We are better together.
True community and true presence matters. Matter matters. We are not gnostics. We eagerly look forward to the day when we can commune together again; for now we can best love and serve one another by staying at home.