Most people reading this blog posting are probably a lot more interested in "politics" than they are in "religion." Stick with me for a couple of minutes, though, as I introduce you to some rather high-level religious talk and speculation, focusing on whether or not we are "embodied" beings, and whether it is possible to maintain any genuine religious, spiritual, and ecclesiastical connection in an online setting. I do provide some reflections on politics at the end of what I have to say.
I spent a year in theological seminary, so I am not a complete stranger to theological discussion, and I feel at least somewhat comfortable in this intellectual arena. I regularly read the blog postings of Rod Dreher, who writes for The American Conservative. While Dreher writes mostly about the social setting in which our contemporary politics operates, his actual passion is for religion, which Dreher believes is essential to maintaining the kind of "conservative" society and politics for which he is an advocate.
On September 7, 2020, Dreher's column was titled, "The Disembodied Brain Of Christ." He introduces the discussion this way:
Back when the Covid lockdowns started, I told a Southern Baptist friend that this crisis was going to be devastating for the churches, which would probably see a lot of people in their congregations not coming back, having gotten out of the habit of church on Sunday. I also predicted that a number of Evangelical churches, lacking a strong sacrament-based ecclesiology, would embrace online church as a normative model. Why not? After all, if you see the individual believer’s relationship to the church as primarily about the reception of information, what’s the argument against it (emphasis added)?
In predicting this switch of the Evangelical churches from their "old time religion" to a new kind of "online religion," Dreher made it clear to his friend that he did not approve:
This idea — that we should accept online church as normative and necessary because that’s what allows us “to reach as many people as possible” — is completely impossible in a Catholic, Orthodox, and/or Anglican world. Our liturgies and ecclesiologies are built around the Eucharist. You cannot receive communion online, nor is the Eucharist merely symbolic of Christ’s Body and Blood (emphasis added).
As Dreher tells the story, the friend to whom Dreher advanced his concerns, back in March or April of 2020, absolutely rejected the idea that the Southern Baptists would ever accept online services as a legitimate substitute for church-based fellowship and regular, in-person church attendance and worship. Now, some months later, that same friend has contacted Dreher, and the friend is now admitting that Dreher was completely right - the Southern Baptists are moving "online."
To demonstrate exactly how prescient Dreher was, the friend emailed Dreher a story from Baptist Press, written by Robby Gallaty, the pastor at the Long Hollow Baptist Church, whom Dreher identifies as "a very influential young Southern Baptist pastor." Here is a quote from the Baptist Press article (by way of Dreher's column):
In recognition of the new reality, Long Hollow has begun the process of creating an intentional, permanent online church ministry – which includes hiring an online-specific pastor, finding ways to facilitate membership remotely, as well as conducting the ordinances and small groups in cities hours or even states away. “The churches that are predominantly dependent upon a building are going to have a hard time transitioning into the future,” Gallaty said. “People say, ‘I just want to go back to the way things were before COVID,’ but I really don’t think that we will ever get back to that, particularly in the area of numbers … as far as in-person attendance anytime soon (emphasis added).”
My own researches, looking for an image to head up today's blog posting, led me to a discussion on exactly the same topic that Dreher addressed. In his article titled, "John Wesley and Online Church," an evangelical pastor named Phil Moore speaks to all the concerns that Dreher raised, but just like Gallaty, Moore comes down on exactly the opposite side from Dreher.
Dreher's main point is that Christian religion, to be "real," must be "embodied." It must be based on a commitment to the sacraments. Real, physical connections are needed. The Church is the "Body" of Christ, not the "Brain" of Christ. Information, in other words, can be "disembodied," but genuine worship is based on a direct, embodied connection between real people, who are gathered together in each other's physical presence. It is Dreher's belief that an "online church" will never survive, or if it does, it will no longer be the "church." A "Church Online," to employ Moore's title, is an oxymoron.
I tend to agree with Dreher, on the theological points being argued. However, what went through my own brain, as I read these materials, was another phrase, a "political" phrase. I know that you have heard this phrase before: "the body politic."
Any genuine and vital "politics," I strongly believe, demands that we make connections with other people in "real life" - in real places and with real physical interactions between the people involved. During the anti-Vietnam War organizing in which I was somewhat involved, we called it "participatory democracy." To the degree that we attempt to transmute our "politics" from personal participation into online arguments and discusions, we destroy its essential nature. Zeynep Tufekci, who is one of my favorite commentators on how modern technology has affected political organizing, has an engaging TED Talk on this very topic. Its title? "How the Internet has made social change easy to organize, hard to win."
What Dreher predicts for online religion, in other words, I predict for online politics.
To call "politics" a "sacrament" is, perhaps, to go a couple of steps beyond where most people will feel comfortable, but if we all hark back to that phrase that sprang to the lips of those Americans who made our Revolution in 1776, our political life together demands that we pledge to each other "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."
That kind of politics demands that we meet each other, physically, in the "real world," face to face.
As Dreher worries for religion, so I worry for a politics that is more and more "disembodied." As we think today about how 'bots" have helped to mislead and manipulate us in our recent election, we can begin to see where a disembodied politics, a "politics of the Internet," will end up stranding us.
It is not a happy place.
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