I’ve started to notice something interesting when I talk to Christian defenders of social media and digital life. Even the most ardent defenders and users of new media (like the bloggers on this site and the pastors in our case studies) when faced with the ultimate test question—could church ever be completely digital?—draw a line in the sand.
What is most intriguing to me is that most people, when they take this ultimate stand for “real” relationships over digital approximations, reach for the same doctrine: the incarnation. We are an incarnational people, the argument goes. Our embodied reality matters because Jesus shared that same reality. The incarnation also anchors the sacraments that ground and nurture our faith, and it is hard to imagine sharing the Eucharist online.
I am a huge fan of the doctrine of the incarnation, and I agree with the theological reasoning behind these explanations. The incarnation has been, throughout Christian history, a ward against various forms of Gnosticism or spiritualism that want to denigrate material or embodied reality.
But the doctrine has also taken on various meanings over time. Originally, it was important in debates about good and evil. As certain strands of Christian thought associated evil with the material world and good with the spiritual world, what we now think of as orthodoxy asserted the goodness of material reality both as God’s creation and most importantly because of the incarnation. This insistence on the goodness of creation affirmed in God’s decision to become human, however, did not prevent extreme views about bodily asceticism, gender discrimination in the church, or Christian defenses of racism and slavery. It is only in recent theological history that the incarnation has come to be associated with embodiedness as a positive assessment of human bodies, bodily desire, and an affirmation on our concrete individuality—the things about us that come from our particular embodiment (gender, race, family situation, geographical location, etc.).
One could certainly imagine affirming the incarnation and embodied reality without affirming any of the current ways most churches gather together in non-digital configurations. In other words, one could imagine small groups of people meeting in homes to break bread or lay hands on each other, all connected via live stream to each other, as a very embodied form of church. As virtual technologies advance, we might even imagine being able to tangibly feel the touch of each other across sophisticated digital streams or taste bread and wine offered to us over the Internet. If we feel it in our bodies, would that make it incarnational?
I do not want to sever the link between the incarnation and embodiment, but I do want to suggest that what we mean by “embodied” is a shifting term. In my last post for this blog, I pondered the kind of embodiment digital, virtual, or cyborg realities offer, suggesting that as we all become more “wired,” we do not necessarily become less embodied.
Perhaps more importantly, in this liturgical season most of all, it is worth pondering the more cosmological aspects of the incarnation, what we might also call the poetic aspects. In my favorite Christmas hymn, “O Holy Night,” there is a strange line: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining/’till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.” Here a particular historical event—the birth of one child at one concrete place and time—triggers a cosmic shift, one outside a particular time or place. The soul (Which soul? Every soul!) thrills with hope, the whole of creation rejoices. In this poetic meditation on the incarnation, embodied reality comes to know its purpose, its very goodness in this God who walks among us.
The hymn presumes that this truth is still one to cause a thrill of hope, however we arrange the practices of our embodied lives, digital or otherwise.
Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is the Executive Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D candidate in religious studies, concentrating in theology, at Yale University.
The New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact email@example.com.