In our final session on our final day at the MediaLit Conference we began a massive conversation with Prof. David Wilkinson. Although his seminar was on Theology and Apologetics it led to a heated debate about whether we can call the internet a ‘space’. We often use language of inhabitation of the internet leading to the image of a space in which to exist. Andrew Graystone, Director of the Churches Media Council, tried to helpful distinguish between digital ‘space’ and digital ‘environment’. He has stopped using the term ‘space’ as it leads to the confusion, but digital environment confuses me! How do I relate to environments? What is the analogy that will help in my understanding?
This discussion lead me to ask questions of the nature of ‘space’.
Earlier in the week we discussed online Eucharist. This is an online experience where people, inhabiting separate spaces join together through the digital media and share in the sacrament of Communion. This unsettled me from the start! Partly because one example was given that people broke their own, individual piece of bread, in their separate spaces. How our individualistic culture has even impacted the communal experience of faith!
Before anyone begins the discussion of physical restrictions on parts of our society through medical or circumstantial issues, I want to stress that I appreciate the complexities some people face trying to belong to a sacramental community. Allergies, Fears, Mobility; all of these shut down any possibility for some people to get to a certain space at a certain time to feel they belong and can participate in the life of a community. But there are big issues here!
Two main points to raise in the limited space and time I have had to reflect on this. One of them, interestingly, is about space and time.
To be ‘present’. What do we mean by present? To answer that I should ask it in a different way; what do we mean by ‘absence’? Absence is the state of being away from a place or person. In this definition absence is marked by spatial measurements, is it not? Let’s not begin to deconstruct it (at the moment at least) into the emotional absence of a person but let us affirm the shared idea that if I am not in the same geographical area as you I am absent. To be present, therefore, is, in some way, to share the same geographical location. This is a traditional understanding of the term. The problem arises when we try to experience ‘presence’ through digital media. Can this experience ever be achieved if people are separated by geographical locations?
In MediaLit (part II) we explored the idea that, through prayer we can become a community which is not defined by shared geographical space. This issue is compromised if we extend the same definitions into the sacramental act. My theological assumptions come into play here so I will state them clearly. I believe in the presence of Christ, particularly during the sacramental act. This presence is based on both a temporal aspect (i.e. He shares the time in which we exist) and spatial (i.e. He shares the space in which we exist.) Having said that, however, I begin to question what I mean by that. When we claim ‘His Spirit is with us.’ in the liturgy what are we proclaiming? That His Spirit exists in the same spatial reality as us? The truth of the incarnation ‘complexifies’ this by suggesting that God does not compete in space with us…
The Sacraments are both communal and reality changing. Reality is measured both in time and space. In order to change reality it must change both of these aspects. Christ must be present both in time and in space. This can still be affirmed within the context of the solo Eucharist. The communal aspect of the sacrament is important here. We are brought together, through the Eucharist, into the Body of Christ. What does this mean? Maybe I could be bold in suggesting that, He is present because we are present. I mean this in its widest possible way! Your physical presence changes the reality of the whole community and, likewise, the presence of the community changes your reality. Christ is spatial present through the Holy Spirit in the community, gathered in the same time and space (reality).
If we take out the spatial aspect of the Eucharist do we remove, in some way, the ability of reality to be fully changed ?
The second point I want to reflect on is the role that affirmation of self plays within the sacraments. I have begun to write a chapter on the need in community to affirm self-expressions by adopting them into communal-expressions (i.e. the expression of who/what the community is.) Our culture has reduced self-expression down to whatever you think or feel is truly authentic to you. This is impossible,
If your life is centred on yourself, on your own desires and ambitions, then asserting those desires and ambitions is the way you try to be true to yourself. So self-assertion becomes the only way of self expression. If you simply assert your own desires, you may have the illusion of being true to yourself. But in fact all your efforts to make yourself more real and more yourself have the opposite effect: they create a more and more false self. (Christopher Jamison, Finding Sanctuary)
Community is necessary in self-expression. This is, like a lot of aspects of community, both a potential blessing and a potential abuse.
Sacraments are communal events because any self-expression of faith needs to be affirmed by a community of others. This is highlighted in Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s latest book ‘A Grand Design’. where they suggest particles only have definition if they are observed where as the unobserved past is full of possibilities. It is the observation of reality that gives it definition. This has huge implications to the sacramental changes in reality.
I am suddenly aware of the hugeness of this issue. I don’t envy Dr. Pete Phillips as he discusses this at Methodist Conference later next week. I wonder if anyone is discussing it in the Anglican church?