Real Presence and Virtual Religion

Real Presence and Virtual Religion May 7, 2021

I don’t know where I am.

That might sound like a desperate confession by an ancient and doddering person, but it actually gets to a vital issue in contemporary religion, and in just how we reimagine religious practice after the pandemic. I will return to a sequence about which I have posted before, namely those critical five Ps: physicality, place, presence, participation, and proximity, and how they shape what we do in church, or indeed any religious institution.

Here is the problem. Over the past year, I have spent many hours in Zoom conversations, variously lecturing or engaging in discussions, or participating in events such as church services. So actually, during those events, where am I? Well, my physical body is in Waco or wherever, while I imagine myself in front of a class half a continent away, or in my local church. I am presently involved in a superb reading group on the relationship between the Bible and the Quran, where participants are scattered from California to England to the Arab Gulf, and many points inbetween.

So when I am involved in that, just where am I?

My language reflects that approach. I am “visiting,” attending,” dropping in,” “sitting in” on a committee, “bumping into” someone. There is a clear gap between the physical location, and the imagined or remote presence. How does that affect what we do, or think we do, during religious services or events? What do we lose by that? What does this all teach us about the nature of participation in religion?

Put another way, the coming of remote religious services and activities has been an enormous boom for some individuals and communities, and something like that will definitely continue after the virus crisis, to the profit and joy of many. Wonderful. But just as an intellectual exercise, let us ask. Just assume that all religious services in future were to be remote, with no actual physical involvement. What would we lose by that? Could religion survive in anything like the forms we know? Do physicality and physical presence matter?

Human beings are very good at imagining their personalities as free-floating entities. Look for instance at the ridiculous phrase “my body,” which suggests that there is a something, a personality or soul, that owns or controls the body. That sense of consciousness is critically important to human existence, and it is central to the origins of religion as such. If “I” assuredly exist in that consciousness, I cannot imagine its non-existence, and so I believe in an indestructible soul of some kind. Our default setting is to suppose an afterlife.

We are good at this stuff, but it has its limitations. That consciousness, that “I”, is rooted in the physical and the brain, however much we try to disown it. (That is a totally separate issue from the existence of souls, eternal or otherwise). Sorry, but we are not lying in our pods waiting for some helpful stranger to give us a choice of pills. We exist in the world, and relate to other people. I can sit at a screen and imagine myself in another city or country. But at some point I run into the issue of community, of interacting with other people, and those interactions just operate differently in physical space than they do remotely. I don’t pretend to know all the mechanisms here, but we are hardwired to operate in groups, observing each other’s body language, and sharing in joint activities – also responding to subtle stimuli of sound and odor, motion and gesture. These are the means by which we know that someone else is near, even if we can’t actually see them directly (I have posted a couple of times on what I call the Building Blocks of Religion, which underlie all faith and faiths).

Sight and sound are obvious enough, but what about smell? We often talk about smell in a funny or objectionable context, but that particular sense is also critical in promoting emotion and mood, and is also intimately tied to memory. Do see this terrific essay by neuroscientist Aaron Sathyanesan on “How the Sense of Smell Inspires Worship and Awe.” That is obvious in the context of high or liturgical churches, where the incense is so powerfully associated with a sense of sanctity and set-apartness. For long centuries, for many ordinary people, churches were probably the very rare interior settings that did not actually smell dubious, or actively revolting. But so many incense-free churches have their distinctive smells, whether from hymn-books, or mold, or dust, or choir robes, or the kitchen down the hall, or different woods, or even that bracing new church smell. In the words of the noted theologian Kurt Cobain, smells like church spirit.

Serious question in passing, has anyone ever written a history of smell and smells in modern Christianity, or indeed other religion? Susan Ashbrook Harvey has her classic Scenting Salvation Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination (University of California Press, 2006), but we are dealing with an enormous and still continuing story.

Here is one example to illustrate the importance of actual presence. There is a wonderful musical ensemble called the Kronos Quartet, and Penn State is currently making available a performance they did, streaming and virtually. I love the Quartet, but I see no point in signing up for that event, whereas I would probably commit atrocious crimes in order to get tickets for an actual live performance. Why is that? The music is the same, and the artists are the same. What is the difference between seeing on a screen, even with superb audio and magnificent close ups, and seeing in person? Why does being there matter?

I would suggest that it is a matter of communal participation, that in a live event, we form part of a temporary tribal unit called the “audience,” and we share a common experience. I know that there are people sitting around me who are part of this collective. Even that annoying throat-clearing from three rows back tells me I am part of an actual crowd, and we are seeing (and hearing) the Kronos Quartet, not just watching a television program on a screen. I make no criticism whatever of the streaming event, and I hope people enjoy it immensely. But it ain’t the same.

Incidentally, the Penn State series is called “Up Close and Virtual,” a phrase that demands a “Discuss!” Can a church service, any church event, be successfully Up Close and Virtual?

On occasions when we are physically there, that involvement means that we are present and participating, in a way that is not possible remotely, even under the very best circumstances. Every remark there also applies to the experience of actually being at or in a church service, as opposed to watching it remotely. But there is one major difference, in that churches and religious institutions are very good at involving the crowd through shared actions that can only be done physically. Depending on the tradition, we stand or bow in sync, and we sing together. That all reinforces the sense of community, or participation, of being there.

Location, location, location.

Another example comes to mind from my own experience. When I taught Religious Studies classes at Penn State back in the early Pleistocene era, I used to take my classes over to the university art museum, and we used to discuss one object in particular. This was an Orthodox Christian processional cross, which is displayed in what I might call dead form, behind glass. It is an exhibit to be seen as contemplated, like a beautiful dead butterfly pinned in a case. But now bring that cross to life in its physicality and materiality, and you realize the crucial role of place and presence, and movement. It offers a five sense experience. You see the cross in procession, and note that critical element of movement. It is a dark church, with firelight glinting on the gold. You are surrounded by people, sharing worship and devotion. You are overwhelmed by the choral music, and by the wall of incense. Possibly you are joining in some kind of antiphonal response. The cross, in consequence, is totally alive. Hmm, one of the oldest poems in English is the story of Christ and the crucifixion, as told by the cross itself. Maybe earlier generations too were inspired by seeing a cross as a multi-sensory experience, and thinking it was alive and actually capable of dreaming and story-telling?

To me, watching a religious event solely on Zoom is akin to seeing that cross through the glass case. Through a glass, darkly – actually, no, not darkly at all, but through the reflection of an annoying fluorescent light.

I don’t press the theology here, but I personally set very high store by the actual eating and drinking that we do together in church, in coffee hours or parish picnics. I dare not compare them in importance to something like the Communion, but in holding the community together, they might be just as indispensable. This is how communities become extended families, with all the obligations that status implies. You can hold those meals remotely, with your own individual meal set before the computer, just as there are remote wine-tastings. But at some point, reality does intrude, and you realize that you are actually eating a takeaway meal in the privacy of your own home. Again. Who said “pathetic”? Imagination has its limits.

In addition to eating and drinking, think of “going to church.” It all involves definite actions and decisions and experiences, whether pleasant or not, but you do things that take you to the actual special place, which is strictly material. You can turn off your screen at any time, but that church remains, and so does the web of interactions through which you have lived. To quote Philip K. Dick, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing it, doesn’t go away.” That is what separates real lived experience from the virtual.

Here is a serious question. Is it possible to follow a religion alone, or even within a single household, without any larger community? In limited times and place, sure – but on a prolonged basis? And if that is possible, does that community have to be physical, or can it be virtual? This is a stunning problem for Muslims, and Jews, perhaps even more than for Christians. I can possibly put my church life on hold for a year and then return to it after the virus crisis. But can that be indefinite? When you returned to church, would there be any there there?

I oversimplify grossly, but some scholars think that human beings began their collective activities many eons ago by dancing together and making shared ritual movements, likely accompanied by sound or music. Only gradually did humans evolve the stories and myths and religious structures built on that foundation of ritual and community. Doing things together brings us together, and makes us “us.” That then moved to a higher stage, as people devised stories to explain why on earth they were moving and singing as they were. I didn’t agree with Fr. Andrew Greeley on much, but I really valued his comment that religion was “experience, symbol, story (most symbols were inherently narrative) and community before it became creed, rite and institution.”

We also have a strong sense of place, of being in a place, and knowing that certain locations are more special or set apart than others. That specialness might take the form of religious and spiritual power, of holiness, and it can take many different forms. My own approach to all this tends to the catholic and sacramental, which raises huge problems for any sense of remote or virtual religion. (I will post further about this next week).

But the same point applies, in different ways, to all religious systems, whether your shared religious acts involve singing, or recreating a sacred meal two millennia ago, or prostrating before a deity. They all have to involve some degree of physicality.

It all me makes me think about the wonderfully exalted views of Margaret Fuller the Transcendentalist, who ranged freely through metaphysical realms before finally declaring that yes, she accepted the material world: “I accept the universe!” To which Thomas Carlyle responded, “Gad! She’d better!”

Message to churches debating whether to reaffirm the physical elements of worship after the crisis, those core elements of presence and participation: You’d better!

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