The problem with virtual communion

The problem with virtual communion November 3, 2013

Ernest Cline’s New York Times bestselling sci-fi adventure Ready Player One imagines a future in which the majority of people live in a virtual world called the OASIS. As fortunes in the real world dip, the immersive simulations of the OASIS become the all-consuming preoccupation for anyone who can manage to log in.

Ready Player One
Ernest Cline’s ‘Ready Player One’

Everything happens in the OASIS: business, entertainment, love, even religion. The first-person narrator describes one “super-religious” side character who “spent most of her time in the OASIS, sitting in the congregation of one of those big online megachurches, singing hymns, listening to sermons, and taking virtual tours of the Holy Land.”

Beam me bread, Scotty

Interestingly, one thing left unmentioned is the eucharist, though it’s probably an oversight on Cline’s part. Plenty of Christians are in fact moving that direction already — virtual communion. And why not? You can follow entire church services online, and many multisite churches number their web communities among their several campuses. Somehow facilitating the sacrament in these virtual locations makes a certain sort of sense, right?

The United Methodists recently discussed the topic with opinions both for and against. In the end, they decided to delay a decision, pending further study — which promises to be interesting at the very least.

The logistical issues are obvious, verging on the comical. “Some day it may well be possible to ‘beam’ the bread and the wine through the internet to communicants,” says one proponent of online communion, conjuring an image from Star Trek, “but as of today this is still beyond our technological capability.”

There are always workarounds, of course. Methodist historian Mark Tooley told the Religion New Service that his coreligionists belong to a more pragmatic tradition that places “less emphasis on the ‘real presence [of Christ in the sacrament],’” than, say, Episcopalians.

And some Kool-Aid, too

The view tends to be more memorial, which lines up with the wider evangelical understanding. One major evangelical church offering virtual communion describes it as “an ordinance given to all believers by Jesus to remember his sacrifice for us and to symbolize the new covenant.”

As long as the sacrament is purely memorial, the obstacles to virtual communion are certainly minimized. Even the elements can be elective. Another church, for instance, once directed online participants to prepare a “[s]mall glass of something to drink — grape juice, wine, Kool-Aid, etc.” Powdered punch is tricky enough. I hesitate to imagine what might lurk behind that rather open-ended “etc.” Mango smoothies, mint juleps?

By way of historical perspective, it’s hard to picture luminaries of the past, such as Ignatius of Antioch or Ephraim the Syrian, recommending such a practice — and not just because cable modems were considerably slower in the first and fourth centuries after Christ. Their view of the eucharist was substantially different than a mere memorial, however sincerely and earnestly conducted.

The medicine of immortality

In the twentieth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius calls the eucharist “a medicine that brings immortality, an antidote that allows us not to die. . . .” Ephraim likewise calls it the “Bread of grace” and “medicine of life that gives life to all” (Hymns on the Nativity 3, Hymns for Epiphany 7).

Similarly, in Book 9 of his Confessions Augustine refers to the sacraments as “medicines” and an “antidote” (9.4.8). And Book 10 closes with a reflection on Christ’s redemptive work, which he first identifies as a kind of “medicine” before saying, “I eat it, I drink it, I dispense it to others, and as a poor man I long to be filled with it among those who are fed and feasted” (10.43.69, 70).

Communion certainly involves memorial. We are told by Christ himself to “do this in remembrance of me.” But Ignatius, Ephraim, and Augustine — indeed every early Christian thinker I can think of — all see it as something far more than a remembrance. It is a mystical, spiritual remedy that vivifies as it heals its partakers. It’s safe to say that the gravity these men ascribe to the sacrament pushes us somewhere past Kool-Aid.

Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby

But at least Kool-Aid attempts to honor the physicality of the sacrament. Not all proponents of virtual communion find that necessary.

Through the use of avatars people can partake of “digital representations” of the sacrament, says one advocate of online communion. “We should develop a notion of ‘virtual sacraments,'” he says, “rather than an ‘extension’ of the consecration of the elements over a distance, and their direct reception by the person employing the avatar.” In other words, no bread, no wine — just ones and zeroes.

It’s worth pointing out that at the end of Ready Player One, the hero finally meets his love interest in the real world. They confess their mutual affection and kiss under a cloudless sky. “It occurred to me then,” he says, “that for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had no desire to log back into the OASIS.”

Why does it take a sci-fi novelist to nail what so many pastors and theologians miss? Who wants a simulation when you can have the real thing? It’s a question proponents of virtual communion should ask themselves more often. And if Ignatius, Ephraim, and Augustine bore UMC leaders, they could do worse than read Cline’s novel.

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  • kevin kirkpatrick

    Being nerdy enough to have read “Ready Player One,” at the urging of no doubt the same source that urged you to read it, I loved this post! Of course, The Matrix was also available for extended metaphor, but I appreciate you going less pop. On thing that you didn’t comment on, probably for brevitie’s sake, was that along with the missing Eucharist, the modern trend towards virtual church misses out on the other aspect of communion, namely that it is communal, ie, we are doing this together. Is it good enough to do it from the comfort of our own living rooms, in relative isolation? Only someone whom’s concept of church has sadly degraded could think so. I don’t think the ancient concept of church as a “sacramental community” really exists for such pastors. I have a friend who play bass in such a church. He has a satellite church where people meet with the band, but the sermon is piped in on a screen via live telecast. I hope they take real communion together when they do, but this trend is similar. The pastor wants as large of a congregation as possible, so as to maximize economy and effeciency. Very American. Even more so is the virtual communion. I suggest the website be called or as an alternate.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I agree with the communal comment. See my comment to Fr. John.

      • Daniel Heisner

        The comments from Ignatius and Ephraim go beyond the teaching in the bible. Jesus said that the true bread from heaven, the food that endures to eternal life is appropriated by trusting him. Nevertheless,
        Holy Communion is more than a memorial meal to be celebrated quarterly. It was instituted that “we be made one body with him, that he may dwell in us and we in him.”

        • Joel J. Miller

          Actually, the text to which you’re referring (John 6) says we appropriate that eternal life by eating the bread of life, which Christ describes as literal eating (vv. 51-56). Jesus returned to this theme at the Last Supper: “Take, eat,” he said, “this is my body” (Matt 26.26). Was he speaking a falsehood (clearly that crumb wasn’t his body) or rather something mystically true?

          Ignatius and Ephraim are just taking Jesus at his word, and Ignatius was a boy when Christ actually said those words. He was John’s disciple, which is to say that he was raised in the faith by people who understood firsthand what Jesus said and meant by what he said.

          The assumption of the ancient church (which you find mentioned in writers like those above, as well as Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, and others) is that Christ is mystically present in the bread and wine. They are truly his body and blood. It’s a mystery (Greek), which is what the sacraments (Latin) are called in the Eastern Orthodox church to this day–and for that reason.

          It’s more than a memorial, as you say. And it does function to make us one body with him and each other. But it does this by being his actual, grace-dispensing presence.

          • Daniel Heisner

            John 6:26-40 establishes the truth that Jesus is the true bread from heaven that gives life to the world. Those who come to Christ, look to Christ and believe in Christ have eternal life.

            John 6:41-51 gives Jesus’ answer to the unbelievers who asked, “How can he now say, I came down from heaven?” ” he who believes has eternal life. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever.” Here the eating is shown to be a symbol of believing. Verse 51c, “This bread is my flesh, which i give for the life of the world,” identifies the content of saving faith, Christ’s vicarious atonement.

            John 6:52-58 is Jesus response to the unbelievers who asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” This is similar to Nicodemus’ question, “How can a man be born again when he is old?” Both are examples of a literal, fleshly interpretation of a spiritual principle.

            Jesus said,”unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” If this is taken literally to refer to the Supper, only those who partake will be saved. For this reason, sacramentalists and sacerdotalists make the Supper the primary dispenser of grace.

            Interestingly, Paul, though treating the Supper with great respect does not make it primary. The word of God and prayer seem to be the means of grace he emphasizes. He does stress the believers position in Christ and Christ’s dwelling in the believer. Weekly communion, remembering our Lord and proclaiming his vicarious death is a powerful way to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly and sing with gratitude in our hearts to God.

            I don’t believe Jesus was lying when he said “this is my body. Just as manna prefigured the bread of life whose death gives life to the world, so the passover
            prefigured the vicarious atonement. Jesus is the true passover lamb from heaven who died that those who believe in him might eternal life.

            Compare verses 40 and 54: “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” I maintain that believing and eating are synonymous. The disciples at the last Supper heard
            these words from john 6 and understood that the words of institution were a declaration that Christ is our passover lamb.

            As a former Lutheran, I sympathize with those who feel that they must take the words literally. I fear, however, that sacramentalsim and sacerdotalism has
            overburdened the simplicity that is in Christ with the
            traditions of men. The bible teaches that if you believe in your heart and confess with your mouth the Lord who is remembered and proclaimed in the Supper, you will be saved. Too often many teachers say, Yes, but… .

  • frjohnmorris

    It is the Holy Eucharist that makes a group of people a Church. Christianity is not a spectator sport. To be a Christian one must participate in the gathering of the Faithful to participate in the Sacramental Life of the Church. Watching something on the internet or television is not real participation in the gathering of the Faithful. The only exception is someone who is handicapped or too ill to attend the Liturgy. in such case, the Priest brings the Eucharist to them.

    • Joel J. Miller

      You and Kevin hit on an important fact; the church is the eucharistic community. Communion is between not only us and God but each other as well. Hard to pull that off when you’re by yourself in your living room — or worse, when your avatar is slurping imaginary wine from a nonexistent cup.

      Still, in an unintentional irony, one of the advocates of virtual communion quoted above operates under the name “Grace Incarnate Ministries.” That made me smile.