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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