Virtual Church

All the way back in seminary my friends and I used to joke about virtual church.  What made it so funny was that the idea seemed ridiculous.  The very raison d’être for church (which essentially means “gathering”) was, well, gathering.  We joshed about putting a communion card into an ATM and getting bread and wine.  Little did we know we’d live to see virtual church become a reality.  While I prefer not to tip my hand as to my affiliation (I began doing this when teaching at secular schools, for if a professor of religion is being academic about their specialization their affiliation should have no bearing on the class) I confess I am the member of a religious community.  That community has become virtual, as of today.

This isn’t a permanent thing.  Unless coronavirus is a permanent thing.  As I spoke with my clergy person about it, I wondered how many people would attend virtual services.  Sermons would need to be stellar.  Who would hear if I tried to sing hymns (this is not a pretty thing, take my word for it)?  My laptop doesn’t even have a disc slot into which I could insert my offering.  Churches, synagogues, mosques—they’re about community.  What does community feel like when you’re sitting there in your pajamas, at least on the part that the webcam doesn’t pick up?  Does the minister see you in virtual church?  Have I, like number 6, been reduced to a numeral?  I suspect the current crisis is going to be a real test for faith communities.  Meeting together would make us all feel like snake-handlers now.

The funny thing was, back in seminary it was a joke.  At Boston University School of Theology in the late 1980s we knew that churches weren’t really growing.  Some megas had started and we now see them following the mushroom cloud to its dissipation stage.  As little as we meant it, we could see devices creeping into the mix.  I did not use a computer until after seminary.  Funnily enough, thinking back to the pre-1990s, we survived without cell phones.  If you were going to church you were going. To. Church.  These days of pandemic in the pews will be a real test of the preacher’s power.  For Episcopalians the mediating of grace had to be done in person.  I remember watching worriedly as the priest, clearly with a sniffle, was the first one to take a sip from the community chalice before holding it out for others to drink.  We wondered about efficacy of ATMs dispensing consecrated hosts.  It was only a joke, then; really it was.

Palm Versus Palm

“Mankind [sic] has managed to accomplish so many things: We can fly!” The words are not mine, but, depending on whether he was standing or sitting when declared, the Pope’s or God’s. In his Palm Sunday sermon yesterday the Pope addressed the issue of technology. Acknowledging flight a mere century after it began is breakneck speed for the Roman Catholic Church, but the concern behind the sentiment is real enough. Can religious systems survive the full onslaught of the technological revolution? As one small sample of the larger picture, ethics must react to increasing advanced technological scenarios. Raymond Kurzweil’s proposed Singularity where human and machine are fully integrated is perhaps an extreme example, but by no means the most extreme. Without fully understanding the context, our technical ability has soared way beyond our capacity to foresee implications. Believe it or not, many people alive today cannot use personal computers, have no palms, no cells. Sounds like they might be living free.

Palm Sunday is a day of tradition, heavily freighted as the start of Holy Week (in the Western tradition; of course, many Christians think it is a little too early some years, but that’s for a different post). Fronds from actual trees are waved as the Pope speaks. In the crowd palms are also being utilized to send the news home that one is waving a palm in the presence of the Pope. Traditional Christianity can survive with only the most rudimentary of tools. Religion, from the available evidence, began in the Paleolithic Era – earlier, I am pretty sure, than even the first integrated circuit. With its iron grip on the human psyche, religion is not about to disappear. Instead, technology is either ignored or embraced by it. As long as religions rely on human participation, however, technology will need to be reckoned with.

It's still a date (or palm)

The fact is technology has changed the perception of the world for many, especially in the western world. Even the revolution in Egypt earlier this year was conceived on the Internet. All the indications point to increased usage of technology rather than its imminent demise. Yet religious leaders still enjoin us to wave palm branches. Virtual Church websites abound where the faithful can wave electronic fronds and nary a tree will be harmed. Sermons, discussion groups, Bible readings, prayers – they can all be dispensed through wireless networks and modems. While many traditionalists turn from such ideas in disgust, it would behoove us all to pay attention. With the Vatican now onto the fact that we are flying, within mere decades we might receive a divine message on – oh, wait a minute – I’ve got mail!