Symposium Introduction

“Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies.”1 This quotation from Sherry Turkle has haunted me since I first read Alone Together, flashing in my mind with each ping from my phone. Turkle, once a digital optimist, has become increasingly skeptical of the impact of modern communications technologies, particularly with regard to the type and quality of relationships people form through these platforms.

Deanna Thompson was also a digital skeptic, put off by the apparent shallowness of relation that technology afforded (3). Yet her debilitating experience with cancer, and more specifically her participation in a digitally mediated community of support, inspired her to reflect theologically on how this kind of mediation might be a part of the church. Essential to this is to consider what is meant by the virtual: is that just a euphemism for “not real,” or does it carry the possibility of true presence among those virtually connected?

In this timely volume, Thompson weaves personal narrative, scriptural exegesis, and a theology of attentiveness into an argument for seeing digitally mediate relationships as continuous with, and indeed part of, the Christian Church. Attuned to the realities of suffering, Thompson posits that the digital world is deserving of serious theological reflection that avoids the simple pitfalls of technological solutionism on one hand and neo-Luddism on the other. Offering her own approach, she shows how contemporary modes of mediation are continuous with the past, even as they raise new questions.

I am deeply grateful for the five scholars who have joined this symposium. Richard Gaillardetz, the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College, is an internationally recognized ecclesiologist and prolific author. Influenced by his reading of Albert Borgmann, Gaillardetz challenges Thompson on the instrumentalist paradigm he sees in her vision of technology and on the tension between seeing the church as virtual or as sacramental.

This question of what “virtual” means continues in the essay by Katherine Schmidt, Assistant Professor of Theology at Molloy College. Schmidt notes that this question is particularly pressing for Thompson, given her description of the virtual body mediated by St. Paul and his letters. Schmidt also pushes Thompson on the role of strong and weak ties in the formation of community, particularly since many of the critiques of digital communities presume that they are strictly forged of weak ties.

A central feature of Thompson’s text is her reflection on her suffering from cancer and its concomitant isolation. Rolf A. Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament and The Alvin N. Rogness Chair of Scripture, Theology and Ministry, brings in his own experiences of cancer and uses these to highlight the Lutheran theology of the cross that permeates Thompson’s work. To Jacobson, this has further, if not yet developed, implications for how God might be revealed through the digital world.

John Thatamanil, Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary, explores the interreligious implications of Thompson’s argument. Noting the interfaith character of her virtual community, he considers the permeable boundaries of digital communities and the possibilities of solidarity across religious lines.

This leads us also into questions of pastoral ministry, and in particular how those charged with ministry might best engage through the digital world. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, Professor of Pastoral Theology at Notre Dame Seminary, returns us to the question of the “virtual” and questions the impact of this term on ministry. For Zsupan-Jerome, the issue at heart is mediation: not only the mediation of person to person, but the mediation of God to humanity in the flesh.

As a conclusion to this introduction, I wish only to note that this symposium offers us an opportunity to enact something of what Thompson describes. Here in this digital space, as we converse on this text, two or more of us are gathered in the name. Hopefully these coming weeks on The Virtual Body of Christ will help us be more fully the virtual Body of Christ.


  1. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together

Richard Gaillardetz

Response

Can We Speak of a “Virtual Body of Christ”?

I would count myself among those whom Prof. Thompson identifies as “digital skeptics,” yet I was profoundly moved by her thoughtful and achingly personal, theological reflection on her experience of the “virtual body of Christ” as someone living with a stage IV cancer diagnosis. Even if Thompson’s thoughtful work has not facilitated for me the metanoia she hoped for (10), she has nudged me toward a greater recognition of the constructive role that virtual networks and digital technology in general can play in the life of the church.

Thompson is certainly correct in noting that across the history of humanity, each new communicative technology effected a kind of revolution that, in turn, instigated a sense of crisis. Each new technology gave rise to a community of skeptical naysayers. Historical awareness can do much to ease the anxiety of contemporary naysayers. Thompson’s book offers a persuasive exhortation to resist this kind of handwringing in favor of more clear-headed theological and pastoral reflection on both the dangers and opportunities of virtual networks. Central to her argument is her persuasive insistence that it is unhelpful and misleading to think of virtual reality as radically discontinuous with physical/actual/real existence. If we can recognize a continuum in our engagement with the “real,” she has made the case well that virtual reality is potentially continuous with more physically embodied existence (11) and can offer not so much an alternative to the real as an “augmentation” of it.

In her critical engagement with an exemplary “digital skeptic,” Nicholas Carr, she posits two basic approaches to digital technology: technological determinism and technological instrumentalism (15–16). Thompson is no naïve technological booster. One of the real strengths of her book is her sustained engagement with digital skeptics (e.g., Carr, James Davison Hunter, Michael Frost) and her ready admission that there are indeed dangers attached to digital technologies. Yet she argues that in spite of these dangers, “if we’re intentional and imaginative about how we use it, digitized Internet technology can also enhance, deepen, and even transform our connections with one other [sic]” (17). As a quite compelling example, she offers her own life story, sharing with the reader the many ways in which “the virtual body of Christ” was made present to her by way of virtual networks like CaringBridge. While incapacitated and spiritually debilitated by her advanced cancer and the radical treatment it required, through virtual networks like CaringBridge, family and friends who were geographically distant could make known to her their prayers and concerns. Christian communities spread across the globe were made aware of her illness and through these networks, were able to pray on her behalf as a tangible expression of the unity of the body of Christ.

While recognizing the complexity of the issue, Thompson does come down on the side of technological instrumentalism, arguing that “when technology is understood as a tool, its ability to help make lives better or worse depends on how it is used” (16, italics in the original). It is here, with Thompson’s preference for a more instrumental approach to technology that I find my core reservations with her argument. My own perspective has long been shaped by the work of the philosopher Albert Borgmann, whose life work attended to the ways in which technology shapes our experience and assessment of authentic human existence.1 Borgmann’s argument, much influenced by Heidegger, is that our daily lives are increasingly being lived within what he calls the “device paradigm” in which the ubiquity of technological devices, each of which might be entirely defensible, is cumulatively exerting tremendous influence on the shape of ordinary human existence. The device paradigm shapes our experience of ordinary human existence through the processes of commodification and disburdenment. Friction, burden, vulnerability, discipline—these are the dimensions of human existence from which the device paradigm would save us. In this regard, Borgmann maps closely with Neil Postman’s concern regarding the changing “ecology” of daily human existence.2 Here we might consider as well the work of Sherry Turkle, an early digital technology booster who, in her later work, has raised concerns regarding how these technologies may in fact be affecting something as elemental as our capacity for sustained human conversation.3 A more “ecological” analysis of the effects of digital technologies on our daily life might still grant the positive gains and contributions of virtual networks like CaringBridge for extending the compassionate work of the body of Christ. However, this approach would insist on asking whether these technologies might have other, unanticipated consequences for the life of the church. It is precisely these larger ecological concerns that give me pause regarding Thompson’s more directly ecclesiological claims.

Thompson grounds her argument for a positive recognition of “the virtual body of Christ” in St. Paul’s employment of body of Christ imagery. She begins her second chapter with a quotation often attributed to St. Teresa of Avila, that asserts how we, Christ’s followers, constitute his hands and feet in the world. It is a beautiful passage, one that has inspired many to claim their active role within the body of Christ. However, in the very first sentence of the chapter she asserts that “Christ is present virtually, through the bodies and the actions of his followers” (31, italics in the original). As a Roman Catholic, that statement brought me up short. Catholicism’s commitment to the principle of sacramentality leads it to affirm the fundamental sacramentality of the church. Thus, where Thompson speaks of Christ “virtually present” through the members of the church, I would be more inclined to say that Christ is so present “sacramentally.” This then forces me to ask whether in ecclesial discourse Thompson’s use of the term “virtually” here is really equivalent to what as a Catholic I would mean by the term “sacramentally.” The question gained force when I realized that throughout her treatment of Paul’s appropriation and employment of the body of Christ metaphor, she at no point remarked on Paul’s fundamental connection between the ecclesial body of Christ and the Eucharistic body of Christ in 1 Cor 10:16–17.4 I would like to hear more from her on how she understands the relationship between virtual presence and sacramental presence.

Later in this same chapter Thompson builds on the work of Jason Byassee and his assertion that Paul’s body of Christ has always been a “virtual” body. Implicit in Paul’s letters is a sense of the body of Christ that, while focused in individual Christian communities, includes a wider notion of the body of Christ that “does not always depend on face-to-face interaction, one that I am calling the virtual body of Christ” (39, italics in the original). Through Paul’s letters and envoys, he was able to sustain, even in his physical absence, a deep connection to various local churches. He felt himself to be part of the body of Christ even when absent from a local community. For Thompson, this speaks of a “virtual” ecclesial connection that was quite real even though it was different from the kind of physical connection enabled by geographic proximity to these communities. She associates the “virtual” dimension of the body of Christ with the church’s universality. But just as I am uneasy with identifying the virtual presence of Christ with sacramentality, so I am reluctant to identify it with the universality or catholicity of the church. Certainly, Paul felt a tangible and enduring ecclesial relationship to these communities even when he was absent. And, in this sense, it seems quite legitimate to recognize here a trans-local or universal dimension to the body of Christ metaphor. But can we speak of Paul’s spiritual connection to the body of Christ as virtual? I am less sure. For it seems to me that among the salient characteristics of “virtual” community today is that it is made possible by the digital collapse or at least radical contraction of geographic and temporal distance in favor of a kind of digital immediacy. Albert Borgmann has reflected on this through his analysis of hyperreality, an experience of reality that is not “almost real” but in important ways is perceived as better than the real.5 Indeed, Thompson at some points herself suggests that the virtual presence afforded by virtual networks is better than the real. There are instances, she asserts, when virtual presence provides the comfort that comes with an expression of care, but without the discomfort of a physical presence that can be awkward and even intrusive.

St. Paul’s genuine bond to the various communities with which he was in relationship was dramatically conditioned by a sense of absence, longing and anticipation of some later return to the community. Put simply, Paul’s sense of belonging to the body of Christ even when absent from particular communities, was doubtless real, but I do not think it was an experience of anything like what people experience today when they speak of virtual community. For virtual reality, much like Borgmann’s hyperreality, offers a technologically enabled encounter that is often experienced as “better than the real” because it is able to radically circumvent the deprivations associated with temporality and geographic distance.

Virtual community, at least as Thompson understands it, seems less an experience of the universal dimension of the church than a digital extension of the sense of ecclesial locality. That is, virtual networks can allow me to feel and act as if I were geographically or physically present within the local community. This is quite different from a genuine experience of the church’s catholicity. For the authentic catholicity of the church is not a technologically extended experience of connection with a particular local church. It is a recognition of a mysterious spiritual and ecclesial connection with persons and communities who are often dramatically different from one’s own community. Thompson gives moving testimony of her experience of this universal connection effected by virtual networks as she is made aware of Christian communities in other parts of the world that are praying for her. But, of course, the virtual connection will, by necessity, minimize the otherness of that distant community’s practices and theological self-understandings. This doesn’t negate the experience itself, but it does suggest that the virtual network is in fact mediating something closer to an extended local community than a true experience of the church’s catholicity. In sum, I am concerned about some theological slippage in the ecclesial employment of the term “virtual.”

Finally, let us consider another expression of the “virtual” body of Christ that Thompson proposes, online worship. I share with her the conviction that online worship can often be a spiritual lifeline for shut-ins and those with significant disabilities. However, in such instances, we are speaking of online worship as a pastoral accommodation. In the Roman Catholic church something of this is in play as Catholics are encouraged to watch a televised mass as a pastoral accommodation to infirmity, for example, but not as the ordinary and preferred mode of liturgical participation. Although Thompson offers a sympathetic presentation of “fully virtual incarnations of church” she admits that she is “committed to virtual practices of church augmenting rather than replacing in-person practices” (95). However, the logic of her argument made it unclear to me why in fact she wouldn’t want to embrace “fully virtual incarnations of the church.” My own resistance would focus on the ways in which virtual networks are inclined toward experiences of the hyperreal in which it is all too easy to avoid the awkwardness, burdens and vulnerabilities that so often attend upon physical presence.

I agree with Thompson that it is unfair to dismiss virtual expressions of Christian community as always guilty of “click activism.” Clearly, as her testimony eloquently demonstrates, that is not always the case. There can be no doubt regarding the good and caring uses to which digital technologies can be put in service of gospel values. Yet throughout her work I could not shake the nagging sense that while she clearly wished to acknowledge the concerns of digital skeptics, her positive experience of the virtual body of Christ in the midst of her illness ultimately trumped those concerns. I can respect that judgment even if I can’t entirely agree with it.

I am fully persuaded by Thompson that digital skeptics need to be more open to the possibility that virtual networks and related digital technologies can, when employed with discrimination and due discernment, augment and enhance the life and ministry of the church. Her insistence that virtual presence need not always and everywhere be radically discontinuous with physical presence and her many examples of how such virtual presences have, in her experience, been genuine encounters with the body of Christ, all is quite convincing. At the end of the day, however, Thompson’s experience has inclined her to a largely instrumentalist approach to digital technologies. In that regard, her argument may stand as a helpful corrective to the romanticism and neo-Luddite tendencies of so many digital critics, but it falls short of providing a theologically satisfying affirmation of why Christians should be celebrating the reality of a truly virtual body of Christ.

 


  1. Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); Crossing the Postmodern Divide (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Holding on to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003).

  2. Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Knopf, 1992).

  3. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011); Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin, 2015).

  4. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (NRSV).

  5. Borgmann’s analysis of hyperreality is developed in Crossing the Postmodern Divide.

  • Deanna Thompson

    Deanna Thompson

    Reply

    Response to Gaillardetz

    As a recovering digital skeptic myself, I appreciate the opportunity to converse with people like Richard Gaillardetz who persist in their skepticism about the value digital technology can bring to our theologies and ecclesiologies. In Gaillardetz’s appreciative and critical engagement with The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World, he acknowledges being “nudged” by my work toward greater recognition of how virtual networks and digital technology might be used to help the church carry out its mission of being with those who suffer. That he understands (and even comes to embrace) one of the central tenets of the book—that virtual reality is not radically discontinuous with physical/actual/real existence and therefore not an alternative to the real as much as an augmentation of it—is most gratifying, even as he poses several important questions to my project.

    Gaillardetz notes that I utilize well-known digital skeptic Nicholas Carr’s distinction between technological determinism and technological instrumentalism, and that I come down on the side of the latter. Drawing on philosopher Albert Borgmann’s analysis of how technology compromises key aspects of “authentic human existence,” Gaillardetz offers a strong counterargument as to why he wants to remain on the side of the determinists.

    Even as he grants my point that virtual reality can be understood as more continuous than discontinuous with physical or real reality, Gaillardetz invokes Borgmann’s concept of hyperreality, suggesting that experiences of virtual reality are not “almost real” but can be perceived as better than real. Gaillardetz then uses this concept of hyperreality to interrogate my characterization of the positive potential of virtual reality. In particular, he’s with Borgmann on how communicating digitally seems to “save us” from human experiences like burden, vulnerability, and discipline. He’s concerned that when I confirm that virtual presence can at times be experienced as superior to actual physical presence, I am implicitly endorsing a hyperreality that precludes—or at least makes less possible—essential aspects of human existence.

    This is a point worth debating. If virtual interaction can be more continuous than discontinuous with in-person interaction, then it seems possible to say that virtual reality—even in its hyperreal form—does not necessarily preclude access to these fundamental human experiences. Take vulnerability as an example. I write about how for many months following my cancer diagnosis, I mostly was unable to talk in full sentences about what was happening to me, especially on an emotional, spiritual, or existential level. Certainly people who spent time with me in person could observe my physical vulnerabilities. But because of my inability to find words (combined with depleted emotional stamina) during face-to-face conversations, those who were physically present with me often did not gain much access to the other dimensions of vulnerability I was forced to navigate.

    Most often it was only in my online updates when I could “speak” in full sentences about my fear of dying, about ways in which my undone body was undoing my mind, my faith, my world. In providing a forum for my vulnerabilities, the hyperreality of digital technology allowed me to let others into my world of being undone by stage IV cancer, and those hyperreal connections translated into more specific prayers and care for the particular contours of my illness.

    Gaillardetz’s concern for the hyperreality of digital connections also leads him to question my comparisons of Paul’s virtual presence with the ancient churches through his letters and the virtual connections possible through digital technology. He suggests that Paul’s virtual presence contained a sense of “absence, longing, and anticipation” (a lovely observation) that is not part of our current virtual hyperreal experiences. Therefore, he proposes that rather than offering us a view of the universal dimension of the church, my vision of the virtual body of Christ is actually a digital extension of a kind of “ecclesial locality.” For the real/actual church universal offers mysterious spiritual connections with persons and communities dramatically different from one’s local community.

    On the one hand, I see my vision of virtual body of Christ as supporting the kind of ecclesial locality Gaillardetz is talking about. While I received a prayer shawl from my local church community on the day I was diagnosed, through the spreading of my story digitally, five more prayer shawls arrived in the mail from church communities across the country. It’s possible to read this as a (most wonderful) digital extension of the local church.

    On the other hand, as news of my condition spread via digital means, I had mass performed for me in India and in California, hundreds of girls in an East Coast Episcopal girls’ school praying for me weekly, a medallion blessed by a priest friend mailed to me from Canada, and a Jewish colleague praying to Jesus on my behalf in churches all across Israel. More than extensions of the local church, these gifts from outside my denomination seem to creep closer to what Gaillardetz calls “genuine experiences of the church’s catholicity” that he suggests is not present in my vision of the virtual body of Christ.

    I do agree with Gaillardetz that there are ways in which virtual presence via digital technology is inferior to actual physical presence. I offer specific examples of how the physical presence of others—expressed by rubbing my feet, making dinner for our family, driving me to and from appointments—could not have been accomplished virtually. Our body/selves have concrete bodily needs, many of which must be met through physical presence with those who are suffering.

    Because I understand virtual presence as both inferior and superior to real/physical presence, I am not in favor of fully virtual forms of church, a position Gaillardetz questions. Perhaps this is where a stronger sense of how sacramentality is related to virtuality (a point he raises) would have been helpful. That virtual and physical presence are on a continuum means that sacraments can be mediated virtually, but a more developed notion of sacramentality would, I believe, help clarify the ways in which virtual presence cannot be fully separated from concrete material presence.

    • Richard Gaillardetz

      Richard Gaillardetz

      Reply

      My response

      I am so grateful to have the opportunity for this “virtual” experience of community in my engagement with Deanna Thompson. Her response exhibits the same generosity of spirit as was on display in her book. And I should note that her book has had a sufficient impact on me that I have now added it to the required reading for a course I will be teaching this summer on technology and Christian spirituality. In this initial response to Thompson’s post, I will begin with two observations.

      First, I suppose I balk at being placed within the “determinist” position associated with Nicholas Carr. As I noted in my essay, my position is shaped by the thought of Albert Borgmann and I see his position as in fact a mediating one between the determinist and instrumentalist positions. For Thompson the determinist position fails to grasp the “complexity of the issue” (15) and sees internet technologies as ultimately being deleterious to human flourishing. As I hope my essay indicates, I am well aware of the complexity of the issue and do not align myself with any quasi-Luddite tendencies. I recognize ways in which the virtual can helpfully “augment” the real. Nor do I necessarily identify the virtual with Borgmann’s hyperreal. I think there are instances when the virtual can lead to hyperreality, with its avoidance of burden and boredom, but it need not always be the case. That is why a mediating position between the determinist and the instrumentalist views is necessary, one that develops criteria for discerning when the virtual is helpfully augmenting the real and when it is replacing it in favor of the hyperreal.

      Second, Thompson admits that I may be right that at least some of her experiences of the virtual extension of community are less experiences of the catholicity of the universal church and more an extension of the local church. But she still holds that she has also had experiences of virtual, ecclesial connection that fit better into the catholicity of the universal church. She includes examples of responses to her illness that could hardly be viewed as extensions of her local community: mass celebrated on her behalf in India, a medallion coming from a priest in Canada, etc. However, I think this misses the point I was trying to make. I have no doubt that she was contacted by people who are significantly “other” than those in her local community; my claim is that internet technologies like CaringBridge are likely to attenuate and perhaps even domesticate that “otherness” in ways that limit the full experience of catholicity. Knowing that someone in India is celebrating mass on your behalf can be a powerful thing, but it is not the same experience of catholicity as actually attending such a ritual in all its stunning “foreignness.” Here the difference between the virtual and the real is considerable.

    • Deanna Thompson

      Deanna Thompson

      Reply

      My Second Response to Richard Gaillardetz

      I’m deeply honored that Dr. Gaillardetz is giving The Virtual Body of Christ and this conversation such serious consideration, and even planning to use the book in a course this summer—I’d love to hear how teaching the book goes.

      I’m also grateful for Gaillardetz’ correction of my assessment of him as a technological determinist. I am excited that he is interested in articulating a mediating position between determinism and instrumentalism—that’s exactly the kind of work I hope my book will help facilitate. I also appreciate his expanded discussion of why and how he uses Borgman’s concept of hyperreality, particularly his desire to develop criteria “for when the virtual is helpfully augmenting the real and when it is replacing it in favor of the hyperreal.”

      It seems that Gaillardetz wants to keep virtual separate from hyperreality, and deem hyperreality as inherently problematic, especially when it is perceived as better than the real. I see my work as challenging that assumption; I think virtuality can include hyperreality and that there are instances when being connected to one another in hyperreal ways helpfully augments the real.

      I wrote an article about this issue last summer after the shooting death of Philando Castile was live-streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds (https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/7135/social-media-virtual-presence-and-racial-justice). This awful event happened just a few miles from my house. Castile graduated from the same high school my daughter attends. The video of Castile’s death qualifies as a hyperreal event—one that’s larger-than-life real but one where anyone can view the awful event from the privacy and safety of one’s own home.

      At the same time, there was something about the hyperreality of the event—that a white governor and white mayor and a city, state, and nation of white people like myself were confronted with an example of police brutality against African Americans that we hear about but rarely (if ever) witness. I’m not claiming that a viral video can inspire transformation on its own. But the hyperreal encounter of thousands of people with Philando’s last breaths mobilized my hometown around racial justice issues more than any other event in recent memory.

      One of Gaillardetz’s continuing concerns about my suggestion that the church universal can be experienced virtually is that internet technology often attenuates and domesticates otherness. He’s certainly right that virtual connections can and do prevent us from being immersed in encounters with those who are very different than we are, leaving us untransformed and exempted from vulnerability or challenge that serious engagement with others often inspires.

      But I think profound experiences of otherness can and sometimes are facilitated virtually. And that when seen as working together with physical experiences of otherness such virtual connectivity can be part of what it means to be the church catholic. The week after the killing of Castile, my family and I attended a worship service at a church across the street from the school where Castile worked. It brought together people from many different backgrounds, and there wasn’t enough room in the building for everyone in attendance. If many of us hadn’t encountered Philando’s death virtually, I doubt there would have been nearly as great an outpouring of grief and support.

      It seems that for Gaillardetz physical presence is ultimately more important than and superior to virtual presence. The more I live in a world that’s almost always simultaneously virtual and real the more I see potential in the virtual to help us better be the body of Christ both virtually and in physical, embodied ways.

Katherine Schmidt

Response

Weak Ties Still Bind

Professor Thompson’s The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World is one of a growing number of theological treatments of modern technology. Thompson’s book stands out in this burgeoning subfield for its creativity, nuance, and courage. Because a stage IV cancer diagnosis and the subsequent experience of being “really sick” (3) is the context for Thompson’s work, I want to be very clear that my use of the word “courage” is broader than the common (and frankly, overused and somewhat patronizing) use of the term towards people who are or have been ill. Thompson’s text is courageous because it is creative and nuanced. She has the courage to do what few theologians have done with regard to the topic of digital culture: to suggest in theologically serious terms that there is more here than just more sin, and that it is a real human space (warts and all) within which the church not only can but must translate its self-understanding as the body of Christ.

In what follows, I reflect on different aspects of Thompson’s text, focusing on what I read to be the most persuasive and salient features of her argument. I want to also pose a question or two for Professor Thompson on these aspects. Because I find her text theologically rich, it only makes sense that the areas in her work that I find the most appealing are also the areas in which I want to offer a few suggestions for further theological engagement with this unavoidable topic.

In her first chapter, Thompson invokes Stanley Hauerwas to describe a standard by which we might measure our church communities (19). In doing so, Thompson gets right to the heart of the matter for theologians, most of whom find digital culture worthy of study because it represents new (and increasingly totalizing) ways of being social. The church, we theologians might say, is social life par excellence. It is the place in which, through Word and Sacrament, we strive imperfectly to recapture life with God and with each other we once enjoyed in the Garden. An emphasis on the social dimensions of the church has worked itself out in various ways across Christian traditions. It undergirds both the universalism of Catholicism as well as the sometimes singular focus on local communities in Protestantism. It also works out in different ways within the same tradition. For example, it supports both the societas perfectas of ultramontane Catholicism, as well as the communion ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council.

The particularly Hauerwasian contribution to this longstanding view of the church lies in his contextualizing it in an American framework, namely within democracy and capitalism. Hauerwas insists upon the social reality of the church against the simulacra of social connection forged by capitalism and democratic politics. Such insistence is incredibly effective in critiquing cultural dynamics with values out of step with the gospel. The persistent temptation of this insistence, however, has two, mutually reinforcing sides. The first is to idealize the church to such a degree that one’s picture of the church is neither reflective of its human realities nor its susceptibilities to history. The second is to understand one’s cultural context as so thoroughly sinful as to be incapable of bearing the grace of God beyond its direct and instrumentalized contributions to the church community. The first I hear in Hauerwas’s words, quoted by Thompson: “When the church is being the church, it should be a strong-tie environment made up of people ‘who have learned how to be faithful to one another by our willingness to be present, with all our vulnerabilities, to one another’” (19). Thompson forges ahead here by insisting that online networks foster both weak- and strong-tie environments. Surely this is a strong point, and one that needs to be made. She makes it predominantly from her own experiences of sickness, and the online communities from whom she drew support (22–23).

In the spirit of Thompson’s argument here, I want to suggest that we can go even further within the categories of weak- and strong-ties vis-à-vis the church. Near the end of her book, Thompson writes of people in her offline faith community with whom she is also connected online, “I am often struck by how much more I know about those same people’s joys and sorrows from my virtual connections with them than I know about most fellow church members whom I am not connected to online” (99). Her acknowledgment here is in response to Hauerwas: seeking after those strong-tie relationships so central to the church, Thompson argues that the internet can be a place to find and foster them. But need we begin with the assumption that the church should be held to the standard of a strong-tie environment? Thompson’s experience of “hybrid” relationships with her fellows does indeed speak to the potential of online contexts augmenting of ecclesial social life. What the statement above also acknowledges, however, is that our social relationships within the church often fall short of the standard described by Hauerwas. One might, of course, lament this reality. I believe we’d be better served to understand the church as a social body whose members often connect with only weak ties, bolstered by few and precious strong-tie relationships. Thompson’s experiences on this point, I think, challenge Hauerwasian ways of thinking about the church as ideal because of its strong ties. This ideal puts undue pressure on the social relationships between members of faith communities, and tempts us toward easy rejection of cultural forms (such as the internet) that do not meet this standard.1

Though I’ve made much here of the weak- and strong-tie language of social science, ultimately Thompson draws on Paul for her vision of the church in the digital age. As her title suggests, Thompson grounds her understanding of the social life of the church in the Pauline image of the body of Christ. She takes great care to present various aspects of Paul’s life and ministry that demonstrate, as she titles the chapter, that “the Body of Christ has been and will always be a virtual body.” Central to this incisive and important assertion is the medium of Paul’s ministry: the letter. She focuses on Paul’s use and adaptation of ancient language conventions within the letters, highlighting his use of “body” imagery “to help communicate his vision for what it means to be this new community that sees itself unified in Christ” (35).

It is on the subject of virtuality that I find my most pressing question for Thompson: How exactly does the “virtual” relate to the “network”? Before giving her analysis of Pauline ecclesiology summarized above, Thompson acknowledges that to understand “virtual” to mean “almost” (as we often do in its common usage) is inadequate (40). Later, she insists that virtual interactions can indeed be incarnational, and in some cases, more so than face-to-face counterparts (58). But throughout the text, “virtual” remains for the most part theologically undefined, and variously exchanged for terms like “network” (51), “connect/connection” (49), and “shared participation” (48).2 These terms are not synonymous, even though virtual space often facilitates them. We will benefit greatly from definition of such concepts as we proceed as digital theologians. In particular, virtuality is much richer and much more ripe for theological inflection than we see in its communicative or connective abilities. For example, Thompson draws on Elizabeth Drescher to describe Paul as a “networked communicator” (42). This is surely a correct description for Paul, and his letters functioned as symbols of the network(s) created by his communication. But this can obscure a more complex reality: Paul himself is mediated in the letters, for indeed so much of his ministry occurred in his physical absence (a fact Thompson acknowledges). Most recipients of Paul’s teachings would have heard the letters read aloud. Paul’s letters, therefore, operated (and continue to operate) as a virtual space wherein Paul’s very presence as well as the presence of the other communities to which he was in correspondence, is mediated to the hearing church.

Thompson comes just shy of calling Paul’s letters themselves a virtual space, but I think his argument here goes in such a direction. Furthermore, I think that there is great potential here for both theologians and biblical scholars to think deeply about the mediating dynamics of text and text-based culture. That is, while Paul’s letters lend themselves to the category of virtuality in a special way given their moment in ecclesial history, I think all of Scripture itself opens itself to a new hermeneutic of the virtual, especially when understood as the productive space between presence and absence. Thus understood, virtuality becomes a hermeneutic for understanding the vast array of mediating structures within the church even outside of Scripture. Architecture, statuary, sacred objects, music, sensory experiences like incense, devotional spaces, relics, and much more open themselves to new theological analysis of virtuality. Saturated as we are in spaces that blur the lines between presence and absence, we are ready to encounter anew the paradoxes of dualities at the heart of gospel.

By framing her work in the context of her own illness, Professor Thompson has given voice to just one of the many human experiences that challenge the theological temptation to renounce technological culture. I want to close by thanking her for writing it, and for writing it the way she did, for the text itself functioned for me as a virtual space wherein I encountered the body of Christ.


  1. Thompson does make this point later when discussing Paul. She writes, “Paul himself actually had many more weak ties than strong ones.” However, she still seems reticent to challenge the assumption of strong-tie preference within the church.

  2. Furthermore, after what seems like a careful avoidance of the term for the entire text, Thompson curiously and lamentably closes her final chapter by calling digital technology a “tool.”

  • Deanna Thompson

    Deanna Thompson

    Reply

    Response to Schmidt

    I so appreciate Katherine Schmidt’s thought-provoking analysis of my work. Her commentary on the book is cast in ways that open up new pathways of thought for me. First, her take on why this work of mine might be considered “courageous” is enlightening. She rightly notes that writing often gets labeled “courageous” when it involves the author becoming vulnerable, such as when writing about experiences of serious illness. She claims instead that my work is courageous because it’s creative and nuanced, especially when it comes to having something theologically constructive to say about digital culture. Yay and thanks.

    Her analysis of my reliance on Hauerwas and unwittingly, perhaps, on his vision of the church is instructive and insightful. I invoke Hauerwas’s insistence that the church is comprised of people who embody their faithfulness to one another by their willingness to be present to each other in good times and bad. I view this claim through a sociological lens, implicitly endorsing a Hauerwasian view of the church as a strong-tie network.

    Schmidt is right to wonder why I implicitly see church with weak ties as a negative thing. I draw on work in sociology that highlights not just the inevitability of social networks having weak ties as well as strong ones, but I argue that weak ties have their own distinct advantages, not to mention how weak ties are fluid and can morph into strong ties. While I extol the virtues and power of weak ties within our virtual social networks, I miss the opportunity, as Schmidt suggests, “to understand the church as a social body where members often connect with only weak ties, bolstered by few and precious strong-tie relationships.” Affirming the presence of weak ties as an inevitable and even positive aspect of communities of faith pushes back on a Hauerwasian view of the church as an ideal community, a view that “puts undue pressure on social relationships between members of faith communities, and tempts us toward easy rejection of cultural forms (such as the Internet) that do not meet this standard.” This is a really helpful insight.

    Like several other responders in this edition, Schmidt wants to have a conversation about my use of the term “virtual.” Rather than critiquing its use, however, she proposes that “virtuality is much richer and much more ripe for theological inflection” than is immediately apparent in its common usage. While I draw on the work of Elizabeth Drescher, who refers to Paul as a “networked communicator,” Schmidt rightly posits that the significance of Paul’s virtual communication with the early churches is about much more than his approach to networking. “Paul himself is mediated in the letters,” Schmidt writes, an elegant point that I make much less explicitly in my statements about his leading and guiding, his admonishing and empowering, through his letters to the churches.

    Schmidt extends my thinking on this point when she suggests that Paul’s letters are themselves “virtual spaces” that mediate not only Paul himself but God’s Word as well. This insight spurs Schmidt to claim that all of Scripture opens itself to a “new hermeneutic of the virtual, especially when understood as the productive space between presence and absence.” I appreciate that both Schmidt and Gaillardetz raise the issue of how virtual presence contains within it absence as well, and that this dialectic between presence and absence is a theologically productive one.

    In the book I talk about the power of the virtual body of Christ to offer comfort to Paul during his imprisonment. In the first chapter of Philippians Paul writes of his joyful remembrance of the members of the church in Philippi and his partnership with them in the gospel (vv. 3–5). He speaks of holding them “in [his] heart,” their presence powerfully felt by him even when he’s absent from them. This illustration suggests that virtual presence fills felt needs during times when in-person presence is not possible. Similarly, when I was wheeled through hospital corridors from test to test in order to discover the extent of “my” cancer’s metastasis, the prayer shawl draped over my shoulders provided reassurance—even when I was alone—that I was being held by the prayers and support of the virtual body of Christ.

    Schmit’s Catholic sensibilities lead her to suggest that this way of understanding virtuality “becomes a way of understanding the vast array of mediating structures within the church” that “blur lines between presence and absence.” Statuary, incense, relics, and more are opened to “new theological analysis of virtuality.” In the book I talk about being struck by the mediating power of the medallion sent to me by a priest friend, or the cards I received in the mail telling me mass had been said in my honor in India or California. I appreciate the opportunity to continue to learn from my Catholic colleagues about the power of the church universal and its dialectical interplay with presence and absence in the virtual and material worlds.

    • Katherine Schmidt

      Katherine Schmidt

      Reply

      Response to Thompson (2)

      I think the confessional differences in this conversation have much to offer in helping us think more carefully about categories like “virtual” in a theological context. I’m thrilled that thinking about Paul’s letters as virtual spaces seems to make some sense, and I’m thankful for the added insight of Paul finding comfort in the virtual community forged by his letters. Truth be told, I had not given any thought to Paul himself finding community in this space, as I had only focused on how his letters brought his own presence into the lives of his audience, and not the other way around. I think there is much here to ponder as I extend the idea of virtual space into the history of the early church.

      Thompson is right to point out that my Catholic sensibilities have a great effect on how I think about mediation. To the extent that my theological imagination has been formed by the church, it has been formed to understand my relationship with God in a multi-layered nexus of mediating structures. This mediating tendency stems directly from the experience of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Whereas the Incarnation opens the life of God to the human experience in a way that tends toward immediacy, it also (paradoxically, of course) underscores the centrality of mediation to the human experience. It is in this sense that the sacraments qua mediation lend themselves, on my view, to new hermeneutics like virtuality.

      I am left wondering how far the application of the “virtual” can go when it comes to Scripture. I’d be interested to know more about what Thompson (and others) think about the idea of Scripture as a virtual space. When reading ancient rabbinical interpretation of Scripture, I am struck by the way in which they seem to “live” imaginatively in the text. For both ancient Jewish and Christian interpreters, the text seems relatively “transparent” or “translucent” insofar as one can peer through, beyond, or beneath it and into the Divine. I bring this second metaphor to the fore to suggest that to the extent that biblical texts have become “opaque”–that is, one-dimensional or self-evident–it will be hard to understand them as virtual spaces. To the extent that we fail to see text as symbols in a larger cultural matrix, we will fail to understand the possibility of communion within online communities, mediated largely by text.

    • Deanna Thompson

      Deanna Thompson

      Reply

      Second Response to Schmidt

      Before responding directly to Katherine Schmidt’s question about whether or not all of Scripture might be considered “virtual space,” I’d like to return to her point that my use in the book of the term “virtual” remains rather theologically undefined. She’s right about that, and the process of responding to the collection of essays for this symposium on Syndicate enabled me to become clearer about my reasons for doing so. To continue our discussion of confessional differences, I’m strongly influenced by Martin Luther’s theology of the cross and its claim that God is hidden under the opposite of where we would expect God to be. We expect a God of power and might but are met instead by a God hidden in the suffering of the cross. I see “virtual space,” then, as another profane space where God is not expected to be but is, nevertheless, present in unexpected ways.

      So rather than seeing the concept “virtual” as having a strongly theological or sacramental quality to it, I’m more focused on the tendency we have to overlook the possibility of divine presence (and absence) mediated through mundane and profane virtual means.

      But I am intrigued by Schmidt’s proposal that all of Scripture might be considered a “virtual space” in which we live, move, and have being. She argues that while ancient readers of scripture viewed the text as “translucent,” many contemporary readers tend to see the text as “opaque” and one-dimensional. She then claims that such contemporary ways of reading will make it difficult to view Scripture as “virtual space.”

      This seems to suggest that “virtuality” has the potential to facilitate imaginative and textured means of divine communication, a notion I really like. In part because I was so compelled by Schmidt’s proposal that Paul’s letters become virtual spaces themselves for the communities for which he was writing, I think it’s possible to pursue a “new hermeneutic of virtuality” for Scripture that Schmidt proposes. What I’m still wondering is whether Schmidt thinks the concept of virtuality needs to possess a stronger sacramental sense to make that possible, or whether even a more profane meaning of “virtual space” is capable of bearing divine presence and absence today.

    • Stephen Okey

      Stephen Okey

      Reply

      Response to Thompson and Schmidt

      In reading the exchanges thus far, two things strike me as key issues for understanding Thompson’s text and the responses to it.

      First, the ongoing conversation about virtuality and what it means. I agree with Schmidt that “virtual” needs better theological definition. At least initially, a key aspect of that is thinking through the place of the body in virtual mediation. As I read the discussion between Thompson and Gaillardetz, the role of the body and the physical is essential. Thompson wants to argue that there are times when virtual presence is lesser than physical (e.g. rubbing sore feet), and there are times when it is better (e.g. the intrusiveness of a visitor when one feels unable to engage). But in this case, we are (at least rhetorically) taking physical presence as the standard by which we judge virtual presence. Put another way, the body and the physical are necessary for any kind of human presence (I do not live apart from being corporeal, and neither does anyone one the other side of the digital network from me). The virtual, at least in its digitally-inflected sense, depends on the body, even as it might attenuate the body.

      This shows both the attraction to calling digital mediation “disembodying” but also its falsity. This conversation, itself digitally mediated (I’ve never met Thompson in person, although I hope to some day) requires my body’s interaction with a device (in this case my computer), that I encounter through my sense (particularly sight and touch at the moment), and that body is located in a particular place (I’m writing this from a booth at Panera, where I do at least 45% of my writing). Even though our interaction is not physical (Thompson is not sitting across from me in this booth), both she and I are acutely aware of our bodies during it. Indeed, I think the specifics of her (and Jacobson’s) theo-memoir atttest to the embodied dimension of virtual interaction.

      Second, the confessional differences between Roman Catholic (Gaillardetz, Schmidt, and myself) and Lutheran (Thompson and Jacobson) have been particularly instructive for how we think about virtuality. I frame this difference through David Tracy’s analogical and dialectical imaginations. The former, typical of Catholicism, emphasizes “similarity-in-difference” by looking at the relationships to a prime analogue (The Analogical Imagination 408). This “prime analogue” is the event and person of Jesus Christ, and thus it is through Christ that Christians know anything true about God, the Church, reality, and so on. Although Tracy does not develop the connection clearly, the analogical imagination is a broadening of how he sees sacramentality: God is mediated to us through the material world, and thus it is through the particular that we encounter the universal.

      The dialectical imagination, by contrast, emphasizes the differences, even radical discontinuities, between creation and the divine. Tracy here draws particularly on the neo-orthodox Protestant theology of the early and mid-20th century (Bultmann, Tillich, and the Niebuhrs), all influenced in various ways by the hidden God Luther sought in the theology of the cross. For Tracy, the analogical and dialectical imaginations are both classic modes of religious imagination, even as they correspond roughly to Catholic and Protestant (esp. Luther and Reformed) theologies.

      Looping back to the discussion of sacramentality and virtuality, then, I am left with a strange point of tension. Thinking through my own adoption of the analogical imagination, I see digital networks as indisputably part of the created order, and thus it seems reasonable to imagine ways that God might be mediated to us through them. At the same time, digital networks are not physical or tangible, which has long been an essential piece of Catholic sacramental theology. My Catholic-inflected reading of The Virtual Body of Christ sees the text as existing within the tension between those two poles. I am curious whether for Thompson that is a fair reading and question, or whether her theology of the cross approach suggests something different.

    • Deanna Thompson

      Deanna Thompson

      Reply

      Reply to Okey

      My professor, Sallie McFague, frequently told us about her academic journey of being swept up into the dialectical imagination of Karl Barth (“if reading Barth doesn’t move your soul, there’s something wrong with your soul,” she’d admonish us), and his stress on the disruption between majesty of God and the humility of humanity, to eventually feeling much more at home within the analogical imagination of theologians like Tielhard de Chardin. McFague’s work on the world as God’s body, for instance, takes the sacramental quality of the created order seriously, understanding God to be present in and through the all aspects of creation.

      While my theological journey does not map McFague’s exactly, Stephen Okey is right to suggest that my intellectual upbringing with a dialectical imagination framework stemming from Luther’s theology of the cross is being stretched to include elements of an analogical imagination through my experience with and work on the virtual body of Christ. Yet as my Catholic colleagues in this symposium have pointed out, my embrace of analogical thinking is much more implicit than explicit, and has yet to be worked out in a coherent way.

      I agree whole-heartedly with Okey’s insistence that virtual is not disembodied. In the section in the book entitled, “The Digital Age as a Disincarnated Age?” I argue against scholars like Michael Frost who insist our virtual interactions are leading to an increasingly disembodied presence in the world, and I argue for an understanding of the virtual as both “real” and involving our bodies, even if in attenuated way, as Okey suggests.

      Regarding Okey’s request for a richer theological definition of the term “virtual,” it’s true I’ve taken a more dialectical approach, focusing more on what virtuality is not—opposite of the real or the actual—rather than what it is. In the book I invoke digital scholar T.V. Reid’s view that “it is in being virtual that we are human; since it is human ‘nature’ to experience life through the prism of culture, human being has always been virtual being” (Reed, Digitized Lives). Virtuality, for me, then, is a real way of being present in the world that depends on materiality for its existence but also extends beyond, into the realm of culture and, within the context of digital culture, the hyperreal.

Rolf Jacobson

Response

Then and Now: Cancer and the Body of Christ before and after the Digital Revolution

It is a deep honor to respond to Deanna Thompson’s elegant and important monograph, The Virtual Body of Christ. The honor is so deep because Thompson is such a singular, authentic, graceful and gifted theologian. As a person and as a professional, she shines glory on our vocation. I am grateful for the opportunity to join in conversation with her work by means of this response.

“Responding” to the work of other thinkers is an important part of our calling. Often, we respond to each other within our narrow specialties. Psalms scholars respond to each other within the guild of biblical studies. Liberation theologians do the same within the guild of systematic theologians. And so on. Sometimes, as is the case here, we respond to each other across fairly wide interdisciplinary boundaries. And when we do, having engaged a very different kind of work than we normally study, we often ask ourselves, “What knowledge and experience do I have to bring to the table (without having to learn an entire new field of thought)?” So what do I know that I can bring to the table so beautifully set by Thompson’s new book? At least three things. I know biblical studies—especially Psalms studies. I also know the brand of theology that Lutherans and others call the theology of the cross. And I know cancer. I’ll work in reverse, starting with the last of these three.

I. Cancer—Before and After Digital Social Media

I respond here as one who knows cancer. I won’t say I know cancer better than any other cancer survivor—certainly not better than Thompson. But when thinking about how digital media have changed the ways in which the body of Christ can be present with those suffering through the trauma of cancer, I have an advantage (can that be the right word?) over Thompson. I’ve had cancer twice. Once before digital media. And once after.

Although I had known of Deanna Thompson for many years—we are both Lutherans who live and teach in St. Paul, Minnesota; our fathers are both well-know Lutheran pastors—I first met Thompson in the spring of 2009.

That timing was important for both of our personal stories. For Deanna (as I shall now call her), it was shortly after her diagnosis with stage IV breast cancer. That diagnosis and her battle with that disease provide the occasion for much of the reflection she does in The Virtual Body of Christ.

Here is my cancer story, stated as briefly as I am able.

On Sunday afternoon, November 16, 1980, my dad and I were throwing a football in our front yard when my dad called over our family physician, who lived next door, to take a look at a growth on my right leg.

Three days later that leg was amputated at the Mayo Clinic.

Over the next three years, I had over twenty surgeries—including the amputation of my other leg—several courses of chemotherapy, and one regimen of radiation.

My last surgery—one of twelve lung resections to remove the cancer that had spread to both lungs—was July 1980. At the time, of course, we didn’t know it was the last surgery. It just was. The cancer quit showing up.

Twenty-four years passed. I went to college, seminary, got ordained, got married, earned a PhD, had two kids, got tenure. You know, a normal life for a guy with no legs.

In June 2007, a cough that I couldn’t shake turned out to be my childhood nemesis, back like a bad dream. A small sleeper cell of cancer cells had laid low in my right lung for about twenty-six years—since 1980 or ’81. For no known reason, the cancer cells started to grow after twenty-six years. And because I wasn’t getting regular check-ups any longer—after all, nobody in recorded human history had ever gone twenty-seven years between diagnoses—the tumor in my lung got way big, way bigger than it should have been allowed to get.

Back to Mayo Clinic. The tumor was contained, they decided to cut it out. Before they could, I had to do a few tests to show my body could tolerate the surgery. As I went into the last of those tests—an echocardiogram—my wife started a CaringBridge page for me.

I was furious. She didn’t even ask if it was okay. I would have said no.

The test took an hour. When I returned from the echo, there were already hundreds of visits to the CaringBridge page from across the country.

I was grateful. Grateful to my wife for setting up the page, grateful for the outpouring of love through the digital media. Grateful to God for the body of Christ all around me. And let me assure you. I felt the love of Christ and his body throughout that long summer of 2007.

[Update: I am still clear of cancer. And I am very jealous of my world record of twenty-six years between initial diagnosis and late recurrence. #Worldrecordholder.]

My Point: I’ve had cancer both before digital media and after. And in terms of how the media allows us to surround isolated people with the love and presence of Christ, it is way better to be sick in the age of digital media than before the age of digital media.

The most isolated part of my life came in 1981–82, when I was basically bedridden for five months and missed school the entire time. I had almost no contact other than my family and a few friends who would visit when they could. It was, quite honestly, a lonely and terrifying time. I would have very much appreciated the digitally mediated love of the body of Christ in those days. One criticism of the internet—which Thompson addresses—is that digital connections tend to be weaker than more embodied connections. Thompson addresses that critique well, so I will not rehash her work here. But I will simply testify—in a biblical way—that any ties that bind us to each other in times of suffering are worth the effort.

Deanna’s book contains an assertion and a plea—both well analyzed and articulated. The assertion is rather straightforward. First, the church—the body of Christ—has always been a virtual reality. It was precisely that virtual reality that Paul both assumed as he provided pastoral leadership to, for example, the congregation in Corinth from literally across the sea. Building on this assumed virtual reality—that all Christians form one body in Christ even when they are separated from each other—Paul then employed the social medium of his day, the epistle, to be present to the congregations to which he wrote. As Deanna summarizes, “Paul imagined the church not just in local terms but also as extending beyond the individual local communities” (43). In a particularly lovely passage, she argues that “the virtual body of Christ [is] a body that is wedded to but also transcends specific, individual incarnations of church” (47). For our own day, Deanna also issues the plea that the church use the digital media of the internet to mediate the presence of body of Christ to the weakest members of the community. Her plea: “Won’t you join me in proclaiming the good news of the virtual body of Christ?” Yes, I will.

II. The Theology of the Cross

Like Deanna Thompson, I claim the identity of a theologian of the cross. Deanna’s first book, Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism and the Cross, took as its departure point Luther’s early formulation of the theology of the cross in the Heidelberg Disputation. There, Luther wrote the famous dictum that only that person “deserves to be a called a theologian . . . who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross” (thesis 18) and also that a “theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is” (thesis 19).

Deanna continues to work the theology of the cross throughout the middle portions of her current book, especially in chapters 2–4. In these chapters she asserts first that the body of Christ is now and has always been “virtual.” Second, she argues that Christianity—the most radically incarnational religion—must recast its commitment to incarnational living in light of the digital age. (The four points she makes on pp. 69–73 are particularly important). In essence, this section is an abbreviated effort to recast the church’s use of digital media in light of the theology of the cross: “Incarnational living in the digital age, then, translates into a radical openness within the community of the church not only to hearing the cries of our neighbors but also to imagining new ways of serving neighbors in love through both the virtual and actual worlds” (73). Third, she argues for the church’s use of digital media to give care what she repeatedly calls “the weakest members of the body of Christ.”

Deanna’s extrapolation of the theology of the cross and her application of that theology’s themes to digital means of being present to one another are excellent. Here the reader will find the heart of this elegant volume and the theological work that makes this volume a must read for pastors.

I want to press Deanna to go a little further on a couple of matters. First, I want to press Deanna to go even further into the theology of the cross. I would like to see her engage the conversation she has started regarding digital ways of the body of Christ being present virtually, with the greater range of the themes of the theology of the cross. I find that she has focused her theological reflection very acutely on the body of Christ being present to its weakest members, which is one theme of the theology of the cross. But several other skeins of theological yarn are also worth spinning out and weaving into her theological loom. First, I would name the theme of the theology of the cross that God meets us in our suffering. Recall that Luther asserted that only that person “deserves to be a called a theologian . . . who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” Which is to say, a theologian of the cross must be able to name—in the midst of suffering—the present manifestation of the crucified-and-risen Christ. The power of Deanna’s personal narrative and I hope the power of my own narrative is that they bear witness to the transformative presence of God in our suffering. Counter to the rational conclusions of the world, suffering is not proof of the absence of God. Rather, suffering is where God promises to show up and does so, through the ministry of the church. Martin Luther famously wrote in Article III.iv of the Smalcald Articles, “Of the Gospel,” that “through the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints” God “gives us counsel and aid against sin [and] is abundantly rich and liberal in his grace and goodness.”

This is a rather shocking bit of Luther’s theology of the cross. Luther is saying that the ministry of the body of Christ—“the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints”—is nigh unto equal with the preached Word and the sacraments of baptism and holy communion as “means of grace.” If this much is true—and I believe that it is true—then digital means of multiplying the “mutual conversation and consolation of the saints” is not just about the church caring for the weakest members of the community, these digital media also provide the means for God’s very self to be manifest and present in the lives of those isolated by disease, sin, and other forms of isolating brokenness. I fear that I am not being clear enough, so let me try one more time. Digital means of doing ministry are not just about the church caring for its weakest members, digital means of doing ministry are ways in which the Risen Christ himself can be present with the suffering, just as Christ has promised to be.

The theology of the cross, after all, is not just a theology of ethics. It is a theology of revelation. It confesses that Christ is revealed as being present in suffering. The cross has paradoxically revealed God as present in the very last place any rational process of deduction would look for the living God—in the cross, where a savior was tortured to death by the empire. The cross has revealed that the very Creator of life can and must be found in a dead Savior. In fact, if one is looking for Christ one must meditate on the cross and seek out the suffering. As Luther wrote regarding Galatians 1:4:

True Christian religion begins, no at the top, as other religions do, but at the bottom. Therefore whenever you are concerned to consider your salvation, you must put away all speculations about the majesty of God, and put away all thoughts of works, traditions, and philosophy. You must run directly to the manger and the virgin’s womb, embrace this infant and look at him—born, nursing, growing up, going about human society, teaching, dying, rising again. . . .

There is much more to say on this matter, but for reasons of length I must stop here. Suffice it to say that I would like to see Deanna work this theme—and other themes of the theology of the cross—at greater length in terms of her attention to the virtual body of Christ.

A related aside. Deanna dips her toe briefly into some very deep theological waters in the book. Early on in the book, she speaks of interfaith friends mediating blessings to her virtually. How does one frame the issue as “the virtual body of Christ” and also speak of the blessings mediated virtually from interfaith friends? I am out of my depth here, I ask Deanna for help. Later on in the book, during her discussion of digital media cultivating the church’s attention to those who need it most, she touches on the “real presence” of the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament of holy communion; she begs the question of where the promise spoken via a lifestream might convey Christ’s presence to the believers. I know a pastor who experimented with live streaming of worship and at the time of the sacrament announced something like, “And those of you who are watching online, go and get some bread and wine and join us. Christ will be present in body and blood for you, also.” Deanna is very strong and clear regarding digital media’s ability to foster the attentiveness of the body of Christ to those who are in need. But there are murky questions. Are the promises of the absolution, the reconciliation of the peace, and the blessing of the benediction also mediated virtually? What about the promises of baptism and the Lord’s Supper? I do not think the body of Christ will be able to ignore these questions.

III. Biblical Theology—Especially the Psalms

I would also like to press Deanna to engage her reflection on the virtual body of Christ with the Bible more broadly, and especially with the psalms. Deanna chose to frame her theological reflection as about “the virtual body of Christ.” Perhaps because of this (or because she is Lutheran), she draws primarily upon the letters of Paul in her theological. As a biblical theologian, I want to praise Deanna for her careful work with the text. Although trained as a theologian and not a biblical scholar, Deanna’s work with the biblical text—especially her work with the undisputed Pauline corpus and the disputed Pauline corpus—is excellent. Her work with the Synoptic Gospels is similarly strong.

But I want to press Deanna on two small matters. First, regarding Paul’s use of the body of Christ metaphor for the church in 1 Corinthians, I believe one aspect of that metaphor that Deanna slightly underplays is that each member of the body has different spiritual gifts. Recall that one of the things dividing the Corinthian congregation was the dispute over which gifts where “greater”—speaking in tongues, knowledge and prophecy, deeds of power, and the like. Paul emphasized that everyone in the congregation had all of the spiritual gifts only if they all belonged together. Those who speak in tongues need interpreters of tongues or they are merely clanging cymbals. Those who have prophetic powers but lack love are nothing. We only have all the gifts if we persists in the body together. One thing this means for the virtual body of Christ is that those who are isolated and suffering are not merely in need of the care and gifts of the strong and healthy, the strong and healthy also need the spiritual gifts of the isolated and weak. Ministry via digital means is not a one-way flow of grace! Grace and spiritual gifts flow both ways. In addition, we must remember what Paul taught about the spiritual gifts. Each of us has our own unique set of the lesser spiritual gifts, but everyone can seek the greater spiritual gifts: faith, hope, and the greatest of all, love. Digital means of ministry must strive for these greater gifts: faith, hope and love.

Second, I want to press Deanna to engage with the biblical canon more broadly . . . especially with the psalms. Surprise, surprise. I am a psalms scholar. A broken record. As if this weren’t completely predictable.

I raise this issue because I understand the psalms—especially the psalms of lament—as the first-person form in which the theology of the cross gets embodied. The psalms of lament are what the theology of the cross sounds like “out loud.” One of the themes of the theology of the cross is that a theologian of the cross “calls the thing what it actually is,” while a theologian of glory “calls evil good and good evil.” To put this in terms of suffering, a theologian of glory flinches back from accusing God of being negligent or unfaithful in the midst of suffering, but instead offers a stream of profanities that calls evil good. Just four examples: “When God closes a door, God opens a window”; “There is a reason for everything”; “God never gives us more than we can handle”; “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” And other such theological vulgarities, in which the pig’s nose of suffering is decorated with theological snout rings. Such is the theology of glory.

The theologian of the cross says to this, “Crap! Suffering is suffering; evil is evil; pain is pain.” And none of it is good. In the midst of suffering, the theologian of the cross doesn’t prevaricate, but yells at God and says, “Where are you? Why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far from my suffering?” And the like. All of this is the “body language” of the “body of Christ.”

At some point in the future—if we are given enough time (sigh)—it would be rewarding to entertain the conversation about how Deanna’s theological reflections on the virtual body of Christ might play out with other aspects of biblical theology.

————

I wish to reiterate my thanks to Deanna Thompson for this rich and elegant volume, as well as the opportunity to engage in this symposium. It is an honor to know and love Deanna as a friend and to participate in this conversation. May the Lord give us many more years to devote to the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints.

  • Deanna Thompson

    Deanna Thompson

    Reply

    Response to Jacobson

    To have the opportunity to be in conversation with Rolf Jacobson—a Lutheran biblical scholar who also knows cancer—about the possibilities of the virtual body of Christ in the digital age to care for those who suffer is one I cherish. Since my own cancer diagnosis I have been developing my theology and voice through an emerging form I’m calling the theo-memoir, a genre where personal narratives and theological reflection combine. I find Jacobson’s piece so powerful precisely because it also takes the form of theo-memoir, blending pieces of his own heartrending cancer stories with serious theological and biblical work to assess and deepen my own work.

    “It is way better to be sick in the age of digital media than before the age of digital media,” Rolf writes (I’m following his lead of using first names). I am struck by how Rolf’s own skepticism about the ability of digital technology to enhance care for one another during the worst times of our lives was challenged and overcome, just as mine was, by his cancer story being told virtually. While Rolf accepts my invitation to proclaim the good news of the virtual body of Christ, he also has some recommendations of how to sharpen and strengthen the proclamation I’m making. I welcome these suggestions.

    Rolf reads my book as a Lutheran, making explicit what is often implicit in the text, especially my reliance on Luther’s theology of the cross. His proposal that I am recasting the “church’s use of social media in light of the theology of the cross” sums up exactly what I’m trying to do. I see my project as a sustained attempt to help the church see that its relationship to rapidly changing technology is not just about figuring out how to develop digital strategies to more effectively communicate church news and events, but to realize that this revolution in communication offers new and under-explored ways of bearing God’s presence to those whose lives are undone by suffering.

    Drawing from our common well of the theology of Martin Luther, Rolf suggests I can and should extend my use of the theology of the cross. Because Luther’s own reliance on the theology of the cross suggests that consolation seems to rank on par with the preaching of the Word and administering of the sacraments as “means of grace,” Rolf proposes that digital modes of communication are actually ways “in which the Risen Christ himself can be present with” those who suffer. Right. Exactly. Amen.

    Even as Rolf supports my claim that digital connectivity has the potential to enhance our ability to care for one another at the worst times of our lives, he wonders just how and to what extent Christ’s presence is mediated virtually. In the book, I offer a positive endorsement of livestreaming worship as a way to reach and include the weakest members of the body who are unable to attend worship in person. But Rolf pushes me to consider additional “murky” questions, such as whether the promises of absolution, the blessing of the benediction, even the promises of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, might also be mediated virtually. “I do not think the body of Christ will be able to ignore these questions,” he writes.

    He’s right: there is much theologizing left to do about how we understand Christ’s presence acting in and through virtual means. I do not have fully formed responses to these issues, but turning back to Paul is where I’d begin. As Katherine Schmidt helpfully points out in her response, in the context of the ancient church, Paul himself is mediated through his letters, especially as they are read aloud before the community. When the words of institution in 1 Cor 11:23–33 were read aloud to the church at Corinth, did they constitute an invitation to partake in the Lord’s Supper? Or when the closing sentence of the letter to the church in Galatia was read aloud—“May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters”—was that received as benediction? It seems that both could be possible. This does not speak directly to how virtual forms of proclamation interact with the material elements of bread and wine or the waters of baptism, but returning again to the virtual dimensions of the earliest forms of Christian community might offer some assistance in formulating liturgical theologies for the digital age.

    I am emboldened to return to Paul in crafting my response to Rolf in part because he generously affirms my “careful work with the text” to build the case for the body of Christ always being a virtual body, even as he nudges me to consider more deeply how the biblical text can be used to strengthen my vision of the virtual body of Christ. I am also grateful to Rolf for directing me back to the importance in 1 Corinthians of the whole body belonging together. He points out that it’s not just that members of the body who are ill are important because of their need to be supported, but that those who are ill actually possess spiritual gifts that are also vital to the health and functioning of the body—an essential observation.

    Finally, my Psalms scholar friend suggests I think more about the role Psalms might play in the virtual body of Christ. The “body language” of the body of Christ includes lament and interrogation of God, he writes. While I make these points implicitly, I’m indebted to Rolf for bringing them to the fore and assisting me in expanding and deepening a vision for the virtual body of Christ.

    • Rolf Jacobson

      Rolf Jacobson

      Reply

      Reply to Thompson (2)–The Happiness Effect

      Pondering Deanna’s reply to my original response, I was struck by an intersection between what Deanna sees as her project and a recent book by Donna Freitas, “The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost.”

      In her reply to me, Deanna describes her work: “I see my project as a sustained attempt to help the church see that its relationship to rapidly changing technology is not just about figuring out how to develop digital strategies to more effectively communicate church news and events, but to realize that this revolution in communication offers new and under-explored ways of bearing God’s presence to those whose lives are undone by suffering.”

      This is a worthy project and one that I happily join and support as I am able. As we become aware of the “new and under-explored ways of bearing God’s presence” that new social media afford us, we also need to become aware of the new and under-explored ways in which “the devil, the world, and our sinful selves” (as we Lutherans like to say) use new social media to undo us and undo God’s work.

      The new book by Freitas–a student of Christian Smith, who provides the forward–is a study that can help us think critically about one particular peril of social media and then respond gracefully to said peril. (For a review of “The Happiness Effect” by my colleague Andrew Root, see http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/march/theres-no-crying-on-social-media.html.)

      Freitas’s research comes out of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society. She focuses on one aspect of social media that I had been aware of personally, but that I had not been able to name or explore: that social media influences us to project our “best selves” constantly to the world, to broadcast a version of ourselves that is almost perfect.

      Focusing on college students–as many sociological studies do, because college students are uniquely available and inexpensive for university-based researchers–Freitas concluded that young people feel the need to present a version of themselves that is successful, happy, and healthy. It is easy to see why this is the case. Young people are aware that potential employers and graduate schools monitor social media to help determine whether a person is worthy of employment or admission. (And, of course, potential “mates” scan social media to see if a person is datable.)

      Freitas is worried that social media pressures young people in ways that make it difficult for them to experience vulnerability. She learned that many young people were shocked by the very idea that one would publicly project a vulnerable, suffering self on social media. Wow.

      We can now all channel both Brené Brown’s well-known work on vulnerability and Deanna’s work on the ways that naming suffering, vulnerability and trauma on social media is critical to being a cruciform church.

      Brown has taught us many things about vulnerability and resiliency, but perhaps no lesson is as profound as the simple reality that the only way to overcome vulnerability is by being genuinely vulnerable.

      Which is exactly what social media conditions many young people not to do. On social media, we compare ourselves so others. Social media present a new digital marketplace in which we present ourselves as a product for others to consume. And who in their right mind would project an inferior product? One that is vulnerable, that suffers, that has experienced trauma. To do so would be, well, foolish. The wise person in the digital world will project only success–beauty, strength, intelligence, success, courage.

      So what then? For Christians–especially those who emphasize the cross in their theologizing–the answer seems painfully clear. In the cross, God has made foolish the wisdom of the world, proving that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. In the cross, God has proven that the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. In the cross, God has undone the world’s standards regarding ugliness, vulnerability and trauma.

      The theologian of the cross must understand how social media are preaching the theology of glory to all of us, especially the young. The church must understand how the devil, the world and our sinful selves drive us to project an almost perfect self.

      The theologian of the cross must name that drive as idolatry. And the theologian of the cross must be willing to use social media to dwell in the vulnerability and suffering of one another. We can use social media to bear one another’s burdens, but first we must name our burdens openly. We can use social media to tend to our wound, but first we must show our wounds. Which is very hard to do.

      I live a neighborhood in which “competitive parenting” is a blood sport. My wife jokes that you have to have earned at least a master’s degree just to be a stay-at-home parent in our neighborhood. Facebook is for old people. I am one. In our neighborhood, we old people use Facebook to compete in the game of parenting. We post pictures of our burgeoning athletes, successful students, and accomplished musicians. Our kids are successful, victorious, healthy, and beautiful. I usually fall into this trap and play the game. But when someone asks me how my kids are doing, I usually try o say, “Well, they have their ups and downs, their successes and their struggles.” After a pause, I often hear back, “Oh. I kind of thought I was the only one. My kids do, too.”

      Why do we think that we can only share good news?

      A personal story. A few years back, a friend of mine was dying of cancer. The normal oncology protocols could extend her life, but not for long. She and her husband used Caring Bridge–as Deanna and I had done with our own cancer stories–to narrate her story and to receive love and care. They kept the world up to date first about the surgeries, then the radiation, then the chemo, then the experimental drugs and treatments. But when the experimental treatments were stopped, they didn’t update the site. “We only want to share good news,” they told me. The world doesn’t like bad news to defeat, only good news and victory. Broadcasting our vulnerability and defeat to the world is hard to do–especially using a medium that subtly encourages us always to present our best selves.

      Another personal story. A friend of mine, Kate Bowler, last year wrote the best short piece of theology of the cross that has been published in the last decade. Her piece appeared in the New York Times under the title, “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me.” In the piece Kate, who was 35 years old at the time, narrated her recent diagnosis of stage 4, incurable cancer.

      I’ve read the piece many times and shed many tears. She tells of a neighbor who knocked on their door to tell them that she believed “everything happens for a reason.” Kate writes:

      “I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.

      “Pardon?” she said, startled.

      “I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.

      My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.”

      The line that I find particularly relevant to my reply to Deanna is this: “People can’t quite let themselves say it: ‘Wow. That’s awful.’”

      So, putting it all together, what am I trying to say? Simply this. We need to understand that the theologies of glory and prosperity are using social media to preach a deadly law to us: You must project your best self. You must say to world, “I am strong. I am a winner. I am healthy. I am blessed. I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul. I am employable, datable, lovable.”

      But the church of the Crucified One send out a different kind of preacher. One who comes to preach Christ and him crucified. And this kind of preacher–the preacher of the cross–will publicly name her own vulnerability, her own trauma, her own suffering, even her own impending death. She will do so in order to receive love and care and to give love and care to others. She will do so in order that all may know a profound trust. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are . . . He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

      Kate Bowler is such a preacher. Deanna Thompson is such a preacher. We can learn much from both of them.

      Soli Deo Gloria.

    • Deanna Thompson

      Deanna Thompson

      Reply

      Second Response to Jacobson

      I begin The Virtual Body of Chris by telling my conversion story. The story is about how in life before cancer I was a self-righteous judger of the harmful effects of others’ digital devices (I didn’t own any) and the time others spent on social media (I didn’t waste my time on any of that). Then a stage IV cancer diagnosis came along and forced me to resign from my full and wonderful life.  My life became overwhelmed by cancer, and my living was limited to the four walls of my bedroom and the oncology clinic where I was being treated. During those months I was shocked to find myself nourished and buoyed through digital connections that supported me and my family during the worst days of living with this disease.

      Since those days of being knocked down by cancer, I’ve been converted to the ways in which the body of Christ can be experienced virtually, through digital connections. And with the zeal common to converts, I’m eager to counter the arguments of digital skeptics who make many of the arguments I used to find compelling. I’m especially eager to push back against those technological determinists who insist that our technology dictates what’s possible in terms of how we relate with one another.

      But Rolf’s insightful response above presents several earnest cautions about how focusing too much on the potential positives of digital connection and virtual spaces threatens to overlook, ignore, or downplay some pressing issues that theologians like myself need to consider. I’m especially struck by his claim that a theologian of the cross must understand how social media preaches a theology of glory, especially to the young.

      When I talk with undergraduates about Martin Luther’s theology of glory, I talk about how this is still an apt diagnosis of the human condition. According to Luther, we’re constantly tempted to believe that we control our destiny and that we are the ones who make ourselves acceptable before God. I point to the avalanche of self-help books and millions of dollars spent in cosmetic alterations of our bodies (breast implants, tummy tucks) to make ourselves more acceptable—if not as much before God as in Luther’s day—before the societal gods of success and happiness. But I haven’t extended the analysis of the theology of glory explicitly into the digital realm, so I appreciate Rolf carrying on that analysis so well.

      Additionally Rolf’s painfully honest discussion of the pressure many of us on social media feel to present perfect families and amazingly talented children is a gift to all of us who try and resist comparing our lives to others’ depictions on social media, but often fail. Rolf’s use of Freitas’ The Happiness Effect also highlights the way in which pressure for our kids to present only happy, successful, perfect images of themselves online is a real issue, is one theologians and church leaders alike should be talking about.

      One of the biggest debates regarding the increasing digitization of our lives is to what extent our experiences with social media are new (and subsequently, worse) experiences than what we encountered in life before the digital revolution. Even as I’m with Rolf and his perceptive analysis of how theologies of glory are projected through social media, I also think it’s important to be skeptical about how new these issues really are. I appreciate the words of caution from Dea Birkett who reviewed Freitas’ book for her colleagues in the technology sector (https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2017/05/book-review-the-happiness-effect-by-donna-freitas/). Birkett insists that this pressure on young people isn’t new. I agree. Martin Luther King called it “the drum major instinct,” Martin Luther named it a “theology of glory.” We’re predisposed to want to be out front, to be noticed, to project images of success.

      How might theologians and church leaders respond? Rolf is exactly right to lift up powerful counter images of folks who inhabit virtual spaces in ways that offer a theology of the cross. Rolf’s pointing to Kate Bowler and her heartbreakingly powerful New York Times editorial piece as a theology of the cross is right on.

      I also have seen instances where young people refuse to respond to those drum major instincts on social media. Last year a student at my daughter’s high school attempted to end her life on school property during the school day. As this student’s life hung in the balance, we all received messages from the school that the parents were asking for privacy at this time. While local reporters trolled Twitter trying to locate students willing to go on record about what had happened to this student, I was shocked to witness the entire student body go silent on the public spaces of social media, leaving the reporters with only the official school statements to go on.

      Even amid persistent pressure to self-promote on social media, students were able to discern that the most important value was respect and compassion for the family of the student at this awful time. Witnessing this collective act of resistance to the negative pull of social media taught me this: just like generations before them, our kids are capable of using tools of communication in discerning ways. And we older generations need to lift them up when they do so.

      In the book, I draw on religion and media scholars like Andrew Byers who proposes Christians adopt a “cruciform media ethic” for the time we spend online. This means resisting “self-centered posts that aim at boosting online significance” and “vain status updates.” Positively, a cruciform media ethic isn’t afraid to go to those places of brokenness and vulnerability.

      One of the pastors of my church embodied this cruciform ethic on Facebook for Mother’s Day. She posted about how much she loves being a mom and how grateful she is for her mother. But then she wrote this:

      But I’m also aware that the day is so painful to those who are estranged from their mothers or from their children, or those who have unbearable regrets about relationships. I’m sensitive to those of you who wanted to be a parent but did not become one. And I’m especially keeping close those of you who are mothers of children who haven’t been able to thrive, who are sick, or injured, or addicted, or incarcerated, or who have died, and those of you who are parenting alone.

      I see you. God sees you. God loves you and is mothering you in ways you can’t always recognize. I’m sorry this day is hard for you. May tomorrow be easier. Peace be with you.

      “I needed this so much today” one member of our congregation posted in return. Our pastor embraced a theology of the cross, communicated the gospel to many who needed a hopeful word on a day that’s cast as flowers, smiles, and joy but often experienced in grief.

      My thanks to Rolf for showing me how theologies of glory are making themselves known in virtual spaces today, and for leading the way in presenting compelling examples of theologies of the cross that offer a different vision for virtual communication.

John Thatamanil

Response

The Porous Virtual Body of Christ

A Call for Discernment

To be is to be in relation. That rule admits of no exceptions and never has. That ontological truth has been affirmed by a variety of traditions including most especially by strands of Christian and Buddhist traditions. The invention of social media has not altered ontology, but it has transformed the character of our being in relation in innumerable practical ways, ways that we are only just beginning to appreciate.

To begin with, we are now in mediated relationship and ongoing conversation with a range of persons whom we have never physically met and may never meet, by means of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a number of other platforms. What are our obligations to each other? Do we have any? Just who is my digital neighbor? What virtues and dispositions must we cultivate in ourselves if we are to love our digital neighbor, stranger, and enemy? What can my words do, and what, if anything, can they fail to do when I know that no embrace can accompany them? Can I console you or you me when you can never wipe away my tears or me yours? Am I obliged to love my digital enemy who trolls my public Facebook posts?

I know of no richer work of theology to begin to think through and live into these questions with than Deanna Thompson’s moving and profoundly considered The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World. Most readers of these reviews will know that this Lutheran theologian writes from her experience of being diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer entirely without warning in her early forties. A vital, prolific theologian, professor, wife and mother, her life is derailed by a disease that leaves her feeling betrayed by her body.

Then, as Thompson relates, something transpires that in its positive power proves to be nearly an equal and opposite reaction to the cancer diagnosis. Thompson’s life is infused by an intensity of virtual but nonetheless very real love of global reach through virtual platforms like the support site CaringBridge. Her encounter with such love “converts” her to a new confidence that social media can become, as it most definitely has for her, the virtual body of Christ. People whom she does not know, entire churches with whom she has no personal connection, pray for her, send her tangible expressions of care and concern, and bind their lives with hers in ways small and large. Thompson shows us that the reach and depth of this care is hardly ephemeral or even immaterial; deep and sustained connections marked by mutual vulnerability are built across a range of communities—cancer recovery communities, local churches, academic networks, and even into other religious communities.

The language of conversion is not mine—it is Thompson’s, and she means it theologically. She is talking about metanoia and nothing less. Her experience, as she narrates it, has all the raw power of testimony. Even resistant readers, skeptical of digital media, are likely to be moved and, in some measure, persuaded to reconsider the virtual world as a place in which the community of the incarnation can live out a new form of incarnate life with special attention to “the weakest among us.”

Thompson’s experience of metanoia launches her into a wide-ranging exploration of the ethical and theological implications of our hybrid lives as we live them out in “the real world” and “the virtual world.” In a major and decisive intervention, Thompson insists that her readers must give up thinking of “virtual” as “almost,” that is to say almost real. Particularly striking is one context in which she makes this argument: the Apostle Paul’s extensive virtual rather than physical relationships mediated by his letters. Speaking about Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church, she writes, “This point highlights once again the inadequacy of thinking about the term virtual as meaning almost. Paul is decidedly more than almost a part of these communities; he is founder, leader, guide, and inspiration to multiple church communities simultaneously” (emphasis original). She argues quite strikingly that the church catholic has always been composed of more than just its various local communities; rather the church in its very catholicity is a virtual body tied together and sustained by Paul’s virtual epistolary ministry.

Through a variety of encounters and personal anecdotes, as well as through wide reading in secular and theological engagements with digital media, Thompson persuades readers that the virtual world is most definitely real, a complex site in which people articulate their genuine joys and sorrows. Moreover, that virtual world never exists in some ethereal elsewhere but folds into our embodied material lives in countless ways. She demonstrates persuasively that “the often-intimate interrelatedness between virtual and actual worlds can together lead to better support and care not just for the soul and spirit but also for the body” as when the physician husband of a fellow religion professor in another state persuades Thompson to stay with a painful treatment regimen despite serious adverse reactions (67). In Thompson’s case, such virtual interventions proved not only to be consoling but life-extending.

Thompson’s book is good to think and live with for those of us who are both lured and repelled by life in the virtual world. Speaking personally—and Thompson’s vulnerability and candor demand that her readers respond in kind—I experience myself as a walking performative contradiction when it comes to the contrast between my digital life and life in “the real world.” As a Christian theologian who is also now a daily Buddhist meditator, I feel a keen and sometimes painful contrast between what I am training myself to do when I meditate and the tracks of time I loose on Facebook reading and sharing the news links and thought pieces my friends post. In the one case I cultivate capacities for sustained attention and in the other my capacities for focus seems to be dissipated. The capacities for focused attention that I seek to cultivate when I meditate bear little resemblance to my state of mind as I peruse article after article to the point of information overload, a kind of intellectual gluttony that is difficult to justify even if it is done in the name of finding a small measure of political agency in the time of Trump.

Thompson’s volume is helpful and promising precisely because she does not write with the uncritical enthusiasm of a new convert who can see nothing awry about her new religion for fear that critical vision may prove disillusioning. Throughout the book and particularly in chapter 4, Thompson confronts with sober clarity the hard truths of our ever-increasing distraction, dissipation, and even addiction in this digital era. She recognizes the many dangers and pitfalls that come with our new and increasingly all-consuming love for our digital devices. She challenges our propensity for either-or thinking—either the virtual world or the real world, either the virtual is all good or all bad—and calls instead for nuanced theological discernment. She appeals to the work of Jason Byassee and others to argue that Christians must “neither baptize the digital revolution nor reject it” (88). This posture of nuanced judgment will strike readers as exactly on the mark.

What is special is how thoroughly theological she is in generating the criteria for exercising such discernment: can skillful and attentive engagement with digital media tangibly help those among us who are the weakest? Can we engage in cruciform care for others in the virtual world? Thompson persuasively argues that we can and therefore must.

Is the Virtual Body of Christ Interreligious?

As I am a comparative theologian, Thompson’s ruminations are especially compelling because throughout her book, from start to finish, she resolutely seeks to think through the numerous interreligious ramifications that arise from this digitization of our relationships, this virtual constitution of the body of Christ. Thompson narrates any number of occasions in which the sustaining love that she received came from those who are not Christians, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews. Are these persons in their work of love and care part of the virtual body of Christ? Thompson wisely refrains from such naming. Instead, she considers those who belong to this interreligious community of solidarity and prayer part of “the communion of saints who have borne witness to my suffering and cared for the weakest in their midst” (108).

But in other cases, Thompson falls into an appropriate unknowing. When a Jewish friend prays for Thompson by placing a prayer into the Wailing Wall, she is clear that her friend is caring for a Christian in a Jewish way. When that same friend enters Christian churches in Israel and prays now to Jesus, a prayer offered for Thompson but without any intention of conversion, Thompson does not know how to name this moment. Thompson writes, and here we must quote her at length,

While this friend also prayed regularly for me at her synagogue, her literal adoption of a prayer stance of a religious other, not to mention directing her prayers to one her tradition does not regard as divine, requires a somewhat different response to whether or not my friend who is Jewish was, during these moments of prayer, part of the body of Christ. If participation in the body of Christ requires ascent to belief in the trinitarian God and the seal of the cross of Christ in baptism, then clearly my friend is outside the bounds of that vision of the body of Christ. If, however, a vision of bounded openness of the body of Christ includes space for those religious others who voluntarily enter that space and participate in particular bounded practices and thereby embody the command to specially attend to the weakest among us, it seems possible for me to claim her, however briefly, as part of an expanded version of the body of Christ. (109, emphasis original)

The care that Thompson takes in honoring the otherness of her friend’s faith commitments while nonetheless struggling to understand her friend’s voluntary and temporary boundary crossing, mediated to her and for her from across the globe, is an exercise in patient and subtle theological deliberation. She concludes that her friend’s “act is more an act of religious boundary crossing for the sake of the neighbor in need. It is a selfless, cruciform act for the sake of a friend” (109).

Whereas Thompson borrows theologian Serene Jones’s language of “bounded openness,” I prefer a slightly different though related metaphor: porosity. I have in mind the membranes of living cells and tissues that admit a vital flow of energies and substances, membranes that become impermeable and fixed only in rigor mortis. Vitality and permeability require and presuppose each other. Thompson presses a key question about the virtual body of Christ: how porous and even interreligious can the virtual body of Christ be? Thompson’s question is a vital one that should felicitously trouble every ecclesiological undertaking in an interreligious era.

Christian theologians have lately begun to explore one aspect of the interreligious question: the double belonging or multiple religious participation that increasingly characterizes the lives of many Christians who commit themselves, sometimes quite rigorously, to practices of yoga and Buddhist meditation. Even here, the literature is only just now gaining in quantity and quality. But Thompson knows that she is asking another question that asks not what Christians are doing when they cross over, but what non-Christians are doing when they take up Christian practices. What are we to make of those from other religious communities who participate in the corporal works of mercy and hospitality to which the Christian community is called by virtue of discipleship to Jesus the Christ? How to recognize and honor how “Christian” such works of love are—especially when they are done in the name of Christ—and yet without surreptitiously baptizing religious others who in no way intend to convert?

Thompson’s line of interrogation calls to mind others like Mahatma Gandhi who was perfectly willing to call himself a disciple of Jesus albeit a resolutely Hindu one, one moreover whose familiarity with and practice of nonviolent suffering love was explicitly inspired by the careful study of Christian scriptures, most notably the Sermon on the Mount, often with Christian readers. It is noteworthy that Gandhi’s interreligious ashram community routinely included the prayerful singing of Christian hymns. Were his interreligious ashrams also part of the virtual body of Christ? Here we venture a conclusion that would not surprise Thompson in the least: perhaps the body of Christ has always been porous well before that porosity was amplified by new virtual and digital modes of participation.

  • Deanna Thompson

    Deanna Thompson

    Reply

    Response to Thatamanil

    Several years ago I had the pleasure of participating in an AAR/Luce-funded seminar called “What Difference Does My Neighbor’s Faith Make for Mine?” led by John Thatamanil and other stellar scholars working in comparative theology, the seminar ushered us into burgeoning conversations about how our scholarship can catch up with our increasingly interreligious lives.

    That year-long experience inspired me to add a new course—Christianity in an Age of Religious Diversity—to my teaching repertoire and with it, to explore more opportunities for interreligious conversations with students, local religious leaders, and myself. But integrating insights into my scholarship from that year of thinking beyond the theological parameters within which I live, work, and worship has come more slowly for me.

    This project on the virtual body of Christ represents my first attempt at theological reflection on the difference my neighbors’ faith makes for mine. When I got sick, the community of support that grew up around us extended far beyond the bounds of Christian community. I live and work in urban communities, so the religiously diverse nature of our community of support was, on one level, unsurprising. But being sick has made visible how virtual connections via digital technology make possible connections across religious lines that often have not been as prevalent in life before the digital age.

    That many gifts of healing and hope have been bestowed on me and my family by those of other faith traditions (and by those of no tradition at all) presents new opportunities for me to consider what theological language to use when speaking about their healing presence in my life. I have learned from Thatamanil about the ways Christian theologies bear false witness against neighbors of other faiths when they simply drop them into already-determined Christian frameworks. In his assessment of my wrestling with these issues, he describes my uncertainty about exactly how to talk about my Jewish colleague’s petitions of Jesus to heal her friend with cancer as an “unknowing,” a gracious characterization of the still-searching nature of my reflections.

    Thatamanil notes that I work with Serene Jones’s image of the “bounded openness” of the church to consider whether or not boundaries of the virtual body of Christ reach all the way to those who, like my colleague, enter into a Christian space, often for the sake of the other. To facilitate further thinking on this topic, Thatamanil proposes the metaphor of “porosity,” an image drawn from the world of membranes that suggests a “vital flow of energies” between and among cells and tissues.

    I thank Thatamanil for this image. I also appreciate his observation that what I’m trying to get at in considering the limits of the virtual body of Christ is “what non-Christians are doing when they take up Christian practices.” When phrased this way, the concept of “porosity” opens up avenues for considering ways in which religious communities and their accompanying practices, like membranes, allow some things to pass through.

    I find Thatamanil’s invocation of Gandhi and his porous engagement with Christian practices especially instructive. Thatamanil wonders whether Gandhi’s “interreligious ashrams”—places where Christian hymns were sung and spaces where Gandhi referred to himself in unabashed ways as a disciple of Jesus—were part of the virtual body of Christ. “Perhaps the body of Christ has always been porous long before the porosity was amplified” by digital forms of communication, Thatamanil writes.

    Excellent point. When I talked recently with a group of pastors in Winnipeg about whether their online networks included people of other faiths, everyone confirmed their virtual relatedness to persons outside Christianity. While virtual connectedness on its own says nothing about what’s happening religiously, the fact that we are in relationship—virtually and actually—with persons from other traditions suggests that reflections about how porosity might be amplified by virtual forms of communication is a worthwhile pursuit.

    Thatamanil also offers some reflections on what I have to say to those who are “lured and repelled by life in the virtual world.” He suggests that the vulnerability and candor of my writing demands my readers respond in kind. (I’m not sure I “demand” such in-kind responses, but I am moved by Thatamanil’s vulnerable, candid assessment of his perceived disconnect between his own virtual and actual life.) As a Christian theologian who practices Buddhist meditation, he admits to seeing himself “as a walking performative contradiction” in terms of the disjunction he experiences between his virtual and physical lives. In his daily physical practice he nurtures a careful attentiveness, but while on Facebook and other social networking sites he regularly experiences information overload and dissipation of the attention he works so hard to cultivate.

    As other responders point out, I draw on theologians and digital scholars alike to persuade readers that our “virtual” lives and “actual” lives are not diametrically opposed but rather in relationship to one another on a continuum. Even as Thatamanil is sympathetic to this insight, his honest accounting of the experiential disconnect reminds us all of how challenging it can be to experience an embodied continuity between our virtual and material realities.

    That he finds my theological proposals valuable for cultivating skillful and attentive approaches for virtual care of those among us who suffer is gratifying to hear. But his confessions of the persistent challenges he faces begs the question of whether we who are virtually connected might better support and encourage one another to live in less contradictory ways. Thatamanil asks, “Who is our digital neighbor?” And “what are our obligations to each other?” It seems that virtually encouraging one another to be more embodied, more virtually and actually integrated, might be part of such obligations.

Daniella Zsupan-Jerome

Response

Mediating the World in Digital Spaces — Pastoral Considerations

First, I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. Deanna Thompson for composing this book by means of weaving together her own experience of suffering and healing with theology and a keen examination of digital culture. In proposing her thoughts from this particular perspective, her approach resonates deeply with that of pastoral theology, which is my field of expertise. I am happy to add another resource to my bookshelf that can serve my teaching. I also would add a note of appreciation about her goal to invite ministers and pastoral leaders to consider digital culture anew and from a more constructive standpoint. This too is music to my ears and I join her with my own deep commitment to this approach.

Among the many interesting points made in The Virtual Body of Christ, I have selected two with which to enter into deeper conversation. The first point appears at the end of the first chapter (23f.) in the section where Dr. Thompson makes the case for her use of the word “virtual” as the term to describe the digitally mediated communication and interaction that can take place online. I fully agree with Dr. Thompson’s overall point that we ought not persist in the now artificial distinction between “virtual” and “real” experiences; as she quotes Reed, “we are always in the ‘real world’ even when we’re also online” (24). Online experiences are still real experiences, embodied experiences and authentic experiences, even if they are differently mediated than being face-to-face. For pastoral theology and ministry, this is can be a revelatory point, and serve as a constructive starting place for thinking about serving people and being church in and through digital culture.

Where I would like to enter into dialogue with Dr. Thompson is around whether the term “virtual” is indeed the best one for inviting pastoral ministers into seeing the potential of digital communication, encounters, and interactions as real. What she seeks to define are real experiences that are digitally mediated, and therefore undeniably different in this sense but nonetheless bearing the potential to be authentic, truthful, meaningful and healing. This is a worthwhile question in and of itself. I wonder though if using the term “virtual” to describe this kind of experience shuts down the conversation with those in ministry before it can even begin, particularly those who express some hesitation or suspicion about digital culture (which are many of our ministers.) “Virtual,” to those who hear the word without having studied its connotations in depth, evokes the mental images well noted by Dr. Thompson: VR simulators, Second Life, or simply something that is de-facto contrasted with actual reality or real life (24–25). Dr. Thompson builds on Reed and Boellstorff to deconstruct this stereotype.

For reaching those in ministry, the language of “virtual” may not be the most effective. Even though Dr. Thompson briefly suggests an intriguing connection between virtual and virtue on p. 26, I generally perceive the term virtual as outside of the comfort zone and ministerial vocabulary of the average church leader or minister. Therefore, my concern is not with the overall meaning that Dr. Thompson is communicating in this section, but rather with the term itself as not the best term to engage and entice ministry audiences to look closely and more constructively at digital culture.

I am still searching for the perfect alternative to propose, but I do sense that it would have to be a term already within or friendly to theological or ministerial vocabulary. From my own Roman Catholic theological tradition, I see a lot of potential in this regard in the term “mediated” as opposed to “virtual” to convey a reality that is communicated differently than a face-to-face interaction. “Mediated” is a term that carries theological meaning, and the kind of theological meaning that is especially enriching for thinking about digital communication as a whole. Mediation is a fundamental principle in the theology of revelation (God’s self-communication to humankind), in understanding Christ’s role and identity as the Son of God and Son of Man, and in the operation of divine grace as bestowed on humankind. More specifically to Catholic theology, mediation is a key concept for understanding the liturgy, sacraments, and Christ’s real presence in and through these, especially the Eucharist. Mediation, put in simplest terms, is a theological concept that ponders how divine grace and presence touches, imbues and transforms that which is not divine.

From our theological tradition, we therefore have a foundation for thinking about something being “mediated.” The history of human communication also adds its own particularities to this term, but these are not necessarily at odds with the theological meaning. After all, theology of mediation is also founded on communication, the self-communication of God. When we think about how presence is conveyed through a letter, print or the screen, we are thinking within the same ballpark of questions that ponder the mediated presence of God in our concrete, finite and limited reality. To label communication in our digital culture as “mediated” or “digitally mediated” therefore roots the question in theological soil, and makes the conversation friendlier and more inviting to those in ministry. There is a theological stability to the term “mediated” that can be more useful than “virtual” when encouraging and empowering our churches to go and proclaim the good news in and through these new digital spaces. I look forward to Dr. Thompson’s thoughts on this, as she indeed uses the term “mediated” briefly in a quote from Horst and Miller on p. 26, although the meaning there is less constructive than the theological approach I propose here.

The second point I would like to note comes from chapter 3, “Incarnational Living in the Digital Age,” in which Dr. Thompson explores the role of the body vis-à-vis presence and place, and how this is possible in digital communication. She masterfully illustrates the weighty and undisputable role of the body through an unflinching description of her own illness. She also raises the salient point that pastoral presence offered to those experiencing illness is a difficult matter: we are called to offer it as a basic corporal work of mercy, but it can be difficult to even impossible, evoking complex emotions in both minister and patient. From the perspective of pastoral theology, I appreciate the suggestion that digital presence extended to a person suffering illness ought to be at least on the menu of ways we extend pastoral care to the sick. A compelling reason for this is empowerment of the patient to maintain some boundaries and agency during the experience of illness. Just like it is prudent and pastorally sensitive to ask a patient permission to enter their hospital room (or home), or to discern whether it is better to telephone or to plan for a face-to-face visit with a person in grief, it is likewise prudent and pastorally sensitive to give a person with illness a choice in terms of how they wish to be present to the ministry worker. It is one of the few choices they can indeed make in the context of their suffering, as it is a choice that retains and communicates their dignity. Extending a mediated ministry presence can legitimately be one of the options a person chooses along these lines.

An invitation I would pose to Dr. Thompson is to elaborate on the other half of the Incarnation equation, specifically on the Word becoming flesh. (She does a great job on the flesh part.) I offer this invitation because one of the most compelling lines in her book, which comes early on, describes the virtual space as a space where she could “begin to share the particularities of [her] story [which] proved a vital tool to help [her] create a narrative of the suffering and upheaval metastatic breast cancer forced into [her] life” (5–6). The function of the word in interplay with the flesh is a profound aspect of this sentence. In a sense, narrating her suffering through digital conversations was an incarnational experience that not only acknowledged the body but provided hope, healing and meaning. In the context of virtual spaces, this was done in and through her word, through the narration of her experience. I see an experiential statement here with deep resonance with the theology of the Incarnation.

Returning to chapter 3, I would like to see the life-giving and meaning-making function of the Word find a place next to the case she makes for the importance of the body, particularly as we think about Christ, the Logos and Christ, the Incarnate Word, and what this implies for the theological relevance of communication. In the context of the Incarnation, Word and body are intimately intertwined, and animated by the Spirit. How can we discern Word and Spirit then in spaces that are mediated, virtual or differently embodied than face-to-face communication? We must acknowledge here precedence in the Christian tradition, such as the way the letters of Paul or other words of Scripture reveal Word and Spirit. This leaves us with the question of the potential of other media (such as digital) to do the same, to what extent, and in what ways.

I am looking forward to Dr. Thompson’s further reflections on these and other points.

  • Deanna Thompson

    Deanna Thompson

    Reply

    Response to Zsupan-Jerome

    It is gratifying to hear from Daniella Zsupan-Jerome that my examination of the ministerial possibilities of digital tools finds resonance within the field of pastoral theology. Religious leaders are an important audience for the book. Because the “virtual world is our world” (a point I make in the book), the time is ripe for robust discussions about how religious communities live into the digital age. Zsupan-Jerome is right to note that I’m interested in moving the conversation beyond whether or not churches have impressive digital platforms or effective digital strategies. It’s the imaginative thinking I’m most interested in: to consider how the current technological revolution might provide new pathways for the church to better be the church, especially in caring for those whose lives are undone.

    Because she supports constructive thinking (and engages in it herself in her own scholarship) about new ministerial possibilities made possible through digital culture, Zsupan-Jerome wants to debate whether “virtual” is the most effective word to use when talking about connections made possible through digital technology. She acknowledges that in my discussions about why I use the term, I attempt to override colloquial understandings of “virtual” as “almost” or “not quite,” as well as challenge common conceptions of “virtual reality” as diametrically opposed to “real reality.” Even with such qualifications, Zsupan-Jerome finds the term to be outside the comfort zone and ministerial vocabulary of many church leaders and ministers and therefore not the optimal choice for this kind of project.

    Rather than trying to inject theological meaning into a term that lies outside a shared theological vocabulary, Zsupan-Jerome advocates instead for the term “mediated,” a word rich with theological meaning. She points out that I open a door to using the word “mediated” when I reference anthropologists Heather Horst and Daniel Miller and their insistence that human beings have participated in mediated interactions for as long as we have been around.

    What language theologians choose to talk about our digital revolution is an important issue, and a key reason why theologians and church leaders need to be having more conversations about these issues. It’s also difficult to approach any kind of consensus about what language to use when agreed-upon terminology for the latest technology is constantly in flux. The first title I proposed for this project was The Virtual Body of Christ: Being the Church in a Wired World. The editors kindly pointed out that most of digital technology has gone wireless. Zsupan-Jerome observes, as I do, that there’s been some shift in language away from the term “virtual” toward talk of “augmented” reality, because increasingly our interactions are being constantly augmented by digital technology. So, what language shall we use?

    Zsupan-Jerome is certainly correct in arguing that the term “mediated” is more “theologically stable” than the term “virtual.” At the same time, precisely because of the point made by Horst and Miller—that human communication has always been mediated, to talk about the body of Christ as a “mediated” body would likely not strike readers as anything new. My use of “virtual” (even as I argue that Paul’s relationship to the early churches was often a “virtual” one) is trying to get readers to consider that this “new” form of interaction might actually have ancient—even Christian—roots.

    Zsupan-Jerome’s pushing me on this issue has helped me clarify why I use it. As Rolf Jacobson notes in his response, I’m deeply influenced by Martin Luther’s theology of the cross, particularly in his belief that God is hidden sub contrario, opposite of where we except God to be. The common understanding of being “virtually connected” to others is that we’re connected in an inferior way than we are in “real,” in-person interactions. That I discovered—to my shock—that Christ can be mediated through this seemingly inferior, less-than-real mode of communication is leading me to testify to God’s presence in a space where God would seem least likely to be. Using the term “virtual” to proclaim that message seems to make that point in a more exclamatory way than a sturdier theological term would or could.

    Finally, Zsupan-Jerome suggests that my virtual narration of how stage IV cancer upended my life was “an incarnational experience that not only acknowledged the body but provided hope, healing, and meaning.” And because of how words spoken virtually were closely tied to physical forms of care and healing offered to me by the virtual body of Christ surrounding me, Zsupan-Jerome encourages me to make more explicit the theology of the incarnation I’m implicitly proposing.

    She helpfully points to the ways in which Christians affirm that Paul’s letters reveal Word and Spirit, and then wonders how we might discern Word and Spirit “in spaces that are mediated, virtual or differently embodied than face-to-face communication.” The accent of my argument (as Rolf Jacobson also highlights) is more on the insistence that Word and Spirit are manifest in such spaces and less about how this is the case.

    Zsupan-Jerome’s observation leads me back to Martin Luther’s understanding of God coming to us as Word enfleshed, in forms we don’t anticipate, like an infant in a stable or a man on a cross. The incarnate Word is made manifest in, with, and through such lowly means pro nobis, Luther says—for us. In the last section of chapter 3, I sketch an incarnational theology for the digital age, and in it, I talk (with help from Andrew Byers) about cultivating a “cruciform media ethic” for our use of digital technology. This claim emerges from the conviction that Christ’s—the Word’s—presence takes cruciform shape as it is mediated in the world.

    Given that Zsupan-Jerome has written her own book on the church and the digital age, I’d love to hear more of her own thoughts about the Word being mediated through digital means. Thanks for her invitation to think more deeply in that direction.

    • Daniella Zsupan-Jerome

      Daniella Zsupan-Jerome

      Reply

      Reply by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome

      I appreciate Dr. Thompson’s reply and find myself thinking further with the profound point she draws from her Lutheran theological background, namely the “Word enfleshed in forms we do not anticipate, like and infant in a stable or a man on a cross” and God’s revelation hidden sub contrario, opposite of where we expect God to be. This point from the wisdom of Luther certainly finds resonance within the broader Christian family, and it is compelling ground for thinking about God’s self-communication today in places and contexts today we least expect it. One of these could be digital culture. I admit to having thought about Luther’s idea of revelation sub contrario much less than perhaps Dr. Thompson has, but here I will endeavor to reflect with it further and I welcome correction in areas lacking.

      What first comes to mind for me about unexpected moments of God’s self-communication is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 about recognizing him in those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, and imprisoned. In these contexts of human suffering, God is present, and those who recognize this and minister to persons in these contexts are considered righteous. Similarly, from Dr. Thompson’s reply, the infant in a stable is a child in poverty, while the man of the cross is suffering torture and execution. In all of these contexts, we can note that God’s self-communication is not only unexpected, but found precisely in the midst of suffering in some form. As Dr. Thompson notes, this is calling us back to the theology of the cross and I agree that this is a salient area to further explore, especially when it comes to ministerial formation for digital culture in our schools and seminaries.
      I am energized by this point. Digital culture and opportunities therein for ministry are not just something to consider because this is the way our world is today. Rather, I find strong impetus in reflecting on experiences of suffering found in digital culture as the precise loci where ministry must enter to recognize, honor and serve the presence of God. Pastoral ministry must ask then, who are the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the imprisoned in digital culture? Where are poor, the tortured, the unjustly condemned found online? Where does the cross cast its shadow in digital spaces and how can those engaged in ministry create opportunities online to lead people from this toward the empty tomb? In my own Catholic tradition, Pope Francis reflects similarly when he challenges us to think about digital spaces through the lens of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and to ask ourselves who is our neighbor online, while recognizing the digital context “as a street teeming with people who are often hurting, men and women looking for salvation or hope.” (48th World Communications Day Message)  It is in these contexts, where people are left robbed and bruised on the side of the road, that ministry must show up with the Good News.

      Dr. Thompson’s particular experience with suffering is one comprehensive example that had impact on her both online and face to face; in some sense she brought her suffering online as a means of coping with it. In addition to this, the digital context also generates its own kind of suffering too, one that is discovered or enhanced through the screen: online harassment and verbal violence, cyberbullying, identity theft, proliferation of falsehoods, addiction, gambling, pornography, and the live broadcasting of violent crime such as the April 2017 murder of Robert Godwin. These forms of violence can of course be found in non-digital contexts, but they find new expressions with far reaching effects through our digital communication practices. A challenge for those in ministry is to discern the call and opportunity to serve in the midst of this brokenness. If we view the body of Christ online through the lens of the cross, these perhaps are some of the new calvaries we must approach.

    • Deanna Thompson

      Deanna Thompson

      Reply

      A Cruciform Way of Being in the Digital Age

      My thanks to Zsupan-Jerome for picking up some of the themes of the theology of the cross and playing out possible implications for Christian ministry in the digital age. That cruciform living is actually definitive of Jesus’ way of living in the world should be evident to all of who follow Jesus, but as Zsupan-Jerome points out in her reference to Matthew 25, Christians are constantly needing to be reminded that God is present with those in our society who are too-often ignored or discounted. One of the radical aspects of the theology of the cross is its assertion that God is present not just where we least expect God to be, but also in people and places we tend to discount, overlook, and ignore.

      Zsupan-Jerome insists, as theologians of the cross are wont to do, that God is found “precisely in the middle of suffering in some form.” I agree with this claim, and attest to it through The Virtual Body of Christ, but it’s also important to offer a few qualifications. First it is vital this assertion in understood descriptively rather than prescriptively. Theologies of the cross often get critiqued for the ways in which they appear to be endorsing suffering. Applied to a digital context, it is vital not to say to those who experience cyberbullying, for instance, that this is an opportunity experience God amid suffering.

      To live in a cruciform way online does mean that, just as Jesus says in Matthew 25, there are times we are called to enter into the space of suffering that’s often ignored or bypassed in order to serve the neighbor in love, especially when they’re suffering. And Zsupan-Jerome is encouraging further reflection on what this looks like in the digital age.

      In an online comment in this symposium, Lutheran theologian Eric Trozzo, writing from his location in Bornea as a seminary professor there, reminds us that taking a cruciform posture toward the least among us in the digital age might mean paying more attention not just to those who still lack internet access but also to the question of whether or not digital technology is a morally neutral tool, especially given the environmental costs worldwide, especially in places like Bornea where people use their very limited electricity to charge phones rather than support the daily physical needs of themselves and the people around them. Trozzo interjects a necessary caution into my claim that “the virtual world is our world,” and therefore we should dive in and use it wisely.

      But a cruciform posture that attends to the economic and environmental costs of digital connectivity must also address the reality that for the majority of persons in the first world, the virtual world is our world, and it’s vital to think more intentionally about what cruciform living looks like online. This is a question, Zsupan-Jerome and I agree, that churches and pastors need to be wrestling with. As I discuss in chapter 5 in the book, the digital revolution offers the church some valuable opportunities to rethink ministry and what pastoral leadership looks like. I offer an illustration of a church that utilizes a closed online social network that allows church members to post prayer concerns. By opening up that opportunity, folks who are suffering in similar ways (wrestling with infertility is the specific example I reference in the book) find each other and start an in-person support group.

      This illustration helps me wonder about how churches might start having intentional conversations about what it means to embody Christ online, and how such conversations could open up some opportunities to gather online practices that people already engage in to try and use digital tools to help us better embody Christ to one another. Even though our lives are quite thoroughly augmented by virtual reality, I still hear relatively little about this daily phenomenon from our churches. As Zsupan-Jerome proposes, the virtual world provides new situations in which to imagine what it’s like to bear witness to the God of the cross and the resurrection. I appreciate her thinking with me on what this looks like in the digital age.

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