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.
Sherry Turkle, Alone Together↩