Last week there was an interesting Twitter conversation about the possibility of sacraments online. It really got my mind buzzing and in idle moments since I’ve found myself still chewing the issues over.
My mind is going to and fro between 2 poles:
On the one hand, I completely understand that online churches and Christian groups might want to ‘do’ sacraments. For the overwhelming majority of Christians they are a fundamental part of Christian life. Whatever you make of them exactly, they are an amazing gift to us from God by which we experience and respond to grace, and through which we know we belong to a whole host of brothers and sisters in faith. How can we possibly be Christians and faith communities without the sacraments?*
On the other hand, I can’t get away from the sheer materiality of sacraments. The whole point is that they are STUFF, actual stuff: bread, wine, water. They are a fleshly gift which makes real to us the presence of God and which grasps hold of us in our bodies to induct us into the work of God. How can a sacrament be a sacrament if it isn’t made of stuff? How can we believe that the Word became flesh if it isn’t given to us in our bodies as well as our hearts and minds?
The trouble is, these are not actually 2 poles on a single spectrum, they are 2 different sets of issues which quickly start to unravel into hordes of complexities. Here are 3 for the melting pot:
1) How new does our thinking have to be here? Are we in a wholly new situation here, in which human beings are beginning to live unphysically? Or are we in a more modest situation, one which is derivative from and referential to embodied life as we know it?
In the first case, Christians will be having to do some Very Big Thinking Indeed about how to incarnate the Word made flesh. In the second case, we will have the simpler task of going on reminding ourselves of the importance of the flesh, the body, in human living. I think we are pretty much in the more modest scenario, but it’s worth bearing in mind what would be sustainable in the more radical one. In any case, we must avoid falling into the church’s most persistent sin: dualism, the separation of the flesh and the spirit/mind, and the belief that it is possible (even desirable) to be a Christian without attending to the physical and without submitting to the lessons of the flesh – making the incarnate Word a mere idea.
2) What is the relationship between the online avatar and the offline person?
If the avatar is baptised/receives communion, does the offline person? I am tending strongly towards a strong relation and a definite ‘yes’ being the norm. The implications are big! It means, for example, that a person baptised in Second Life would be recognised as baptised by churches offline. Bother – see how quickly questions of church order and mutual recognition appear! But it seems essential to me that online sacraments are fully recognised offline or they run the danger of only counting as sacraments in the experience of the individual and not in the life of the church, and of opening up a chasm between online and offline believing.
3) What would a sacrament look like online?
If cyber-sacraments need to be appropriate to the internal logic of cyberspace and also in continuity with offline tradition and practice, how do we do bread and wine and water here? Representations of bread and wine are not the same as bread and wine, and my avatar eating bread and wine is not the same as me eating it offline. But it is already accepted that in extremis a person may receive communion without being present to receive the physical elements, so there is a precedent on which to build. Intentionality, the communal context , the authorisation of the minister and the persistent emphasis that this is to be lived out in the whole of your life, may perfectly well create an appropriately embodied sacrament across the online/offline totality. This is undoubtedly complicated but, let’s face it, sacramental theology has always been a war zone with regard to the relationship between grace and the physical elements, so there is plenty of leeway for creative understanding and mistakes.
Why stick with traditional symbols if it’s so complicated? It would be perfectly possible to devise different sacraments for cyberspace based on a sacramental view of the universe. I’ve heard this suggestion made, but it seems half-hearted to me. After all, a sacramental view of the universe depends on Christology and the dominical sacraments for its interpretation and meaning, so best just stick with what’s normative; and in any case, to choose a different practice online simply cements that difference between online believing and offline believing.
I’d like to keep on thinking about this. Who’s working on it, please?
*Yes, I know some Christians can and do, but the rest of us need to think about whether or not we can do without something so normative online.