IN DEFENSE OF EMBODIMENT: Toward a Theology of Technology
It’s a fact that American society is becoming digitally saturated every year. Over just the last two decades our culture has moving from physical things to a digital format in dozens of ways. It’s easier to keep track of, it’s faster, and more efficient. The Evangelical church and Evangelical Christian in general seems to look identical to their non-Christian friends when it comes to their use of technology. We are just as eager to buy the latest iWhatever, get the next ‘upgrade’, or spend just has much time on Facebook as everyone else in mainstream pop-culture. In this lecture we will spend some time reflecting on the nature of digital reality and reasons why we shouldn’t privilege digital disembodiment over material embodiment.
The hyper-reality of digital communication technology
In the 1970s media critics began observing that TV had created an artificial world that was shaping its viewers. The French sociologist Jean Baudrillard named the artificial world that media technology creates as hyper-reality (i.e. the Internet, TV, cell phones, theme parks, casinos, etc.). Hyper-reality is any paradigm in which there is no longer any real connection between sign (the representation) and signified (the real thing). Then in the 1990s Margaret Morse wrote a seminal essay called “An Ontology of Everyday Distraction” where she argues that hyper-reality, or what she called ‘nonspace’, is more prevalent than we realize, even in things like malls and freeways. “The first distinguishing feature of nonspace” wrote Morse, “is its dreamlike displacement or separation from its surroundings.” Simply put, imagine what happens when working on a computer—you enter into a different paradigm of reality that sucks you in. You become less connected to your physical environment while you navigate the computer interface.
It could be argued that digital communications technology (DCT) that facilitates hyper-reality tends to displace and de-contextualize our relationships. Without being physically present with people, our relationships struggle to find contextual meaning. In pre-modern societies there were still strong connections between the natural topography and the architectural and mental places that were inhabited. Yet as our civilization “develops” we find ourselves in more places that are entirely cut off from the natural environment of the land and weather, and spending more with things that are hyper-real like computers.
So what’s so bad about hyper-reality?
In short—disembodiment. Embodiment is essential to both our humanity and how we were meant to interact with the world. Of all world religions, Christianity has always stood out in affirming and valuing materiality. God made a physical universe and saw that it was good. Christ took on human flesh, and became a physical man. We affirm the centrality of the physical resurrection of Christ, and we believe in a physical resurrection of our own bodies and a physical life everlasting.
Materiality is important. We are not Gnostics who disregard matter and physicality, and just talk about ideas. As Christians who theologically affirm the “earthiness” of our faith, we ought to have a strong theology of space—an understanding of how physical space gives contextual meaning for community, worship, prayer, fellowship, and friendships. Yet this earthiness is in constant tension with the nonspaces in our society. The Christian vision of embodiment gives us a picture of cohesive integration in which each particular thing has a substantive relationship with other particulars and the whole. Imagine an organic farm where each plant or animal is viewed in relationship to the other plants and animals. Compare that with a large agribusiness that operates the farm as a factory. The first exemplifies a philosophy of symbiotic relationship, the second, a mechanistic automation.
Like an organic farm, the Christian vision of human flourishing begins with the presupposition that we have embodied relationships with other embodied things. We are essentially creatures created to live in creation, not consumers negotiating a pre-fabricated world. To be fully human means to live in an embodied life: eating, singing, laughing, dancing, hiking, etc. No virtual reality can facilitate these embodied activities, because the digital reality is by definition disembodied. So when we excessively relate to each other in a disembodied format (for example Facebook and text messaging), we are missing out on the potential richness and subtleties of embodied socialization that is essential to be fully human. When we disengage from the material relationships and spend most of our time communicating via our computers or cell phones, the quality of our relationships will eventually diminish. We may be able to talk with a dozen people a day, but what we gain in quantity we may lose in quality.
The myth of the neutrality of technology
I’m not sure how this myth got started or whose fault it was, but somehow the modern world has been duped into believing that all technology is neutral. Perhaps it was American pragmatism or is a sub-narrative of the myth of progress (the notion that the West is destined to get increasingly ‘better’). But in most cases people never thought about both the gains and losses of new technologies when ‘upgrading’ to a smart phone, or getting an email account, or signing up for Facebook. It’s what everyone was doing. Of course it would make communication faster and easier, but did anyone consider how these things would affect the fabric of our social lives?
Neil Postman the social critic and author of Technopoly writes, “Embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.” For example, the book predisposes people to think differently than those who lived within an oral tradition. One no longer needed to memorize as much. Propositional content became more important than visual or aesthetic content. When Guttenberg invented the printing press, he had no idea of the consequences it would have on how people related to others and their understanding of their place in the world. Often new technologies meet a short-term practical need, yet have drastic social ramifications that are impossible to predict. Postman concludes his observations by suggesting that, “all communications technology carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore require scrutiny, criticism, and control.”
DCT shapes the quality of communication by privileging speed, efficiency, replicable content, and short bursts of ideas. Older communication technology like the book or handwritten communication privileges a kind of artisan craftsmanship, intentionality, originality, and a format that suited longer or more complex ideas. With the ability to instantly replicate digital content, we don’t put the same kind of value and weight on digital content that we put for example on a rare book.
DCT and Christian Spirituality
As we discussed above, the Christian vision of the good life as portrayed in Scripture and in the Christian tradition is an embodied life that embraces materiality and recognizes the sacred through it. In addition to this, we could consider passages such as “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”, clearly an incarnational notion. The in-fleshing or the embodiment of God in Jesus speaks of the goodness and centrality of materiality. Grounded in the physical and material actions of God in history, our spirituality follows suit and reflects this emphasis. To depart from this Christian tenant leads us toward Gnosticism (an ancient heresy that views physicality as an unfortunate bother in our pursuit of a purely spiritual spirituality).
It could be argued that there is a correlation between our attention spans and our spiritual awareness. Rather than being neutral for our spiritual life, extended time in hyper reality may in fact contribute to our struggle with spiritual distraction. Moreover, how can we hear the “still small voice” of God in our daily lives when we are constantly being bombarded by tweets, emails, Facebook messages, cell phone texts, and blue-tooth calls during every hour of the day? Perhaps all this time spent in virtual realities is creating shorter attention spans and creating a mild attention deficit disorder in all of us.
Eastern Orthodox spirituality emphasizes silence and contemplation in our awareness of the presence of God, while the Western church has emphasized community and Nature. In either case, the digital virtual world posses a formidable distraction to our pursuit of enjoying the presence of God and the material world we live in. While we can learn about who God is in hyper-reality, can we really be aware of his presence? I may go as far as to say that though God is present everywhere, he becomes increasingly allusive for some of us to perceive the more we live in a virtual paradigm.
We don’t have time here to consider what’s gained and lost with things like video screens in a church service, texting questions to the pastor after the sermon, or having ‘virtual church’. But the central question ought to be: Will we thrive in an embodied way as a church more or less in doing these things? Where should we draw the line in what ways we choose to be less embodied? These answers I believe will be situational to the resources, traditions, and circumstances of each congregation.
Postman would pose the question this way: Can the modern Evangelical Church “preserve its history, originality, and humanity by submitting itself to the sovereignty of a technological thought world?” In other words, can the gospel really be proclaimed in thought, word, and deed in all its fullness through DCT? It’s my opinion that we lose more than we gain if we continue to embrace every DCT that comes along without realizing the biases of how DCT mediums are effecting our communities and our spiritual lives.
The Eucharist: more real than hyper-real
The hyper-real places that permeate our society are shaping us through a kind of liturgy: ritual, images, and corporate reverence that shape what ought to be ultimately desired and loved. The shopping mall, sport stadium, rock concert, and even the Internet all have liturgical components to them. However, the Church gives to us a liturgy that shapes us in a way that orients us towards Christ in the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Holy Communion, in conjunction with the reading and preaching of the Word, is the central activity of historic Christian worship. Yet for reasons we can’t address here, the North American Evangelical church has increasingly de-emphasized the Eucharist in the past fifty years, and over emphasized the role of the sermon in the worship service. There has never been a more crucial time in Christian history for the Evangelical church to rediscover the central role of the Eucharist for our worship and our spiritual lives—for the Eucharist in its very essence of embodiment.
In the holy mystery of the Eucharist we encounter God through the physical elements of bread and wine. Like the incarnation, the elements of bread and wine never cease being 100% bread and wine, but are also 100% mysteriously participating in the divine. In the Eucharist, something unique happens—God gives of himself to the Church in an embodied form. This union with God never happens in isolation—it is experienced in an embodied church within the context of a real community.
The materiality of the Eucharist is not something to be avoided, but is used as a means of grace. The historic church (whether it be in the ancient, the Eastern Orthodox, Medieval, Lutheran, or Anglican traditions) has always affirmed that the elements are ‘saturated’ and ‘penetrated’ with the presence of Christ so that we “eat the flesh of Jesus Christ, and drink his blood…”. In this way the Eucharist is essentially embodied—a spiritual reality being present in a physical form.
By extension then, the Eucharist can be understood to be the paradigm for all of reality in that we encounter God through physical Creation. This understanding of reality is sometimes referred to as “Sacramental Ontology”. A sacrament is a physical ritual that mediates invisible grace in a visible sign. Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence or reality. So what is meant by sacramental ontology is that Creation is a kind of sacrament through which God is present to us. As theologian James K.A. Smith writes, “There is no pristine, immediate access behind the scenes [to God]; rather, the invisible [spiritual reality] is seen in the visible, such that seeing the visible is to see more than the visible. This zone of immanence is where transcendence plays itself out, unfolding itself in a way that is staged by the Creator.”
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wonderfully demonstrates this way of thinking about embodied physical Creation. In those celebrated lines he cries, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God./ It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;/ It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil/ Crushed.” Hopkins scholar Bernadette Waterman Ward explains that, “Sacraments opened Hopkins to the idea that physical realities could become spiritual realities with no diminution of their physical existence…His sacramental vision removes all sense of incongruity from that insight. Without deifying the world, Hopkins could take all creation as a manifestation of the incarnate Christ.” Rather than allowing our sense and experience of reality be primarily mediated through DCT, the Eucharist gives us a model for understanding all reality.
I’m not arguing that hyper reality is “evil” or “morally bad”—it’s simply second rate at doing certain things. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with using DCT for certain tasks like facilitating a meeting with friends, or catching up with family members on the mainland. But DCT is simply not as good, as embodied communication: sitting down with real people, or reading a real book (you could probably tell I’m not a Kindle fan). If we care about fostering deep and meaningful relationships, we shouldn’t expect DCT to do a very good job of it. (There’s a reason why you aren’t supposed to break up over the phone…)
In addition to being second rate for building meaningful relationships, we ought to also be conscientious about the ways in which spending all our free time with digital media will inevitably shape who we become as people. Technology is not neutral, and DCT like the Internet will effect certain societal expectations and norms of authority and access, and will redefine cultural concepts. Moreover, the tremendous amount of time that we tend to waste with DCT is disconcerting. The average American spends around four to five hours of their free time in front of a TV or computer each day. Rather than saving time to spend more time with people, ‘machine time’ is taking away our social time.
The best thing we can do as citizens of a digital nation to counter the de-humanizing effects of our machines is to simultaneously attempt a full and healthy embodied life. Our goal as Christians in this era ought to be integrated people who equally value rationality and imagination, immanence and transcendence, the supernatural and the natural. We are invited by this vision to live into what it means to be truly embodied and integrated people who are shaped by the embodied mystery of the Eucharist, making our worship fully embodied and physical in the liturgy and the Church calendar; our social life and ministry becoming fully embodied and physical by spending face-to-face time with people; and our interactions with our tools are embodied when possible. Living this way opens us to be aware of living in the natural rhythms of the seasons, and give primacy to the material over the digital. Surprise, transcendence, mystery, and ‘deep beauty’ are things that are best experienced in an embodied context.
 For example Marie Wyn’s The Plug-in Drug (Bantam Books, 1977).
 Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan. 1994). This book supposedly is the inspiration and “key” to understanding the movie The Matrix.
 Morse explains how freeways are nonspaces in that they are disconnected from and ‘transcend’ all particular localities, and thus renders itself as its own self-referential reality. Air travel is certainly another kind of nonspace.
 For more on these relationships, see Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Javanovich, 1957).
 Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage Books, 1992) 13.
 Ibid, 185.
 Ibid, 183.
 For more on cultural liturgy, see James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).
 From the Prayer of Humble Access in the Book of Common Prayer (Anglican), 1928 ed.
 James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2004), 222-223.
 Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘God’s Grandeur’
 Bernadette Waterman Ward, World As Word: Philosophical Theology in Gerard Manley Hopkins. (The Catholic University of America Press, 2002), 129.
 The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, The 2009 American Time Use Survey. http://www.bls.gov