There is a strange thought floating about in the ether. It’s the idea that the current upsurge in online work and online connection means that physical proximity and embodied being are a thing of the past. In church circles a few lines from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians have gotten a lot of attention on this account. Paul writes “[W]e were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. For we wanted to come to you . . . but Satan blocked our way” (I Thess. 1:17). The letter of I Thessalonians is the result of that inability to be together, so separation is a good thing, right? It prompts technological ‘innovation’ and, in the biblical case, even an addition to the Bible. Isn’t it great that every little faith community is now doing church online! Surely they are following Paul’s example.
No, it’s not great. Obviously, many of us are becoming more proficient with online technologies now. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s helpful. It’s a way to connect. It’s certainly a benefit. But notice that Paul doesn’t view his letter as a substitute for actually getting together. He also doesn’t view the long-distance communication as somehow constitutive of church. Paul is a not a gnostic. He does not think that the physical world or embodied community are superfluous to something deeper or more real.
I think this pandemic is showing us that the physical world matters more not less. COVID-19 is a problem because it is a physical thing and we are physical things. Actual things matter! We cannot reduce the world to opinions and we cannot wish this virus away. Yes, Christians do believe that there is a spiritual quality to the world, to ourselves and to God, but this in no way impinges on the essential goodness of embodied life.
Zoom cannot make our physical contexts irrelevant. It cannot take us out of our network of dependencies. Neither Google nor any other online platform can allow us to escape the reality that our lives depend on the bodies of others (workers in Amazon warehouses for instance). Just using energy has an impact on the bodies of a whole host of organisms. We are not pixelated figments. This is why “online church” can never be anything other than a supplement to actual (physical) church.
The consequences of getting this wrong, however, go further than church life. Just because we can order our groceries online doesn’t mean nobody else has to handle them. Those of us who do much of our work online tend to forget that online work isn’t and can’t be done by everyone. The surge in online life, and the glib blessing it’s receiving from a diverse set of leaders, ignores the fact that many lower-income folks must work in physical/proximate ways. And we all depend on that kind of work. Online church, in whatever form we do it, should never try to cover over the fact that it isn’t the real thing. Pixelated presence is a form of absence. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians was too.