The Word became flesh to share table with us. The Lord rose from death to rejoin us at his table. Eating and drinking with Jesus has been, is, and will be constitutive of our belonging to him and to one another. In Holy Communion, we find ourselves sitting together — here and now — at a family feasting table that stretches from the hillsides of Galilee and an upper room in Jerusalem through this present moment into a heavenly banquet. Jesus Christ presents his past and future in our now. And Jesus Christ re-members his body in our here.
Jesus has chosen to do all this by taking common cultural objects — the bread of life and love, the wine of joyful celebration — blessing and breaking them open to the very mystery of God. Throughout its history, the church has had to negotiate how to “do this” same thing in new cultural contexts. For this generation of seminarians, the most interesting cultural question is not Can the youth group commune with pizza and Sprite? but Is virtual church, including virtual communion, possible? Technological change raises questions about the possibility and desirability of doing church online.
When I recently gave a talk on “What would Jesus do on Facebook?” a Jewish friend quipped, “Tell them Jesus would ‘friend’ all the sinners.” Adam is funny, but he has a point. Most of us are vulnerable in these kinds of discernments precisely because our sentimentality is stronger than our theology. Worse, we Methodists have a strand of pragmatism a mile wide. Not the respectable philosophical tradition of pragmatism, but pragmatism as an approach to change confected of equal parts can-do-bravado, evangelistic zeal, and whatever-works-utilitarianism. These ingredients of our pragmatism parallel the logic of digital technology, which bravely promises that it can do whatever we want or need, which evangelistically pleads that we should prefer it over whatever preceded, and which functionally suggests that bigger, better, and faster results are all that matter.
So, does the Web 2.0 revolution make online communion possible? Can we celebrate “this holy mystery” without gathering bodily into an assembly that together sees, hears, speaks, sings, moves, touches, and tastes? Can communion migrate online or does it require a bodily shared here and now? Answers to my question range from “Online communion is Christ’s next good gift to the church!” to “Online communion is a sterile oxymoron!” Too often, these answers are more vehement than they are reasoned, because increasingly we are culturally formed to feel for, but not to think about, our technologies.
Nothing illustrates my point like the Facebook Home commercial, “Dinner.” It shows an extended family meal in which a supremely boring aunt drones on about her elderly cats and buying chicken in the store and…you get the picture. Her young adult niece pulls out a smartphone with the Facebook Home app: instantly, technology connects her to the excitement of a friend drumming; effortlessly, technology presents her a beautiful ballet; reliably, technology draws her into the joy of a snowball fight. We’re meant to “see” how technology mediates (makes present) a better world of community, transcendence, and joy, saving us from boring relatives, mundane situations, and tedious activities.
I see this ad as a parody of the Eucharist. Don’t get me wrong. I think the ad is hilarious, and I get that it’s ironic. But the irony isn’t intended to evoke a horror that personal digital technologies are becoming “the architect of our intimacies” (Sherry Turkle, Alone Together [Basic, 2012], 1). Rather, the irony comforts us that a digitally rewired world is nothing to be scared of; in fact, it’s a whole lot better than the old one. And there’s the rub. Better-than-nothing becomes better-than-something; compensatory technologies meant to connect us when we are temporarily and unwillingly separated become normalized. Texting goes from the better-than-nothing way that teens communicate when they are apart to the better-than-talking to each other way that they sit together in the same room. Digital mediation is now preferred to the immediacy of embodied conversation.
Something similar is at work in movements toward online communion. Online community is certainly better than no community at all. (And yes, online community is real and is probably a “prudential means of grace.”) But it isn’t better than, nor even equal to, gathering bodily at Table with Jesus and his motley band of disciples, supremely boring aunts included. To say otherwise would be like saying that the grandparents who use Skype to spend time with their grandchildren should just as well never go visit them. It would be like saying that the couple who attest their love by cell phone when apart should just as well never lie in each other’s arms again. Online community? Yes! Online communion? Not possible! Like a hug or a kiss, like incarnation and resurrection, communion requires bodies that touch.