Following what turned out to be a momentary respite, recent spikes in COVID-19 cases have reminded us that we are not yet in a post-pandemic world, and it’s not so certain that such a thing will ever exist. Either way, “life after the virus” musings abound, most of which will have a short shelf life.
Roger Scruton taught me the virtue of pessimism (over and against unscrupulous optimism). Hence I am most partial to Michel Houellebecq’s take, namely, that we will not emerge from the coronavirus scourge like butterflies, that is, into a new world. Instead, “It will be the same, just a bit worse.” Whatever divisions, proclivities, or habits we carried into the pestilence will not be purged but rather amplified thereby. This is evidently true in the socio-political realm. The American church will prove no exception to the rule, especially in her attendance, membership, and worship practices which are increasingly digitalized and decentralized.
The trend toward remote or online worship service is not new, nor is it confined to American evangelicalism. Back in 2016, reports circulated that the Church of Scotland was mulling over instituting online baptism. Though the Kirk has since downplayed the idea, it is telling that the possibility was not totally ruled out as patently ridiculous. Similarly, the United Methodist Church explored the issue of online communion a few years ago. Apparently Saddleback has long offered online communion services. According to Lifeway, an overwhelming majority of Protestant pastors believe that livestream viewing of the sacrament for the sick or shut-in is acceptable. (Must it be live? If so, why?). Doubtless just as many pastors are comfortable with the same means of sacramental practice when half the world is a shut-in.
It is not just the evangelical Protestants, by the way. Even the Pope lived streamed a Mass amidst the pandemic, when cathedrals across the west remained closed even during Holy Week. To mark the anniversary of Bernadette’s visions of the mother of Christ, pilgrims can now experience the healing waters of Lourdes remotely. It must be noted that the Pope’s directive permitting the faithful to bring their petitions directly before God and abstain from the Mass means, as Carl Trueman has argued tongue-in-cheek, that Martin Luther effectively won the long game.
Only a few churchgoers in South America, a couple of churches in Philadelphia, and R. R. Reno of First Things— Reno has argued that the suspension of the sacraments is capitulation to “the world’s priorities” and “spiritual paternalism”— seem to have openly and consistently disregarded the policy (so maybe Luther has not quite conquered the traditionalists). In fairness, “weird Catholic Twitter” was already livestreaming their hearts out before the outbreak. But if the Fat Doctor had lived some 500 years later, armed with Twitter and the lockdown restrictions, and a renewed spirit of iconoclasm, the whole world might have gone Protestant. At a minimum Donald Trump would have been overshadowed online and the Roman Pontiff utterly embarrassed. One can dream.
Across Christendom, then, the COVID-19 pandemic has not created the trend of so-called remote worship but rather, as some fear, has expedited it. Many evangelicals worry that online worship will become the new norm post-pandemic, a fear heightened by the prospect of never reaching a “post” stage. The more positive takes— ones that forget the American desire for safety and convenience— predict that the hunger for human contact and in-person worship will yield a near-revival as lockdowns are eased.
In any case, remote, online forms of church activity will remain in use on a heretofore unknown scale. This has included not only preaching and congregational singing but, as mentioned above, communion. Even if denominations had previously been toying with such innovations, this, as to its scope, is new. Though they beamed in preaching from afar, churches like Mars Hill and Willow Creek, at the height of their popularity, usually maintained live music (and presumably baptism and communion) at each site. Perhaps, it was only a matter of time before the in-person observance of the sacraments too went by the wayside. What is new is the full-throated rationalization of the innovation, and that not merely on the grounds of expedience in the unprecedented moment we now find ourselves in.
In a recent article at Christianity Today, entitled “Online Communion Can Still Be Sacramental,” Chris Ridgeway argued that evangelicals need to reconsider the meaning of “presence.” In the first instance, the article is not advocating a rehearsal of the Marburg Colloquy (1529). The question posed is, “Do you have to be present to partake of the presence?” The authors add, “We are not arguing about the presence of Christ, but rather the presence of us.” An inverted Marburg question, as it were.
The present crisis “forces a reconsideration,” we are told. “A daily digital culture has shaped our interactions to the point that human presence is not synonymous to physicality.” Therefore, due to changes in our environment technologies, “Being present doesn’t require being in person.”
It should be noted at the outset that a theology subject to constant, technological contextualization is doomed to perpetual instability. But no matter, the question is whether this contextualization is tenable. The authors attempt to head off any accusations that their proposal advocates private communion. The scenario they give is one of congregants huddled around a video conference all partaking simultaneously. Fair enough. The implicit reminder that technology erodes privacy is welcome but nothing new. What is new is that this digital interaction constitutes presence.
The article’s conclusion is that because Christ’s presence in the sacrament is a mystery, and involves some kind of mediation, Christian participation therein can also be mediated and needn’t maintain a restrictive, antiquated concept of presence. The video conference is an extension of “known relationships of the local body.”
Why can’t the signs of God’s presence—the bread and wine—and the signs of our presence—our smiles and voices—signify both the goodness of the embodied world and the reality of the spiritual one? There is nothing inherently Gnostic—disembodied—here. Real bodies. Real bread. And the real presence of the Triune God, on Zoom this weekend and joyfully gathered back together in person once this too has passed.
The authors seem to admit that the presence of God is all that matters, not the real presence of the human participants. Because the church allegedly must build upon the “tectonic plates” of cultural shifts, the author sees this as good contextualization of Christian theology; a valid application of “the unchanging Word to a changing world.”
Presence is defined in the article not by the constraints of nature but by the possibilities of technology. Sacramental observance is then tailored to man’s latest attempt at radical autonomy and not with consideration for the intent of the Author, evident in the original design, of both the ordinance and the participant.
No exhaustive rebuttal of the “communication scholars” will be attempted here. What can be offered is caution regarding this innovative understanding of presence vis a vis participation in the sacrament. Looking to the classical Thomistic (which is to say modified, Christian Aristotelian) conception of human nature— constituting an anthropology that was more or less conventional for the authors of the great Reformed confessions— we can spot potential problems in any theological assertion that posits metaphysical change in human persons, such as a technologically contingent view of presence.
Were the Angelic Doctor an avid reader of Christianity Today, he might argue, in response to the article in question, that it’s not really you at Zoom church; that it is impossible to exist as a full human in piecemeal fashion, “separated physically, engaged digitally,” as a blog post by the Lutheran World Federation put it. Whatever is going on in a Zoom church service, it is not real, human presence.
The reason many Christians, those who had not already begun farming out their worship services to digital substitutes, feel uneasy about the “new normal”—as passionately if sentimentally expressed by Sohrab Ahmari in The Catholic Herald— is because they are metaphysically conditioned to desire a unity of their body and soul and for that unity to engage in worship. Zoom church, and especially Zoom sacraments, make us uneasy because we are, in truth, not really present and, therefore, not really able to partake. A brief look at Aquinas’ anthropology can help flesh this out.
In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, Aquinas holds that “the soul, since it is part of man’s body, is not the whole man, but only part of one: my soul is not me.” (see also Summa Theologiae, I. Q. 75). This takes some explaining.
On the hylomorphic view, the soul (as form) animates the body (matter). Humans are composite beings made up of body and soul. The soul is the first principle of life of the body. It organizes the bits of matter of which we are materially composed. It is what dictates our humanness. The distinguishing marks of rational creature is housed in its organizing principle, their unique, rational soul.
Put another way, it determines that we exist human-wise rather than plant-wise or animal-wise. We have a particular type of soul that distinguishes us from the rest of creation, namely, a rational soul with powers of will and intellect. (We will skip centuries of debate on which power has priority over the other). It is this soul that marks humans out as the imago Dei.
Though the soul animates the body and not the other way around, being embodied is essential to being a human being. A human is body and soul. The soul is not spatially constrained but nevertheless is properly located in the body, though not in any one part. Rather, the soul pervades (or “infuses) the body, in union but not mixed therewith.
Hence, there is interdependence between body and soul, even though only one is immaterial and immortal. For instance, the soul senses in harmony with the body when it experiences pain. But it does so without the body when it senses emotion, although data gathered by bodily organs may give rise to the emotion sensed. Further, the soul functions apart from the body in abstract thought, though it has ideas (or “phantasms”) in its consciousness which are connected to the operation of bodily senses. The point is that, for Aquinas, thinking, choosing, and the like are not simply functions of the brain. The brain may be necessary for thinking as part of the sensory apparatus of the body, but it is not a sufficient condition of thought. Intellect and will are powers of the soul, not any organ of the body. As Aquinas says,
the soul, by its essence and not through the medium of certain other powers, is the origin of those powers which are the acts of organs, even as any form, from the very fact that by its essence it informs its matter, is the origin of the properties which result naturally in the composite.
This is why persons with mental and otherwise physical disabilities are no less a rational creature. The deficiency lies in the organ through which the rational powers of the soul act, not in the rational soul itself. The full potentiality remains even if the bodily means for actuality is diminished.
Death is the most abrupt, foreign, metaphysical disruption of human existence. In reflecting on the relationship between body and soul, John Flavel wrote,
O Soul and Body are strongly twisted and knit together in dear bands of intimate Union and Affection, and these Bands cannot be broken without much struggling: O tis’ a hard thing for the Soul to bid the Body farewell, ’tis a bitter parting, a doleful separation: Nothing is heard in that hour but the most deep and emphatical Groans.
When humans die, the soul is totally separated from the body and carries on in an intermediate state (see Westminster Confession of Faith, 32.1). In this case the soul’s animating powers “hibernate,” meaning, as Paul Helm puts it, “as sets of dispositions of the soul.” Though the soul lives on in the intermediate state it is incapacitated, so to speak, in that it cannot perform the functions that require a body. Per Aquinas, “…the separated soul does not exercise the act of any sensitive power” because (as alluded to above),
certain operations, whereof the soul’s powers are the principles, do not belong to the soul properly speaking but to the soul as united to the body, because they are not performed except through the medium of the body… Hence it follows that such like powers belong to the united soul and body as their subject, but to the soul as their quickening principle, just as the form is the principle of the properties of a composite being.
Some things the soul can do without the body, namely, those things proper to it, to will or understand, for example. But other thing, for which the soul is the principle of operation, but which are proper to the composite whole, cannot be performed absent a body.
In death, the powers of the soul for which a body is required remain in potentiality only and must await a body to be actualized. (Aquinas posited that, in the intermediate state, the data usually supplied by bodily organs necessary unto worship and contemplation of God will be supplied directly by God to souls).
The bodily resurrection, then, is not a liberation from the “prison house” of the body, as Plato would have it, but rather a full restoration of the human person. Full humanity, the existence of the whole self, is not regained until then. Again, Flavel remarked on how the soul desires reunion with the body, even in the intermediate state. “As the soul parted with [the body] in grief and sorrow, so it still retains even in glory an inclination to re-union, and waits for a day of re-espousals.”
Anything that serves to separate soul and body, in a real way, simulates death— but presently, God does not make up for this separation as Aquinas suggested he does in the intermediate state— and will naturally and bitterly be recoiled from by humans (in their very souls). If we believe that “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it,” then we must believe that God’s ordained means of worship are not designed to engage Christians in piecemeal fashion but holistically. Further, if our observance of the ordained means of worship leads us to spiritually separate man, body from soul, in worship, we must question said means. To invoke Flavel once more, “The union of Soul and Body is natural, their separation is not so.”
In some way, online administration of the sacraments, even if not strictly private, separates the body and soul in participation. The presence of Christ may be objectively there, but the presence of the partaker is not. The angst felt by many Christians in online forms of worship is brought on by a metaphysical contradiction, or rather, a separation; one previously only expected at death. We should not be surprised, then, if months’ worth of body-soul separation in worship proves spiritually detrimental to our congregations.
Timon Cline is a graduate of Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Wright State University. His writing has appeared at Areo Magazine, The American Spectator, and National Review, and he writes regularly on law, theology, and politics at Conciliar Post.