Functional Gnosticism

As Christians we believe the fact that we exist as embodied creatures is not inconsequential. The Judeo-Christian tradition has always upheld the sacredness of the physical world. Attentive thinkers from Paul to C.S. Lewis have argued that, contra the notion that our bodies are unfortunate barriers and irrelevant to our identities, matter matters to God.

The Gnostic philosophy that offered an alternative reality unencumbered by the physical world where we can we find our true selves, was one that Christians took head on in the early church. Could one be both a Gnostic and a faithful Christian? No. Against Gnosticism, the church draws upon its rich resources from the creation narrative itself in which God makes Adam from the dust of the ground to the early creeds which confess that God “was incarnate and was made man,” as we (try to) answer the question, “What does it mean to be human?”

Moreover, it is on the grounds that we think our bodies matter that Christian ethics calls for a strict stance on sexual practice, for example. But of course, the necessary presuppositions in place in order to make the argument for something like historical, orthodox Christian sexual ethics have so disappeared in the modern Western world that it’s become near impossible to make a reasonable sounding case for it. Additionally, ours is a world where reality is malleable. With the increasing powers of technology that can (seemingly) replace, extend, or even manufacture things into our existence, Christians too face increasing challenges to our own sense of what it even means to be made in the image of God.

Not to mention the ever encroaching reality of transhumanism. Perhaps no longer will we proclaim at funerals,”to dust you shall return” but “to virtual reality you shall go.” As philosopher Douglas Groothius says, “To reverse the biblical statement, what is impossible with God is possible with programmers.”

This is no longer merely in the realm of science fiction. Back in 1995, Nicholas Negroponte described a new social culture where “we will socialize in digital neighborhoods in which physical space will be irrelevant and time will play a different role.” …Sound familiar?

Can we still really affirm the spirituality of materiality in the modern world?

In fact, Joseph Minich points out that this is why atheism has such aesthetic plausibility even to religious peoplebecause of our tacit sense that reality has been shaped by modern technological culture. Through the powers of technology not only can we predict reality, we can even control it. Again if all this is true, where does this situate us as human beings? What are we in this whole technological landscape?

In the midst of all this, the coronavirus has struck, and has put a halt to our communal gatherings.

In response, Christian schools and religious communities are turning to online tools like Zoom; Churches are live-streaming their services. Such a response might reveal our own proclivities to think that the primary reliable sources for improving the human condition stem from technology. And in the mean time, sacramentally oriented Christians like myself have especially had to wrestle with all the questions around the partaking of the Eucharist or absence thereof.  But this is where the sacramentalogical rubber meets the road…

I’m personally compelled by the response of Mark Dever (a Baptist!) who chose not to offer any online services at his church, and instead exhorted his congregants to stay disconsolate in their homes due to his conviction that the ecclesial assembly is so sacred there is no substitute for it saying, “A video sermon is not a substitute for a covenanted congregation assembling together and all the various means of grace in that. A providential time of abstinence could have good, chastening soul benefits. More useful than a part of a service people may mistake for a substitute.”

Dever’s remarks seem to be wholly consistent with the Scriptural language around ecclesiology. Just consider that the Greek word ekklesia means assembly or the exhortations in the epistles to “greet one another with holy kiss” or how Peter, James and John extended “the right hand of fellowship” to Paul. Surely, there’s something deeply counter-intuitive about celebrating the resurrection of the body of our Lord and the renewal of creation through a virtual platform.

Beyond that, this response strikes me as attentive to the way that we do not simply stand above and beyond technological objects, but we are also formed by them, and the way in which we engage in certain practices have forming impacts upon us whether we realize it or not. Again to quote from Doug Groothius, “technological change is neither additive or substractive, but ecological. Removing a television from a typical teenager’s room is not simply the subtraction of a piece of furniture; it alters the ecology. The room is no longer the entertainment center it once was; books may now be retrieved from dusty shelves; conversations once muted by video may now flourish; boredom may beckon.”

But when it’s all over, and when things return to normal, what will we do then? How will we proceed? Will we look back at this time and think what a blessing in disguise that we uncovered how to fully utilize the effective technology that we’ve been missing in our lives? Will we recall and mourn the loss of true embodied relationships for which there is no genuine replacement?

There’s no doubt that technology has been the means through which much hardship has been alleviated, and much good has come about. (Yes, I’m writing this on a computer!) But the swiftness and pragmatism of diving in now and reflecting later, some times entails the damage cannot be undone.

For evangelicals who desire to uphold the goodness of the physical created order, now is our chance to prove it. Or will we capitulate and contribute to neglecting the values and principles required in order to defend a distinctly Christian way of life? Will we view this as an opportunity for the ever increasing greatness of technology to serve as a substitute for flesh and blood relations? Will those churches and institutions who were already flirting with the allures of technology prior to the pandemic dial back or go full throttle as a result of these events? Or will this point us even deeper to the recognition affirmed by Scripture that we are bodily earthen vessels who await to see our God face to face?


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