Pass the Virtual Wine

Ship of Fools, the rather fine Magazine of Christian Unrest, is running an experiment in online Communion, and the wider idea of virtual sacraments. It’s an idea that interests me, because I like the thought of playing around with different ways of expressing things, but it’s been causing quite a fuss, even among people who fit the Ship’s subversive, liberal mindset. It’s been described as shocking, ridiculous and even blasphemous. Being thoroughly awkward and contrary, this just makes me more interested.

Is true communion this…

A lot of the criticism comes from people who believe in some form of ontological change in the communion elements, either Transubstantiation or the slightly broader idea of Real Presence. There seems to be a fear, whether spoken or unspoken, that the magic won’t work if you do it wrong. I have no idea whether they think God can’t or won’t change the bread and wine, but I find either belief difficult to reconcile with church’s own description of God as loving and omnipotent.

But it also makes a mockery of important rituals, we’re told, because online activity isn’t the same as doing things in person. Well no, it isn’t, but is it necessarily inferior? Apparently so, because you’d only really be sitting around at home alone, probably dressed in nothing more than a slightly soiled pair of pants full of holes, and not really communicating with anyone or anything in a real way – not really real. This line of argument has uncanny similarities to common criticisms of online culture in general, and it betrays both ignorance of the virtual world and a failure of imagination, quite surprising for a web forum with a strong sense of community.

Ultimately, even various people giving examples of how they’ve found different sacramental approaches useful are dismissed, because they’re making subjective statements, while the “proper” sacraments are apparently “objective fact”.

I’ll say that again – objective fact.

What we’re talking about, remember, is a belief that as long as you have:

  • the right man
  • saying the right words
  • at the right time
  • in the right way
  • over the right things

…or this…

Then God will do some magic and turn the bread and wine into fresh lumps of Jesus, while doing some more magic to make it indistinguishable from actual bread and wine. You’ll notice that none of this can be tested in any way, let alone proved, because the claim is that God helpfully (and conveniently) makes the end product indistinguishable from the raw material, but nevertheless it gets claimed (admittedly not that often – most have more sense) as an objective fact.

Of course, the truth or otherwise of the claims is indeed objective, as opposed to the subjective matter of how people feel about it. It’s more the use of the word “fact” that astonishes me. The objective part just states that this isn’t a claim that can be justified with reference to how people feel about it – it’s either true or it isn’t. That’s fair enough, to a point, but describing it as fact in the absence of any evidence is an insult to objectivity, a cruel pastiche of genuine investigation and enquiry that’s as “objective” as Sagan’s Dragon.

I think this bizarrely dogmatic attitude comes down to a slavish adherence to a particular official interpretation of Jesus’ words. Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me”, you see, so we should obviously do as He says (or so the thought goes), if only we could agree what he meant by “this”. In this case, many people think “this” has to involve lots of people physically in the same room. But they rarely see any need for the meal beforehand or washing each others’ feet, and just try asking a mixed group of Christians what qualifies as bread, or whether grape juice will do instead of wine, or even whether the colour of the wine matters. Some things which might seem obvious elements of “this” were discarded long ago, or are the subject of violent disagreement.

…or more like this?

I’d have said that if there’s a point in all this, it’s in the symbolism, rather than treating a sketchy and ambiguous 2,000-year-old instruction as a magic spell. And the problems build up as soon as you start to dictate that this, or that, or the other is essential. In fact, it’s quite incredible how much anger and disagreement this causes within the church compared to matters of genuine practical importance.

To be absolutely fair, if you believe that some sort of change occurs to the elements in the Eucharist, you’ll also think this is a matter of practical importance, as it relates to how we treat Jesus Himself. The problem is that there’s no good reason to suppose that, there’s no evidence for it, and even within the Roman Catholic church, this is now a minority view. Most of all, it only relates to a particular aspect of church practice. Given how much Jesus said about how to treat others, and how little He cared for empty ritual, I find this a puzzling set of priorities.

So I’m interested. Partly because it’s playing about with some alternatives to fossilised ritualistic dogma, and partly because it’s an interesting thought experiment which has already shown up a huge amount of magical thinking. I definitely think it’s worth keeping an eye on it.

Photos by Ding Digital Photographyalextorrenegra and chrissy polcino, used under Attribution License

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

11 responses to “Pass the Virtual Wine”

  1. Edward Green (@EdwardBGreen) says :

    Thoughtful post. The what was Jesus doing thing is important. A more catholic view would be that he was instituting a new sacrificial rite / cult with himself as the offering at the heart of a new passover. Over the years I have found myself embracing this position – seeing the rite as an offering of worship and sacrifice that I could not make myself.

    Then there is the Catholic Idea of spiritual communion ( http://www.fisheaters.com/TLMmissingmass.html ) which seems to resonate with online spirituality. We do not need to eat bread and wine to receive the benefits, just offer ourselves to be joined with his offering of himself. This could certainly be ‘done online’.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I don’t think it’s any surprise that what belief I have is very much at the low church end of the scale. But I suppose I also find religion much more compelling when it’s about experience and self-discovery than when it’s about truth claims and tradition, which I find (many will disagree) tend to constrict that experience. So I tend much more towards the idea of spiritual communion.

      No idea what will come out of this, but I can’t see any harm in trying it out.

  2. Pam Smith says :

    I think the fact that it all comes down to whether the ‘magic’ happens or can be wrought at long distance misses the point really.

    In the communion service the symbolism (if you see it like that – though in fact a sacrament by definition is not just symbolic) is of the Body of Christ being broken and consumed, through which we become one.

    ‘Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.’

    Then at the end we are sent out to become many again, but each bearing Christ with us – ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.’

    This is the action of the communion – gathering and dispersing, breaking, consuming and taking away. It is the action of the whole gathered community, not just the person performing particular actions.

    The arguments for online communion stop at consumption. It is consumerism in its purest form. I want, I consume.

    Of course you get this consumerist approach in churches as well – and by and large they are pretty miserable places.

    I’m sure that people have been doing ‘online communion’ since there was an ‘online’, so in a way the argument is fairly pointless anyway. if you believe it is valid then you’ll do it, if you don’t, you won’t.

    However, since such a large number of the arguments that divide Christians revolve around who may or may not preside and who may or may not receive from whom and in what way, it seems a backward step to bring that same set of arguments into online Christianity.

    When I first became involved with online Christian community, it seemed to me that God was saying ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing!’

    In trying to translate current practice into an online facsimile I can’t help feeling we are missing the excitement and potential of being in a new medium.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      In trying to translate current practice into an online facsimile I can’t help feeling we are missing the excitement and potential of being in a new medium.

      I think this a very good and interesting point. In fact, I think this is where the project may well end up. It may be necessary to use existing terminology in order to raise interest, but if it’s going to be more than a footnote, or at the very most a niche activity for the housebound and a few agoraphobics, they will need to find completely new forms of expression, rather than just recreating old ones in a different environment.

      • Pam Smith says :

        I came across the concept of ‘skeuomorphology’ at the Virtual Futures conference at Warwick last year, which, as far as I understood it at all, was about objects embodying their history and evolution in features which weren’t necessary to their present function.

        It seems to me that a lot of what we do online in trying to create a faith environment is ‘skeuomorphological’.

        There’s nothing wrong with that – the term was being used neutrally – but if it gets in the way of discovering new forms to meet new or different needs then it can limit our vision.

        There’s an interview with Dan O’ Hara, who was the speaker I heard, here: http://rhizome.org/editorial/2011/jul/5/dan-ohara-skeuomorphs-jg-ballard-and-transhumanism/

        and some archived material (podcasts etc) here: http://www.danohara.co.uk/blog.html

  3. Luca Fancello (@majictreetrain) says :

    Very interesting.

    Unfortunately this site with its virtual communion stuff, isn ‘t as light-hearted, pleasant or ‘christian’ as it seems.

    You may not know, that despite its initial ‘liberal’ impression, the ship of fools site, is run on very authoritarian lines. There is a culture of authoritarianism bullying from the so-called ‘hosts’ and ‘admins’. god help any who dissent from this – or try to point it out.

    It really is there way or highway.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I assume you’re referring to the Ship of Fools discussion boards. If you feel that way, you would probably be best advised to take it up with the people concerned. I don’t have any knowledge of your quarrel with them, and the internet’s hardly short of people complaining about the structure, ethos or moderation of a particular forum.

  4. Pam Smith says :

    PS Great blog by the way! Am really enjoying reading back though it!

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Thank you! I try to write for its own sake, to say what I want to say and set my thoughts down in order, but I do have a weakness for compliments. 🙂

      • Pam Smith says :

        I really appreciate it when people share their thoughts – ‘starting a blog’ has been on my to do list for a long time now but I find it really daunting, so i admire those who do.

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