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.
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
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.
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.