This summer, I’m teaching an online masters course on Christian Spirituality for my university. So far, it has been an intriguing experience for me: it is both my first online course and my first course focusing on spirituality as a discipline. It has also provided me an opportunity to re-familiarize myself with figures like Pseudo-Dionysius, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Thomas Merton. While the course has been meeting for less than a month, these first few weeks have focused especially on the Desert Fathers and St. John Cassian, who themselves went into the wilderness of the desert.
One assignment the students have is a weekly journal reflecting on an ascetic practice that they are to perform weekly. Options for the ascetic practice include spending 30 minutes in prayer first thing in the morning, fasting and abstaining from meet twice a week, or unplugging from all electronic devices for 15 minutes a few times a week. Many of them have been drawn to this last one and are finding that setting aside the devices have made them more attentive to the world around them and to their own bodies.
Indeed, the various spiritual exercises that are typically associated with asceticism often focus on disciplining the human body. The Desert Fathers fasted, limited their sleep, renounced sexual activity, and gave away material possessions as part of their spiritual development. Cassian frequently likened the monks to athletes for Christ who were training for God’s glory (fitting, given the roots of the Greek askesis in sports).
Asceticism thus helped these monks embrace their creatureliness, their embodied nature. It put them in touch with their finitude, their limits, their bounded-ness. Of course, there is something inherently strange about asking my online students, nearly all of whom I have never met in person (or, for that matter, seen pictures of or heard their voices), to reflect on their own embodied experience of spirituality.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about this very incongruity as I’ve been working on theologically understanding the relationship between the body and technology. I’ve mostly described this in terms of “digitally mediated presence,” how technologies convey something of ourselves despite the lack of physical proximity. When my now-wife lived across the Atlantic from me, we often used FaceTime. Yes, it was cheaper than a phone call, but it was also a way of experiencing more of each other than the phone allowed. However, it also acutely pointed out how limited that experience of one another was. We encountered the presence of the other, but a truncated presence.
Indeed, it is a common trope to describe all these online encounters as disembodied, but this is overstated. When we used FaceTime, we lacked physical proximity to one another, we lacked the ability to touch one another, we lacked the ability to speak and have our voices carried directly to one another’s ears by soundwaves traveling through mutually shared airspace. But when we used FaceTime, we sat in chairs or couches designed for the comfort of our bodies, we looked at screens using our eyes, we saw and heard the tiny facial expressions and tensions in our voices that communicated text and subtext. Most profoundly, we experienced the limits of our bodies in our truncated mode of mediation.
The epitome of the embodied/disembodied experience of FaceTime is that the placement of screen and camera currently make it impossible to make eye contact.
This experience of being embodied and disembodied carries over in strange ways when it comes to wider conversations. All of you reading this post now (and possibly commenting on it or tweeting at me) are participating with me in a conversation. This conversation, and the hundreds of others this blog has been involved in, has taken place through this online wilderness. We have formed a “digitally mediated community of discourse.” Despite both distance and time, we have shared ideas, challenged one another, introduced new concepts, clarified our thinking, and made new conversation partners. Blogging and social media can be sites, forums, even classrooms where such conversations take place.
I’m not convinced they are total replacements for other sites of conversation. That today I am traveling from Florida to Oregon to participate in a conference is sign enough that I need and want the physically proximate conversation too. But even after I leave CTS 2015, I will continue to blog and to tweet to my colleagues and interlocutors. No doubt the conversation that continues there will continue again next year at another conference, so on and so forth. Online conversation is not a complete substitute for the in-person, but it is increasingly a profoundly fruitful, even necessary supplement to it.
I hope that we who blog in this unexpected wilderness find it valuable. I hope that we practice digital askesis so as to become more attuned to our embodiment. I hope that we build strong digitally mediated communities of discourse that further help to reveal the kingdom. I hope that we are able to give a word of salvation to those who
seek it Google it.