Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Real Presence in a Virtual World

When my housegroup got together last week, we skyped with a couple who are spending a few months several states away with family. Michael and Terese and their kids are very much missed, and we wanted to connect with them and support them as they spend time with family members in difficult health situations.

We chatted about how they are doing and what we are all up to for a while, and then asked to pray for them. They asked one of us to scoot in closer so she was in the camera’s range, and the person who was going to pray made sure he was close in and in front of the camera, too. Then we all, on both ends of the skype, closed our eyes and prayed.

Now, I’m not going to argue that you have to close your eyes to pray. You don’t. But many of us do, and it struck me that after carefully arranging ourselves so everyone was included in the shot and could be seen, we all proceeded closed our eyes.

Why did it matter that we could all see each other if we were closing our eyes anyway?

Because without even thinking about it, we wanted to be together, to be present with each other before our Father.

Christians (as well as those who aren’t, I’m sure) tend to be confused about presence. On the one hand, we can have a neo-gnostic tendency to treat embodiment as only minimally important, since it’s the “spiritual” life that really matters. It’s part of a tendency to minimize physical reality and our bodies, if not to see them as an outright hindrance. 

This shows up perhaps most strongly in the ways we treat marriage as the only “safe” place to be embodied; our physicality is under suspicion in all other relationships. But it also shows up in our culture’s readiness to treat our physical selves as no more than accessories for our “real” selves, accessories that can be adjusted and changed (with enough money) to match our latest mood or the most current fashion. 

But we are fully physical as well as fully spiritual beings, and our bodies are an essential part of our selves.

Other strands of faith and practice elevate embodiment, prioritizing the physical proximity of the community in a geographic area. There’s an encouragement to live life together and to resist an individualism-based lifestyle that pulls people on their own trajectory regardless of the consequences to their geographic community, to those they share life with.

But in encouraging something that is good, this approach often misses something about presence, as well, I think. In idealizing a kind of pre-automobile, pre-easy-transportation lifestyle, it diminishes both the realities of the world we live in and how real presence is happening in new ways.

I’m not about to say that being physically present with friends and community doesn’t matter. But I am saying it’s not the only thing that really matters. It’s not the only path to real relationship and real intimacy, and it’s not the only kind of real presence.

The world most of us live in has a different geography than the one we learned about in school. In our everyday lives, we navigate a relational geography. It is described by the relationships we engage with more than the address where we sleep at night. 

For me, it includes the people I work with, my housegroup and to a lesser extent others in my church community, family members across the southeast who I talk with regularly by phone, and friends – some of whom live only blocks away and some of whom states away – who I engage with regularly. That engagement happens on facebook and by email, by text and by chat, on the phone and sometimes in person, and mostly by a mix of all those methods. 

The friendships that are most consistently in my life, that comprise my closest “neighbors” in relational geography, flow seamlessly between texts, calls, emails, and in-person connections on an almost daily basis.

Part of the reason they are so close is that they are present with me in so much of my life, no matter where they are physically at the time. 

And part of the reason other friends who live further away are still part of my relational geography at all is because of their presence in my life solely by virtual means. They are still really present, and my relationships with them are no less real because I rarely if ever see them in person.

The virtual world isn’t an imaginary place with imaginary relationships. It is a means to engage in real relationships with real people. 

Those real people lie sometimes, but they also love. They hurt others, and they are hurt. And they likely do all those same things in their off-line relationships. 

The beauty is that the virtual world creates a new place for us to connect – really connect – with people we wouldn’t or couldn’t connect with otherwise. That is also the challenge. It can stretch us if we let it, and it can expand our lives in ways we cannot imagine. The other doesn't always live next door.

How many people have discovered they are not alone online? How many have found the courage to own their wounds? To ask for help? To offer help? Like all real community, such positive outcomes aren’t always the case. Some also find the freedom to lash out, to take advantage of the vulnerable, to run from hard realities into a fantasy.

But none of that is any less true in “real life.”

In fact, it is all true in the virtual world precisely because it is true in real life. The choices we make to be really present to others in the virtual world will reflect the choices we make to be really present in all of life

We can choose to avoid that. We can choose to avoid the virtual world nearly entirely. But that won't get us off the hook of working to be really present any more than avoiding the "real" world in favor of a virtual world will.

The real question isn't will we engage the virtual world or not. The real question is are we willing to live in a world - virtual or "real" -  that's big enough to hold the other as well?