Radical Preaching

Can preaching again have something to say?
This blog marks the attempt to bring the theological vision of Radical Orthodoxy into the worship and preaching of the local church.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Virtual Relationships

In response to my sermon for last week, et al asked a question regarding what I meant when I was critical of "virtual" relationships. Was I speaking of the blogosphere specifically? Or, was I speaking of the ways in which our entire culture is formed around "virtual" relationships? I hadn't really thought that deeply about it. Indeed, it was probably me just engaging in a little sermon rhetoric (That is what is great about preaching, what others hear and glean that you didn't really even think about). Again, I think I would start by referring to Ellul, and his noticing how technology, rather than just making our life easier begins to dominate our lives. In his day, it was the factory and the assembly line. In our day, it is a myriad of communication devices that places a virtual world at our fingertips. It opens up wonderful conversations across great distances that otherwise could not take place. At the same time, it allows us to potentially live in an almost disembodied, at least distended, state. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam discusses how he is more likely to talk to a friend halfway around the world than he is to go talk meaningfully with his next door neighbor.

I think one of the problems is the difference between technology and practices. A practice is bound up in a narrative and a tradition and contains standards of excellence (See Alasdair MacIntyre for the full definition). Technologies, on the other hand, are simply techniques that allow one to gain control over nature. In our current time, technology far outweighs any semblance of virtue or practice. Thus, these "technologies" begin to dominate our lives (Dan Bell's book Liberation Theology after the End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering contains an excellent account of how these technologies discipline us to make us docile subjects re: Foucault). They even invade areas we would not expect: men whose lives are dominated by pornography, women's magazines filled with 10 new sexual techniques to "make him never want to leave you," children's guides to prepare them for a high score on the SAT, eating habits to make you develop abs of steel... The list is almost endless. In a culture that has lost any semblance of a telos (except for maybe progress), there is almost no end to the brokenness that will ensue.

I think there are wonderful aspects of the internet and blogs that we are taking advantage of now. At the same time, I believe so strongly in Triune theology and high ecclesiology centered on Eucharistic practice that I cannot help but see problems that lie at the core of moving away from embodied relationships within local contexts. They are messy, painful, often disappointing, and yet also the instance for the revelation of God's power and love. At the same time, it could very well be that it is the virtual world of internet technology and real-time communications that will break the stranglehold of power held by the nation-state currently. It could be that the virtual world will bring about some sort of catholicity, if not at least radically localizing every global context.

All that stated, I think I will just quote Graham Ward to begin our reflection on the nature of virtual relationships. As we are all part of a generation that thrives on internet technology, I thought this quote would help us begin to consider the connection between the virtual world and the embodied world. This excerpt is taken from The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader.

"Surfing the net is the ultimate postmodern experience. Facing your SGVA [It was written in 1997] display- low radiation/anti-static- poised over the multimedia controls, you launch into new forms of spatiality created by flows of electronic information. In Disneyland colours you download texts, pictures, video clips, voices from anywhere in the world, regardless of time zones. Electric libraries in Sao Paolo, chat-lines in Florida, info sites in Sydney, data banks in Vancouver, on-line shopping in Paris, audiovisual tours with 3D graphics of the Vatican, the White House, the Kremlin, the Taj Mahal- all are available at your fingertips, twenty four hours a day. Time and space as conceived by empiricists collapse into omnipresence and multilocality. And the ride is continuous, for the electronic tide maintains you on the crest of impending satisfaction, far above any ocean floor, fast forwarding toward endless pleasures yet to be located and book-marked. Time disappears, boredom is deflated. The drug of the ever new, instant access to a vast sea of endless desire which circulates globally; browsing through hours without commitment on any theme imaginable; dwelling voyeuristically in one location until the pull of other possibilities reasserts the essentially nomadic lifestyle of the net-surfer: these are the characteristic experiences of living in cyberspace. Cyberspace is an undefined spatiality, like the contours of a perfume, and you are an adventurer, a navigator in uncharted waters, discovering the hero inside yourself. You act anonymously, simply as the unnamed, unidentifiable viewpoint of so many interactive network games, and where an identity is needed, you can construct one. Reality is soft, malleable, permeable, and available only through the constant discharge of electronic energy signaling across the cosmos. Discourse is energized, sexualized... In this land of fantasy and ceaseless journeying, the experience of tasting, sampling, and passing on, truth, knowledge, and facts are all only dots of light on a screen, evanescent, consumable. This is the ultimate in the secularization of the divine, for here is a God who sees and knows all things, existing in pure activity and realized presence, in perpetuity. Divinization as the dissolution of subjectivity within the immanent, amniotic satisfaction, is the final goal and object of postmodernity. Cyberspace is the realization of a metaphor used repeatedly by Derrida, Irigaray, and Kristeva- the Khora, the plenitudinous womb, dark, motile, and unformed, from which all things issue" (xv-xvi).


Blogger Eric Lee said...

I think the internet can be a great tool, but as noted, we should definitely acknowledge its limits. Virtual communications have more drawbacks than merely being disembodied. As Jamie Smith hinted in this The OOZE article, the emergent church and any kind of Christian sensibility that gathers around the internet tends to exclude the least of those among us. Sure, many of those people out there on the streets can use the internet access in most libraries these days, but that doesn't really mean much, because most of our friends out on the streets have to spend most of their waking hours actually trying to survive.

In sum, the internet is great, but it will never be able to substitute for the works of mercy, by which we shall be judged. We can communicate with others around the world, be reminded of how catholic we really are, discuss wonderful issues, even argue, but it will never be a substitute for real flesh and blood ministry. Heck, I have around 6 or 7 websites, but I need to remind myself of this constantly.



October 13, 2005 11:54 AM  
Blogger Et al said...

Something I find interesting is how we adapt to our own life circumstances as "normal", perhaps without thought that what one does and sees day in & day out is not necessarily true for others.

I remember needing to remember that most people go their whole lives never requiring 'life support'for a critical illness. But in my job, it was "normal" to be caring for people so ill.

Eric, you bring this out when you mention the folks who use most waking energy trying to survive. It is true that they most likely will not benefit directly from cyberspace. Also, most of my friends are technophobic and will do most anything rather than confront a blank computer screen; feeling somehow inadequate when they cannot take charge and bring the world to their desk top.

Using this amazing technology to enhance our lives and bring us closer to honesty and integrity in even virtual relationships strikes me as a pretty good thing.

I was moved by your phrase 'works of mercy' Eric. It is a mindset I try to employ in dealing with all people. I guess the thing I'm realising is that my version of "normal" life is to be dealing with people in a very hands-on and practical, serving way. That is true socially and professoinally, so the internet is a way to engage with others in a much more safe, abstract and less demanding way. In short, it offers respite from 'work' and even (Ihope) brings something substantial into my life. Thus providing me with more to be giving out with the joy and privilege of serving God in all things.

October 13, 2005 10:17 PM  
Blogger Et al said...

Ooops ... forgot to sign off!
Cheers and joy

October 13, 2005 10:18 PM  
Blogger David said...

Scott - I think you're really onto something here. I would refer you to the following thinkers or works.

Peter Augustine Lawler

Godspy - Plugging In, Dropping Out: An Interview with Technoculture Critic Christine Rosen

GodSpy - The Simple Life Redux: An Interview with Eric Brende
Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende

October 28, 2005 1:09 PM  

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