The embodied conundrum

Posted May 18, 2012 | New Media Project


By Kathryn Reklis

Note: In the month of May 2012, the six New Media Research Fellows will be blogging about their newly posted theological essays. Look for the link below.

If you read a lot about new media and religious life—nay, new media and life in general—you will encounter a similar refrain: new media may be great in some respects, but it is no substitute for “real life” or for “real human interaction.” Read through the blogs and case studies on this site, and you’ll see what I mean. For the most skeptical, media use cuts us off from human connection and is to be avoided or at least severally limited. Even the most generous prognosticators of our digital present usually reserve some kind of distinction between the connections media enables and “real human connection.”

Throw a theologian into the mix and you will almost certainly come up against the Incarnation. Christians cannot embrace new media absolutely—that is to say, without reservation, which is usually tested in the form of rejecting online church—because we believe in the Incarnation. Ours, the argument goes, is an embodied faith, and we can never do without embodied interaction.

I’m a theologian, and I’m right there with them. The Incarnation does have something profound to teach us about embodiment, and our 2,000+ year tradition has a spotty record with affirming the lived, embodied nature of its adherents, especially women, slaves, “queers,” people of color, and other people especially associated with “bodily life.”

Yet, I am not at all convinced that thinking of real vs. digital life is best conceived on an embodied vs. disembodied spectrum. What if, instead of seeing the real vs. virtual divide in terms of embodied vs. disembodied, we think about the new permutations of digital and virtual technology informing our lives as particular ways we are embodied?

As the gap between digitally mediated or virtual life and so-called real life collapses, it is harder to think about new media as something we use to escape our real lives and easier to experience it as another facet of human existence, as real and material as any other practice, even if differently so. New media scholars describe this disappearing gap as X-reality—reality that moves fluidly across the virtual to real spectrum and wherein virtual or digital space is just a differently mediated way of being real. If we embrace this understanding of digital existence, what does the doctrine of the Incarnation have to teach us about our increasingly digital lives?

In my longer theological reflection for this project, I suggest three ways that we might think incarnationally about X-reality: the Incarnation as a guide to metaphorical interpretation, to ethical evaluation, and to concentrated attention. The last of these three—concentrated attention—seems to me to get at the real heart of what we all worry about when we worry that digitally mediated interactions will replace face-to-face ones.

In our lived experience, most of us don’t think we are escaping to some “virtual reality” when we log on to Facebook to post a picture of a high school reunion or check out what our old grad school friend is listening to on Spotify. But most of us do feel overextended, as though our real presence is so dissipated by being everywhere at once that we have little substance left to offer anyone in our physical or virtual presence. Perhaps what we worry about when we insist that church cannot take place solely through technological mediation is not “embodiment” as much as distraction and dissipation of our capacity to hold only one connection at a time.

The doctrine of the Incarnation is a kind of training ground for Christian attention. In the specificity of God’s revelation in this one person, we are directed to fix our attention, to mediate on this mystery, to worship. In paying attention to this very particular mystery, our senses (both natural and spiritual) are trained to pay attention to the mystery in all particular creatures. Limiting our attention to this one person creates the capacity to focus our attention on all people, even all creation.

As French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil describes it, truly paying attention to another person is the full content of love and the only real spur to justice; so too paying attention to God is the full content and method of prayer. Christians begin to learn the practice and virtue of attention in the Incarnation. This incarnational virtue might be needed more now, in X-reality, than ever.

Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Assistant Professor of Modern Protestant Theology at Fordham University (starting Fall 2012) and the Co-Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary.

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