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  • Writer's pictureAlice J Stewart

Presence, Future

In Anthropology, we talk about something called the "contagion concept." This is the idea that "something" is transferred by touching or nearness. Many cultures and faith traditions are concerned about what to touch and not to touch. In our Western lives, when we are unreflective and uncharitable, we can think of these as "funny things foreign people do." 

Our own Western culture(s) is not exempt from the contagion concept. Here in North America, we have ascribed to the "germ theory" of disease transmission and often think of contagion as something that might make us ill because of microbes. [see]

But we also have more subtle ideas of contagion, ones not based on microbial transmission or disease. 

One anthropological experiment I enjoyed as a grad student was a series of imaginary scenarios and questions given to a group of volunteers. My favorite scenario was this: A sweater owned and worn by Adolf Hitler. Some questions included: Would you wear it? What would need to happen to it for you to feel comfortable wearing it? If it were unraveled and knit into something else, would that make a difference? [see]

What this experiment examined was a psycho-spiritual contagion concept outside of a faith tradition, and the responses were fascinating. 

We have some contagion concepts in our Christian tradition. The disciples received the touch and breath of the risen Christ. Jesus commands us to eat his flesh and drink his blood of the new covenant. Our baptisms and confirmations and ordinations and healings and Eucharists all include touch and nearness. Something special is transferred through contact and presence. It is a mystery, certainly, but close examination from different perspectives may bear fruit.

Sometimes we can get a better idea of our assumptions if we ask ourselves questions that we don't ordinarily ask: Is another person present with me on the telephone? If I see them? If I pray for them? If I read their letter? Their email? If I feel their body's warmth, smell their body's smell, touch their pulse? What is lacking? What is gained?

For ages, Christians have needed to be physically present and physically touching to practice our faith. Today, we struggle because we cannot do this. Anthropological concepts aside, is there anything in our scripture and theology to help us? 

If we question some of our assumptions regarding our sacraments and worship and gatherings, this might feel uncomfortable and maybe even heretical at first. It does to me too! But let's not worry too much. We're not changing anything, just deepening our understanding of our assumptions. 

Can we examine scripture and the life of Christ and see if there is anything that might help us regarding physical contact and spiritual presence? It is exceedingly rare that human beings isolate. It's not in our nature - we are social animals. 

So there are not many examples in scripture - but there are some. Prophets and Jesus wandered in wilderness, Jesus often prayed alone, and death could bring a stark kind of isolation. 

When Jesus returned to the disciples after his resurrection, he touched and breathed upon them. But he wasn't there forever. He ascended. 

Jesus taught the disciples before he ascended and sent us the Holy Spirit afterward to continue his teaching. Part of that teaching was about his real yet spiritual presence, even without his bodily nearness. 

We find Jesus in so many ways, real and present and eternal and living. But we are not likely to have the tactile experience of Thomas, and we are truly blessed who believe and have not seen. 

Elsewhere, Jesus shows us how the presence of something in physical reality is not required for the divine presence to be experienced. Two examples are when he tells the disciples the Temple will be destroyed, and when he tells the woman at the well that worship in a particular location will very shortly be unnecessary. We are to worship in spirit and in truth. Certain physical requirements are not necessary. 

That hasn't meant worshiping without gathering, however. We need to be in the same place at the same time. Our tradition is steeped in physical nearness, but here we are - isolated from each other. It's an uncomfortable situation to be in, and we're doing an excellent job of adjusting. I don't know about you, but I very much believe that we are still the Church even as we isolate. 

None of this would be remotely interesting without the technological capabilities of our presence with each other in real-time at a distance. Technology allows us to be present with each other at the same time, even if we are not in the same place. Space and time have become two separate things through this technology. Before now, the idea of our collective worship - our sacred presence with each other - has always included both. 

There are theological ramifications of all of this. I'm sure the work has already begun during other pandemics, and our theologians are hard at it. I, for one, will be fascinated to read these theological reflections and hope some are published soon. 

I'd love to think that you are present with me in real-time through technology, even if our bodies are not in the same room. It's not the same or ideal - it can't be - but I don't want to think our presence-at-a-distance is undesirable or meaningless. 

I'd love to think that Christ - alive in us all and as us all - is more powerful than the space between us. That it is he who's presence we seek, find, and share even if two or more of us gather together in cyberspace.

We are learning how to be present with the divine and with each other in different ways right now. This may have theological as well as practical implications we can't foresee just yet. 

What implications of "presence" do you see in the Church in the past? What changes in our ideas of "presence" do you predict in our future? What changes do you NOT want to see? 


Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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