Thursday, May 6, 2010

Disembodied Quakers?

Quaker historian Tom Hamm, in the opening session of the QUIP (Quakers United in Publishing) gathering in Indiana last month, suggested that the contemporary outpouring of Quakers on the internet was the 21st century equivalent of the original 17th century “publishers of truth.” Later in the conference Brent Bill reminded us that in the first 50 years of the Quaker movement, over 640 writers put out more than 3000 pamphlets, tracts and books. Today some of our most lively exchanges are on the internet. A good deal of the QUIP conference was devoted to the phenomenon of Quaker blogging. And here I am, trying to join the conversation.

I have my doubts. The university I work for is going online, and I am trying to prepare my course in this new (to me) modality. The teacher in online-course-design is telling us that once we experience this wonder, we will never again want to have a traditional class with people physically present in a room. I think he’s wrong. The almost magical claims about what virtual reality can offer scare me and make me a doubter.

Before the QUIP conference, I received emails from people I didn’t know, and my mind automatically supplied images to match the words. Of course being there in person made all the images disappear. In each case the reality of the person was better than what I had imagined.

I’m reminding myself that face to face encounter doesn’t necessarily guarantee knowing another person. And a lively mental exchange is possible on the internet. Sometimes the virtual exchange is better, for example, in the case of quiet people like me. In a group I don’t always speak up, but online or on the page, I have a voice. I can enter the conversation. I’m reminding myself that all writing is a medium, and part of the challenge of the good writer is to embody what she writes—root it in time and place and the real world. Language itself is a medium.

But still there’s something so good and so concrete about being physically present to another person. Add the smell of fresh bread, the timbre of voice tones (that skype can’t quite replicate), the gestures and expressions that can say more than words, throw in a hug or two, and something real happens.

I’m theologizing now, drawn to the story of the incarnation. God felt the need to become embodied in order to extend salvation to the human race. “He became flesh and dwelled among us and we beheld……” Jesus was a flesh and blood person who got tired, suffered hunger, knew pain, as well as the joys of friendship and family.

But then my back-and-forth mind asks, “What about today?” Jesus is no longer with us in the flesh. We believe he is here among us, speaking to us, leading us, protecting us. I see the Quaker painting, “The Presence in the Midst.” So, does that mean our relationship with Jesus is now virtual?

Again my mind rebels at the label. The term virtual makes relationship seem somehow mechanical, less than wholesome. It makes me wonder about the nature of virtual reality, its strengths and its dangers.

No, our relationship with the living Word is not virtual. As I sit in his presence, he is as real to me as the air I breathe, and our communion is warm and friendly. Sometimes it’s frightening, and I realize how little I really know him. There are times when I can’t emotionally sense his presence at all. But I know that he is there, beyond feeling, thought or word. And not as some virtual reality. As Reality.

It’s significant that the Scriptures speak of the afterlife in terms of a new earth and new heavens. We will have new bodies. I don’t understand this and can barely even imagine it, but a blessed and glorious materiality awaits us. And, with material eyes, we will see the one we are now coming to know.

And so I continue to wait quietly, daily in his presence. And I will continue to explore this new medium, interacting with friends and Friends (and maybe even an enemy or two) over the internet. As I do, I will try to remember that behind the words that float out from cyberspace, there are people with bodies and feelings, with relationships, stories to be told, and destinies to fulfill. In doing so, maybe I can make even blogging a sacramental act.

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