Virtual children? Sounds like something from a bad science fiction movie. Sadly, it is an idea being promoted as a way to combat climate problems, as you can see in this disturbing Ted Talk about Baby X.
Salvo has published an article that critiques some of the problems associated with this movement (Virtual Children, Real Problems). The Salvo author, Joshua Pauling, quotes Philosopher Byung-Chul Han,
This informatizing and data-ist approach to the world leads Han to warn that “we are headed towards a trans-human and post-human age in which human life will be a pure exchange of information.…The future of humans seems mapped out: humans will abolish themselves in order to posit themselves as the absolute.”
Returning to Han, the body plays an inimitable role in what it means to be human in community. Han argues that “without bodily touch, no ties can emerge,” and that “community has a bodily dimension.” But, “because of its lack of corporeality, digital communication weakens community.” Han focuses in specifically on the importance of eye contact—what he calls, the gaze. “The gaze stabilizes community,” and “the absence of the gaze is partly responsible for the loss of empathy in the digital age….The gaze of the mother, in particular, provides an infant with stability, self-affirmation, and community. The gaze builds primordial trust. Without the gaze, a disturbed relationship to self and others develops.
What an opportunity we have in our confused, cyber-infatuated age to live as an embodied church. The local church must be an oasis of reality in an age of relational emptiness. For all of our talk about the church being the people and not a building or a place (which is true), the unique thing about the church is that it meets. It assembles. It gathers, face-to-face. Pastors are not equipping isolated, individual believers; they are equipping a particular people, a particular expression of the community of the Kingdom, in a particular place.
By definition, the corporate worship of the church cannot be done individually, in small groups, or online. There can be no such thing as a virtual congregation.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones pointed out years ago that watching a video or listening to an audio recording of preaching is not of the same value as coming physically into an assembly and listening to a face-to-face sermon with a congregational community. According to him, it detaches the preacher from the sermon listener in a way that the biblical teaching becomes merely informational.
When the living, embodied transaction between preacher and congregants is broken you can impart knowledge, but what is left is no longer recognizable as preaching in any normative biblical sense. Lloyd-Jones also noted another problem, the listener can simply turn it off without anyone else knowing.
Our churches simply cannot exist without what Philosopher Byung-Chuck Han has called “the gaze.” His general words of critique about the notion of virtual children are also applicable to the local church: “Without the gaze, a disturbed relationship to self and others develops.” We should also add, a disturbed relationship with God.
I love the words at the end of 2 John, “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12). I cannot wait for Sunday to experience the corporate gaze anew and the joy that comes from God’s gift of the assembled church.