Can a Digital Sacrament Still Impart Divine Grace? | Sojourners

Can a Digital Sacrament Still Impart Divine Grace?

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From the advent of Roman roads to the proliferation of the printing press and the birth of the internet, various advances in technology have often bolstered discipleship while raising pressing theological quandaries. This has scarcely stopped Christians from delving eagerly into new means of communication, launching public ministries of preaching and evangelism across the realms of radio, television, and film. Twenty-first century churches gather over videogame streaming, provide online services, ship communion elements across the country, and practice Christian rituals in virtual realities like World of Warcraft and Second Life.

These changes have produced pressing techno-theological questions that refuse easy answers: Does God hear the prayers offered by robotic priests? What about virtual church? Can a digital sacrament still impart divine grace? While the uncritical belief that technological progress necessarily leads to human progress is dangerously misplaced, some Christians have faced these questions by doubling down on a kind of anxious, theological Luddism where God cannot be present in the virtual, the digital, but only in the “real” world of flesh and bone.

When Virginia Theological Seminary asked technowomanist chaplain Shamika Goddard and me to present on how trends of technology disrupt and drive changes in Christian faith and practice, we discovered many of these flash points where technology and theology meet. In our research, we discovered that there had never been an app made to digitize the experience of receiving the Eucharist. We began our work to create a devotional, virtual, ecumenical experience of Communion for believers to explore - as centuries of Christians have before - how changes in tech affect discipleship and faith.

We sought to ground our labors in the Christian tradition of Spiritual Communion, an ancient practice where one receives the Eucharist non-physically by “downloading” Christ’s Body and Blood – even in the absence of physical elements. St. Thomas Aquinas described the practice as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Holy Sacrament and a loving embrace as though we had already received Him.” St. Augustine put the matter even more simply: “Believe, and you have eaten already.”

As Shamika and I called upon our own experiences in church and seminary, we became especially concerned with providing a resource for those who historically have been barred from participation at the Lord’s Table: the divorced, Christians of color, LGBTQ believers, those living far from physical community, or far from a church that is physically accessible. While we’re not trying to replace “brick and mortar” community, we believe God calls us beyond a spirit of fear in the face of innovations in technology. We hope our work will unleash others’ imaginations as well, limbering up our most sacred beliefs towards liberative and pastoral ends.

Some of the most common objections to this project are understandably around the question of physicality – is E-ucharist enabling a culture of disembodiment, separation, over-individuation? As one virtual commenter argued: “physicality and substance are inherent in the definition of a sacrament. That cannot be replaced by something glowing at you from a piece of plastic and metal.”

Though such critiques appeal to raw physicality, I’m not convinced that Christians can meaningfully limit God’s presence solely to the meat space (often called the “real” world). As the British Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes has argued, "an avatar can receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist within the logic of the virtual realm, and it will still be a means of grace, since God is present in a virtual world in a way that is suitable for its inhabitants.” Yes, matter matters. Yes, spiritual grace is mediated through earthly substance. Yet, this may be in equal parts bread and wine, water and oil, synapses and neurons, browsers and bytes.

If you too are someone who believes that God’s grace is accessible to everyone, everywhere – in cosmic, digital, fleshy realms – we invite you to taste and follow Christ with us through our app. Regardless of your beliefs on this project, we stand prayerfully ready to meet you at the table.