Our family was standing among thousands of others in front of Cinderella’s castle at Walt Disney World. The music soared lifting our spirits, and nearly our feet, off the ground. Fireworks turned the night into day and the entire facade of the castle came alive with projected images. My eyes couldn’t track fast enough. The air was heavy with sweat and sweets.
If a more immersive, stimulating spectacle is possible I haven’t found it, but not everyone was enthralled. Next to me in the crowd was a boy, about ten years old, pecking on a screen inches from his eyes oblivious to the hurricane of light, and sound, and color around him. His body was at Disney World, but his mind was lost in the immaterial world of pixels. As I looked over the crowd, I saw many other kids—and some parents—focused on screens rather than present to the spectacle. If this isn’t enough to get their attention, I thought, nothing ever will. That was when I realized we had entered the age of dis-incarnation.
When Jesus came to dwell among us the Apostle Paul said he “emptied himself” to take on flesh. This means he willingly set aside some of his divine attributes, like omnipresence, to occupy a physical body. Scripture tells us that God is spirit and is, therefore, unconfined. “O Lord, where shall I flee from your presence?” asked David. When Jesus became an incarnate man, however, he was not everywhere, doing everything, or engaging everyone. He accepted the confinement of a body and the resulting boundaries on his power. To be incarnate is necessarily limiting.
Technology, however, offers us the illusion of omnipresence. It allows us to escape the physical limitations of our bodies to transport ourselves elsewhere. In an instant, I can flee the boredom of standing in line at the DMV to text my brother in California, or lose myself in highlights from last night’s Bulls game. I no longer have to be present with those near me, or even with my own thoughts, thanks to the genie in my pocket. Our phones have become totems that grant us the god-like power to escape our bodies , but in the process are we losing our humanity?
To be fair, this ability is not a completely new phenomenon. Technology as old as the telephone, the radio, or even books had the power to dis-incarnate, and two millennia ago Jesus’ apostles wrote letters to teach communities they could not engage bodily. So do not misinterpret this as a luddite rant against technology. These tools have their uses both in our world and for God’s kingdom.
What makes our generation different is the ubiquity of our dis-incarnation. In the past people set aside certain times to disengage from their bodies and be transported elsewhere. Dis-incarnation happened at the cinema, on a phone call, or for an hour while reading an engrossing novel. Most of life, however, remained in the flesh, present to ourselves and those around us. We had no choice but to stand in line at the DMV and just be there.
Not anymore. Technology has delivered us from boredom. It has liberated us from the hell that is other people (according to Sartre), and the agonizing purgatory of our own thoughts. The problem with this, which is wonderfully documented in the research of Sherry Turkle at MIT, is that without the opportunity to be bored, present, and alone with our thoughts we also lose the capacity to be intimate with others. Technology interrupts the time and solitude we need to grow in our self-awareness and self-knowledge which are prerequisites for sharing one’s self fully with another. Turkle says, “If we’re not able to be alone, we’re going to be more lonely. And if we don’t teach our children to be alone, they’re only going to know how to be lonely.” And Pascal prophetically wrote 400 years ago, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
The Christian vision of God is of an all-powerful, omnipresent, and transcendent deity. This is the promise of technology that we find so appealing. What we forget, however, is that the Christian vision of God is also one of profound intimacy. He knows our inner being (Psalm 139:13) and calls us by our real name, our truest identity (Revelation 2:17). As those made in his image, we must hold these two aspects of the divine, his transcendence and his immanence, together.
Ironically, the temptation to reject this divine paradox and the limits of incarnation may be especially strong among ministers of the Word. We have a divinely ordained mission; why shouldn’t we employ god-like technology to accomplish it?Technology promises to help us reach more people more easily than we could ever do as embodied ministers. The analog, incarnate ministry of the past was slow. The word was transmitted person to person, face to face. And the care of souls required shepherds to be physically present with their sheep. How agrarian.
With the advent of digital, dis-incarnate ministry our mission can finally industrialize. Now we can all scale our influence, not just the televangelists, and preach to thousands via pixels on a screen. We can manufacture disciples via blogs and tweets, and live stream ourselves to our anonymous sheep anytime, anywhere. Dis-incarnate ministry is so much cleaner, so much more efficient, and infinitely more marketable. In Jesus, the Word become flesh and for ages the Church followed that pattern, but our generation has finally set the Word free from the inherent limits of incarnation. It makes you wonder how the mission advanced before God sent Steve Jobs to distribute his digital gifts to the Church.
The only thing inhibiting this more efficient form of ministry are those who stubbornly refuse to abandon their bodies. For example, a few years ago I preached a message about forgiving our enemies. I could see a young woman near the front struggling throughout the sermon, her husband comforting her with an arm around her shoulder. (Had I preached via video I wouldn’t have seen her at all.)
After the message, I went to speak with her. (Another expectation of incarnate ministry.) I learned that a man had broken into her apartment and sexually assaulted her. He was caught and convicted for the crime, but she was deeply wounded emotionally and physically. “I don’t know if I can forgive him,” she said. I took her hand and her husband’s and together we prayed.
Standing with this broken young woman I realized evil makes no distinction between us and our bodies. How, then, can our efforts to overcome it? Jesus became incarnate to redeem every part of us—mind, soul, and body. Ministry in his name must do the same.
Learning the way of Jesus means accepting, and even embracing, our embodied limitations. It means emptying ourselves of the desire to be everywhere, do everything, and engage everyone, and learning to be fully present for the spectacle of redemption happening right where we are.