Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Limits of Technology and the Church

On Gene Veith's blog an interesting topic was posted. It concerned the idea of online confession and absolution. The topic was launched by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway's reference to numerous online sites that encourage confession and the unloading of one's troubled conscience anonymously to some website. Numerous opinions have been given, and I would tend to side with those who are uncomfortable with this practice. As Veith's pastor reminded us from St. Paul, "all things may be lawful," but not all things "are helpful." That is, not all things "build up" (1 Cor. 10:23).

This discussion is a helpful reminder of the limitations of technology and matters of faith. There is no denying that email and the Internet have offered an invaluable colloquium and a helpful forum for discussion and debate. For some people isolated by distance and circumstance this has been the only way to engage in meaningful dialogue with those who share their views or are informed enough to effectively debate their points. Given the continued fracture of many church denominations between the poles of liberal and conservative, with people alienated in the process, sometimes the Internet is the only means of finding a compassionate fellowship for support. For these reasons and others I would not want to see this resource lost.

However, in a society that is becoming increasingly impersonal and selfishly turned in on itself, this technology can often serve the dark purpose of encouraging an unhealthy isolation without a corresponding accountability. The genius of membership in the 'real time' environment of a church is that people are accountable to their own shepherd and flock, and that they can also benefit from the real, physical comfort of fellow believers who care. Add to this the simple yet profound theological truth of the incarnation; namely, that God took on human flesh and dwelt among us. His very words were "enfleshed," not simply printed and disseminated. As good as the Internet and related forms of technology may be, the words on this screen can never take on the 'enfleshed' character that is Christ. It can only mirror it at best.

In the end relationships must be consummated by the mutual physical presence of those in the relationship. A husband may faithfully email his wife from Iraq where he lingers in a protracted tour of duty. This may be a 'life line' of sanity for him in an otherwise insane world where hatred and violence are daily fare. Still, he dreams of being with his wife, not merely communicating by mere words on a screen. The emails cannot substitute for the fullness of their union.

The church is the bride of Christ. And as such her relationship with her Husband cannot be sustained by mere words drifting in cyberspace. It must be consummated by physical connection via water and bread and wine where the realities of his true presence are given and received.

There is a danger in this technological blessing before us. While it brings unprecedented opportunities (which I am realizing even as I write these words for an audience beyond my knowledge), it presents as well a darker flip side of allowing people to live in isolation of the source of life they so desperately need. As for confession: it should be done before a pastor who can hold the penitent responsible and accountable, and before whom he can hear with his own ears the 'living voice' of the shepherd who stands "in the stead" of Christ, declaring his freedom from guilt and his liberty from death.

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