On the Primacy of Embodiment, Against the Online Instructors is a wonderful essay at The Public Discourse. It deals head-on with the clear shortcomings of online education from the point of view of human nature. We have known for a long time that long term disembodied education is not only a disservice to both teacher and student, but also a living contradiction of human nature itself. We are not “brains in vats” and we are not meaningful minds in meaningless bodies. We are integrated wholes whose psychological and spiritual health requires embodied experience. We need to be with people to be healthy.
While I am interested in this article’s emphasis on education, and in favor if its critique of online education, I see in it a direct correlation to in-person verses online church experiences. It was interesting to watch social media on Easter, 2021, to see how many people had not been to church in over a year. While restrictions (and thus the complications of meeting) vary from place to place, it is becoming more common for Christians who feel uncomfortable going to church to criticize those who do attend with some version of, “online church is just as good as regular church.”
It is not. There is no world 14 months ago in which anyone who took human nature and psychological health seriously would have argued that isolating people and replacing in-person interaction with virtual interaction was healthy. In fact, there was a growing industry of books and speakers encouraging people and parents to disconnect as much as possible from phones and online experiences. We knew then that there is no healthy substitute for in-person interaction, but because of certain political pressures and the consequences of habituated fear, an entire swath of Western culture (and certainly more) has let themselves be convinced that the opposite of what they believed 14 months ago is now true.
Here are some selections from what the article’s author, Pavlos Papadopoulos, has to say. Feel free to substitute “church” or “corporate worship” for the references to education.
Online instruction encourages the idea that education is a transfer of information from one receptacle to another. This is all well and good, if you believe that the educable part of a person is the mind, the mind comes to know by acquiring data, and the mind is radically divorced from the body. Online instruction reinforces, or at least does nothing to oppose, an all-too-prevalent view of the dis-integrated person: the human being as a mind lodged in a body from which it is alienated, stuck in a physical world that can, and should, be remade according to our sovereign will.
Worship and discipleship are not purely intellectual exercises. They require cooperation and the intangibles that only come with in-person interaction. Incarnation (literally, “enfleshment”) was so important to God that he incarnated himself when the Son of God became man, entered this world as Jesus, grew as a human would grow, walked with disciples for over three years, died as a human would die, and physically rose from the grave. The life that comes from these enfleshed truths cannot be captured via Zoom.
The religious and philosophical authorities of our tradition clarify and justify what we all already know by our common sense and lived experience. And while many of us may be in denial about this truth, we are not very good at living a lie this fundamental.
If the last 13 months have been anything, they have been a matter of “living a lie this fundamental.” We have been told that some people can “go to work” and you can do some things in person, but church and school were right out. We have been lied to a lot, and many have happily lived that lie. One of two things happens when people do this. First, they awaken to the lie and begin to find ways to refuse to live it. Or, second, they tell themselves the lie long enough that they become inured to it and go along to get along.
The inherent inadequacies of online instruction should be especially obvious to practitioners of liberal education. Online instruction encourages the worst misconceptions about the nature of education: that it requires not a total revolution of the person toward the truth but only an absorption of information, and accordingly, that it is a product to be bought rather than a discipline to be practiced.
Perpetuating virtual church as “just as good as” in-person church “encourages the worst misconceptions of the nature” of discipleship and worship. It cuts against the grain of human nature and our health. Not only are individuals and families healthier where there is a good amount of interaction with other people, but entire cultures become healthier. Dividing us physically has led to an unusual divide socially and politically. How much of our general angst and distrust can be solved if we just met together again? How can our grasp of human nature improve if we simply gather to worship together?