Like everyone else in higher education this year, I am teaching classes at least in part through a digital medium. My own institution is doing a hybrid model whereby I have half of my students physically present in the classroom and the other half virtually present via Zoom, as well as a handful of students who will be fully remote and always virtually present via Zoom or alternate online assignments. It’s been a logistical headache, but it’s worth it to me in order to see any students at all in person. Because, as I said to a friend the other day, I’m tired of all this Gnosticism.
When everything shut down last spring, I taught online and via Zoom like everyone else. My students learned online just like students everywhere. All spring and summer I’ve endured virtual worship services. In the last couple of weeks, like everywhere, there have been virtual opening sessions, state-of-the-university addresses, faculty retreats, and classes all on Zoom. These meetings give me a non-virtual, very real, physical headache.
I understand the need for such measures, and I don’t want to flout health and safety precautions. Let me state clearly: I am all for the safety measures in place to stop the spread of COVID-19. And also, as I worked on a lesson plan to teach Gnosticism to my history of Christianity class with some students on Zoom, I realized that I want us to ask about the purpose of education and how form matters just as content does. We so quickly decided this spring that absolutely everything in our lives could be done virtually that we never stopped to ask whether it should. Unless you’re a parent or teacher of elementary students. Then you wondered.
We assumed that content was the point of education (and, for many Protestants, the point of worship) and we could deliver content virtually instead of in-person with a fair bit of logistical work but no real loss in content and therefore quality. This is a lie. When I worked at a summer camp, we didn’t allow campers to have their phones. Our director liked to say, “When you’re on your phone, you’re not here, you’re not there, and so you’re not really anywhere.” As I sit through one Zoom meeting after another, that’s exactly how I feel. I’m neither here nor there and therefore not anywhere.
It’s more than this experience, though. There’s something amiss theologically. I tried to write a poem about Jesus on a Zoom call, and I realized that it wasn’t working. Jesus wouldn’t be on a Zoom call because Jesus would be present for real. The incarnation is Jesus coming to dwell with us in the flesh. The claim that Zoom is enough for Christians is a lie because it denies the materiality of God’s order. It’s not even a new lie. It’s the old Gnostic heresy come again.
Gnosticism is a term for a lot of related heresies that sprang up in the second century, but one of the main ideas of most versions is that the Supreme Father is the God of the New Testament—loving, gentle, forgiving; and the God of the Old Testament is a lesser god—evil, arbitrary, focused on justice and even violence. This lesser god is the one who created the world, and so, because this god is evil, all matter is evil. Only the spirit is good, and all humans are just shells within which a divine spark is trapped. We need to release the divine spark and shed our material prisons to be saved.
But Christians say that there is only one God, and that God is the same in both the Old and New Testaments. That God even became flesh in Christ, healed people in the flesh, died for real in the flesh, and then rose from the dead and took that flesh with him. All of these things affirm the goodness of the material. All of these things tell us that God mediates God’s self and comes to us, in the material. We are material, our material is good, or at least redeemed and being sanctified, and we are the way God comes to us. God comes to us through the material of one another. So what does it say that all our teaching, learning, and worship right now is virtual, a term that in one sense means not quite real?
I do not think we should start meeting in large groups without masks or even small groups without masks. I absolutely think we should follow basic health guidelines here. And I also think we should ponder together what affect the form of our education and worship is having on the content. We should take this moment to ask what the telos of education and worship are and whether we can accomplish it without physicality. If we follow the church and say there is an element of formation, that the telos is being made into the image of Christ, then we cannot say that virtual is enough. If we believe that theological education is about more than filling our minds with doctrine, then Zoom is insufficient, however necessary. We must let the present limits make us creative and find ways to be together safely in this season. We might have to think smaller and make hard decisions, but we need to think theologically about our present circumstances. Even if we need to stay virtual for so many activities, let’s use this season to think about the purpose of our education and worship and the ways that form matters for achieving that purpose. Let’s, as the church, once again be a witness against Gnosticism.