This article wants to help us gain language to talk about a reality that we are now going deeply into due to the COVID19.
And the word became connection.
Liturgical Theologies in the real/virtual world.
The Router is my Shepherd and I shall connect with everything…
I turn my eyes to the walls,
where does the strength of my power outlet comes from?
Painting by theologian and artist Marc Ellis for this piece.
In a recent long trip I made with my mother in US, we were on the road when the service of her home Independent Presbyterian Church in Sao Paulo Brazil was happening. My nephew sent me a WhatsApp message saying that they the worship was going to be streamed online. I got my phone and connected to the worship. For one hour and a half, she worshipped God as if she was present, there, with her people. She described the service to me, prayed, sang, listened to the sermon and she cried when she saw her son-in-law singing in the choir. She prayed for him for a long time and finally he was back into the fold of the church and she gave glory to God raising her hands inside of my car while we were driving across the USA. A real-virtual worship service for her!
Here we are again, Christians having to adapt our faith to our current times. Current issues such as global warming and the accelerated destruction of our planet, the economic devouring of the middle class everywhere, hatred against the poor, neo-imperialism in full force, the shifting of cultural patterns of living together, new ways of being church, and the virtual world we have been thrown into are only some of the main issues that are at the cusp of our needed renovation as Christians. In this article we will focus primarily on the virtual life, the e-life. In this needed adaptation, the virtual world is challenging the church of Jesus Christ in many, and unprecedented ways.
Traditions do change, all the time. Traditions are continuously challenged and being kept alive in many ways: by ways of betrayal, inner renewals, break ups, migration, ethnic and multicultural participation, theological shifts, and so on. In the midst of our fears and uncertainties, another challenge is upon us who live in the digital era. How can we face the new challenges of the virtual world, surely a new language, with openness, love and justice?
This article offers theological insights to begin thinking about the strange presence of the virtual in our midst in ways that will empower us. To do theology is to theo-login, i.e., to enter/login into God’s virtual world, theologizing the real of our login/virtual life, to think/live/experience God in a new language and dimension, to get our faith plugged into this wireless net of information and people where we are connected with a world known and unknown that is unfolding before our eyes. To theo-login is to provide tools to navigate this sea of possibilities to find ethical responses and to continue to live God’s love in this new dimension. The hope is that by delving into the theological/theo-login, we can think/practice our liturgical theologies in ways that foster a vigorous Christian mission. In this process we must have imagination, a prophetic voice and a free spirit to face the challenges presented to us.
The Real and the Virtual
As we get into this new language we start to learn both the possibilities of connections and their limitations. How are we to think theologically about the virtual world? How is the virtual related to the real and what is real and what is virtual? Does the virtual erode the categories of history and materiality? Does the virtual destroy our real gatherings?
What is the virtual? The virtual is that which we can’t quite locate. Things are in the cloud and there are no physical, real places where we can go. However, it is there, there meaning a place with no bounds, a there that is always elsewhere. Our bodies are extensions of gadgets, electronic machines and our minds are wired in very different ways, transforming our cognition, the way we think and also the way we relate. Some people say we are in the post-human era. We are all bodily, emotionally and fully involved in it, one way or another, creating new forms of life as well as new spiritualities being birthed, alongside ancient traditions.
Mark C. Taylor gives a definition of the real and virtual using a theological frame. He says that “The real, however it is conceived, is other, wholly other, or, in Kierkegaard’s words that continue to echo, ‘infinitely and qualitatively different.’” The real is also the virtual, an-other dimension, place, ‘infinitely and qualitatively different’ within and beyond us, deeply related to who and what we are and are becoming.
The virtual is the new religion. A new Psalm could be composed: “the virtual is my shepherd and I shall lack and be fed.” The virtual is a void filled with a presence to be reckoned with. A new re-cognito, new ways of thinking and being, framing our times, defining us endlessly, shifting our beings and leaving us with this way too real and uneasy and ongoing sense of unfinished identities. Our time can be defined by M.H. Abrams, cited by Taylor:
To put the matter with the sharpness of drastic simplification: faith in an apocalypse by revelation had been replaced by faith in an apocalypse by revolution, and this now gave way to faith in an apocalypse by imagination or cognition. In the ruling two-term frame of Romantic thought, the mind of man confronts old heaven and earth and possess within itself the power, if it will but recognize and avail itself of the power, to transform them into a new heaven and new earth, by means of a total revolution of consciousness.
This new cognito is shifting our ways of living, new traditions on the horizon, with new few forms of cognition, relations and movements.
The Real and the Virtual Word of God – Theo-login
The ways in which God manifests Godself in our midst has been a major theological thrust in the life of Christian communities. Jesus coming to live in our midst, word made flesh, God with us, is the apex of our connections. For Jesus connected us with God, the source of our being, intersected our lives with the threads of life found in God, minded the gap of our many separations, splits, and brokenness. Jesus redeems us from all sorts of disconnections, save us from ourselves so we can find ourselves, liberates us from bonds of injustice, transforms our stories and relations, heal our wounds, wire us into God’s own life, and streams us alive and non-stop into the aliveness of God present really/virtually in Jesus. Our Christologies must give an account of the Emmanuel in the virtual world.
As the mediator between God and us, Jesus was the link, the connection, the bridge, the gathering between us and God. The sins of disconnection were redeemed! The wired bondage of slavery, poverty, and patriarchalism were unbounded and made free, wireless in Jesus, whose deep connections broke the chains of connection that killed us and were made now stronger through deeper bonds/wires of love, patience, mercy, hope and justice. The tree of life is now spread through rhizomes of many roots giving fruits in many other trees, covering a much vaster territory, invading realms of death and producing a wireless connection throughout the world and even beyond the universe, in time/place capsules that contain the fullness of the eternity, with Jesus Christ being manifested in each random bit of energy and pulse of our bodies and local communities.
In Christian histories, the most accepted mediations have been the Bible, God’s revelation in nature (in Calvin’s words: common grace) and in Jesus (special grace), tradition, church documents, ecumenical councils, preaching and the sacraments. Now we must deal with many other wired and wireless connections.
The word that was there at the beginning and continues to need to be interpreted by our communities is now becoming something else in our days, also for the sake of the glory of God and the fulfillment of human life. The word that became flesh and bones is now metamorphosing itself into the virtual world, a world unknown to us in many ways, but a world that can carry both healing and transformation as well as injustice and corruption. The virtual world carries power and needs to be challenged. A world that can expand the possibilities of life but also one that needs vigilance by the people of God since it can easily spread sin and death. The real wor(l)d of God must enter into the virtual wor(l)d we live in so it will continue to be liberated and transformed.
As we continue to engage our traditions, we must deal with the virtual world and social media as we add this new source to the formal and former sources of theology. We see now that the word has become connection and connects us all into a web of relations and unthought of possibilities.
God’s love in Jesus continues to be expanded by new sources of life, and death, namely the virtual world. In this virtual world Jesus is the e-life, the e-way to God, still in its fullness. We the e-church, must continue our e-vangelism spreading the good news of Jesus Christ who continues to connect us to God and one another, being the e-bridge within a disconnected world. The e-life, e-death and e-resurrection of Jesus Christ are the spaces in which the conditions of the possibilities of God’s manifestation are manifested. The Christian life is still about experiencing God and now we must learn how to experience God in the virtual world.
As we start to open ourselves to the possibilities of God’s manifestation, we must see how real the virtual world can be. People begin relationships, have sex and orgasm, experience pleasure and pain, feel loved and hated, step back from suicide, find reasons to murder, learn how to love and make bombs, become aware of things and forget reality, make wise and stupid decisions, and live their lives in the virtual world. At the heart of the virtual world lies an unresolved ambiguity. And yet, the embodiment still remains at the center of all the virtual experiences. The virtual world is elusive and clarifying, empowering and destructive. Just like our real lives.
To deny the presence of the Spirit in the virtual world is to deny the wondrous and multiple ways God’s grace manifests. God is with us in this virtual world as well. Virtual space, like God, is a place which none of us can control, tame or define properly. It is a borderless place that does not give itself to limits, creeds and traditional worship rules. However, this world cannot be conflated with God since it is human made and must be developed, limited, apprehended, organized.
How are we to do theology in this place? How to figure out the unfigurable, that which cannot be known, controlled, grasped, figured? Perhaps the same way we do with our theologies, creating formats, expressions, concepts. In one phrase: finding borders within this borderless world. In this space Jesus’ promise of abundant life must be held high. Jesus lived and promised us life in abundance and that is the life we are called to live in the real/virtual world. In his days, Jesus was very careful to work within the tradition, with the Torah and the cultural ways of living faith in God. By reinterpreting all of it, he was searching for the fullness of life for the sake of life. Life comes first–before any theology or worship! First God’s love touches us, then we gather together to worship God. First life is breathed in us, then we try to understand this awe striking breath that keeps us alive!
We could say, that the same way reformed people believed that God would accommodate Godself into the language and limitations of human beings, God might be now accommodating Godself into the usage of online media so that we can experience God’s grace within the virtual world. The virtual world is the new theater of human possibilities and it also needs the glory of God to be found, chanted, lived.
Nonetheless, these borders are always prone to the borderlessness of Jesus Christ, the event of God. It is God’s borderlessness in Jesus Christ that breaks down all of our borders time and again so we can get closer to the fullness of God’s glory and life. Thus, if we are to do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, we must also make sure that the will of God is lived fully in the real/virtual world. The daily bread has to be present—a presence that provides the possibility of a just life available for all. The virtual, as the real, must be a place for justice and inclusiveness. The virtual world alone should never be understood as enough. If the virtual world proclaims that life by its own measure is enough, then we are seeing the powers of death taking it over. If a life connected by the wireless connection is enough than we are talking about a fully disconnected life that has been trapped into the virtual worlds of utter disconnection.
In order to avoid the individualism (not individuation) that promotes a world of me, me, me, we must call each other to gather together time and again. The virtual world is the new Psalm of David who said: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.” The call is the same, and the virtual is one of the spaces we meet and share. However, this is a space that must create conditions for our meeting together face to face where we rub each other’s shoulders, smell each other’s smell, breathe each other’s breath, kiss each other’s cheek, and hold each other’s hand.
The word of God in the virtual world is also a prophetic word, a word of love, justice and liberation that respond and reframe this very real/virtual world in order to show the glory of God in the real lives of the poor. The word that was, and still is real, way too real, are and must be fundamentally real to the lives of the poor, especially the disenfranchised, disconnected from the material sources of life, those who lack access to the virtual world in terms of computers and internet.
Some liturgical theological themes
Beyond the Christological perspective, here are some liturgical theological themes that we can think about when we think about the virtual world
From a theological/accommodation/mediation of the virtual world perspective we can continue to think of the church with the metaphor of the cloud of witnesses. The church has two thousand years of history in its visibility and invisibility, and lives at the same time in the past, present and future. We are all a cloud of witnesses inhabiting the virtual and real world, as well as gathering together to worship God. The ways that we now organize information are changing the ways we organize ourselves. Before the digital era we had owners of the church in the same way that the media had its owners too. Now information has been pulverized and monopolies of power and control cannot hold their hegemony the same way they used to. The advent of the digital era expanded the ways we hold and share power and facilitated a democratization of the world where nobody can hide information anymore. We are much more accountable to one another in our digital era, and this is great news for the church of Jesus Christ. Here every one is accountable to one another and power is something to be shared from the bottom up instead of being held in hierarchical structures. And yet, sites that can be created by anyone can also deceive people, forfeiting identities and faking promises. We are the real and the virtual church where borders have been shifted and reinforced, with worlds of connections between people opening up and closing. How do we talk about the cultural, ethnic, sexual, gendered, economic aspect of the cloud of witness when we are also talking about the virtual world? How do we live together in this world with that which we have received? The power dynamics persists!
We have been living in this virtual world since Jesus went to heaven. The Holy Spirit is our real/virtual Wor(l)d, the digits of our shifting identities. When we talk about the cloud of witnesses we are talking about archives and communities. Now our archives, files, texts, photos and memories are placed in the cloud, as a proxy of the Spirit. It is a virtual place that holds our histories and connections. We can’t see this place, and nobody knows where it is, but it is surely t/here, somewhere. The tangible archive is becoming a thing of the past, burned into the ashes of our memories and now located somewhere else. To be a Christian is to go elsewhere where the Spirit might be, often away from high class churches and institutionalized power, and more clearly within the pariahs, beggars, the unemployed, the sick, the miserable, the outcast, the downtrodden, the ones outside of the system. There, the real is more than virtual, it is so real that is surreal! Do we have a gospel for them/us-we?
We live in a time that begs for connection and connection comes from the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” This is the key aspect of this world: connection. The internet is connecting people in a variety of new ways, and connection has become the most important value of our time. Nowadays people are not looking for meaning but for connection and whomever can provide connection will gain people’s attention. Our sin today is to be disconnected and disconnection has become a disease. People have been so afraid of losing connection that new illnesses have appeared in our society such as different forms depression, rage, loneliness, social phobias, body pain, stress, anxiety, addiction and so on. To lose connection is to be utterly alone and in danger of disappearing. The church must offer possibilities of interactions, but we are often missing that point. One goes to school to be connected more than to receive “education.” That is why some schools cost so much, because they can offer more lucrative connections to the richest parts of our societies. The sinful nature of the current neoliberal economy is to keep on top those who already own the game, and to keep on the bench those who can only watch it, and to keep away from the stadium those who cannot afford to buy a ticket. This is the structural sin that pervades our cultures and prevents the possibilities of God to be manifested. It is against this sin that the church should push against, bringing the connectivity of God’s glory in Jesus Christ, reminding us of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the healing power of the Holy Spirit. To defeat disconnection we have the word of connection that comes from God and marks history with materiality and justice, holding on to life that is real, all too real.
The Eucharist is the celebration of the transubstantiation, consubstantiation, the real presence and symbolism of God in our midst. In all of these possibilities of connections with us, Jesus is fully present by way of his absence. The virtual presence of God in the real is such that the real gets transfigured, transformed into life anew! The absence of God is made present by gestures of faith, vivid demarcations of a territory both virtual and real that points to Jesus, the one who is there and not there at the same time. The famous definition of the sacrament by Saint Augustine “The outward sign of an inward grace” is the epitome of the virtual in the midst of the real, not exactly knowing what/where is the real and what/where is the virtual. In the real and virtual world, the place of memory is fundamental. Internet is replacing the location of our memory: we now don’t remember things but we do remember the places where things are, what part of the virtual world we can go to remember something. Google/Finder are technological tools functioning as proxy for our memory. What would we do without Google/Finder? Would we remember ourselves? The subversive memory of Jesus Christ is in the archive, in us and in the virtual world, connecting communities and movements of change.
In the same way, the churches of Jesus Christ have utilized symbols throughout their history: fish, bread, wine, lion, boat, cross, empty tomb, dove, serpent, lamb, and so on. We have accumulated many symbols in these two thousand years. Now, as we continue to work with the traditions of the church, accommodating the traditions to our cultures, we might need to add phones, ipads and routers to and of our faith, worship spaces, coffee shops and etc. One example: the long-distance healing that Jesus effected in the transformation of the daughter of the Canaanite Woman. Jesus was already healing from a distance, virtually! Now the same distance healing is brought to us through cups of water on top of radios and TVs or through the internet by participating in a rerun of a worship service that was recorded a week ago. The altar call where people would come to the front to accept Jesus is now possible through pressing a button on the computer. People watching the worship service online that happened last Sunday can still affect other people’s lives around the world in the same way as books traveling to different places have changed people as well.
However, this virtual world is also a place deeply marked by power and the possibilities of evil. We all must be aware and careful about the ways in which power manifests. This world is made of billions of dollars with a moral agenda as well. The virtual world has monetized and globalized our economy, dissolving and hiding powers in ways that are difficult to be accountable for. This is where liberation theologies come to the fore. The virtual world is prone to injustice, greed, and exploitation just as the ‘real’ world is. As a matter of fact, the virtual world has become a privileged place where people are abused and degraded, where the rich protect their money and make alliances against the poor. There must be a call for justice everywhere and a virtual liberation theology is needed now to issue a prophetic call against the imbalance of power and those who perpetrate evil. When we talk about the virtual world we must remember that a huge part of our population has no access to the internet and those who are outcast and poverty-stricken cannot afford even a cheap cell phone since they can’t even afford a meal per day. Suffering is everywhere and is a consequence of our disconnection. Who can connect? Who is this church? I hope to live in a church with the poor and even if there might be high speed internet in many poor areas around the globe a vast majority of people have no access to it. The virtual exclusion of the poor is also a fundamental aspect of the sinful/disconnected world we are living now. A real/virtual church is one who makes sure people can eat, can have access to health care, have shelter and the possibility to live well.
Our spiritualities happen in the real and virtual world. Clement Greenberg’s expression “Kingdom of the abstract” is where we live. Keeping the binaries for a while, the virtual kingdom of God is now offering something that the real kingdom of God takes too long to accomplish. It is easier to live in the virtual than the real. The necessary illusions that would take us away from the real now has become a reality in itself and reality has taken the place of illusions. Reality is an illusion that we try to escape. The divide immanence and transcendence has been enmeshed into one another… Consumerism is actually the new and most important spiritual practice. Bargaining with God and the world is our preferred life style. Moreover, the real spiritual life when Christian read the Bible daily and pray 7 times a day feels like outdated information for our spiritualities. Many of the Christian traditions are now part of a relic, something we go back to remember who we used to be. And more, service today is almost an awkward word. To serve somebody now has to be pondered about our limits, our willingness to do it and be aware of the dangerous and the liability in place to help the poor. The simulacra, an image/representation/imitation of someone/something. is more real than the real. Mark C. Taylor says: “In the world of simulacra created and sustained by complex networks of exchange, differences become indifferent until it seems as if nothing is special.” The virtual in-difference is easily translated into the material/real in-difference leveling out our love into whatever platitude we want to hinder under. The result is that the poor becomes even more other, virtual, infinitely beyond, becoming excess, garbage, simply to be taken, moved out of our glorious virtual/real lives. The quest for materiality, our bodies, each other’s real individual and social conditions will always be at the heart of our spiritualities.
The kerygma is always already there but in a variety of forms and possibilities and expressions that makes the very homiletic event something hard to define and rather difficult to grasp. The differentiation of the gospel, once marked in the act of preaching, is now often swallowed by the constant new medias and its endless novelty. The lonely master voice of a preacher is now interspersed with so many other voices, and her/his voice is now only one piece of information amidst many offers to see and interpret the world. The pastor, the one holding the truth of the community no longer exists. And this might be a great opportunity for us to move from a topdown structure of church to a bottom up way of living in community. Knowledge is not a gift bestowed upon a wise person but rather, shared in solidarity. Pastors are just one among many who was giving the gift to preach. Preachers are adaptive leaders who preach a gospel that connects people to people/places/events of life. Pastors are networkers who help people adapt to this world, able to work with people and their resources in order to search for life anywhere, elsewhere. Proclamation is a work of the community and not a sole action by one person. It takes a village to preach a sermon!
The Real and the Virtual
We are all intertwined, inter-related and interconnected. Our task as the church of Jesus Christ is to model the ways in which these interactions, connectivity and inter-relations can and should happen. Our end is not alone behind a screen but together with one another. While the virtual world is a real and fundamental part of our lives, we must use it for the proclamation of the word of God, healing, transformation, inter-faith relations and working for the sake of the poor.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flicker, Foursquare, and so on, are mediums of connection that empower our connectivity. They do not, and should not, replace our gatherings, our living together, our rubbing our shoulders together, our kissing and sharing the peace of Christ. Wiping each others’ tears can be done over the internet but it must also continue to be done person to person, the virtual empowering the real, the real being a sign of our need for each other. The same way the real must also empower the virtual, expanding ways of connection, of love, care and presence.
Our history is still made of materiality, our people still need real food to eat and survive. Economic structures, understanding of work and class relations are still marked and mediated by the virtual world. People’s access to the virtual world are markers of social inclusion. While many poor populations have some kind of access to the internet through phones or lan houses, the extreme poor still have no way to access anything beyond the streets they search for their daily food.
Thus, God’s preferential option for the poor must continue, really and virtually. In order to challenge the mechanisms of injustice that are still present in the real and virtual worlds, our task is to fight for those who are outside of the system. We must create possibilities of economic, social and class mobility, resource communities with tools and wealth, fight against the hegemony of companies who own our natural resources and against the 2% of the population who owns us all, and continue to be a model of resistance for all Christians.
How can we rewire the real? That is the major theo-login question for all of us!
Now that we have some glimpse of theological notions of the virtual/real world, how can we worship God? What is the task and mission of the people when they worship together? Worship is always a second act. The first act is God’s love for us demanding that we love God and the neighbor. When we love one another we must gather and worship God. Our worship is our wireless connection with one another, bodies next to bodies, connected by something that is fully there and also, in some ways, that isn’t.
Our worship of God is a way of producing connection with one another, God and the world. A new world is created, a cloud of witnesses is present, a wireless router can bring us connectivity just as the songs of a hymnal sung by our ancestors. In the virtual/real world, my culture gets blurred with somebody else’s culture, my social class is broken down for the sake of those who are at a disadvantage in social connectivity/life.
It is there, at the worshiping place, that we negotiate the ways in which we connect. The cliché “7 points for a healthy online church”, or “how to use media properly” or “how to become welcoming” won’t do the job. The use of technology in our churches is both fundamental and not important at all. Because in our worship services what matters is that we are together to worship God. With or without screens, iPads, and wireless mics, the importance is our life together, our empowered prayers with one another, and preaching done in a way–any way–that brings the gospel to the people. When we have the Eucharist, the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine, face to face or with a loaf of bread on top of the computer, we are announcing that this sacrament is fundamentally, a heightened moment of connectivity, where we announce the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and our mutual responsibility to one another.
Our challenge is to deal with unstable notions of time and space. Our buildings are not the sole place for worship and connections. Whether we are in each other’s homes, on internet chat places, on Facebook pages, spreading news on Twitter or sharing photos on Instagram, we are all connecting with one another. These are the new ways we must see church in our days.
Jesus used the Greco-Roman meals to share life with people, preached for the crowds, went to people’s homes, met them on streets, went to where the people were, and used symbols and parables to allow people to know what he was doing. The apostle Paul used the structures of his time, went to the Pantheon to preach about Jesus, and told us to preach both in time and outside of time. We must claim this adaptability as well, seeing and living a church that is not hegemonic, that is not an institution holding to middle and upper class behavior, but rather, a movement of connections, adapting to what we have, challenging those who have too much, and living for the glory of God and the sake of the poor.
As we think about our liturgical theologies, we can ponder the wonderful Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History. Benjamin was in awe with Paul Klee’s painting “Angelus Novus”, a painting that shows an angel with stretched arms moving forward but looking back. Perhaps he was trying to hold a tempest, this tempest being progress in the mind of Benjamin. The angel is looking to the past piled up with tragedies and horrors. He moves forward haunted by the past. The progress we have now is a sign of human genius and amazing abilities to create. However, this progress has also been a piling up of tragedies, people being killed and excluded. The present sense of greed, individualism, caring only for oneself and living with unrestrained desire, is bringing forth more tragedies.
Our worship services are signs of our times and how we think about our humanity. It is our task as Christians, to engage the virtual world seriously, to help create the conditions for God to manifest in our midst, and to live our faith fully, as Jesus promised us!
 Taylor, Mark C., Rewiring the Real: In Conversation with William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo (Religion, Culture, and Public Life) New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), Kindle Edition, 5.
 Taylor , Mark C., About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1999), 171.
 Psalm 122:1 The Holy Bible, NRSV.
 John 1:1, Holy Bible, The Message.
 Matthew 15:21-28, The Holy Bible, NRSV.
 Taylor, Mark C., About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture, 182
 Ibid, 196.
 Lan Houses are stores with several computers where people use the internet by the hour.
* This article was published in the following places:
Cláudio Carvalhaes, What’s Worship Got To Do With It? Interpreting Life Liturgically (Oregon: Cascade Books, 2018), pp. 221-234;
Cláudio Carvalhaes, “And the Word Became Connection: Liturgical Theologies in the Real/Virtual World.” In Liturgy, Worship and the Social Media (Taylor & Francis). Vol. 30, No. 2 (2015).
Here is also another good resource that came after I wrote this chapter: