Monday, January 19, 2009

Can online communty be incarnational?

Today a friend sent me a link to a recent radio interview [News 88.9 KNPR-Nevada on 24 Dec 2008] with Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, leader of the Episcopal Church in the US. The focus of the interview was on the state of the Episcopal church due to the on-going tensions in the church over the election of an openly gay bishop. However in the middle of the interview she made some interesting comments on the her view's about online religious community.

BISHOP: The reality is Christian communities; faith communities of all sorts need physical proximity of humane being in order to discover each other, in order to grow individually and as a community. We do not do that as well with people who are not in our presence. It is hard to build a faith community in a deep sense on the internet. We deal with caricatures; we deal with perceptions and positions rather than full human beings sitting in our presence.

INTERVIEWER: Although many people point to the Obama campaign and the social networking and the impact it made, in drawing together millions of people in this country, mobilizing them, getting them to vote getting them to knock on doors throughout the country and that would be community engagement that is philosophical engagement.

BISHOP:It is. I think it is at a different level that what is normally though of as a faith community.


BISHOP: Because it doesn’t involve face-to-face encounter with a human being, individual whom you come to know over months and years with all that person’s gifts and warts. And learning to challenge one another in a faithful sense to grow up into all they can be.

...and later she went one to say...

"it is a hunger for intimate community of the kind that we were talking about the minute ago that is only possible in the physical proximity of other human beings. Some of it can be served on the internet but the incarnate piece is missing."

Upon reflection I both agree and disagree with the Bishop. I agree the in most case physical proximity is the ideal and may more easily facilitate the possibility for intimate community, however in my experience and research physical presence does not necessarily mean that intimacy and care will be achieved in community. I think the incarnational nature is also about what people bring to the table to create the environment and that this can be intentionally built and maintained in a "disembodied" context. I have both studied and experience this online my past 13 years of research.

But what do you think?


bethany said...

I agree with you, I think.
I think the bishop discounts the ability of online community to function as supplement to face to face community. I also think she discounts the level of long-term and deep relationships you can have or maintain online. Not that I think online community can replace brick-and-mortar churches. On the contrary, I think no matter how good your online community is you need local people too, if only because those are the ones that show up with cassarole when you just got back form the hospital and that's where you can get together to help your local homeless population. But I think the bishop is too dismissive of technology.

Paul Emerson Teusner said...

Hey Heidi,

I have been both members and ministers of close physical communities that have seriously lacked anything I would call "intimate". I think I have missed out on seeing intimacy as part of traditional churches. There are structured relationships within churches, to the point that people know they are supported, have spaces to ask questions. But I think in communities intimacy lies in the darker hidden corners (we Protestants tore down the built dark places the Catholics still use today, so we've had to create our own). I think some of us see the Internet as the dark quiet place where our secrets can be shared. Or am I getting the word "intimacy" mixed up?

Tim said...

Well, I've looked at quite a few online faith communities that claim to be pretty incarnational and intimate. But the number of people involved in "online churches" and intentional intimacy-building faith groups is tiny compared to the number of people who, say, use Facebook or read blogs, and for the great majority of online activity I think the bishop's comments are fair. Online activity, by and large, is loosely networked or supplementary to offline interaction, and as such doesn't fit the bishop's (admittedly idealised) model of the true faith community.

Kyong James Cho said...

have there been any research studies (surveys or ethnographies) regarding intimacy online? if so, can you point to some articles? if not, i think that may be a fruitful study.