Digital Reality

I had the internet in my home before I went to secondary school, in the late 90s. I think we were on the earlier edge of that, my Dad worked for one of the biggest IT giants in the world, but I was exposed to the early internet at a formative age.

I am, by any definition, what we call these days ‘Very Online.’ Yet, I am not a ‘digital native’ like Gen Z are. Why not, despite the internet being formative on me?

The early internet has a distinctly different character to the modern social internet, which is important, but even more important is that I didn’t at this point have a mobile phone. I got one a few years later when most kids did in my particular teenage moment, and it could send texts and play Snake and, you know, call people.

I was an early adopter of Facebook, in late 2005, long before it was open to everyone, but I wasn’t an early adopter of the Smartphone and didn’t get one until I was in my mid-twenties, I got on Twitter later still (2012). These tools are so entirely different to learning to create Boolean searches in Altavista, or even the forums I used to hang out on in my late teens, that I’m not a digital native. Gen Z are—they grew through their early teens on the social internet; and it formed them.

They are often digital first, which colours their thinking and ways of observing the world in a host of ways that I don’t think many people in churches are grappling with.

Just one aspect of this that I’d like to explore is this: digital natives think that the digital is real. In fact, they probably find that to be a strange sentence, as though I wrote that air-breathing humans tend to think that air is real.

I think this is a problem, because we should affirm that the digital—while important—is not real. And, it’s important to clarify, I don’t really think this is a Gen Z problem. I don’t think they’ve had much opportunity to know otherwise. I think most people think that the digital is real, engaging in what Mary Harrington would have a very colourful way of describing as Gnosticism.

But it’s not real.

At all.

And this really matters.

For the sake of clarity, when I describe something as real here I do mean ‘having substance’ (clearly it exists) but in the particular theological sense of participating in the divine life of God. All of creation participates in God, the very ground of being, in whom we live and move (Acts 17). He is the only source of life. The world outside your window and around your table is real to the extent that it participates in God, because only God exists in the sense of having being that is derived from himself. We call this God’s aseity. Everything else rests first on God.

This is why humans engage not in creation, but sub-creation, as we rearrange the components that the Lord has given us into new things. We see that God creates the heavens and the earth. We live on earth until heaven and earth get married. Even then we will remain physical beings (1 Corinthians 15). The spiritual is not superior—the angels are here to teach us how to surpass them, after all, because we will judge them in the age to come (1 Corinthians 6).

To be more precise, the spiritual is not opposed to the physical as though that were separate things. There is no sharp distinction between nature and supernature. This means that the world in which we exist is by necessity embodied. We are our bodies, we are physical beings, who participate in the life of God.

I know young people who’ve suggested to me that their online relationships are as ‘real’ as physical ones, and pushed back on my suggestion that it might be helpful for them to find friends who are in physical proximity to them. There are a number of assumptions we could unpick here, but I’d like to go straight to the bottom and say that reality is embodied.

This is all a bit esoteric, especially because of the way I’ve chosen to argue it, so why does it matter?

  • Friendship requires physical proximity, and friendship is the love of the kingdom, greatly lacking in our cultural moment.
  • The broader idea of community that is needed for a local church to learn to be the household of God, requires a great deal of physical proximity
  • Joy is the participation in God, which means joy can be found at the Table but not online.
  • Physicality matters: this sits at the bottom of the sacraments, why do we eat bread, drink wine, and insist that we’re born in water? Surely these are ‘just’ symbols? Putting aside that they are symbols but that doesn’t mean what you think it is (symbols are signs that you can participate in), a rich view of life in God requires matter to matter.

What should you do about it? Cook a vat of chilli, get some mates round, open a bottle of wine, sit around the table, and talk.

Because the Table changes your table, and reality finds its expression in the God who exists, there is little more real that you can do.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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