A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Online Communion and Disembodied Gnosticism

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. Theological incompetence leads to worship malpractice; and that is exactly what we have with the latest proposal coming from within United Methodist ranks concerning online Communion. Andrew Thompson has written an excellent critique as to why this idea is not a good one, so I won't repeat what he has said. But I simply want to make one additional point-- all modern heretical teachings have their roots in heresies of the past. The notion of online celebration of the Eucharist makes sense only if one is a third century Gnostic... and a twenty-first century mainline Protestant.

The Christian Gnostics picked up on Plato's belief that physical existence was evil and was opposed to the realm of the spiritual. So, the Gnostics believed that Jesus himself was not human; he was a spirit that seemed to be human. And not only that, since Jesus wasn't human he couldn't have died on the cross. It was Simon of Cyrene, who was accidentally crucified in Jesus' place. So the last thing Christian Gnostics wanted was a physical Jesus who was physically crucified and who was physically raised from the dead. That also meant that the last thing that would have characterized the Gnostic gospel was a bunch of Christians celebrating a meal chewing on bread and drinking wine. It was an ingenious worldview. Take away the significance of the physical and you can make the spiritual into whatever you want it to be.

So what does such disembodied Gnosticism have to do with the promotion of online Communion? After all, Methodists don't disdain the physical, and the idea of online Communion places more emphasis on the sacrament. Right?

Physical realities may not be disdained here, but they are minimized in their significance in two ways.

First, and we can't pin this on the Methodists, but when some Protestants in the sixteenth century rejected any real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and instead saw the elements as only symbolic of a deeper reality, it led to an untenable physical/spiritual distinction. If you want to make sure something becomes insignificant over time, just refer to it as only symbolic.

John Wesley did not believe that the celebration of the Lord's Supper was only symbolic. He believed that the sacrament was a means of grace and that the real presence of Christ was involved in the celebration. Wesley rightly did not get drawn into speculation as to how Christ was present in the Eucharist, unlike the Catholics and the Lutherans. It was sufficient to believe Christ's presence was an objective reality that could not be defined. That objective reality made the elements themselves significant in a way that not any so-called elements would do.

I suppose if one holds only holds a memorial view of the Lord's Supper than online Communion is a possibility. But for Methodists who should not be Zwinglians on this matter (although too many are) one simply cannot by technological osmosis pull a saltine cracker and small glass of lemonade out of the kitchen and have the Eucharist. It is an untenable separation between the physical realities of the Lord's Supper and the spiritual dimension that cannot be had apart from the act itself.

Second, online Communion is disembodied Gnosticism because it separates the physical community-- the church-- from the individual celebrant at home. Yes, I know the response is that online communities are indeed communities. So be it. But, online communities simply cannot replace some things--  and Holy Communion celebrated with the gathered church is one of them. Such online "worship" does not encourage participation in the Body of Christ around one of its central practices; it promotes individualism under the guise of community. So, like the ancient Gnostics, a true spiritual experience can be had at home where the divine spark within can be freed. It effectively removes the community from the practice of Communion. Communion itself becomes disembodied. Thus the word "Communion" loses its ecclesial meaning and instead refers to my own  private communing with God while eating a little piece of bagel and taking a couple of sips of orange juice. Andrew Thompson rightly notes,
When the church bows to such radical individualism, it destroys the community that God intends for it to be. And in giving the concept "inclusiveness" a canonical status, we turn the Eucharist from a gift into a commodity. It can be demanded at any time and place, and the church is rendered literally unnecessary.
I am not surprised it has come to this. We Protestants have been separating the substance of things from their meaning now for centuries and we have unfortunately become quite good  at it. The sacraments are only symbolic. Their significance is found in what they point to only, not in what they actually are. Liberal Protestants  have done this with the resurrection of Jesus. One doesn't really need a bodily raised Jesus; it's the meaning of the proclamation of resurrection that is important. We can still have resurrection even with a dead Jesus.

The early Gnostics would be so proud. I doubt that John Wesley would feel the same way.


larryhollon said...

Not sure I can agree that the conversation about online communion is a sign of theological incompetence. Rather, it was a discussion that revealed to me deep theological competence and concern.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Hi Larry,

My words may be a bit too harsh and I am willing to walk it back a bit, but what truly concerns me is not that the subject came up, but that there are those who are taking it so seriously as a possibility that it may even be brought to the next General Conference. That such is being seriously entertained suggests strongly to me a thin ecclesiology and a thin sacramental theology, which often we Methodists have embraced in various ways

Larry said...

I certainly agree with your comment that our sacramental theology is weak. Our accommodation to culture, especially the cultural messages that shape societies in the Global North and increasingly are influencing the Global South toward consumerism and materialism, reveal this, in my opinion. As secularism undermines sacred narratives such as the Gospel story, our theology seems more to become more accommodating than offering an alternative, or even a critique. If nothing is sacred, what's left of value?