Luke Stocking: Pandemic reflections on the Incarnation

  • May 22, 2020

At a time when mother nature has “sent us to our rooms” (as one viral post put it), the digital world has opened its arms wide to embrace us. It is a reality that I have been reflecting on during this pandemic.

We believe in the Incarnation and yet we are increasingly living in a discarnate world. Do we simply retreat further into our rooms or have the courage to learn the lessons we are being asked to learn?

How many readers have participated in their first Zoom meeting or had to figure out how to use FaceTime since this all began? In my work, with colleagues spread out all over the country and a mission that spans the globe, digital gatherings were par for the course even before COVID-19. Since we began working at home on March 13, I have been staring at screens so much that I now wear special glasses to filter out the headache-causing light.

The most successful online meetings that I am involved with are ones with people that I have met and spent time with already in the flesh. For some reason they tend to work better because we already know one another in a way that I believe can only be achieved without screens mediating the encounter. In these cases, our established relationships can continue even though distances (or a virus) may keep us physically apart.

If I only know someone mediated through a screen, it is a different quality of relationship — it is a relationship with a discarnate being. I think there is a reason that very few significant relationships remain discarnate for their entire duration start to finish. As one good friend said about going to visit her grandkids on the other side of the country, “FaceTime is great, but I need some skin time!”

Marshall McLuhan wrote, “Electric man has no bodily being. He is literally discarnate. But a discarnate world, like the one we now live in, is a tremendous menace to an incarnate Church.”

The moving image or voice of a person on my device has no bodily being — electric man.

Why is this discarnate world a threat to an incarnate Church? For one thing, it dismisses the importance of the Incarnation for our salvation. What need is there for a God who redeems humanity by taking on a human body if we have already liberated ourselves from those same bodies?

What need is there to care for God’s creation if we have the power to free ourselves from our dependence on it?

The main reason the discarnate world is a threat is because it is a lie. We cannot ever truly liberate ourselves from our bodies. As much as we capture dreams of “uploading ourselves” to a virtual world in Hollywood narratives, we cannot escape our boundedness to the physical one.

They say that you cannot love others unless you also love yourself. You also cannot love God and God’s creation unless you love the form in which God created you — the human body.

We are embodied beings intimately connected to the planet. Our obstinate refusal to embrace our own incarnation, be it due to fear or disgust, is an important part of why we are in the ecological mess that we are in.

I do not reject technology in absolute terms. What I reject is what Laudato Si’ calls a “technocratic paradigm.” Such a paradigm “exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object.” One of the effects of rejecting our incarnate nature is to turn our bodies into one of these external objects.

This is the opposite of what the integral ecology of Laudato Si’ calls us to — authentic relationship as opposed to domination. This is worth remembering as we mark the fifth anniversary of Laudato Si’. Whilst in a global pandemic, we are being reminded of our deep interconnectedness to each other and all life on the planet. 

It is because I believe in the Incarnation that I am increasingly excited to be involved in an emerging initiative called “For the Love of Creation.” I serve on the co-ordinating committee of a growing group of churches and Church organizations who, as our public statement states, “come together as people of faith in the hopes of making a meaningful contribution in the next decade towards a sustainable future for all life on the planet.”

Yes, we have been “sent to our rooms” by mother nature — but we do not want to stay there, as much as the digital world might want us to. No, we want to come out of our rooms having learned the lesson we were sent there to learn — there is no future for us unless we accept the reality of the Incarnation.

(Stocking is Deputy Director of Public Awareness & Engagement, Ontario and Atlantic Regions, for Development and Peace.)

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