Is There Holy Digital Ground?

In the rehearsal room of Friargate Theatre, York, I sat with my friend and collaborator as we created a piece of theatre; we were both barefoot — and rightly so, for this, like all rehearsal spaces, was ‘holy ground’. Holy in the sense that it was set apart for the task of connecting an individual with an-other and with a shared source of inspiration and life. The intrinsically physical dynamic within the rehearsal/performance environment is significant when you consider the spiritual aspects of such creative endeavors. I’m forced to ask “what effect do our physical bodies have on our communities? And what hope is there for digital communities attempting to stand on such ‘holy ground’?”

The research surrounding Computer-Mediated-Communication (CMC) has highlighted a latent dualistic view of self within our digital culture. In this medium, our bodies are seen as just another tool to help communicate the self that seems to exist as an independent entity. It is a highly addictive prospect; to have a digital self that is separate from the physical signals that communicate so much that we cannot control. Joseph B. Walther’s study of CMC suggest that participants spent more time processing how they presented themselves,

With more time for message construction and less stress of ongoing interaction, users may have taken the opportunity for objective self-awareness, reflection, selection and transmission of preferable cues.[1]

This allows those with anxieties about their physical communication (age, gender, ‘abnormalities’, etc.) to control first impressions. Controlling the presentation of ourselves, however, reduces the risk of rejection, vulnerability and ultimately, intimacy. Rowan Williams, in his essay “The Body’s Grace”, describes the ultimate intimate act of sexual intercourse as,

…the area of our lives where we can be rejected in our bodily entirety… and find ourselves looking foolish or even repellent, so that the perception of ourselves we are offered is negating and damaging.[2]

This, Williams admits, is a risk but the alternative is ‘perverse’.

Distorted sexuality is the effort to bring my happiness back under my control and to refuse to let my body be recreated by another person’s perception. [3]

Stanley Hauerwas agrees and suggests that,

…intimacy depends on the willingness to give of the self, to place oneself in the hands of another, to be vulnerable, even if that means we may be hurt. [4]

Ironically the control over our self-presentation in order to be integrated into a meaningful relationship leads us to be isolated individuals ‘incapable of sustaining intimate relationships.’ This intimate relationship for Peter Brook is essential in discovering the ‘truth’ in artistic expression. In ‘Deadly Theatre’,

…there is rarely the quiet and security in which anyone may dare expose himself. I mean the true un spectacular intimacy that long work and true confidence in other people brings about – in Broadway, a crude gesture of self-exposure is easy to come by, but this has nothing to do with the subtle, sensitive interrelation between people confidently working together.[5]

As an alternative, Emergent monism is a theory that understands the ‘self’ as one, united, if not complex entity and is ‘more complicated and more subtle than physicalism can ever grasp.’[6] It states we are deeply impacted by environmental and social factors including other’s perception of ourself; mind, soul and body. I have written elsewhere about the construction of self identity based on the perception of others[7] but in light of the emergent monist view one can confidently state that successful personhood can be defined:

…in terms of capacities and deficits for engaging in authentic, genuine personal relatedness with others and with God…human beings are in need of concrete personal relationships and a community of close physical proximity.[8]

These communities are only created when we allow others to perceive and hold us as our complete, undivided self and from that point we will discover who we are as social beings in communion with others and God. As Williams says, “We are led into the knowledge that our identity is being made in relations of bodies, not by the private exercise of will or fantasy.”[9]

So take your shoes off for we stand on holy ground.


[1] Joseph B. Walther, ‘Computer-Mediated-Communication: Impersonal, Interpersonal and Hyperpersonal Interaction’, Communication Research, Vol 23 No.1 (February 1996) p.19
[2] Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace”, Eugene F. Rogers Jr. (ed.), Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002) p.314
[3] Ibid.
[4] Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press,1981) p.181
[5] Peter Brook, The Empty Space (London: Penguin, 1990) p.22>
[6] Phillip Clayton, ‘Neuroscience, the Person, and God: An Emergentist Account’, Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy, Theo C. Meyering, Michael A. Arbib (eds.), Neuroscience and the Person: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Vatican City State: Vatican Observatory, 1999) p.211
[7] Ned Lunn, “Are Profiles Masks?”, The Big Bible Project, http://bigbible.org.uk/2011/10/are-profiles-masks/#.T3MoxWBc9FQ.
[8] Stanley L. Palmer, ‘Pastoral Care and Counselling Without the “Soul”: A Consideration of Emergent Monism’, Joel B. Green (ed.), What About The Soul?: Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004) p.166-167
[9] Williams, “The Body’s Grace”, 317

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Ned Lunn is training to be a vicar in the Church of England. Before he started his training he ran a theatre company, el mono theatre, for seven years. During that time he also worked professionally in various theatre venues and with a selection of theatre companies as a tutor, director, producer, performer, designer and advisor. He now writes on the interaction between theatre and church and speaks at various events. His other passions are spirituality, poetry and philosophy and writes on these as well. He’s latest book is called ‘Explorations: a stream of poetic consciousness’ and is available through Proost. He’s married to Sarah and lives in Durham.

1 Comment

  • Pete Phillips says:

    Some interesting points here. I prefer the argument drawn from Williams than the CMC-based stuff which predates most social media usage. 1996 is several cultures away.

    Others have muttered the same but in fact there is more research pointing to the positive role of social media in socialisation.

    Pete

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