A Theology of the Body and Cyberspace

by Archbishop Mark Coleridge

The recent Plenary Assembly lasted for three and a half days, but it felt much longer.  Not because it was boring but because the fare was so rich – and I don’t mean just the Gala Dinner at the Palazzo Ruspoli during which I ate more truffles in a single night than I have in the rest of my life. The fare of the Plenary was rich in other ways – the matters discussed, the speakers heard, the people met, the questions posed.

When I first learnt that the theme of the Plenary was to be “The Culture of Communication and New Languages”, I thought it referred to the new languages emerging as a result of the digital revolution, which shows every sign of being as humanly significant as the invention of writing or the printing press. The revolution is driven by technology, but its impact reaches far beyond the world of technology and deep into the human world, even into its spiritual dimension.  This seemed to me to be a splendid choice of theme for the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Yet at the Plenary there was more to the theme than I had imagined.  We heard expert voices speak of music, architecture, film, sacramentality and apologetics.  There was a round table at the Campidoglio and those other round tables at the Palazzo Ruspoli. To cap it all off, we heard from the Holy Father in the Palazzo Apostolico.  In three and a half days, that was enough to keep the head spinning.

But it was also enough to show that this is a moment of the globalising of cultures and their languages.  No culture exists in a vacuum, nor do any of the languages of culture.  Early in the Plenary, I feared that the meeting could become too diffuse, that it was moving in too many directions at the same time.  But as the meeting wore on, I could see that there was method in the madness.  What does film have to do with architecture?  Music with apologetics?  Gastronomy with sacramentality?  The digital revolution with all the above?  Quite a bit actually, as I came to see by the meeting’s end.  But it is the digital revolution that is most affecting all cultures and all their languages; and in my own reflection at least, it was this which brought the various themes of the Plenary together. 

The digital revolution is creating a culture of its own which has its ambivalence, with aspects both bright and dark.  Some of the darker aspects are not hard to name.  Things like de-personalisation, mass individualism and the retreat into virtual worlds are cause for concern.  Other of the darker aspects are more elusive.  For instance: the digital world, based on codes, a language of its own, can also be strangely disembodying.  The Incarnation is the fact of the word made flesh.  But in the digital world, there can be a kind of anti-Incarnation where the flesh is made word.  In extreme cases of cyber-addiction, where the most basic needs of the body are ignored, this becomes dramatically true.  But it can be just as true in less obvious ways.  Is there in the digital world a denial of the body?  Does it imply a new kind of gnosticism in such a world?  Are these “new” gnosticisms more insidious than the oft-mentioned “new” atheisms? 

Because of these darker aspects of the digital world, there is talk of the “cold” screen, “la froideur de l’écran”, as against “warm” face-to-face contact, which any form of Christian humanism would seem to require.  But can the screen also be “warm”?  Is there also “une chaleur de l’écran”?  The digital world tends increasingly to be the people’s “other world” – especially among the young – firing their imagination in new ways and enabling forms of contact hitherto unthinkable.  It can take them beyond a small and boring world into a world where anything seems possible.  There is a kind of digital alchemy where everything can become anything: a phone can become a book, a computer, a newspaper, a shop and just about anything else you can name.  Is it possible therefore to speak of a theology of cyberspace, even a mysticism?  Such questions may seem unusual, but they cannot be simply ignored.

There is no doubt that the Church needs to be discerning about the digital world and that discernment requires knowledge.  We need to know more about the digital world in order to discern well; judgements based on ignorance are not what is needed.  This is perhaps a time when we need to listen to the young who are digital “natives”, unlike those of my generation who are digital “aliens”.  Less than twenty years after Gutenberg invented the printing press, the Venetian Senate announced that “this peculiar invention of our time, altogether unknown to former ages, is in every way to be fostered and encouraged”.  The Church may prefer to drop the phrase “in every way”, but a similar far-sighted policy may serve us well as we look to proclaim the Gospel in the digital world and the culture which it is generating.