Live-streaming church is increasingly popular. But it doesn’t offer the one thing you can’t experience online. And that’s a big loss.
In 2016, Connexus Church in Ontario began live-streaming its services. A year later, its online attendance surpassed the number of people who showed up on a Sunday morning. This is a trend. Saddleback Church in Orange County, California live-streams just about everything—services, prayer forums, you name it. In November of this year, pastor Judah Smith announced Churchome Global—essentially, church via app.
Church online is helpful for shut-ins or if you’re ill. But most Christians attending church online aren’t ailing. Their view of church is, however. It’s Platonic.
“Platonic” refers to Plato, a student of Socrates. Socrates denied that the material world is how we know what is real. We instead know by thinking (head), not touching (hands). Plato agreed. Knowledge is not discovered via the physical body. “Platonic” describes a relationship marked by the absence of romantic, physical touch or sex.
This is the one thing live-streaming services cannot offer. Yes, you can hear a sermon online or pray with someone. But you can’t experience the Eucharist online, and that’s where Christians for centuries felt we most enjoy the romantic, physical touch of God.
If you’re unfamiliar with this (I was for decades), I recommend Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Bynum is Professor emerita of Western Medieval History at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton). Her work focuses on the way medieval people, especially women, understood the human body and spirituality.
They understood a lot. Medieval Christians recognized the Eucharist is a foretaste of the wedding banquet in eternity when our marriage to Christ is consummated. In communion, Jesus’ actual body—mystically, mysteriously—enters his bride’s body, the church. We signify this by coming to the table with cupped hands, opened wide as a bride spreads opens her body to her husband, her lover. It’s a powerfully erotic image.
It yields powerful results. Bynum writes that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stories stemming from women honoring the Eucharist, including supernatural multiplications of food and drink, miracles of bodily transformation (including single women’s breasts becoming engorged with milk to feed starving babies), stigmata and inedia (living without eating). These incidents are far too numerous to dismiss outright.
Nor are they confined to the medieval period. We see bodily miracles in the early church. They taper off with the rise of Islam (600s) and its enslavement of Christianity (800-1100). They return with Islam’s decline, with bodily transformations becoming especially evident during the period between 1200 and 1500 in Western Europe. Then these miracles disappear. It’s a significant loss and we ought to ask what happened?
The Enlightenment happened. In the 1400s, Western Europe witnessed the revival of the works of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (Plato’s protégé). Thinking is how we gain knowledge. Knowing only requires a brain. This gave rise to the Enlightenment in Europe, then America, then new American faith traditions. Most of these traditions adopted a disembodied view of the faith. The bread and wine aren’t really Jesus’ body and blood. They’re merely “symbolic.” The result is a relationship with God became Platonic, lacking any romantic, magical, mystical, physical touch in the Eucharist.
Look at what we lost.
Contemporary Western European and American churches no longer see miracles of bodily transformation. They continue to this day, but mostly in southern hemisphere Christianity, where the Enlightenment holds less sway.
Second, few Christians believe taking communion in an unworthy manner has serious bodily consequences. Yet the Apostle Paul warned that you can actually die if you take it unworthily (I Cor.11:30). In a disembodied faith, Paul’s warning doesn’t make sense.
But the biggest loss is Internet church isn’t really church. The church is the bride of Christ. The gospel is Jesus “marrying” us. You can’t experience nuptial union with Jesus online. Or on an app. That’s Platonic. We experience nuptial union in the Eucharist.
There is a pathway out of a Platonic faith. We see it in The Papal Library where Raphael painted four frescoes facing each another. The first is The School of Athens. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are central in this painting. But they’re facing La Disputa, where the Eucharist is central. These two frescoes depict how the Greek’s view of knowledge as disembodied is corrected by embodied practices like the Eucharist. True knowledge requires our whole body, not just our brain. And certainly not just an app.