Preachers often take the admonition of German theologian Karl Barth to read with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I’m riffing on that wisdom to read with the Bible in one hand and American scholar Donna Haraway in the other. In her 1985 essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Haraway described the breaching of three boundaries being crossed in our contemporary setting: between the human and machine, between the human and animal, and between the physical and the non-physical.
The Bible I’m holding in the other hand is turned to the book of Acts. Acts too – as much as Haraway’s cyborg humanity – is a portrayal of boundary crossings into the newness of unique circumstances for the church. In his theological commentary on Acts, Willie James Jennings writes:
“The deepest reality of life in the Spirit depicted in the book of Acts is that the disciples of Jesus rarely, if ever, go where they want to go or to whom they would want to go. Indeed the Spirit seems to always be pressing the disciples to go to those to whom they would in fact strongly prefer never to share space, or a meal, and definitely not life together. Yet it is precisely this prodding to be boundary-crossing and border-transgressing that marks the presence of the Spirit of God.”
Tracking the Spirit’s movement through the early church, we see movement back and forth across boundaries between bodies that were rarely breached (e.g., Jew and Gentile), between the physicality of geographic places and the ephemerality dream and vision spaces, and between human and animals that were rigidly separated (e.g., Peter’s vision of the cosmic sheet full of animals, clean and unclean, lowered before him in a trance). We also see the worshipping community migrating between temple and synagogue and house church and prison cell.
“My favorite part of Zoom worship is the Lord’s Prayer…. It has become to me a type of cyborgian Pentecost; and it is beautiful.”
As it was in the early Jesus movement, so it is now. There is more to the Spirit’s boundary-crossing movement among us than we will experience if we’re content to mark time until we return to a sense of “normalcy.” In fact, sitting and waiting for a return to the status quo is not a posture of discipleship I can find in the New Testament.
Here are three ways I see our emerging cyborg identities developing as we track the Spirit’s movement through and beyond the global pandemic:
1. Between human and machine.
We are living and dying through COVID-19 within the boundary between human and machine.
Many are living through the coronavirus due to the support of ventilators when they would otherwise normally die. Priests administer last rites on the phone and chaplains visit patients through an iPad. Families mourn lost loved ones with webcams at the edge of a casket in an empty room. Churches that can no longer gather “all together in one place” (Acts 2:1) are cultivating new ways of being all together in cyberspace.
Amid all of the ways these realities challenge our preferred ways of living (without machine support), caring (in embodied ways), mourning (with family and friends) and worshipping (in physical proximity to others), what are we learning about ourselves as human beings whose lives are bound up so intimately and inextricably with machines? We can scarcely imagine what our lives would be like right now without these technologies.
Of course, we shouldn’t take our increasing dependence on technology as an unquestioned good. There are also ways that the data we each generate is siphoned off for capitalistic gain and social media is used to erode democracy and decimate the earth.
So, where do we discern the Spirit’s movement between this human/machine boundary in ways that illuminate for us a new era of (cyborg) discipleship?
2. Between human and animal, or human and more-than-human.
My own congregation turned its attention some time ago toward developing the relationship with the more-than-human world that envelops us. Beyond engaging in ecological activism or “appreciating” nature or conserving “natural resources,” we’ve been asking how to cultivate our relationships with trees and animals and rock formations and bodies of water that enfold us in our local ecosystem.
How do we engage with the sentience and desirous nature of “nature” that the Bible portrays as a part of our worshipping community of earth creatures (Psalm 96, Luke 18:40)?
The pandemic is drawing the relationship between the human and more-than-human even more into view. For the pandemic to cease its rapacious grasp upon our lives, our best hope is for the “viralization” of humanity. For herd immunity to develop short of a vaccine, at least 60 percent of the population will have to acquire the virus and survive. The virus must become a part of us – against our will – in spite of our prevalent delusions of human domination over “nature.”
My own congregation has discovered that one of the important ways we are staying connected to one another right now is through attending to our relationships to the more-than-human: more deeply connecting to the trees in our backyards, or carefully listening to the squirrels and birds building nests outside of our windows, or sitting by bodies of water that ground us in their stillness. We send pictures and personal reflections and poems to one another to share in these burgeoning human and more-than-human relationships.
Through intimacy with these earth-others we are experiencing relational connection within a web of life that enfolds us, even as we are physically distanced from our human companions.
3. Between the physical and non-physical, or place and space.
Our worshipping life already breaches the cyborg boundary of the physical and non-physical, and even more so as we have exited our place of worship for a (cyber)space of worship. In this spiritual migration, we are crossing a boundary of presence and absence, which is one we’re accustomed to breaching as Christian worshippers.
Invoking presence in the face of absence is the essence of Communion. We celebrate the absent-presence of Jesus with us at the table through earthy elements of wine and bread. Eucharistic celebration breaches the barrier between the physical and the nonphysical, making presence palpable in absence. How much more is our worshipping life right now breaching presence and absence, physicality and non-physicality with earthy elements and machine assistance?
Prayer is another spiritual practice that bridges the physical and non-physical. And in today’s era of cyber church, that takes an even more interesting form. My favorite part of our church’s Zoom worship each week is the Lord’s Prayer. I use my power as the online host to unmute every participant in the call as we begin that prayer together. Because our feeds are out of sync, the prayer of Jesus is iterated across vast physical distance in a non-physical cacophony of voices overlapping and phasing in and out of audibility. It has become to me a type of cyborgian Pentecost; and it is beautiful.
“Sitting and waiting for a return to the status quo is not a posture of discipleship I can find in the New Testament.”
While we are desirous of the physicality of bodies being together again in the places we’ve consecrated as sacred, we can ask: How are we experiencing the Spirit’s movement in our cyberspaces of worship, inviting us to cross boundaries we never wanted to cross between human, machine, more-than-human, the physical and the non-physical?
With Acts in one hand and Donna Haraway in the other, I pray, “Come Holy Spirit!”
Or, anticipating Pentecost for cyborg disciples, I’ll translate the prayer: 01000011 01101111 01101101 01100101 00100000 01001000 01101111 01101100 01111001 00100000 01010011 01110000 01101001 01110010 01101001 01110100.
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