Alone Together In One Body and Spirit

Finding Forms of Fellowship Right Now

Ian Olson / 4.3.20

Social distancing has reorganized our public life by sequestering us within the familiar spheres we tell ourselves we are comfortable with. But when self-quarantining excludes the normal distractions and opportunities that inhabit our everyday lives, we are forced to reckon with the compromises and loneliness we are usually able to ignore.

Long before the pandemic reached our shores, many of us had become habituated to maintaining distance from other human beings. Nearly a fifth of Westerners consciously avoid intimacy and closeness, but beyond even that Americans and western Europeans demand larger spheres of personal space than the rest of the world. Many of us have been conditioned to ignore our surroundings, to close our eyes to the people and situations surrounding us and avoid coming too near to them.

But we feel the pressure of this absence in an especially heavy way now. The apocalypse of this moment unveils how the times we uncritically accept as “normal” are anything but; that the fellowship we need to thrive but so often neglect (or console ourselves with the easy counterfeits thereof) really is non-negotiable, really is hard-won. The danger is manifest in a way it usually isn’t, but the reality is that death and disorder are always encroaching, always at our heels. We are simply more viscerally aware of what is always the case now that the usual cannot be relied upon.

Now we are left with an enforced fast on the thing we need but too routinely treat as an option. And we feel its absence more acutely. In moments like these we sometimes say we long for human contact, but we never actually desire contact with humanity as a class. How could we? Communion with a class can’t satisfy any of us, because a class is only localizable—and thus accessible—in an individual. What other entry is there to such an abstraction? This is more than stickling over phraseology: the way we articulate our needs and fears shapes our expectations and our strategies for dealing with them. Deficient formulations of those needs and fears impair our awareness of what our problems actually are, as well as how to seek fitting solutions for them.

Nothing is quite so simple as doing nothing in the face of trials and anguish and loneliness. Dissociation is remarkably effective in diminishing the conscious intensity of our pain. But it sabotages our humanity: when we give up, when we curve in on ourselves utterly, our souls sicken into a minimally alive vegetative state. 

It’s not so much that we need to replace our distress and unease with positive feelings—it’s that we need concrete persons with which to share all the feelings that arise in us. “Joy and pain,” Ann Voskamp writes, “are but two arteries of the one heart that pumps through all those that don’t numb themselves to really living” (One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, p. 84). We can’t give up on our need for closeness, so in this time of enforced fast we must be more creative than we typically are.

The question has been asked recently if our culture’s Internet addiction will prove to be an asset in a time like this. I don’t think we can ever say that an addiction gives any benefits, but I don’t want to suggest the intuition behind that question is completely wrong. It seems to me the famine of presence to which we’re all subject really can be alleviated, in part, by digital means of grace.

There has never been a time the Triune God hasn’t employed media to communicate his intentions for his creatures or to effect those intentions. In the beginning God spoke and, through the medium of language, brought into existence that which is. A totality of nothingness—a dearth of being, of presence—suddenly erupted into the arena of all that is, all of it charged with the vitality and rationality concretized in the grammar and syntax of God’s effective invitation to be. The messages of the prophets and the teaching of the apostles were collected and promulgated through the medium of the written word. People become disciples when they are initiated into the holy mystery through the medium of baptismal water. And so on.

So there’s no point in making the naive claim that media is beneath God. The incarnation itself proves that God isn’t above but rather is more closely affiliated with the stuff of his creatures than any analysis of the abstraction “divinity” could ever lead us to guess. 

This isn’t to baptize any and all forms of media as good and faithful servants. There are modes of communication which don’t live up to their name; they hinder the effort to share the self or meaningfully dialogue. I used to criticize social media for the way fripperies regularly rub shoulders with things of deep significance, but honesty eventually won me over; daily, face-to-face interaction is full of both. This is a feature, not a bug. No, the real problem is that not all forms of media are adequate to the task.

What we need, just as much as we ever did, are forms of fellowship. But what we must be wary of are substitutes for fellowship. Forms of fellowship are occasions of access to concrete particulars. They enact connection; they bear the unmistakable imprint of specific individuals and impress their signature on us. Loneliness isn’t numbed by forms of fellowship—it evaporates as love is communicated. Substitutes, on the other hand, don’t allow for this kind of access. Even worse, substitutes can leave us feeling like we have attained our object, and habitual use locks us within that illusion, numbing us against the absence of the real thing. 

What it comes down to is a category mistake, the failure to match what we need and what we’re looking for with a fitting route of accessibility. The disconnect between aim and means results in a mis-fit. It’s akin to misidentifying genre or failing to properly read the room, like laughing when you read an obituary or delivering an impromptu speech when you’re a guest and not part of the wedding party.

Why should one method of electronic mediation succeed and another fail? We do well to remember that the one thing they share—their conveyance by electronic transmission through enabled devices—isn’t the most fundamental thing about them. To put it another way: The Clouds and Proof are both plays, but Macbeth and The Iceman Cometh achieve similar effects because both are tragedies. 

Unlike text messaging or FaceTime, which transmit data to specific recipients, Twitter and Facebook are dispersive; impersonal methods of data release like pollen ejected into the wind. They present users with the assurance of connection but that certainty is shot through with the counter-evidence of users feeling more inauthentic and alone than ever.

I’m not saying genuine connection through these platforms is impossible—only that it’s unlikely. But unlike so many other things where failed attempts are quickly recognized as having failed, these platforms nevertheless register successful transmission to users as successful communication. This aspect of social media preys on our anxiety for guarantees of connection, of having done our part correctly and it being (measurably) appreciated.

The problem isn’t digitization per se: it’s that the code architecture of some of these tools impede or even alter the substance of our intentions. It may be too deterministic to say the medium is the message, but we have to recognize that the media we use will shape our messages in ways that have nothing to do with our intentions.

But these problems don’t typify all digital interactivity. Though the dangers of addiction to our devices is real, the overcoming of distance and sharing in fellowship is also real.

I wouldn’t be holding on the way that I am if not for the group chats I’m a part of in which close friends check up on each other every day, share videos they’ve made at home, memes, ridiculous YouTube links, headlines that aggravate them but they have to share it or their head’s going to explode like in Scanners, and personalized prayers composed for the specific ordeals members of the group are going through. I’m comforted by my church’s streamed service and by how I can count on several fellow worshipers to simultaneously pass the peace in a text message. My spirits are lifted by the creative quarantine boredom videos my sister-in-law finds and passes on, giving me ideas for fun, preposterous things to do while stuck at home. I’m grateful my son can speak to a counselor over Zoom. I’m moved by a phone call after I’ve sent a haiku to a friend. I’m bolstered by the quarantine distance-movie-nights with friends who will pose interpretative questions and crack Mystery Science Theater 3000-style quips while we watch from separate regions of the country.

Things like these bring us relief, but they can’t help but remind us of what we’re missing. These other forms of fellowship bring satisfaction and keep us sane, but there’s no denying they aren’t quite the fullness of what I, or you, desire. It’s especially hard when we know that weeks and possibly months of sheltering at home are still to come. Fighting for fellowship in a time of quarantine is essential for our humanity and for staying healthy. And with that, holding on to the memory of what we have to miss out on. For even hunger and thirst can be transfigured in the Spirit. The dry bones of our isolation can be knit together with sinews sewn by the Word being shared between us all.

It’s interesting that over the course of his itinerant ministry Jesus didn’t make use of the most advanced media technology then available—written text. And it’s not that he was unaware of it: he was formed in the Jewish textual tradition and had facility with Israel’s Scriptures. Nevertheless his sole mode of engagement was face-to-face. I wonder if this was to preserve the fundamental truth that all future encounters with Jesus, though mediated in seemingly indirect ways far removed from what was experienced in first-century Palestine, truly would be personal, material meetings with the same Lord, in continuity with those encounters we see depicted in the Gospels.

The most fundamental overcoming of distance is Jesus Christ—he is the intersection of humanity and God. His existence is the eternal dialogue between God and man in time. It is this, Karl Barth writes, which “makes the barrier of his time on every side a gateway” (Church Dogmatics 1/2, 45). The Jesus who healed the hemorrhaging woman and shared meals with tax collectors and turned water into wine continually becomes the contemporary of all who come after him in the sweep of history we take for granted. 

It’s right to lament how we must keep our distance from each other for the time being, but let’s not dwell in a past where everything was better and nothing hurt—or in a speculative future where the “usual” is fully restored. Dwell in the present where grace can transfigure the sacrifices and stopgaps and make them count as the real thing. The more of myself that I offer—genuinely offer, making my life and my struggles and my strengths available to others in existentially dense movements of vulnerable reciprocity—in faith, the more of Christ I receive in the giving.

In a time such as this where affectionate touch is precluded, we must cling together in the Spirit who binds those who are far apart in time and space with the sinews of the body of Christ. We may have to be apart, but at least can we be alone together.