The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed human life around the globe. No matter what country, culture, language, gender or religious tradition, everyone is affected by this crisis. Social distancing and face masks are now routine preventive measures. The internet and Zoom communications are saving us from total isolation and keeping education and businesses on track, albeit at a much different pace than normal.
We invented computer technology in the 1950s following the Second World War and the failure of modernity to achieve utopia. Thanks to discoveries in science, technology and communications, we began to understand how nature works through dynamical systems, information and cybernetics. The creation of thinking machines was a way of extending human thinking beyond human biological life. The advent of the internet in the 1990s enhanced the lure of the computer. Cyberspace became sacred space, as we enfolded technology into our cultural landscape. What is less apparent is that the advent of the computer and public awareness of ecological destruction due to human interference took place around the same time. The term cyborg was coined in 1960 and in 1962 Rachel Carson wrote her book, Silent Spring, alerting the public to the environmental toxicity of pesticides.
Computer technology evolved at an exponential rate while the ecological movement has had arithmetic fits and starts, gaining some momentum in the ensuing decades but never capturing the seismic attention in the same way that computer technology did. We bought into Apple computers, Microsoft, and Google and made them very wealthy companies; we forgot the needs of the earth, as we googled our way through the internet. Some scholars claim that computer technology exploded because religion became stagnant and out of touch with the world. Doctrines of original sin, heaven and hell, final judgment and salvation from a depraved world instilled genetic fear that still lingers. God was remote from everyday life and religious authority was the mouthpiece of God.
The internet alleviated these religious trappings by opening up an infinite space of information where one could find a slice of heaven on earth, explore personal identity and develop friends around the planet through cyberspace. Religion shrunk while technology expanded. Consumerism fed off the new technology like a parasite, eager for us to buy our way into heaven. The parallel lines of religion and technology left the earth bereft of tender care. We developed “geomnesia,” a lack of remembering our deep roots in the earth. Religious other-worldliness became technological cyber-spaciousness, as we eagerly sought to transcend the finite boundaries of earthly existence.
Thomas Berry reminded us several decades ago that we belong to the earth; the earth does not belong to us. We have now disrupted so many ecosystems and niches due to unbridled power and the pursuit of wealth that there is likely a silent war that has erupted between nature and humans; for we have become the most unnatural species on the planet. If viruses and bacteria could speak, they would probably say, “we lost our way and cannot find our natural homes anymore, for they have been leveled and replaced by buildings.” I think the systems of nature have been communicating amongst themselves for quite some time, perhaps forming a federation of earthlife to consider the extent of human destruction and probably planning a global human coup d’etat in the 21st century. I would not be surprised to learn of such a discovery; for nature is made for the flourishing of life and will do whatever it takes to achieve its purpose.
We find ourselves in a new reality now with facemasks and self-imposed exile. Is this a temporary disruption to our lives or a sign of what to expect in the 21st century? My own inkling is the latter. It would be naïve of us to think that a new vaccine will solve our pandemic problem; we will need a storehouse of vaccines in the 21st century to cope with possible future pandemics. There are displaced pathogens all over the globe and with the complexity of information abounding, genetic mutations and zoonotic spillovers will continue to take place. Science and technology can achieve wondrous results but disrupted nature will oust our scientific knowledge.
Teilhard de Chardin anticipated a significant global crisis in the mid-20th century but no one paid attention to him because his writings were considered unorthodox. However, he saw that evolution is an unyielding process toward greater complexity and consciousness. Nature plows through dead ends and cataclysmic events towards new unities because nature works as a whole; life can only flourish as a whole. Teilhard saw the rise of computer technology as part of nature’s evolving wholeness. By mid twentieth century we had blown up the world (literally) through the violence of war but nature worked through the destruction to find new ways to connect towards new wholeness. One way was the rise of the computer. Teilhard learned of the computer in 1950 and was astonished by its capacity to link human minds. He described a new layer of thinking mind, the Noosphere, emerging through computer technology. He spoke of the Noosphere as the realm of the deeply personal through convergence or the bringing together of diverse elements, organisms, and even the currents of human thought. He wrote: “The Future universal cannot be anything else but the hyperpersonal.” By “hyperpersonal” he meant that our ability to unite with others and expand human consciousness would be enhanced by computer technology. More consciousness is the basis of more unitive life, as minds gather in shared thoughts and ideas. Teilhard saw the insufficiency of science to bring about a new level of collective consciousness. “It is not tête-à-tête or a corps-à-corps we need; it is a heart to heart.” Hence he saw that the rise of the computer could also bring a renewed sense of religion, one that embraces the earth as the place find God.
I thought of Teilhard this morning, as I participated in Palm Sunday liturgy on the internet. It is not the same as going to Church and sitting in a pew, but I found myself less distracted and more focused on the readings and prayers. A number of Catholics have voiced concern that they cannot receive the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, via internet Mass. We have strayed very far from the early Christian Church and the Eucharist as agape, the significance of a meal as the expression of shared love, a meal of thanksgiving for the goods of the earth, family and friends. Eucharist is not about “eating Jesus”; Eucharist takes place wherever two or more are gathered in an ineffable depth of love. God dwells quietly within. The practice of daily communion is relatively modern. For the first thousand years of Christianity, reception of the Eucharist was no more than several times a year. In the Middle Ages, people had a great reservation about receiving the Eucharist (for various reasons) and the Church had to mandate at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) that Christians receive the Eucharist at least four times a year. Francis of Assisi (as well as Clare) likely followed this practice – and they were holy people.
Christian liturgy has become a routinized, mechanized pious devotion, an idolatrized form of worship that has depleted the real value of the sacraments. We don’t partake of the Sacraments “to be saved” by consumption; we partake of them to be freed. “God has come to his people and set them free,” according to the words of the Benedictus. The Sacrament of the Eucharist is not a meal to be consumed but a meal to be shared and offered to others. “See what you love, become what you see,” in the well-known words of Augustine. Eucharist is more of a quantum entanglement of our lives and God’s life, a sacred exchange, so that our lives becomes God’s life and God’s life becomes our lives; this is the only way God can break into the world. Not to be conscious of this entanglement is not to realize the meaning of the words, “the body of Christ” and the response “Amen,” so be it—I concede.
Our narrow, provincial religious thinking has suffocated God, squeezing out God’s life from the everyday cracks of the world. Teilhard was acutely aware of this narrow thinking. God is within, he said, at the tip of my pen, in the tiredness I feel, in the silly joke someone told, in my darkest fears and my basking in the sun. Our task is to awaken to this deep presence of God, to find our freedom in this God of love, and to help create the world unto the fullness of love. To do so we must have a vital relationship with the living God.
To this end, I think internet religion may be a sign of a new religious consciousness on the horizon. It is not the same as the old religion; it can lack the warmth of the smells and bells and friendly neighbors squeezing their way into the pew. And yet, online I can attend different liturgies around the world, I can explore different religious traditions, I can hear prayers and participate in rituals I would never otherwise venture to discover. My friends Harry and Judy are making their Seder meal available through Zoom. Internet religion may be God’s way of saying – I am much larger than you think; I actually enjoy different languages and rituals. I can be found in a thousand ways and I cannot be boxed into a concrete structure whether a Church, a Temple, a formula or a decree—all of these are human constructions that in the past were helpful but in our age have hindered and, at times, alienated us from our capacity to unite. Now we are in the midst of a pandemic and the internet is pushing us toward a new planetary community, sharing our fears and hopes online, joining in a common concern for our future.
Jesus was about community. The word “church” or ecclesia means to be called out of our partial lives and called into a new gathering of people. Francis of Assisi felt called to “rebuild the church”—he began with rocks but realized the call was much deeper and he began to rebuild the church by transforming his life in Christ. “Destroy this Temple and I will rebuild it in three days,” Jesus said. He was not speaking of a structure but of his own body, the Gospel writer states. Toward the end of his life Francis sang the Canticle of the Creatures, a doxology in which all earthly life gives praise to God, a liturgical celebration of the cosmic Christ, divine love shining through the sun, moon, stars, water, earth and all creatures. For Francis the whole universe became the place to find God and he traveled by foot across the mountains and valleys, stopping periodically because he saw the dazzling presence of God in a rabbit, a bird, a bunch of flowers. When he found twigs on the ground in the form of a cross, he would fall down and prostrate himself in prayer.
We don’t go to Church to find God; we find God by going into the world. Church is a symbolic gathering of what God is doing in this earthly life. The earth is holy, people are holy, plants are holy, trees are holy, animals are holy and all life is called into a greater wholeness, a unity in love that is compassionate, forgiving, peaceful and unitive. The earth is the one glorious moving mass of interconnected energy fields in space. Religion is awareness that this incredible planet has infinite purpose and meaning, a future fullness of life, a wellspring of life that exceeds our human capacity to imagine.
As we enter into the Triduum online, we remember Christ’s suffering and death by becoming “membered-to” the sufferings of earth life. To be “membered to” Christ in what he endured in the past and now in the present; to be “one with” the suffering God in the suffering of humanity, especially those deeply affected by the COVID-19 virus. To be “membered-to” those who have died from the virus, the healthcare workers working around the clock to save lives, and all those who are keeping our present structures viable. We are “membered-to” all those who have lost their jobs, who are struggling at home, who are falling back into addictions, who are resorting to violence out of desperation. God is dwelling in all these areas of life; it is where Easter is taking place.
God did not spare his Son the agony of the cross; divine love does not hold back for itself. God is not a consumer but a giver of life. God suffers in the suffering of the weak, the fragile and vulnerable. God suffers not out of need but out of an abundance of love. And it is because God suffers with us, an absolute fidelity in love, that nothing can destroy life. Because of God’s absolute fidelity in love, a love unto darkness and death, a love that cannot be vanquished, God is our hope and our future. How to find God as the ubiquitous love-energy of planetary life must be our concern in the 21st century. For without this energy, all other energy sources will be depleted.
A new God consciousness calls for a rebirth of religion. Internet religion may be the first sign of a new religious consciousness and convergence in our age. Being online and not in a Church will give new meaning to the words: “He is not here; he is Risen!” And where is this risen Christ? Everywhere and all around us; in you, your neighbor, the dogwood tree outside, the budding grape vine, the ants popping up through the cracks. The whole world is filled with God who is shining through even the darkest places of our lives. To “go to Church” is to awaken to this divine presence in our midst and respond in love with a “yes”: Your life, God, is my life and the life of the planet.
During these days leading up to Easter, we have an invitation to go to Church in a new way, by praying before the new leaves budding through dead trees or the wobbly flowers by the side of the road pushing through the solid earth. “Praised by you my Lord through Brother Sun, Sister moon and Mother earth,” Francis sang. We too can sing with the air we breathe, the sun which shines upon us, the rain which pours down to water the earth. And we can cry with those who are mourning, with the forgotten, those who are suffering from disease or illness, with the weak, the incarcerated children of the world, the imprisoned. We can mourn in the solidarity of compassion but we must live in the hope of new life. For we are Easter people and we are called to celebrate the whole earth as the Body of Christ. Every act done in love gives glory to God: a pause of thanksgiving, a laugh, a gaze at the sun, or just raising a toast to your friends on your Zoom screen. The Good news? He is not here! Christ is everywhere and Love will make us whole.