THIS has been the year when we have moved our lives online. Working from our bedrooms, praying from our studies, ordering up our Christmas presents, Zooming our relations and friends. Most of the time, I have felt profoundly grateful that all this has been possible. Things would have been very bleak indeed without the internet.
But I am also worried by the part that it now plays in our lives — particularly in the lives of young people. Even before the pandemic, teenagers were spending an astonishing 20 hours a week online. Those of us for whom our internet connections are a blessed convenience should remember that it is a still a wild world out there. Behind closed doors, vulnerable young people and gullible adults can be scammed, groomed, and seduced.
The disembodied world is also a haven for all who are not at home in the body — and that’s all of us, some of the time. For those with eating disorders, gender issues, and high anxiety, the agony of bodily relationships is replaced by a sense of community which can be very real. There is a massive comfort in being able to communicate via on online identity with a chosen image, a teasing name, and a witty self-description. Here, you can live your dream and be affirmed by others doing the same.
One of the most persistent Christian heresies is that of Docetism, the belief that Christ was human only in appearance. It is a heresy that never quite goes away. No one could be as orthodox as Charles Wesley, and yet he managed to write the line “Veil’d in Flesh, the Godhead see,” which comes pretty close to Docetism. Christ here is an avatar, sent not to save us so much as to guide us back to the heavenly home from which we have unfortunately strayed through ignorance of our true nature. Docetism shades into Gnosticism; psychology trumps salvation.
But the Christmas message is far more challenging. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” creatures of flesh as we are. The incarnation suggests that God is not ashamed to be human, even when we are. We might be comforted by the idea that we possess secret, spiritual selves. But Christmas has the Son of God exposed to the manger, to the beasts and the shepherds, the kings and the angels, the whole riot of created reality.
Grateful as I am for the internet, I long to be restored to that messy human world where I have more to worry about than an unstable internet connection, where I have to live among and worship with those whom I don’t know and sometimes dislike, and accept that others find me as difficult as I do sometimes, or even more so. God became human for us and for our salvation.