nowhere but here

Kelvin is asking good questions again about the theology and praxis of The Church and Virtual Reality.  He sets out questions enough for several doctoral thesis, but it was this that caught my eye.  He says:

‘Prayer generally takes place in virtual space.’

And I thought, ‘does it?’ and then, ‘he may be right…’   I am caught somewhere between agreement and rebellion at the thought, so I thought I’d play out the question here.

Let’s start with the easy positives — the ways in which I could imagine talking about prayer as a virtual space.

  1. prayer — like cyberspace — creates, strengthens and sustains relationship even when we are physically absent from each other.  So, yes: a virtual space.
  2. prayer — like cybersapce — connects us across time.  Whenever we pray, we join in something that is already happening, in Christ, and in ‘the whole company of heaven.’  We join in when we can, as we can, and become part of something bigger.
  3. prayer — like cyberspace — creates its own environment, and that environment changes us.  As we pray we are drawn deeper into prayer.  The time we spend in prayer changes how we perceive and relate to the world at ‘other’ times when deliberate prayer slips into the background.  There is always the danger that we will use ‘prayer’ to avoid other forms of engagement, but this is not true to what prayer is, and if we pray well, it will lead us to more engaged action.  All of this does indeed seem very similar to what happens in online communities, and strengthens the idea that prayer is a ‘virtual space’.
  4. my sense of what happens in prayer is bound up with the idea that prayer starts and ends with God.  We are taken into prayer, into Christ, and although I believe that is a ‘real’ ‘space’ I will have to concede that it is also, technically, a virtual one. The body of Christ is not limited to (nor excluded from) physical presence.

But still, there are things that pull against the idea too.

  1. While prayer might connect us across time and space, we can only pray in a particular time and space.  Prayer is not served  by severing ourselves from our physical reality.  Honest prayer demands that we face distractions, emotions, sensations with openness to God’s presence there.  Sometimes, our physical reality will distract us.  Sometimes it will pull us more deeply into God’s presence.  But never is it irrelevant to who and how we are with God in any given moment.
  2. We are made in the image of Christ — in the image of God, who becomes human and takes our bodily existence into the divine life.  Bodies matter.  We pray as much through our physical actions, movement, stillness as we do through our attention, our thoughts and our words.  (all in agreement: please cross yourself now.)
  3. I believe that the gift of God in the moment will always trump the idea of God and the communion of saints across time and space.  I know that morning prayer is richer and deeper right now because each day, it has been accompanied by the first warmth of a blazing sun.  It is hard not to see this as grace, and I will experience it as such even though my rational brain says that the coincidence of prayer and sunlight can be explained (quite easily) otherwise.

So, does prayer generally take place in virtual space?  Sort of.  I will concede that that it does not depend on physical presence, and that it draws us into something that transcends the limitations of time, space and physical reality.  It has real effect on us without physical change.  But that is not the whole story.

Prayer is always embodied – in word or song, in stillness or breath. Prayer invites us to to meet God in the fullness of our reality — so that we pray from the whole truth of our lives, and all the lies too.   Even if, in my prayer, I am praying for and with those who are physically absent, I can only pray well if I am present to myself.  And that cannot be a virtual reality, or one which denies the physical self.

My hunch is that the question Kelvin asks is crucial, and that the very tensions of it will help us pray and relate better.  It is not either/or, but both:  virtual and real. Embodied, and transcendent of the limitations of time and space.

And — pace, dear Information & Communications chair — that goes for ‘virtual reality’ too.  The communities we create there are real as well as virtual, embodied as well as distant: a gift of God, pulling us into relation.

testing the theory

The business of taking street photos was an interesting one.  I spent a lot of time trying to be very unobtrusive, mixing images of people with images of buildings and rivers.  My instinctive starting point was that I shouldn’t interrupt the person in the moment, that they should be unaware and undisturbed.  And I reasoned that if I misjudged that and they did notice or mind, I would apologize, delete, or show them the photo and offer to send it to them.  I was making it up as I went along.  Many a photo was missed because I didn’t dare.

When I got home, there were very few pictures that I liked.  Most were deleted before they came off the camera card.  Many more went when I looked at them more carefully.  I had no real criteria for this.  Some of them just felt wrong.

I was left with two.  Our woman in Red, and an older man who caught my eye as he came up from the metro (lets call him Blue).

That night, I chose to post her, and leave him alone. In retrospect, I think it was because — for all that one might read tiredness or sadness or concern into her position — she struck me as universal.  With him, it felt more personal.  As much as I liked the photo, I wasn’t sure it was right.

And then, having posted her on blog and facebook.  I took her down — swayed by a friend’s concern, the open questions of what was right.

Then, obviously, I reversed those decisions to push at the boundaries of understanding.  Here is where I stand right now:

  1. I realise that I kept the photographs that I liked.  I liked the colours, the lines, the shapes.  And crucially, I liked what I saw of the person.
  2. I deleted the photographs that I didn’t like.  Sometimes this was about background or blur, but mostly, it was about my sense of the person.  If I was left feeling cold, or ambivalent — if the moment I caught made me or the other person seem less human, then it went quickly into the bin.
  3. I realised, therefore, that I thought street photographs were OK if they somehow felt incarnational — embodying something of the goodness, truth or beauty of the human condition, and something of God’s love, even if the moment caught was one that might (might!) speak of sorrow, weariness, or indecision.  Humanity is not diminished by the presence of pain.  The more I look at our woman in red, the more I like her, and the more I see her strength and beauty, whatever else may be going on.

I know this is terribly subjective, and there is not, as yet, a coherent ethic here.
But I can live with that.  Ethics are rarely black and white, and struggling for a coherent position is part of the process.  The only way to get there is to test and talk and try.

There’s one more post in this, I think.  But I shall stop here for now.

a question of ethics

It sounded like a simple goal: a day of photographs, with no churches, otters or birds.  It led to fascinating and complex conversations about the ethics of street photography, and I’m still not sure where I stand.  So, I’m going to share some of the questions that arose– and, riskier, the photographs — as I try to work this out.

Question 1:  What do you see in this photograph?

Question 2:  Is this woman harmed or exploited by the taking of this photograph?

Question 3:  If we speculate on her state of mind, are we invading her privacy?

Question 4:  Is it wrong to post this, or to choose to look at it?

Question 5:  Does it matter whether she is recognizable, or whether you might recognize her?  So, is it different to view this picture from Boston or Haiti or LA — so that you are looking at someone remote, whom you will probably never meet or see — than it is to view it from Hebburn or Jesmond or Durham, when you might bump into her on the street?

Now, lets try all that again with this picture:

Question 6:  Are questions of privacy, intrusion, ethics different if one uses paint rather than pixels?

Question 7:  Does it matter whether the woman is recognizable, if the painting is representational, accurate?

Lets try this one more time, with a modern painting by Richard Whincop.  (This is a painting I love, that Richard gave me when I left my curacy, so lots of you will have seen it before…)

Question 8:  Would your feeling about the picture that hangs on my wall be any different if Richard had given me the original photograph, instead of his painting of it?  What if the painting an photograph were identical in terms of recognizability and emotional expression?  (I’m not saying they are.  But I’m not saying they’re not.  Does it matter?)

Well, that should keep us busy for a while. What do you think?

elusive angels

How does a story come to be?

I used to think that one must have an idea; that there must be some complex logo-rhythm that would relate character, plot and symbol into a meaningful whole.   But now I am not so sure.

Through Advent and Lent a story has been evolving on the blogs (Love Blooms Bright and Beauty from Chaos).   It is a story about angels, a story about God, and a story about what it means for the Word to become Incarnate.  Sometimes, I’ve been quite pleased with the posts.  I loved Sophia’s insistence in Wisdom Exaulteth and am still amused by sulky Jophiel in Look Again.  It’s too soon to be sure which of the Lent stories I may like.  They are too close and there is insufficient distance to see.

These stories have been fun to write, but I am not really sure where they come from.  Do they form a coherent theology?  Perhaps.  But if so, it is not the theology I would have expected to write, nor would I have realised how much I want an illustrator.

How did angels come to take centre stage?  Certainly not by my planning or intention.

Yet there they are, week after week, telling me their stories, and forcing their way onto the page.  It is fun, and confusing too.  Is there more that needs to be written, or is this it?  Do the characters live for these blogs, or is there something bigger going on here?

I kind of hope that Jophiel and Zadkiel will stick around.  I’d like to see Sophia again too.  But this seems to be their choice and not mine.  I am sure they will stay with us through Good Friday, but have no sense at all what angels might do, come Easter.