At the outset I want to limit the scope of this project substantially. I am not interested in all forms of systematic theology here. Instead, my focus is on various forms of correlational theologies pursued as part of transdisciplinary research. Elsewhere, I have developed the methodological structure employed here more explicitly. I refer to this approach as a means of doing transdisciplinary public theology, which can be more broadly understood as a form of correlational theology:1 linking existential questions of our digital lives with theological means of making meaning of our existence.
Though I do not want to run too far down this path, it is important to emphasize from the beginning that I assume that any transdisciplinary project requires a widening of one’s disciplinary horizons.2 One must abandon unwavering commitments to monodisciplinary constructs because of an orientation toward resolving identified social problems. This praxis element to transdisciplinary research facilitates the rejection of any fragmentation of knowledge. Transdisciplinary engagements seek a way of understanding that cannot only consistently hold together complex and divergent ways of knowing, but these engagements do so in pursuit of a sense of social well-being that we cannot adequately characterize with a fragmented knowledge base.3 To pursue the sense of social well-being that motivates transdisciplinary engagement, one must commit to a degree of disciplinary skepticism that gives space for other fields of study to enrich our accounts of these common concepts.4
I take this concept of transdisciplinary research as essential for establishing a digital theology. The way in which the digital world has fundamentally shifted (both enhancing and threatening) our sense of social well-being requires a knowledge base that goes beyond the limited interactions of distinct fields that remain fixed to specific disciplinary frameworks with established objects of inquiry and calcified methodologies. Engaging a transdisciplinary research project theologically in turn requires a certain flexibility regarding dogma and doctrine.
This paper aims merely to lay out a few methodological axioms for a constructive digital theology that is transdisciplinary and correlational in character. How do we decide what experiences to examine and which to ignore for a digital theology? What ontological considerations need to be addressed in constructing a digital theology? And, are there questions we might ask to determine when constructing a distinctly digital theology might be useful or necessary and when it is not? Using the phenomenological concept of the flesh, I will suggest that the most interesting forms of a digital theology emerge where digital technologies change the way we experience space, time, causality, and substance creating a distinct set of lived-experiences in a digital dimension irreducible to our everyday experience of these ontological categories. I will further propose that such experiences are discernible in that they create a sense of wonder or the uncanny in light of how they disorient our everyday experiences of such ontological categories. Finally, I will consider forgiveness as a short example of a theologically significant term that must be modified in light of shifts experienced in the ontological categories when these concepts are experienced digitally.
A Digital Dimension of Life: Using Flesh and Technological Infrastructure to Produce Existential Questions
How then do we begin to characterize the distinctive way in which digitality changes the timbre of the existential questions that shape how we encounter a theological symbol? Eric Trozzo has helpfully provided us with a significant place to begin. His book, The Cyberdimension, draws from John Durham Peters’s account of infrastrucutralism to make the case that various digital technologies open a new dimension of being. Dimension is used in the sense that Paul Tillich employed the term in his account of the multidimensional unity of life.
We need to take a minute to break down this panoply of technical terms, so let’s start with Tillich. Tillich makes the case in the third volume of his Systematic Theology that there are five dimensions of things: inorganic, organic, psychological, spiritual, and historical. For Tillich, the key to each of these dimensions that makes them a dimension is seen in the way they modify the basic categories of ontology that he previously laid out, in a distinctly Kantian fashion, in the first volume of his Systematic Theology: space, time, causality, and substance. As Tillich writes, “These categories have universal validity for everything that exists. But this does not mean that there is only one time, space, and so on. For the categories change their character under the predominance of each dimension. Things are not in time and space; rather they have a definite time and space.”5 The dimensions he envisions are not utterly separate. The various dimensions condition each other and cannot merely be left behind. Yet, a new dimension opens experiences of time, space, causality, and substance that modifies preceding experiences of these categories and opens up onto a novel way of existing in the universe in light of these categories. For correlational theologies this is important, because the existential questions shaping how theological reflection on meaningful life is pursued, will be expressed differently depending on the predominant dimension.
What Trozzo contends is that cyberspace, and I would suggest all things “digital,”6 modify the way in which something has a definite sense of time, space, causality, and substance. Trozzo focuses on the time and space in his account and relies on Peters’s account of infrastructural technologies existing in media to make this case. Peters argues that ‘media’ represents a realm in which meaning is shared. ‘Technology’ is a durable form that externalizes a technique for meaning making.7 It is the infrastructural presence of a given technology that provides access to the depth of meaning in a given media; in doing so, though, the technology itself seems to disappear. It recedes from our direct experience and makes the invisible meaning formation of a given media appear to us in otherwise indiscernible or inaccessible ways.
Insofar as this infrastructural technology modifies the way something has a definite sense of time, space, causality, and/or substance, it could represent a new dimension that fundamentally changes the way existential questions intersect with theological categories in a correlational theology. The key, if we adopt Tillich’s approach and merge it with Peters’ insights as Trozzo suggests, is that the infrastructural technology would need to be pervasive enough so as to open a newly predominant dimension that persistently modifies the ontological categories as experienced in preceding dimensions. Trozzo does not pursue this as a Tillichian-emmendation: adding the ‘digital’ dimension to the hierarchy of Tillich’s other five dimensions constituting the multi-dimensional unity of life. To do so would require Trozzo to situate the digital in relationship to the psychological, the spiritual, and the historical in ways that might challenge Tillich’s own formulation of these dimensions (and this goes well beyond my interest in thinking about the ontological and dimensional significance of the digital as well).
Nonetheless, what Trozzo provides is a proof of concept for thinking about how to integrate the digital as a dimension into a more flexible ontology that would be concomitant to Tillich’s multidimensional unity of life; an ontology that allows for characterizing the existential experience of space, time, causality, and substance in flexible ways that move readily between different dimensions. In short, if digital technologies allow us to experience space, time, causality, and substance differently, then the digital would represent a distinct dimension of ontological possibilities with the ensuing unique existential questions that would, by necessity, follow. But, what is the nature of this change? Are these changes permanent or do digital technologies allow us to take up and put down these ontological categories such that different types of digital technologies yield distinctive lived-experiences?
I would like to suggest that an ontology that makes use of the phenomenological concept of ‘flesh’ might help provide some preliminary answers to thinking about the way digital technologies open new ontological dimensions, yielding distinct existential questions that cannot be ignored by any form of correlational theology.8 I invoke the term flesh (or what has sometimes been called ‘flesh of the world’) in the spirit that it has been used by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, particularly in his latter writings as his phenomenology tended toward an indirect or elemental ontology. In a single sentence, flesh describes how Being is always given over as a depth that is indirectly communicated by the mutually institutive intra-action of beings characterized in terms of the incarnating of the body and adventing of the world as it is intended to overcome a Cartesian divide between the self as a subjective consciousness (res cogitan) and the world (res extensa).9 It designates an intertwining or enlacement—an Ineinander—by which self and world unfold together.10
The flesh indicates carnality as characterized by our sharing in corporeality; we are a body in the midst of other bodies that comprise the flesh.11 While it is tempting to think that this sharing in corporeality simply connotes that we are all material beings, aspects of the physical world made of common stuff, this would not be correct. ‘Flesh’ indicates much more than some common atomic structure or existence as bare materiality; this is because flesh is not exactly ‘something’ in this substantialist sense.12
Instead, the flesh is like an ‘element.’ The elemental typically designates something that cannot be well accounted for by traditional philosophy; here, the concept is invoked to draw a clear contrast between the flesh and any substantialist approach to ontology.13 Flesh is instead, “the formative medium of the object and the subject… one cannot say that it is here or now in the sense that objects are; and yet my vision does not soar over it….”14 Or, as David Macauley describes it, flesh “serves as a ‘concrete emblem’ of a way of being.”15
This element of flesh is always realized indirectly and manifests between me and the world synchronizing these disparate realities. Thus, to understand this sense of the flesh as an element we have to consider how it is manifested through the encounter of beings, because I cannot engage the flesh except through these encounters even if it is not sufficiently characterized by any one of these particular encounters itself. As Glen Mazis rightly suggests, flesh stands between the general and the particular: a mediate—between the Being of ontology to which we are given indirect access through its happening in the contact of particular beings in the sensible world.16 Perhaps it is best to say we catch glimpses of the flesh: not as a ‘something’ we can directly set ourselves toward, but as the prereflective, abyssal grounds or insights that are realized through but also make possible the particular, specific sensible contact of beings.
In turning to the ‘elemental flesh,’ my work follows closely themes present in Peters, cited earlier, who thinks of ‘media’ in an elemental sense that is made accessible through infrastructural technologies. As we will see in what follows, if the flesh is understood to be elemental, as I am suggesting, the way in which the infusion of technologies to the lived-body reveals the flesh in new ways is similar to Peters’s use of infrastructural technologies and elemental media. I introduce the notion of the flesh for digital technologies, because I believe it is a more flexible concept: it allows digital technologies to be taken up and put down more readily such that the interweaving of the digital dimension to the flesh allows for swifter movement between lived-experiences that cross over different dimensions of an elemental ontology. The difference may be subtle, but I think it is important for systematically exploring the possibilities of a digital theology.
An example can be helpful.17 I rode my bicycle to work in my office this morning. I grabbed the dropped handlebar of my road bike and felt the gritty texture of the handlebar tape under my palm. As I swung my leg over the top tube my knee bumped into the firm nose of the saddle sliding the whole frame a bit underneath my body and my hand slipped onto the rubbery hood of the brake. In the space between my thumb and forefinger I could feel the pressure of my body leaning into the hood as I tried to regain my balance and keep from falling over.
In this initial aspect of the encounter—where I feel features of the bike—there is a chiasm at work. Chiasm refers to a crossing or intersecting in the field of the flesh. More technically, the chiasm describes the encroaching of a perceptive event (e.g. my hand feeling the handlebar tape, touching the brake hood, or my knee bumping the saddle). The crossing of the chiasm does two things that we can immediately note. First, it makes me aware of the obverse quality of the body. Above I described the shared carnality of the flesh: the flesh occurs as bodies in the midst of the world that in sensing are able to be sensed. Here this sensing and being sensed is expressed as a quality of my body enacting the flesh. The lived-bodies of the flesh exhibit a reversibility in themselves.
Second, the crossing or intertwining of the chiasm is evocative. It is not just that my hand and the handlebar tape happen upon each other. The encounter yields a grittiness. Similarly, the brakehood my hand slips onto gives a rubbery sensation and the nose of the saddle offers up a resolute firmness eventually bruising my knee. These encounters of chiasmic entwining evoke a sense that neither I nor the bicycle possess beforehand; nor is this encounter well described by some combinatorial logic (the sensibility is not something additive). A distinct way of being or quality of the world is emerging through this crossing of the flesh; as we mutually inhere to one another, a different way of being in the world begins to take shape.
The experience of reversibility is never simultaneous.18 It is crucial that this experience of sensing and being sensed never collapses into an undifferentiated unity (a sensing my own sensing) because the crossing of chiasm and the various senses of the flesh that different configurations of my encounter with the bicycle evoke would not be possible without a distance or separation. If I am the bicycle and the bicycle is me, there is not a sufficient sense of distinction to have a crossing. The chiasmic encounter of the flesh relies upon this difference: there remains a separation or a distance between us—an écart or dehinscence.
This separation, though, is not a hard and fast concept sharply dividing perceiver from perceived in strict opposition. Such a concept would violate the carnality of the flesh and could never accommodate the evocative quality of lived-experience that the chiasm describes. Instead, the separation or distance is an opening (as is well-described by subsequent deconstructionists). It is an opening or a space between the perceiver and the perceived that makes any quality of sensibility possible. To better understand why this is not a sharp division let us return to the encounter with the bicycle.
Having regained my composure (and giving a quick check to see if anyone has seen me nearly tumble while inflexibly getting on my bicycle), I push hard with my right foot onto the pedal. It creaks slightly against my weight, but the whole frame seems to leap forward and the saddle settles gently underneath me. I never cease to marvel at how every downward push on the pedal seems to throw me forward on this composite frame as opposed to the more mushy lurching of the first steel-framed road bike I ever owned. A few more turns and I feel the cleats on my shoes snap into the clipless pedals and my legs spin more easily and freely as the road opens onto a long downhill stretch. It is cold today and the wind bites at my cheeks as I shift down the rear cassette so that my legs do not start spinning too fast on the pedals during the descent.
As I ride down the hill, feeling the pedals turnover under my feet, any separateness of me and the bicycle gives way to our intertwining. We move around potholes opening up before us as my arms extend into the handlebars so that the bicycle is incorporated into the space of my body. My legs are not separate from the pedals anymore, but become pistons that pivot on a confusion of feet and crankarms so that the bike leaps forward, as though it wants to and I am merely there to make this expression of itself possible. I experience the bicycle at different moments as separate and intertwined: distant and then inseparable from the lived-space of my body—me and then not-me.
This tension between the experience of entwining and dehinscence (the inhering penetration of the chiasm and the persistent separation of the écart) defies our typical understandings of self and world, but it arises by looking into the sensed depth of these evocative encounters that we are naming flesh. My riding the bicycle helps illustrate a swift movement beyond any imporous border of individuation—as though my sense of being remains strictly divided along a dermal barrier. In the intertwinings and gaps of perceptive events there is an incarnating of the self. I come to be through my perceptive incorporation of the bicycle that is no longer separate from me. Grammar hardly seems to do justice to the experience this chiasmic encounter evokes: ‘We is a deft vehicle descending the hill.’ At the same time there is an ‘adventing’ of the world in this act of incorporation—a promise of manifesting otherwise silent possibilities. Slaloming pothole obstacles and the wind biting at my cheeks are aspects of the world that could easily go unnoticed without the speed that my entwined body-bike achieves going down the hill. What develops is “a pregnancy of possibles, Weltmöglichkeit….”19
Yet, what of the écart? It cannot be left behind so that our chiasmic intertwining simply becomes simultaneous; however, is that not precisely what has happened in descending the hill? While we can easily flip back and forth between sensing and being-sensed as distinguishable conditions, there is something that our perceptual experience shows to be artificial in this division. We lose something of the perceptual phenomenon if we adhere to a stark separation of divisible moments in our fleshly encounters.20 These divisible moments encroach upon one another so that finally the flesh evokes something distinctive—the ‘we is’ of the body-bike—that pushes the écart to a new frame of reference felt at the borders of the bike tires with the road or the tingling skin of my cheeks; these two experience are no longer so disparate as they once might have been understood to be, as if one belonged to the bicycle and the other to my body. The experience of me and the bicycle as not-me crossing in the flesh falls away here in our availability to one another. Instead, a newly incorporated, hybrid—even cyborg—body advents upon a world that is now felt differently; a new set of chiasmic crossings in the flesh becomes possible adventing new ways of being in and understanding the world.
My senses of space, time, causality and substance differentiate such that a real difference between my cyborg bike-body and everyday walking body opens up before me when the flesh, with its chiasmic encounters, becomes the primordial unit of our ontological thinking. Whether or not this shift constitutes a new dimension as described above would be debatable: the differences experienced in the ontological categories here still seem compossible to one another. I would argue that for a different dimension to be opened in the flesh, a greater difference in the experiences of space, time, causality, and substance would need to emerge—something, perhaps, that does occur with the incorporation of digital technologies.
With the flesh as this primordial ontological unit, we find ourselves to be in a state of flux. The shape these entwinings of the flesh may take are not permanent. After all, I eventually arrived at my office and hopped off my bike. My feet and legs no longer turn as pistons over wheels that give my felt contact with the ground. Now the weight of my body rests on my heels as I walk awkwardly over the cleats in my shoes and my feet give me a lived-experience of the ground once again. The mutability of my various intertwinings of the flesh becomes clear. The sensibility evoked is not permanent nor is it forever gone; the flesh is mutable—crossing and uncrossing, tangling and untangling—letting these instances of evocative encounter rise up and fall away.
This indirectly revealed flesh makes for promiscuous beings; beings constantly engaged in the persistent metamorphosis of incorporating and adventing made possible as instances of the flesh’s non-collapsed intertwining. Such promiscuous beings, engaging the dynamism of the flesh, yield a poetic and fragile ontology. It is, to borrow the idea from Bachelard, a penumbral ontology wherein the borders of ontological units are fuzzy as they bubble up in the contexts of particular practices and modes of working in the world, only to be reshaped relationally under the guise of new contexts.21
Perhaps, now, we can extend this flesh into the digital dimension: a digital flesh. Since I have been using my bike as an example we can continue in this regard. During the pandemic, like so many others, I was forced to take things I normally did outside and bring them in. Even my bike riding for a time was confined to the basement with an industrial fan and a blank wall to stare at. A friend suggested I try Zwift. The premise is not difficult to understand, the application makes virtual environments that you ride through and estimates your speed and distance traveled over different terrains by measuring the wattage you produce while riding your bike on a stationary trainer. Your avatar is then set into a world of other avatars each representing a rider who is also pedaling on a trainer. With sound effects, supporting discord channels for talking to other riders on virtual group rides, smart trainers that change the effort required so that pedaling up a virtual hill feels like going up a real hill, and additional ‘gamification’ features for racing, a digital world has been adventing before my cyborg bike-body that is distinct from the chiasmic encounter in the flesh that opens up the world of outdoor riding to me.
While the ties to my physical body make thinking about this means of taking up the digital flesh more visceral, what is crucial here is that my body incorporates a digital technology that chiasmically opens a new means of encountering the world otherwise unavailable to me. Any digital technology that has this infrastructural capacity could produce lived-digital-experiences that call out in turn for theological reflection upon new avenues of relationship-building and meaning-making that are opened up. This is not a
And yet, this occurrence of the digital flesh, Zwifting, remains a facsimile. If we delved into a full phenomenological analysis of virtual versus outdoor riding, we could explore where the nuances of distinction between these lived-experiences appear. At its best, though, digital flesh may take us one step further than mere imitation. To that end, I would suggest the philosophical concepts of ‘wonder’ and the ‘uncanny’ become helpful tools in signaling where the lived-experience of space, time, causality, and substance have shifted when invoking this mutable concept of flesh.
Uncanny Wonder: Which Digital Experiences Do We Use to Construct a Digital Theology?
Wonder is a mood or attitude that we take in the face of realizing that our everyday assumptions are untenable. It is a sort of awareness and surprise at what we do not know—the very abstruse quality of their being an everyday world—that forms the ground from which our thinking springs. It is the feeling of being aghast by our very existence. As Mary Rubenstein puts it in analyzing the Plato’s Theataetus, “Wonder, then, comes on the scene neither as a tranquilizing force nor as a kind of will-toward-epistemological domination, but rather as a profoundly unsettling pathos…. [T]he philosopher’s wonder marks his inability to ground himself in the ordinary as he reaches toward the extraordinary.”22 Wonder is the attitude we take in opening a rift in the midst of the everyday world; a rift that when closed marks the cessation of wonder.23
Wonder (Erstaunen) is not mere curiosity of any kind. Martin Heidegger provides a helpful catalog of curiosities in this regard so that we first make sure to understand what authentic wonder cannot be. It is not a curiosity exhibited toward the comprehension of new novelties (Verwunderung). Nor is it a fervent curiosity that persists beyond the initial experience of novelty to seek out a deepened comprehension of some set of unusual complexities in the everyday world (Bewunderung). Nor, finally, can wonder be a marveling at one extraordinary thing to the exclusion of our experiences in ordinary everydayness (Staunen and Bestaunen).24 All these are modes of curiosity that seek the surety of knowing, not the unsettling pathos of wonder that stands open before the enigmatic quality of our very existence. In wonder, we give attention to the mysteriousness of everydayness.25
In a similar fashion the uncanny or unheimlich has a similar strangeness to wonder. As Freud classically observed in his 1919 essay on the topic, the uncanny situates a paradox between everydayness and alienness; it represents an intersection of the familiar and the frightening that underlies a set of attitudes that one has put away as childish or impossible. The common reality we hold to be true is surprisingly (and often terrifyingly) upended. In the event of the uncanny, an everyday common reality reveals itself not to operate within the assumed framework of time, space, causality, and substance that we believe should be guiding the behavior of the phenomena.26
What I want to suggest here is that an experience of the uncanny or of wonder as an unsettling pathos is a signal that some crossing in the flesh has unsettled our senses of time, space, causality, and substance that guide our most common frames of ontological reference in the flesh. Wonder and the uncanny become symptoms of a disoriented flesh. Disoriented is not meant to be a pejorative term here, and queer phenomenology can be a helpful resource in this regard. It begins by rethinking “the ‘orientation’ in ‘sexual orientation.’” Sara Ahmed, for instance, offers “a phenomenological approach to the very question of what it means to ‘orientate’ oneself sexually toward some others and not other others.”27
While we tend to immediately associate sexual orientation with identity (gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, etc.), queer phenomenology encourages thinking about how being oriented has two distinct senses. In the first sense, an orientation means being directed toward. In this sense, an orientation is a desire for something we do not actually have. I am oriented-toward that which is separate or distinct from me—given that the distance from me cannot be so great that the desire becomes utterly unavailable. Implied in orientation-toward is a consideration of proximity. We can only be oriented-toward those things that are proximate enough as to be available to our perceptive bodies. Proximity does not indicate mere distance or nearness but availability.28 To be oriented-toward something is to indicate that the object of desire is available to me; the various orientations we take (or that we inherit) shape what sorts of objects, feelings, thoughts, or spaces become available or unavailable as such.
The concern for proximity is real if we keep in mind that we cannot take up limitless objects. We are finite, limited beings. Though a seemingly banal observation, to be a finite creature oriented-toward certain things simultaneously implies we are not oriented-toward some other set of things. Not all the sorts of objects, feelings, thoughts, or spaces we might be oriented-toward are, nor can be, equally proximate. To take up one possibility and orient-toward it is to let another possibility lie.
In the second sense, orientation connotes being around. Instead of taking up (as with orienting-toward various proximities) being oriented-around entails our being taken up. An example can be helpful to make the difference clear. “I might be orientated around writing, for instance, which will orientate me toward certain kinds of objects.”29 Our orientation-around guides what we are most likely to be oriented-toward: it centers and binds us in a trajectory.
In a move that should not be surprising for anyone familiar with queer theory or gender studies, this distinction between orienting-toward and orienting-around indicates, “that bodies are shaped by what they tend toward, and that the repetition of that ‘tending toward’ produces tendencies. We can redescribe this process in the following terms: the repetition of the tending toward is what identity ‘coheres’ around (= tendencies).”30 Performativity is at work here in shaping our orientations.31 Our orientation-toward certain proximities develops a sense of being oriented-around that reinforces what becomes proximate and likely to be oriented-toward in the future. This circular process absconds itself though, and seems to reify what we orient-around as ‘natural.’ Part of the reason for this reification is that none of us produces our orientation-toward certain proximities ex nihilo. We receive orientations-around as a sedimented history, which continues and propagates through our continued adoption of the orientation-toward certain favored proximities.32
When orientation is not simply a marker of identity, it has to be interpreted in the richer intercorporeal matrix of the body, objects, and spaces. Orientation, whether as orientation-toward or orientation-around, does not imply a subjective, willful power of consciousness. Nor is it a purely intersubjective phenomenon. “Bodies as well as objects take shape through being orientated toward each other, as an orientation that may be experienced as the co-habitation or sharing of space.”33 Orientation is a trajectory; a way we realize or expect to realize a meaningful formation of bodies, objects, and spaces together.
This sharing of space is resonant with the account of the flesh offered above.34 The extension of the body into spaces and objects and the incorporation of objects and spaces into bodies as the chiasmic intertwining of flesh are formative processes that give rise to different senses of being a self in the midst of a world. The example of riding a bicycle illustrated this. The bike could be part of the world (placing a gap between my body and the bicycle as part of the horizon for my world) or part of my body (placing a gap between this different sort of embodiment—the bike-body—and an alternative horizon for my world). The flesh was the element underpinning these experiences. Never directly experienced, the flesh could be folded and refigured into a panoply of mutable shapes for my body and the horizon of the world to take. The diverse ways I could experience the intersection of my body with the horizon of the world was a product of the various ways that my place in the flesh became chiasmically entwined with other existent beings. The ways, in turn, the flesh is taken up in these chiasmic entwinings becomes formative of how the remaining horizon of my world is oriented both toward and around me.
Wonder and the uncanny signal where these orientations toward and around the world are not taken up smoothly. They signal the emergence of a place where a new set of spatial, temporal, substantial, and causal relationships are seeking to break through the everydayness of our encounters as self and world. In short, the disorientation of wonder and the uncanny signals a dimensional shift in the lived-experience of an ontology—it is a shift in the existential questions that constitute a correlational theology.
For a robust digital theology that is systematic in character, I would suggest this is a place to begin. We must interrogate our digital experiences for the moments in which they awaken a sense of wonder and the uncanny. These feelings and attitudes experienced in the face of digital phenomenon signal a break with the everyday means of experiencing space, time, causality, and substance. Using a full phenomenological ontology of the flesh, the experiences of wonder and the uncanny would more specifically signal the emergence of some new chiasmic encounter: a way in which the digital has shaped a new mode of lived-experience irreducible to the typical orientation we hold in the face of the world. This digitized flesh calls out for theological responses to the sensation of disorientation; responses that help solidify new orientations and guideposts for living-into this digital flesh fruitfully.35
The preliminary place for a digital theology that is systematic in character to begin is to cull our lived-digital-experiences as ‘flesh’ for moments that evoke wonder and/or the uncanny. These experiences that signal a radical departure from traditional senses of spatial, temporal, causal, and substantial relationships indicate where digital experiences open onto new ontological dimensions that require constructive theological responses. Further, a typology of digital lived-experiences that separate formation of the digital flesh into those that produce truly novel chiasmic encounters with the world and digitized facsimiles of real world experiences could serve as an initial means of sorting out how to produce theological responses to digital experiences. This methodological axiom could be used to build out a digital theology that is both constructive and potentially systematic in a way that is truly novel and not merely derivative.
Yet derivative digital theology is, by my reckoning, more common in writing about digital phenomena and technology for theology: the tendency to simply treat the digital as a suite of technologies that extend existing existential questions, rather than forming a new, irreducible dimension of existential questions. Trozzo indicates something similar in his review of other literature addressing cybertheology. It is easier to focus on the ways in which existing structures of systematic theology might apply to the digital complexification, but not alteration, of well-established existential structures. To focus on these issues requires simply amending existing theological responses in parallel to the identified complexification of persisting existential questions. Pragmatically and pedagogically, I have no doubt that this work is immensely important and the use of the term ‘derivative’ is not meant in a derogatory sense; theologically, though, I am not convinced work pursued this way can break fundamentally new ground because the existential questions driving the analysis have already been well addressed.
Before moving onto a more extended example let me offer a few suggestions about how this axiom about digital flesh might be applied in constructing a digital theology that is not merely derivative. As the world slowly reopens after the pandemic, most scholars of digital media are waiting to see what aspects of our digital lives or digital behaviors will persist even after a ‘return to normal.’ For theologians, digital ecclesiology seems like a key area to analyze going forward. What aspects of ‘online church’ will remain in communities that had never before used digital tools for wider communication? It is reasonable to expect that digital tools that increased expediency in church communication and facilitated interrelationship will remain, but this is hardly novel and not particularly interesting for a constructive digital theology.
What would be more interesting is to look for the places where practices developed in communities that cannot take place in the ‘real’ world. Are there new sacramental practices that emerged in communities that have become important enough to persist as they return to in-person practices? How have online worshipping communities unbound from physical geographic limitations persisted in the wake of so many more people engaging such ‘substance-less’ communities? What are the ways that VR in communities like VR Church and EvolVR are moving beyond simulating church or meditation and using novel features of the technology to create new spiritual experiences (I’m imagining here an effort to create a sense of the sublime in the digital flesh)? I cannot answer these questions here and now, but I believe they are more compelling for constructing a digital theology because they press at the ways in which chiasmic encounters of the digital flesh modify our experiences of space, time, causality, and substance.
Forgiveness for a Digital Dimension
In a paper that is already much too long, I want to briefly consider forgiveness as a theological theme. To do this, I’ll use Kierkegaard’s understanding of this term, but in principle other models could and should be adopted in developing a more robust digital theology. My goal here is more modestly to present a proof of concept argument: to simply use this as a test case for illustrating how paying attention to the ways in which digital flesh modifies the lived-experience of ontological categories can affect the construction of even quite traditional theological concepts. Kierkegaard’s account is somewhat simplistic, which may make it theologically unappealing, but highly useful for a proof of concept argument.
To understand Kierkegaard’s account of forgiveness we have to recognize the importance of the inverse dialectic in his understanding of Christian existence. The inverse dialectic really has two parts: “ the positive is known and expressed through the negative, what appears to be negative may be indirectly positive (and vice versa), and  the positive and the negative, Christianly understood, are always the inverse of the natural, human, worldly, and pagan understandings of these terms.”36 The first part of this inverse dialectic is fairly straightforward: the positive can come to be known through the negative. However, the second part is equally important because it emphasizes that the existential experience of the inverse dialectic reaches its apogee in Christian existence as we realize our infinite distance from the divine and the eternal.37
His development of this theme of forgiveness commends his reader to two complementary moments of remembering and forgetting that form the positive and negative features of the inverse dialectic. On the one hand, we find him emphasizing the need for remembering Christ as a prototype. Forgiveness relies upon remembering the love of Christ that through an act of substitution brings the relief of forgiveness. Kierkegaard makes this affirmation dialectically—always understanding the mimetic features of Christ as a prototype in conjunction with the atoning work of Christ as redeemer. His atonement model appears to be a straightforward appropriation of vicarious satisfaction, but he emphasizes how the atonement assuages our anxiety in the face of failing to succeed in implementing the imitation of Christ’s perfection.38 Thus, his understanding of forgiveness is directly connected to this understanding of atonement and prototype.39 Especially in the face of bitter memories or crushed hopes remembering Christ brings solace.
On the other hand, forgiveness requires that we forget the very consciousness of sin that brings us to realizing our need for forgiveness. This is because forgetting our sin is necessary if we are to fully take on the forgiveness offered to us by Christ. So while we constantly remember this forgiveness offered to us, the full acceptance of that forgiveness entails a forgetting or letting go of the sin that brought us to need that forgiveness.40 The remembering (positive) of Christ becomes the means to our truly forgetting (negative) sin in the atoning process of forgiveness. The remembering cannot occur without the forgetting; it can only be realized through the act of forgetting. Moreover, in our imperfect forgetting we recognize our own infinite distance from the ideal of Christ’s love.
Thus, in Kierkegaard’s account we are called to remember without ceasing Christ as the prototype of love and bearer of our forgiveness; simultaneously, we are called to forget our entire past so that we are fully built up in this forgiving love. Now we can see an inverse dialectic with all its implications in the remembering and forgetting of forgiveness because the process of forgiveness is not a single event. It recurs as our acts done and undone, in thought, word, and deed, continue to not reflect the prototype. Again and again we must forget the ruling of sin over our past in remembering the love of Christ that is our forgiveness; in remembering this forgiveness the consciousness of sin that informs our past is erased and we are freed to emulate the love and forgiveness of Christ given to us. Yet, emulating this love entails a renewed confession and consciousness of our sin that deepens our awareness of our dependence on Christ’s love and forgiveness. There is a perpetual deepening of our consciousness of sin (even in forgetting) that inversely brings us ever nearer to the love of Christ and an ability to practice that love in our lives; this practice of the love of Christ itself serves as an indirect communication of Christ’s power as prototype and redeemer.
With this understanding of Kierkegaard’s account of forgiveness in mind, let us take a moment to explore this theological idea in light of the ‘flesh’ as described above: envisioning forgiveness as a specific kind of interpersonal chiasm. If we do this, I would suggest that Kierkegaard’s forgiveness entails a specific kind of causal entanglement of the flesh described in terms of spatial, temporal, and substantial realities. His account of remembering Christ in the face of loss, frustration, and despair when someone has been aggrieved requires a substantial engagement or spatial relationship whereby the ‘love of Christ’ is lived out between the offending and aggrieved parties. There is a permanence and perpetuation of the presence of Christ as a prototype that must be able to manifest for true forgiveness to occur. Simultaneously, there is a temporal loss in his account of forgiveness. The act of forgetting in the flesh is an act of truly erasing or esconcing the offense that causes forgiveness to be necessary. The offense has to be wiped away so that the relationship in the flesh can be fruitfully re-established. In short, forgiveness requires a sense of temporality in which grudges can be buried and substantial engagement or spatial structure that allows Christ’s love to infinitely persist. When these spatial, temporal, and substantial categories occur, a causal relationship of forgiveness can emerge.
Now, can the spatial, temporal, and substantial realities of this causal relationship of forgiveness be realized in the ‘digital flesh’ in the same way that it is realized in the ‘physical flesh’ of the ‘real’ world? Let's just take the temporal dimensions of forgetting. In my physical encounter with another person, my first-person experience of forgetting for forgiveness entails a refiguring of my memory. When I try to forgive, I forget the hurt of the way that I have been wronged by recontextualizing what has occurred. The memory of Christ’s love begins to reframe the lived-experience of being wronged such that I shed the hurt of the experience: I forget the sin itself by infusing this event with the memory of the love of Christ. Kierkegaard’s model of forgiveness is set to work on a small scale that relies on a sense of interpersonal intimacy
What happens though when in the ‘digital flesh’ this memory of sin is held outside of my own mind. When it stands as a recurring third-person memory flashed year over year as a data point constantly able to be recalled with the exactness of a video. The temporality of the digital does not subject our memory to the revision that might come from remembering Christ’s love. There is a static and eternal remembering of the horror of the sin for which we seek forgiveness that is potentially infinite, or at least lasts as long as the technological infrastructure that holds the event before our gaze is supported. The temporality by which we hold onto a memory of sin in the digital flesh as opposed to the interpersonal flesh means that the process of forgiveness changes.
Similarly, the rules that govern enacting the love of Christ in a shared physical space and as a substantial praxis in Kierkegaard’s account of forgiveness cannot easily or directly be duplicated in the virtual environment of digital flesh. I think the sympathetic joy we feel at the tearful reunion of family members after a year of self-isolation does not easily translate into spaces of digital encounter. The physical touches and caresses that signal this remembering of love do not easily translate into the digital medium of the flesh. Even as those digital lived-experiences become increasingly immersive, a robust account of forgiveness in the digital flesh would require a different means to “remembering Christ’s love” than what would be used in the physical flesh.
Why might this be significant? Well, a Christian account of facilitating forgiveness in online environments will need to be significantly different from a Christian account of facilitating forgiveness in physical environments. The temporal aspects of ‘forgetting’ and the spatial and substantial aspects of ‘remembering’ are inverted in these two accounts. The malleable reframing that occurs in the forgetting of sin in a physical, interpersonal encounter is disrupted by the infinite and static perspective of a digital memory that is not in-itself reshaped through the conscious reinterpretation of Kierkegaard’s forgetting. A robust account of forgiveness in digital theology has to take seriously this fundamentally different character of digital lived-experience. Digital forgiveness simply cannot forget as Kierkegaard wants us to; and, if we cannot forget because the temporal category of our lived-experiences in digital flesh will not allow for it, then we also cannot sufficiently experience the depth of divine love, because we cannot experience our own distance from this perfection. A sufficient account of forgiveness in a constructive digital theology, would have to take seriously the distinctive temporality of forgetting in the digital flesh wherein a memory is not held uniquely by a distinct individual.
Moreover, forgiveness in a digital theology would have to address the substantial anonymity of digital spaces that makes remembering the love of Christ different. What I have in mind here is trolling. Remembering the love of Christ in the face of the physical other who I must continue to encounter because of our proximity to one another is quite different from the anonymous troll that I can simply cut out (and probably should cut out) of my digital environment. The persistence of the face of the other that facilitates the need to remember the love of Christ in the act of forgiveness in a physical context dissipates into the possibility of forming ever smaller echo chambers of agreement in a digital world, whereby we do not have to practice the work of forgiveness.
In short, how we would facilitate a theological conception of forgiveness in a digital environment looks radically different than how we would facilitate forgiveness in a physical context. This may not sound revolutionary, but by thinking in terms of how ontological categories shift, such that the digital becomes a dimension yielding distinct lived-experiences that are irreducible to more traditional accounts of the physical, provides a way of reframing existential experiences—and he questions arising from those experiences—for work in correlational theology. Such a method could be applied to any number of theological loci (i.e. constructing an analysis of underlying assumptions about how the underpinning ontological categories are operation) or digital experiences (i.e. constructing an analysis of the difference between physical and digital experiences of flesh that sufficient theological categories would need to address) such that a distinct digital theology applicable to digital encounters in the flesh irreducible to other dimensions might emerge.