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Inevitable Hybridity: Digital and Technological Paradigms for Revisioning Theology

Published onJul 09, 2021
Inevitable Hybridity: Digital and Technological Paradigms for Revisioning Theology

“Inevitable Hybridity: Digital and Technological Paradigms for Revisioning Theology”

Katherine G. Schmidt, Molloy College (USA)

Abstract: This paper explores the category of hybridity from a theological perspective. It will argue for an understanding of both the church and academic theology as inevitably hybrid. This inevitability presents a range of challenges to traditional models of community and sacramental practices. However, theologians, pastors, and other theologically-interested thinkers should investigate the opportunities of hybridity for both pastoral/practical and theological reasons. Pastorally speaking, hybridity expands the imagination of both where and how ministers do their work. Theologically, hybridity gives us new language for paradoxes at the center of Christianity, not the least of which is the Incarnation. Although hybridity will be defined primarily within the paradigm of digital culture, the paper will also draw on its use in other cultural contexts (e.g. automotive technologies) and academic discourse.

A central theme of my work in digital theology to date has been to suggest that digital culture provides new frameworks with which to understand theology and ecclesiology. I have thus far been enamored with the category of virtuality[1], as I believe it to be an important transhistorical paradigm for understanding some of the most basic truths of Christianity. Presently, I want to turn to another category from digital culture: hybrid. Well aware that hybridity has an etymology much prior to digital technology, I nonetheless believe that we would do well to explore hybridity for its theological and ecclesiological insights. Thus I wade into the waters of an ongoing debate about the history, uses, appropriateness and inappropriateness of the notion of hybridity in multiple scholarly and cultural contexts. I want to be very clear up front that I am but a humble theologian borrowing the work of my colleagues in other fields for theological reflection and that this is not meant to be a substantive contribution to that ongoing debate. My argument here is that there are various models of hybridity that provide different insights for the Christian church as it navigates the challenges of the digital age. Thus I mean to borrow a category of the zeitgeist itself in order to suggest ecclesial priorities in the 21st century.

Any faculty member teaching now, especially after (during?) the pandemic, knows that hybridity is inevitable. Resisting hybridity means holding onto an illusion of some pure state of affairs that probably never really existed anyway. Hybridity is inevitable for the church for two reasons, one theological and one cultural/historical. Theologically, we can understand many of the central doctrines of Christian theology within the framework of hybridity. In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh forms a relationship with Israel, making them a people set apart, sanctified and consecrated to the one true God. Yet Israel remains in the world, fighting its wars, succumbing to its temptations, navigating its beauty and its ugliness. From Leviticus, we hear God say: “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves along the ground. I am the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 11: 44). Eat food, says Yahweh, but eat it differently. Wear clothing, but wear it differently. Form a society, but form it justly. To some extent, then, we might understand the Chosen People of God as a hybrid, as a mixture of divine and human elements. Furthermore, the prophets also occupy a space of hybridity, bearing witness to the justice of God but as human agents. Much hybridity discourse in the context of culture begins with a recognition of diaspora—the notion that there are people scattered from their true home. The diasporic are thrust into inevitable hybridity, and few nations (in the biblical sense) know as much about diaspora than the Jewish people. Their initial hybridization as God’s Chosen thus extends into history into the diaspora.

The New Testament of course picks up on these themes. From 1 Peter, we hear a redux of the call to holiness, this time framed in the context of salvation in Christ: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 9). In this context, Christians are commanded to live justly in the lands of others as “foreigners and exiles.” In some cases, this status is literal. In others, it references the eschatological reality of the “already but not yet.” That is, Christians remain suspended in the in between, having been saved by the Cross of Christ yet still bound earthly lives in anticipation of his coming.

This eschatological suspension is concretized by the church. The church mediates the productive tension between the already and the not yet, specifically in Word and Sacrament. Like the Chosen People of Israel, the church is a hybrid of the divine and the human. It mediates grace, again through Word and Sacrament, but must do so through human mediation, with all of its limitations and pitfalls. In addition, the church lives within the hybridity of the universal and local. Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council document on the church, puts it thusly:

[The] Church of Christ is truly present in all legitimate local congregations of the faithful which, united with their pastors, are themselves called churches in the New Testament. For in their locality these are the new People called by God, in the Holy Spirit and in much fullness. In them the faithful are gathered together by the preaching of the Gospel of Christ, and the mystery of the Lord's Supper is celebrated, that by the food and blood of the Lord's body the whole brotherhood may be joined together. In any community of the altar, under the sacred ministry of the bishop, there is exhibited a symbol of that charity and “unity of the mystical Body, without which there can be no salvation.” In these communities, though frequently small and poor, or living in the Diaspora, Christ is present, and in virtue of His presence there is brought together one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.1

In terms of hybridity, the ecclesial paradox of the universal and the local is a helpful reminder about the problem of understanding hybridity in terms of two fixed antecedents creating a third product. There are truly a church universal and local churches, and their combination—for lack of a better word—does constitute what we mean by “the church.” And yet both realities are constantly in flux, constantly in process, such that “the church” too is always in motion, always on the pilgrim’s path.

At this point, we must consider the central doctrine of Christianity--the Incarnation—and investigate the extent to which we can understand Christ within the category of hybridity. At first blush, referring to Christ as a hybrid of human and divine seems heretical, in the classical sense of the word: it appears to run contrary to the Chalcedonian definition that Christ is both fully human and fully divine. A hybrid seems to imply some sort of mix that denigrates that which is mixed. This is because we tend to understand hybridity as a mixing of two pure antecedents into a third that more often than not diminishes both. We may have in mind the classic example of a mule, a hybrid between a horse and a donkey that is almost always sterile. I want to suggest, however, that theologians and pastors would benefit greatly from the kind of careful thought around hybridity that we find in cultural and linguistic studies. In short, various models of hybridity offer us new ways to think about Christ and the church, and may even open new avenues for evangelization in the modern world.

Let us examine several models of hybridity, and mine them for what insight they might provide for us in the digital age. It is “a concept whose definition is maddeningly elastic, whose analytical value is easily questionable, and whose ideological implications are hotly contested.”2 Hybridity is a contested category for theorists of all kinds, including and especially those within cultural and racial studies. Most scholars acknowledge that its early use came largely from biology, and referred to the various genetic combinations of both plants and animals. Its root is the Latin word hybrida, referring to a mix between a wild boar and a tame sow. Already we can see how within the very root, hybridity carries with it two important implications: 1) two pure antecedents and a third impure product, and 2) a hierarchy of antecedents that tends to affect our perception of the hybrid as a mixture that reflects the tainting of one with the other, i.e. the wild boar taints the purity of the tamed sow. Unfortunately but not unsurprisingly, this biological use was appropriated by scientific racism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Various theories of race and species resulted in all kinds of pseudo-scientific typologies of mixed race peoples, usually in the context of chattel slavery and colonial domination: “Grounded in pseudo-scientific concepts of anatomy and craniometry, these early speculations on the hybrid were chiefly concerned with the contamination of white Europeans by the races they colonized.”3 Such mixing, of course, was often the very product of colonial domination as rape and forced marriage were common features of oppression by imperial powers on indigenous or enslaved peoples. What, if anything, is there to learn from these abhorrent theories of hybridity? If nothing else, it forces us to recognize the history of colonialism and the ways in which families, tribes, households, and lineages were physically subjected to colonial power. It also helps us see the effects of war and trade on the categories of race, which we often mistakenly assume to be fixed. In rejecting notions of pure antecedent races, we thus reject the White European purity-supremacy that drove the subjugations of the world’s peoples for centuries. This is especially important for the Christian Church—and the Catholic Church especially—as it reckons with its role in imperialism and its continued contribution to white supremacy.

Despite its racist underpinnings, hybridity became a helpful category for cultural theorists attempting to describe such phenomena as diaspora: “a convenient category at ‘the edge’ or contact point of diaspora, describing cultural mixture where the diasporized meets the host in the scene of migration.”4 It is at this point where we begin to see the limitations and conceptual problems with hybridity as it applies to cultural mixing. By using this biological metaphor, we carry into discussions of culture an understanding of two pure antecedents mixing into a third impure product. The implication is that there exists pure, fixed antecedents to the hybridized product. Moreover, there is often an assumption of hierarchy between the antecedents and this hierarchy drives the pernicious judgment of the hybrid as a diminished version of one or both of the antecedents. Thus while we may not understand it to be directly related to 18th and 19th century scientific racism, anxiety over the “hybrid” has its roots in anxieties over race-mixing. The implication here, therefore, is that we might return some day to an imagined purity. Here we find one of the more useful insights for the church: we must resist assuming that there is a pure version of the church to which we will someday return if we can just get all of this technology stuff right. Elsewhere I have cautioned against the pastoralist ideal of the church, especially in its local instantiations. Not only must we be honest about the historical realities of the church—i.e. what things were actually like in whatever golden age we choose as a foil to the digital age—but we must also recognize that we are inevitably hybrid to the extent that there is no longer the church and digital culture as two discrete entities which sometimes choose to interact. Embedded within our very reality as church in the 21st century, then, we know we are hybrid and we know that that means something very different from the mules.

Let us then acknowledge the racist past and implementations of hybridity and seek after new ways to understand it. According to John Hutnyk, it remains a useful category but “is better conceived of as a process.”5 By insisting that hybridity is an ongoing process, we inject into the imagination of the hybrid movement that resists stable or fixed antecedents. Although all is in motion, hybridity is not meaningless, as it really does result in the production of new things. According to postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha, the hybrid is “how newness enters the world.”6 To the extent that the hybrid represents a mixed product of at least two other things, it produces a new thing. According to Clifford, this is why the hybrid is often set over and against tradition. Tradition represents relative staticness, and the hybrid is change. The most helpful context for understanding hybridity as process and change is within the field of linguistics, which is of course closely related if not inextricable from cultural studies. Derrida rightfully argues for the imperfection of translation as a process: “language and cultural experience is idiomatic and the idea of a perfect translation is misguided, and yet, attempts to translate are made, however quixotically.”7 Umberto Eco’s Experiences in Translation reflects beautifully on the imperfections of translation. Eco highlights the relationship between language and culture, arguing that translation must be flexible to accommodate cultural differences. This flexibility is not a concession but an integral part of translation: translating is not only connected with linguistic competence, but with intertextual, psychological, and narrative competence.”8 Translation is hybridity, therefore, as it combines the content of one language with the grammar of a another, creating something of a third product. Language, of course, can bear out the same problems as the racial notions of hybridity. Translation can often bear the marks of colonial domination, “one’s language vocabulary imposed on the grammar of another.”9 Once again, hybridity can be understood as a dilution from one or more pure realities, in this case language. But languages are always hybrids, and they are always in process and in the midst of change. Once again we see the illusion of the pure antecedent as a temptation: we may have in our minds two static languages that somehow become a third/hybrid after translation. But language is ever-changing, and the process of translation itself is part of the ongoing process of language development.

Two more models of hybridity present themselves in less theoretical contexts: automotive and educational. Hybridity has become an important category for auto manufacturers in the past few decades. For a variety of complicated reasons, hybrid cars have gained significant marketshare in places like the US, while fully electric cars remain somewhat marginal. In March 2021, the New York Times reported that fewer than 1 percent of cars in the US were fully electric, despite increases in brands like Tesla. In Europe, electric cars are becoming much more popular, with as much as 10 percent of the market share in the EU.10 Hybrid vehicles, defined as “cars that are equipped with an internal combustion engine (ICE) and one or multiple electric motors.”11 This application of hybrid appears to be the best analogous use of the biological definition. Is not a hybrid car simply the mule of the automotive world? One wonders whether or not simply putting two kinds of engines—the internal combustion (gasoline) engine and the electric engine—in the same car really means the creation of a third thing. Indeed, there are both mild and full hybrids, and the distinction accounts for the ways in which the engines actually interact with one another. What’s interesting about the automotive model of hybridity is that it flips the scientific racism assumptions on their head: instead of one antecedent tainting the other in the creation of a third hybrid, the hybrid car is simply added value from the second antecedent, ostensibly creating a third that might be better than the other two, dependent on your metric.

The last model of hybridity is very familiar to many of us, and that is hybrid education. Some theorists of hybrid education retain the biological metaphor, insisting that hybrid education “combines different elements to create something other, that is not a new blend but a new breed. Like a mule is neither a horse nor a donkey, but something third in its own right that came into being through the crossbreeding of horses and donkeys. Hybrid Education is such crossbreeding of different dimensions like online and on-site, digital and analogue, formal and informal.”12 Indeed, it seems to me, albeit anecdotally, that most uses of “hybrid” in reference to teaching and learning rely on some implicit notion of the hybrid as a “breed.” This makes me nervous for the racial and racist undertones noted above, but I also worry about the implications of purity within the antecedents as well. That is, educators may falsely assume that the existence of hybrid learning implies two discrete other kinds of learning: the digital and the non-digital. But this seems an extremely hard argument to make, and has been for at least the past fifteen years or so. It’s difficult if not impossible to imagine a completely non-digital educational experience, despite the efforts of our older and more eccentric colleagues. Even the professor I had in college in 2004 who insisted on only using a typewriter and who would not use email still got his class list from the online registration site. His students still carried mobile phones in their pockets and laptops in their backpacks. Hybridity in the classroom, therefore, is inevitable, and the degree to which the digital affects or shapes the learning environment seems to be on a continuum, the far end of which is “very little” and not, as we might want it to be, “not at all.” Resistance to hybrid education reflects the aforementioned anxiety about mixing, and the ways in which digitality will contaminate the educational process that we all think we’ve stepped into as academics. Even young scholars are bewitched by the illusion of the educational pastoralist ideal of a lecture hall of rapt, undistracted students who keep up with current events through newspapers and taking notes with pencils when the professor writes on the chalkboard. This has not been a reality for quite some time, and the further we’ve gotten from it, the easier it is to idealize. Once again, we see the temptation for golden age-thinking. The best way to overcome such illusory images is to acknowledge the ways in which we are inevitably hybrid. So too for the church.

I propose that aside from the theological inevitability or persistence of hybridity, the church reflect deeply on the ways in which it is always already hybrid. I’ve already gestured toward this in saying that both Israel and the church (as figurally related to Israel) are hybrid in the sense that they occupy a middle status between the divine and the human, without being subsumed by either. The Incarnation, of course, is a stickier wicket, being God himself. Yet Chalcedon paves the way, insisting that Jesus is both fully human and divine, and thus unlike any thing or anyone else. He is uniquely a third, and thus hybrid, event, and yet it recognizably related to his antecedents. Indeed, the Apostolic witness is that in the human person of Jesus Christ, one and undivided, God is revealed in his glory. Jesus walked and talked and cried and laughed, and did all of the other things humans do, with the exception of sinning. He also healed the sick, commanded the elements, and rose in glory. Thus we encounter a true hybrid; we encounter the new and ever-new in Christ. Additionally, if, as the theorists above claim, hybridity is best described as process, this can account for the Logos, and the ongoing revelation of God in creation.

As for the church, one need only reflect on its many failings to remember its hybrid status. This hybridity has long been recognized in various images for the church, the most apt being the church as pilgrim people. Ever on pilgrimage, it is under constant renovation on earth until its perfection in heaven. So hierarchies and rituals, theology and doctrine, great preaching and programming—these are the imperfect mediations of the grace of God. And while we glimpse the Kingdom within them, they still bear the marks of sin. All too often, theological accounts of the internet will reify local ecclesial communities in order to critique online ones. I propose that we do indeed use this particularly interesting moment regarding human community to discuss the church, but that we do so honestly and self-reflectively. We cannot simply hold up either the local or universal church as some sort of communal antidote to digital communities. This is so for many reasons, not the least of which is that our ecclesial communities are rife with the sexism, racism, violence, and consumerism we so readily critique online. As lovely as the church can be, as grace-filled and life-giving, it is a liminal, and I would argue, hybrid, space. As French theologian Yves Congar writes, “When the Body of Christ has reached its final state in Heaven there will no longer be any mediating activity of the hierarchical priesthood, no magisterium of the faith, no ruling authority, no ‘dogma’, no law, no sacrament: for God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15: 28)…The Church as institution has no other meaning than to carry on this mediation (in traditional symbolism she is compared to the moon).”13

Much like our educational spaces, we would be succumbing to a comforting (for some) illusion that the church exists in some non-hybridized form as far as technology is concerned. That is, that there exists the discrete entity of the church and the discrete entity of digitality. We should understand digital technologies along a much longer continuum of mediation, recognizing that all of the ways in which we seek to connect to God and to one another are various kinds of mediation of which digital technologies are the latest iteration. But for now, let us consider digital technologies on their own. Even in the lowest tech of Christian communities, the ubiquity of mobile devices envelops liturgical and ecclesial spaces into larger digital ones. In 2006, Adriana De Souza e Silva argued for “hybrid spaces” as the consequence of mobile technologies: “A hybrid space…is a conceptual space created by the merging of borders between physical and digital spaces, because of the use of mobile technologies as social devices. Nevertheless, a hybrid space is not constructed by technology. It is built by the connection of mobility and communication and materialized by social networks.”14 If De Souza e Silva is right, and I think she is, this means that anytime a person enters a church with a mobile device, the space is hybridized. Furthermore, the notion of a hybrid space allows us to reflect anew on ecclesiology, as we considered how and where church happens. Technology alone does not construct these spaces, rather, “the mix of social practices that occur simultaneously in digital and in physical spaces, together with mobility… creates the concept of hybrid reality.”15 Digital technologies, especially in their mobile forms, highlight the long-existent hybridity of the pilgrim church. The ecclesiology of the universal and local understands the church as transcendent of space and time, at the same time that it is an historical reality, bound to the limitations of cultural particularities. As early as Paul letters, we see an awareness in Christianity for its hybridity vis a vis the universal and local/particular. The epistles themselves mediated an infant universal church among local churches, addressing their particularities and centering them on the (universal) Apostolic Witness that was their foundation. Thus the church’s long history of mediation bears witness to the productive space of hybridity between the local and universal. Digital technologies offer new ways of living in this productive hybridity, and new ways of imagining the mystery of the church itself.

I have attempted to demonstrate ways in which different models of hybridity may be useful for theological and ecclesiogical reflection. I want to close by turning outward toward evangelization. Pope John Paul II’s long pontificate had several important emphases but one of the most dominant was that of inculturation. “Through inculturation,” writes John Paul II, “the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community.”16 When John Paul II thought about evangelization, then, he often thought about it in these terms. Inculturation has the distinct advantage of having a strong theological connection to the Incarnation. The church incarnates the Gospel within diverse cultures and in diverse historical particularities. Conceptually, inculturation is a helpful means by which the church can understand its mission in the world. In particular, inculturation is a process, and to that extent requires patience, formation, and careful planning. Pope Francis has emphasized encounter in his own pontificate, but he carries the trajectory of inculturation at least conceptually, if not semantically. “One of the clearest expressions of Francis’ pastoral concerns regarding evangelization came in February 2020 in the form of Querida Amazonia, his apostolic exhortation that followed a synod addressed to the issues in the Amazon. Progressive Catholics were largely frustrated by the document, because they wanted and expected the pope to allow for a relaxation in extremis regarding priesthood regulations because of priest shortages in the region. The document delivered no such relaxation, but it did reflect Francis’ indebtedness to John Paul II in thinking about the role of the church in mission territories. Moreover, Francis demonstrates what inculturation might mean when the church centers encounter in the process. In short, it involves a more careful encounter with cultures foreign to those from which the church arose. When the church encounters such a culture, ‘she constantly reshapes her identity through listening and dialogue with the people, the realities and the history of the lands in which she finds herself’ (§66). Echoing John Paul II, Francis writes that the church must pay close attention to what is good and beautiful in the cultures it encounters, and ‘she needs to listen to its ancestral wisdom, listen once more to the voice of its elders, recognize the values present in the way of life of the original communities, and recover the rich stories of its peoples’ 70).”17 Like encounter, hybridity—or at least the word “hybrid”—is a more accessible concept than inculturation. I propose that we do retain inculturation as a way of understanding the church’s relationship to culture, especially in the context of evangelization. The hybrid, however, has the advantage of several ordinary uses that lowers the barrier to entry for theological reflection for all members of the church. Hybridity also has the advantage of emphasizing the process and activity implied by inculturation while adding the awareness of newness. Recall that hybridity is about newness, the creation of a new thing. As long as we resist the purely biological understanding of hybridity, we will be able to see the complexities and dynamism not only of the created hybrid but also of the church and culture that produce it. Practically, we will be able to appreciate new hybrid worship spaces and styles, while at the same time retaining a degree of respect for the antecedent traditions that give rise to them. It will require of us an understanding of tradition itself as a dynamic process, not a static body of practices or concepts. Hopefully, as we look to both church and theological academy in terms of the hybrid, we will be formed with historical humility and a deeper sense of our small place within the ongoing mystery of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.


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