In the first, surreal weeks of the lockdowns of 2020, we all marveled at how COVID had hit at just the right time. Thanks to our Silicon Valley saviors, we had the perfect technologies to shift all “nonessential” activities and gatherings into virtual space. Zoom, which few of us had heard of in 2019, became the defining app of the COVID era. We may wonder whether COVID would have occasioned such social disruptions if these technologies had not existed; sometimes I think this all happened because it could happen. How quickly, how easily the routines of everyday life were reborn as screen time—learning, playing, exercising, shopping, even worship. Different churches went online in different ways, with different degrees of technological investment and sophistication. In the urgency of the moment there was little opportunity for reflection on an important question: Is worshiping in virtual church good enough? Or does the shift from physical to virtual presence exact a spiritual price?
These questions became vivid to me when I faced the sudden loss of my church community. I had recently left an extremely liberal post-Christian congregation and converted to Orthodox Christianity. This is not a common or an easy journey; in theology, practice, and culture, these two communities are about as far apart as they can be. But my recent conversion meant that I was in a position to observe two very different responses to the disruption of worship routines. At my Orthodox church—I’ll call it Saint Jerome—the priest propped his phone on an easel and began streaming services on Facebook. The delivery was novel, but the services were the same as ever, done in the same manner, in the same place. My former congregation—I’ll call it City Fellowship—took an approach that suggested a more definitive cleavage between pre-COVID worship and the pandemic accommodation. Like many other liberal religious communities, City Fellowship moved to Zoom.
Zoom versus Facebook, Orthodox versus liberal: The question whether virtual church was good enough depended a lot on which church was asking. The congregants of City Fellowship loved their virtual services; the parishioners of Saint Jerome, not so much. The difference arose not just from different degrees of comfort with doing things online, or better or worse production values, or more or less bandwidth. It was about faith, about what a religious community believes it means to be human, to be a creature who worships. The implicitly gnostic faith at City Fellowship translated well into the Zoom environment. The sacramental faith at Saint Jerome did not find a satisfactory expression in virtual form. Others may have experienced it differently, but when I powered up my laptop, I struggled to feel that what I was doing had anything to do with worship.
Before COVID, Saint Jerome had never used technology to transmit services, nor had it used email newsletters or Facebook posts for regular church communications. If you wanted to participate, or even know what was going on, you had to come to the building. During lockdown, most of the regular liturgies and vigils continued to be served. Our priest encouraged the faithful to light candles, stand in our icon corners at home, and prayerfully attend the Facebook broadcasts. It was better than nothing, but it wasn’t enough. Parishioners literally pounded on the doors of the church building. A lucky few—choir members and servers—could be seen on the glitchy video feed. The rest of us had our noses pressed to the Facebook glass, only slightly warmed by the secondary glow of remote worship. Saint Jerome began returning to in-person services as soon as regulations eased, at the maximum permitted capacity (which for a time meant the congregation was split into alternate weeks). It would be many more months before we were permitted to kiss icons, or circulate freely, or assemble as a whole body, but I remember the relief of finally being back in the temple, surrounded by my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Things were very different over at City Fellowship. No one clamored to come back. There emerged a consensus that the Zoom services were good in themselves—so good that eighteen months passed before services returned to the sanctuary. In part this was because City Fellowship did technology much better than Saint Jerome. The worship team had years of experience streaming Sunday services on Facebook, and a well-developed virtual community that stayed connected with e-newsletters and social media. But streaming worship on Facebook during lockdown was not practical. The worship team lived in far-flung locations, and they concluded that government restrictions made it impossible to pursue any activity in the building intended for it. Zoom was, for City Fellowship as for so many schools and workplaces, the right technology at the right time—a way to bring together many people in different places in one virtual, interactive space.
The shift to Zoom required the professional worship team to reimagine the service for a novel platform. The virtual pulpit could shift from speaker to speaker in the Zoom windows. The musical portions—prologue, anthem, and so on—were performed in the musicians’ homes as solos and the occasional roommate duet. Group singing on Zoom is impossible, so the traditional unison hymns turned into sing-alongs at home—some joined, some didn’t. Meanwhile, the “chat” was used for sending messages of greeting, love, and appreciation throughout the service. The result was spontaneous and intimate, and when congregants turned on their cameras, there was a comforting sense of social connection, even if eye contact and conversation were impossible.
Saint Jerome never adapted its services for the Facebook livestream. Orthodox faith is stubbornly conservative; even COVID didn’t change that. The Orthodox hold to a firm insistence on hierarchies of authority. Doctrine and practice are established by Scripture and tradition; the roles and capacities of bishop, priest, deacon, and layperson are strictly delineated; and the order of the church is highly structured from the top down. Since it has little use for improvisation or interaction, there is a sense in which Orthodox worship streams quite well: What you see on Facebook is what you would see in person. Like TV and radio, Facebook livestreaming broadcasts from single sources to multiple destinations in one direction only. These technologies are not bad metaphors for the Orthodox faith: a transmission of doctrine and practice that is strictly governed by hierarchical relations of authority and tradition.
At City Fellowship, congregants bristle at the suggestion that they should recognize any authoritative hierarchy or tradition. Liberal religion emphasizes the prerogatives of individual conscience, and it promises an escape from the oppressive dogmas of the past. Zoom comports very well with this outlook. A Zoom call can take many shapes: one to many, many to many, one to one—a format that easily accommodates contemporary worship expectations that emphasize participation and interaction. The individual is supreme in Zoom space. Zoom shows up on the screen I choose. I choose the volume, how the screen looks, whether I place it on a table in my kitchen or prop it on my chest in bed. I’m free to do and be however I like. I don’t have to wash my face or get dressed. I don’t have to travel, I can bring my coffee or even my breakfast, I can pop out to check on the roast in the oven. It is mine, just for me. Zoom church is not chaos; there is an agenda, leadership, and a sense of order. But the livestream’s hierarchy is leveled. Zoom has no lectern or dais to give certain words or speakers priority over others. The current speaker gets the big window—if I choose “Speaker View.” Or I can toggle to “Gallery View” and make the speaker equal in size to all the other windows. No one, by virtue of title or experience or authority, has an absolute claim on my attention or consideration. Every voice, every proposition, every claim can be placed alongside every other, and the only absolute basis for acceptance or rejection is me: my conscience, my reason, which guides me to my version of truth. It feels democratic and egalitarian. (That it actually is neither is evident only in the case of disruption, disturbance, or dissent, when the “Host” restores order by muting or expelling the offender.) If I don’t like what I’m hearing, I can move my cursor to the bright red box that is on my screen at all times inviting me to “Leave Meeting.”
City Fellowship owns a beautiful, historic church building, which sat vacant for the duration. As a place to gather, the sanctuary was important; but when gathering was impossible or undesirable, the sanctuary disappeared. Zoom worked so well because holding services in the sanctuary had never added any specifically religious value or meaning—Sunday worship could just as well happen in a hotel lobby or a lakeside amphitheater. And when worship can happen anywhere, it can happen nowhere—hence, Zoom.
From the perspective of an Orthodox Christian, the liberal indifference to physical location and physical presence is almost incomprehensible. Orthodox sacraments emphasize the matter of creation: Through the consecrated oil of Chrismation or Holy Unction, the water of Baptism, the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we have direct contact with the Holy Spirit, with the Body of Christ. Nor is it just the sacraments that emphasize the connection between the physical and the spiritual in Orthodox practice.Anyone coming to an Orthodox service should be prepared for a physically demanding experience. Services are typically two hours or more, mostly standing, and during Lent include full-body prostrations that wouldn’t be out of place in a fitness routine. There is a lot of action in an Orthodox service in all seasons: bowing, making the sign of the cross, moving around the temple to light candles and venerate and kiss the icons. All the senses are engaged: the smell of incense, the glow of candles and gilded icons, the sounds of chanting and singing, the touch of the lips to kiss icons and the cross. The liturgy culminates in a big feast, the Eucharist—in eating and drinking, we “taste and see that the Lord is good.” We open our mouths and receive bread and wine that are Christ’s Body and Blood, to be tasted and swallowed and digested and molecularly incorporated into our own flesh, so that we are sanctified in our bodies. It’s not a metaphor. It really is Christ’s Body and Blood. And it really is ordinary bread and ordinary wine, the actual food that our bodies must have to stay alive. Our most intense communion with God happens in the act of eating and drinking. Communion happens only because we are our bodies.
The physicality of human beings as God’s creatures is the reason livestreaming finally fails as a substitute for Orthodox worship. If my couch is as good as a church pew, it can only be because my body doesn’t matter. All the physical artifacts that give color and specificity to a religious service—the candles, the pulpit, the sounds—are in the liberal context but metaphors for ideas, which exist independently of the artifacts. There is no reason to pound on the sanctuary doors and beg to be admitted. I can access all those ideas on my own, in my own space. Virtual church ministers to the spirit as if it were not in need of a body.
The magic of Zoom, in the darkest days of the pandemic, was that it seemed to provide all the benefits of social connection without the risk of physical contact. Other people’s bodies were “risky,” carriers of a lethal virus. We were lucky to have Zoom cocktail hours and birthday parties and anniversaries, to be “together at a distance.” To the extent that we accepted this strange practice, we colluded in the fiction that social connection need not involve our bodies. Many did not thrive in this novel environment. Lockdown’s effect on COVID is difficult to gauge; more certain has been the alarming rise in loneliness, alienation, and mental health disorders. Public health officials scratched their heads. But the problem was obvious to any reader of Genesis: We are created in the flesh. Trying to escape our bodies could only lead to psychic and spiritual disease. God calls to us in and through our bodies; only in and through our bodies can we find peace and wholeness with each other and with God.
Zoom is here to stay. It turns out that many people like not having to endure traffic or crowds, not having to wear anything more demanding than sweatpants, not having to interact with non-intimates. Churches in New York are open now, but many are struggling to draw their parishioners back into the temple. It has taken almost two years for city and business leaders in New York to begin advocating a full return to office life, and many Manhattan office buildings remain eerily empty. Ironically, tech companies—which enabled our disembodied new normal—were among the first to call for a return to the old normal, if only for their own employees. The chief executive of a cloud computing company explained: “We believe that being physically present with colleagues in an office can offer important opportunities for in-person interaction, collaboration, and connection that are important for the success of our company.”
Perhaps we should not be surprised that the tech savants whose business model depends on persuading us that we can escape the limits of the physical world should also possess a nuanced understanding of the power of coming together in the flesh. The difference, of course, is that Meta and Zoom can demand that their employees come to work; religious communities mostly don’t fire people who stop showing up. I’m not sure how religion can survive the temptation to disembodiment without an overt theology of the body and the physical world. In many passages in the Bible, God instructs his people to worship him in a particular way, in a particular place, with particular objects and substances. We overlook the specific and literal nature of these instructions at our peril. When worship takes the form of spectatorship, and sacred places and substances are reduced to metaphors, then we are bound to religious practice only by the fragile ties of habit, intention, and enjoyment. The promise of the Incarnation is the union of flesh and spirit, earth and heaven, the human and the divine. This is the truth of what we are as God’s creatures, body and soul at once. For the health and safety of our souls, we need to encounter God in the flesh, in our flesh. That is how we are made.
Samira Kawash is professor emerita at Rutgers University.