Real Presences


Fr. Victor Lee Austin, theologian in residence at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, has just issued a captivating book of short essays titled Priest in New York: Church, Street, and Theology. In one of the essays, he reflects on reconnecting with an old friend via the Internet.  It strikes him as “profoundly paradoxical . . . that social relationships could be created and fostered by a new thing that strips us of so many things that are personal.” And yet it happens. Filled with regret about some choices he made in their long-ago friendship, he meets the old friend, who starts laughing and reassures him: “Vic, it wasn’t like that at all.” And Father Austin asks:

Will it be like that on Judgment Day, I wonder. At the end of all things, will capital-G God be like some sort of capital-I Internet, connecting us back to all the people we’ve had dealings with, connecting us back with all the things we have done? Some of those encounters, I know, we’d rather not have. But will it be that when we finally meet with the people we have not done right by, and we start to stammer out our regrets, that their eyes will sparkle, and clear laughter will fill the air? That they will say to us, “But it wasn’t like that at all?” That we will discover that God has already changed everything into joy?

I am very taken with his idea of the Internet as a metaphor for God; the Internet is, after all, a purely spiritual realm, using rudimentary material elements to connect souls with each other — sometimes across vast distances — in the communion of shared meaning. The role of matter is, more and more, to serve the spirit (this has been the theme of some of George Gilder’s most interesting writing). This idea resonated with me especially strongly when, a few years ago, I bought an Encyclopaedia Britannica on CD-Rom, and marveled that this slim, near-weightless disc contained everything that 30-plus massive volumes had, and more; technology had transformed me into an information-carrying version of Lou Ferrigno. It further occurred to me that this CD encyclopedia offers a fruitful way to think of the Christian Eucharist. For many centuries, Christian denominations have fought over Christ’s presence in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper; to oversimplify, it usually comes down to an argument between “really real” or “merely symbolic.” As I viewed the Britannica articles on my laptop, I found myself asking, there’s no paper here — so is it still a “really present” encyclopedia? And yet: I couldn’t help noticing that everything that makes the encyclopedia an encyclopedia persists on the screen. “Real”? Or “symbolic”? Both: something different and yet exactly the same.

To return to Father Austin’s anecdote, it doesn’t explicitly mention cases in which real evils were done, where the persons affected were actually heartbroken, or worse; but that does not invalidate his point. In fact, it strengthens it: It is precisely because evils do exist that — we are assured — there needs to be, and is, a redemption.  Tears exist, else they could not be wiped away. But how they will be wiped away is a question beyond human understanding, beyond our current ability to fathom such concepts as personality and presence. In the sort of reality we are talking about here, we can have a longed-for reunion with our lost, closest friend — yet manage, somehow, to mistake him at first for a gardener. A real presence — new, and strange, but real; and of unimaginable sweetness. (Father Austin’s delightful book is available here.)

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