The Digital Question and the Corporeal Turn

Karen ODonnell's picture

The realm of the digital has crept into almost every area of human existence. It is no surprise, therefore, to find it intersecting with issues, questions, and experiences of spirituality and religion in the 21st Century. Thinking about the digital in the context of religion means that theologians have to think again about the body and the embodied experience of faith and spirituality. When much of our engagement with the digital takes place in a space that is created by humans, and this engagement appears to be purely cerebral, what is the relationship between the person and their human body? When the digital is so closely linked to the human body that it is integrated within it, what does it mean for Christians to claim that humans are made in the image of God?

Considering the digital in this context raises the question of whether we are disembodied when we engage with the digital. The vicious presence of trolls in cyberspace would seem to indicate that our embodied humanity is easily forgotten in such contexts. Indeed, some Christians have raised concerns about the lack of embodiment in digital spaces; for example, David Kelsey argued that theological education for ministry shouldn’t take place online because such education did not treat the person as a whole spiritual being. The intersection of the digital with religion reminds Christians that the biblical texts do not support a Cartesian dualistic view of the person. Rather, these texts point theologians towards a much more embodied, holistic perspective on the person who is body and soul, but self-perceives as a whole being. Of course, we are embodied in digital spaces; perhaps the problem is that this embodiment looks different in the digital?

If we resist a virtual/real binary, acknowledging that humans do not tend to perceive of living their lives moving between two realms, then it makes more sense to think of the digital as something that augments reality. This is particularly interesting in the context of spirituality and religion, which are in themselves augmenters of reality. The Catholic, for example, looks up at the altar during the celebration of mass and sees a man holding up a small white wafer. But faith augments this reality so that they also see the priest holding aloft the Body of Christ. Similarly, Donna Harraway’s work on cyborgs as hybrid beings that muddle the boundaries between nature and culture, between machine and body, challenges ideas of the ‘normal’ human body. So theologians have returned to the issue of the incarnation where Jesus takes the form of a thoroughly human and entirely divine being, one that also challenged boundaries and concepts of normality. Digital and virtual technologies have offered new languages and metaphors for thinking about spirituality and religion.

CODEC, the research centre for Digital Theology at Durham University, has just launched a Master’s degree in Digital Theology giving students the opportunity to engage with these kinds of questions, and many others. Considering these questions is an exciting and open task in the field of contextual and constructive theology. It is, to some extent, unchartered territory—no one quite knows what theological answers look like when they are focused on digital spaces. Digital Theologians, at the moment, are mapping the landscape for the first time.