Conference Presentation: Virtual Symphony and Virtual Church: Considering the Importance of Bodily Presence

I had the opportunity to present a presentation titled, “Virtual Symphony and Virtual Church: Considering the Importance of Bodily Presence” at the virtual 2021 Psychology and the Other Conference on September 19, 2021.

Here is my short summary and longer abstract:

Short Summary

This paper weighs in on the question of virtual church, particularly on whether or not liturgy can be done virtually. We will approach our subject from an unusual perspective by looking first to aesthetic experiences, such as watching a virtual symphony, and then relate them to liturgical experiences, such as attending virtual church. Art and liturgy are linked in that they both have the unique ability to facilitate presence, to make something known to us in a new way so that we walk away changed. I argue that what art teaches us about the importance of the body applies to the practice of liturgy and that, while unexpected benefits will surface in virtual settings, nothing replaces the powerful experiences that arise when the body is physically present.

Longer Abstract

No one will deny that there is a substantial difference between meeting in person and meeting virtually. Now, more than ever due to the covid crisis, we have experienced virtual gatherings in almost every sphere of our lives. For religious gatherings, these types of discussions have been of critical importance, sometimes causing great tension and conflict between members of the same communities. This paper weighs in on the question of virtual church, particularly on whether or not liturgy can be done virtually. We will approach our subject from a somewhat unusual perspective by looking first to aesthetic experiences, such as watching a virtual symphony, and then relate them to liturgical experiences, such as attending virtual church. Art and liturgy are linked in that they both have the unique ability to facilitate presence, to make something known to us in a new way so that we walk away changed. I argue that what art teaches us about the significance of the physical closeness of the human applies to the practice of liturgy and that, while unexpected benefits will surface in virtual settings, nothing replaces the powerful experiences that arise when the body is physically present.

Beginning with art, we consider aesthetic experiences such as viewing a photo of a painting or listening to a music recording or attending a virtual symphony. Drawing on Mikel Dufrenne, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Gabriel Marcel, we explore how art has a way of pulling us beyond the constraints of space and time in order to experience presence. And yet, the most powerful moments of presence are when the body is at the same place and in the same time as the work of art, such as discovering the original painting at a museum or attending an in person symphony. 

Next, I consider the weight of the body in experiences of presence in liturgical practices, both in person and virtual, guided again by Gabriel Marcel as well as Bruce Ellis Benson, Emmanuel Falque, Christina Gschwandtner and Éric Palazzo. Considering liturgy as both what happens in worship gatherings and in daily life, we will discuss three aspects of liturgy to understand the role of presence in its practices: liturgy as art, liturgy as bodily, and liturgy as communal. We find that liturgy as art draws us into worshipping and into shaping our souls, liturgy engages all five senses of the body and liturgy lives only in communal settings. I will relate this three-part understanding of liturgy to virtual and non-virtual experiences and argue that a full experience of liturgy must include the bodily presence of the self and others.

Applying the insights from aesthetic experiences to liturgical experiences, we discover the importance of bodily presence in all areas of life. This discovery, ultimately, provides further validation to treating humans as undivided wholes, with full integration of mental and physical capacities, and awakens us to the deep experiences of presence that we have available when we are fully engaged.