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Are the body and blood of Christ literally present in the Eucharist? Are the elements of the Lord’s Supper purely symbolic? And what on earth do these questions have to do with Facebook, Twitter, and the experience of community on the internet?
If you know anything about the differences between Catholics and Protestants, you know that a central point of disagreement revolves around the “real presence of Christ” in the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eucharist) On the one hand, we Catholics believe that the actual “body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus” are literally — albeit mysteriously — present under the appearance of bread and the wine. On the other hand, Protestants, to a lesser or greater degree, believe that the bread and wine (or grape juice, as the teetotaling Baptist’s case may be) are purely symbolic, meant to remind the faithful that Christ’s body was broken and his blood shed on their behalf.
To put it simply, Catholics believe the Eucharist is Jesus. Protestants believe that it points to him.
What does this have to do with the social networking age in which we live, where we add friends on Facebook and tweet on Twitter about the personal details of our day?
We ought to remember that, if confined to the realm of cyberspace, we will never experience community itself, but only something that — no matter how pleasant and enjoyable — only points to it. The experience of community on the internet can only ever be “Protestant” — never “Catholic.” This is because it can never provide the one indispensable quality necessary for full communion between two human beings: real presence.
Unless you are an ardent atheist, most people recognize that a human being is a unity of two things: a soul and a body. Those things that are bound up in our souls — our will, our thoughts, our emotions — can be expressed online (to a great and wonderful degree) through the text of a blog or tweet, for instance, or by sharing a link to a favorite site or piece of multimedia.
But what is also an essential part of your humanity — your body, your very flesh and blood, that person that occupies real space and time, your “real presence” — can never be uploaded onto the web. So, as meaningful as online friendships and social network-based community may be, it will always be part of one person relating to part of another. It will always point to full and authentic community, and never be the thing itself.
This is not to say that relationships forged through Facebook or Twitter or some other social networking site are wholly bad. They are bad if they are wholly relied upon for friendship and community, because they can never wholly provide those things. If your whole social experience as a human being is on the web, you will only exercise “half” of your humanity, and something very holy about what it means to be a human person will be lost.
In this age of social networking, prioritize the real presence of others. Schedule frequent visits to coffee shops and pubs. Join an (off-line!) book club. Go to a church and sing together with a congregation. While you are waiting for a doctor’s appointment, or for your car to get fixed, engage a total stranger in meaningful conversation. Begin and build friendships with people who you can reach out and touch.
A Protestant friend once told the great Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor that the Eucharist was “just a symbol. Nothing more.” To which the feisty O’Connor famously replied: “Well, if it’s just a symbol, to hell with it!”
If you are prioritizing the Internet for your experience of friendship and community, O’Connor’s sentiment should be your own.
Vaughn Kohler is a former Baptist pastor who entered the Catholic Church at 2011’s Easter vigil. Currently the social-media specialist at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, Mr. Kohler is completing an M.A. in English from Kansas State University.