A few years ago our family spent Christmas in a ski resort in Canada. It was magical. At night, lights sparkled out of a brilliant white backdrop. For us Australians used to doggedly clinging to Yuletide traditions despite baking summer heat, this was a moment when, at long last, the turkey, warm pudding and brandy custard all made sense.
Friends from the US joined us for the Christmas week with their four kids, and a relationship that had for years been carried out via phone, text, email and WhatsApp suddenly entered physical space and time. There were hugs, kisses, back slaps, handshakes and high-fives. We shared the thrilling icy cold of winter mountain air and the enveloping warmth of post-skiing meals, games, laughter, songs and some tears.
The experience highlighted what a poor substitute our online interactions had been when compared with being in the same room together. There is something essential to being human that’s related to physical presence and proximity. Touch, smell and texture really matter.
Or do they? Technology’s promise that we break free of the limitations of physical space and enter realms such as Facebook’s “metaverse” offers some intoxicating possibilities.
A year ago, at the launch of Meta, Mark Zuckerberg’s video presentation with the promise of “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience not just looking at it” felt as optimistic as it was mind-bending.
Scattered through the presentation, without any sense of irony, were references to “presence” and connections that, compared with our mundane 2D online existence, were “more natural and vivid”. Even if Zuckerberg’s vision eventually becomes a reality, we won’t, of course, actually be present together and it will be anything but natural. Yet Zuckerberg, and others like him, are determinedly positive about what technological marvels lie ahead of us.
In the year since that grand announcement, Meta’s stocks have plummeted almost 60 per cent and rumours of disquiet within the company may be a sign, even at this early stage, of just how challenging it is to make the utopian “virtual dream” a reality.
It’s the dream of the ancient Gnostics, and their modern offspring, the transhumanists: to escape our pesky bodies and our physical reality as these are considered limitations to be superseded and overcome.
In stark opposition to all this is the equally ancient and relentlessly physical Christmas story that, as philosopher Christopher Watkin quips, has God descending to us while today, “the modern world passes him on the way up, scrambling and straining to leave our own miserable bodies behind as we enter Zuckerberg’s proprietary paradise”.
An obvious further irony is that the Christian church across history has at times been deeply uncomfortable with the material realities of life: squeamish about the human body, nervous about art, food, pleasure. But it shouldn’t be.
The Bible from the beginning is radically positive about physical creation and, in a direct and conspicuous challenge to other creation stories of surrounding cultures and philosophies, declares it to be “very good”.
When you get to the Gospels, the events of the first Christmas entail the embodiment of a God who finds a way to engage humanity in the most earthy, physical, intimate way imaginable. God himself becomes a living, breathing, sweating person who gets tired and hungry and laughs and cries real tears; a truly human body that’s fragile and gets puffed walking up hills and bleeds when cut or pierced. It’s the most astonishing identification with human fallibility.
Fourth-century philosopher St Augustine recognised the profound significance of this incarnation and what it tells us about ourselves. According to him, our bodies are “not an ornament, or employed as an external aid” but rather are essential to our very natures.
In other words, we don’t just have bodies, we are bodies, with all the wonder and fragility that entails. If that is so, instead of seeking to escape our fleshly realities, we might recognise the miracle of embodied existence, and work hard to find ways for our technology to make us more, rather than less, human.
Perhaps it’s a kind of restlessness and dissatisfaction with ordinary lived reality that drives us towards something like the metaverse, signalling, as writer Andy Crouch suggests, that “our capacity for wonder and delight, contemplation and attention, real play and fruitful work, has been dangerously depleted”.
But the notion of the baby in the manger, as not merely a messenger from God but God himself, offers an insight into who we are that embraces and dizzyingly elevates ordinary human existence. It’s a surprisingly orientating alternative for those feeling a nagging sense of unease as we rush towards a virtual reality. A flicker of light and hope wrapped in human vulnerability, physicality, and a blanket.
Simon Smart is executive director of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.