Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Virtual Presence

One of Cezanne's paintings of Mount St Victoire

I have finished the lectures on the course “Foundations for Theology” on Saturday May 30th that I had planned to give for the Master of Theology students at Zaporozhye Bible Seminary in Zaporozhye, Ukraine.  I taught two hours M-Th last week (0900-1100 CET) and three hours F & Sat (0900-1200) virtually using Zoom video conferencing.  It was a total of 12 clock hours or 14 class hours (50”).  There were also some days of an extra hour of questions and answers.

The students must read now about 400 pages (a lot of articles and one book).  They must keep a notebook about the various required readings (4 pp. or 1000 words) and write a Response Paper on the one book (of two) that they choose (4 pp. or 1000 words).  They must also write a 6 pp. or 1500 word Research Paper on a topic they have chosen.

At some point in mid to late July or early August they must turn in these assignments and I must grade them.  They will be in type written Russian, which I can read.

I have taught this course three times now at or for ZBS.  (I also just finished teaching it at Tyndale this semester, the second half all online.) The PowerPoints for the lectures, which have been translated from English to Russian, have been improved each time, eliminating mistakes and poor translations of specific theological or philosophical terms.  It is challenging for interpreters and translators to deal with philosophical English.  I’m glad, though, that gradually these PowerPoints are being improved. Perhaps I can teach this course at ZBS one more time before I retire (and maybe once after I “retire”).  My translator this time, Vadim Biriukov, the Dean of Students at ZBS, was excellent.  My former Tyndale students, Nadiya Tykhovod and Alyona Gurskaya Leewestein, as well as a ZBS translator, Nadiya Gnilitskaya, have been a great help through the years at translating the PowerPoints and interpreting for me.

This time as I was working on various things: correcting and revising the syllabus and PowerPoints, I realized that Google Translate has come a long way.  I don’t think I thought of using it in 2012 when I first started to teach at Zaporozhye.  I am able now to drop about 2000 words or so into Google Translate and the translation is passable and easily improved or corrected.

When I was doing my MA and PhD in Leuven, Belgium (1995-2000) I knew a person who became the head of the Royal Translation Institute in Brussels.  She told me that they used “mechanical translators” (programs) to do translation and that they were 60% accurate and saved the human translator hours of work.  I know they used ABBYY Lingvo software at ZBS at one point.  Now Google Translate seems a great option, since it is free and relatively correct.  The disadvantage is that my Russian becomes even more passive.

All in all though the class times were good.  I still have some trouble with using Zoom while showing my PowerPoints. I can’t really see the students and it’s hard to know what they are understanding.  Using the “hand raising” function and the Chat they could ask questions but I had a hard time being slowed down. I work from notes, not a full manuscript.  I have to compose the sentences in my head as I teach from the notes (and this time the PowerPoints were in Russian while I am speaking in English).  When I am interrupted I lose my place and become frustrated.

I can watch people’s faces in the classroom.  I can see their eyes glaze. Then I can stop and rephrase or tell a story to illustrate a point.  Sometimes people ask “irrelevant” questions. Something seems pertinent to them, but they aren’t following my explanations.  It is “free association.”  It’s easier to adjust when we are all in the same room.

Perhaps you remember the Big Bang Theory episode where Sheldon decides that he is safer in bed than among people. So, he creates a “virtual presence,” a motorized “body” with monitor showing his face and allowing him to talk and interact with people.  It’s an irritant to his roommate and friends.  Then in a restaurant he runs into Steve Wozniak, an Apple founder.  He wants a signature, but can’t get it “virtually.” He quickly leaves his bedroom and travels to see Wozniak.  In this instance a virtual presence just wouldn’t do.

I am so happy that I am married and that my wife loves me (despite my irritating habits and foibles).  A “virtual presence” is not sufficient for loving relationships.

We love our students here in the Netherlands at Tyndale and in Zaporozhye at the Zaporozhye Bible Seminary, but virtual presence just doesn’t cut it.  We were created to hug one another.  We were created to hear sine waves for voices not square waves.  We were designed to see colors in a greater range than a monitor can manage, even greater than HD flat screens.

Both Tyndale and Zaporozhye are seminaries.  Here in the Netherlands when someone thinks of a seminary they think of a Roman Catholic training schools for priests.  Protestants in the Netherlands started universities.

However seminary is still the best word.  Seminary means a hot house or a green house.  We are training people in a different sort of environment than a university.  At a university if you don’t show up for class, your grade suffers. This is true also at Tyndale, but when a student doesn’t show up everyone suffers because the discussion is weaker, poorer for fewer people.  

In both seminaries we worship and pray together. We aren’t churches. We don’t have church official leaders.  We are separate, but we are a community in a way that a university class is not.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ, fathers and mothers and children in Christ.  Our goals are not merely intellectual, but practical.  We want our graduates to be well-rounded people with a complete set of ministry skills. We are a “higher professional education” school like a polytechnical college or a dental school, not a university. Our students are being prepared for ministry, not merely given a set of skills to find a job.  We also disciple them while they are in our seminary.  Their spiritual growth is also important to us, perhaps as important as any skills they learn. 

I studied some of the writings of the French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, when I was studying in Leuven, Belgium for my MA in philosophy.  Merleau-Ponty eschewed the rise of impersonal technology over more human interaction.  Merleau-Ponty advocated the sort of vision and interaction a painter, like Cezanne, had with the objects he painted. Perhaps Merleau-Ponty went too far, but he spoke of Cezanne seeing the mountain (Mount St. Victoire, which he painted dozens of times) and the mountain seeing the painter and drawing or painting through his hands.  

I don’t think Merleau-Ponty means to support the idea of panentheism, that we are part of nature and nature is a part of us, a sort of complex pantheism.  Rather he is speaking against a sort of technological viewing that loses sight of human interaction. He may have been right.  Turning people into “populations” and men into “fighting units” allowed two world wars to start in Europe.  Seeing armed forces as numbers of tanks, planes and ships meant that it was easier to forget the number of men who were in each of those vessels being destroyed.

Merleau-Ponty was not speaking against technology per se.  He was speaking against a way of seeing that was dehumanizing, which also denuded nature.  He was speaking against a way of looking at nature which turned it into something to be used (and abused).  

Merleau-Ponty asks us to see the wonder of nature as if we were children.  The earth is not merely so much dirt to be moved and so many diamonds or so much gold to be extracted.  It is a milieu in which we live, move and have our being.  

The world has been prepared for us.  The world receives us. It is not a neutral entity which we should manipulate.

In the movie “Avatar” Jake Sully in his avatar body tries to speak to the goddess, Eywa, or world soul of the planet, Pandora.  Jake asks Eywa to look into the memories of a recently deceased friend and see what sort of world the “sky people,” the humans come to Pandora, had left behind, what they had done to their planet.  “There is no green there.  They will destroy this place just as they destroyed their own world.”
I am not advocating the panentheism of the film.  However, Jake Sully’s comments are too true.  We have viewed the earth as a resource to be plundered.  Strip mines scar our lands.  

Also we see other people as “assets” or “human resources.” I remember once some years ago reacting very viscerally to the idea that I was a “human resource.” I understand what those well-intended business people meant by the term.  However, I am not a “human resource.” I am a person created in God’s image with an eternal destiny.  Particularly in ministry and missions we are people who have been called by God into specific positions and functions.  We are not merely employees helping to increase the bottom line. Whether I am “productive” or whether I am senile, God loves me and his image in me doesn’t go away.

Merleau-Ponty wants us to consider this world we are in as a place which has been made for us. As Christians we agree. God created the world and then the pinnacle of creation was humankind, man and woman.  God created the world and the diversity of life, flora and fauna, for the sake of humankind.  

Many, who are atheists or secularists, will eschew this view.  People like Peter Singer excoriate it.  “the life of a newborn [human] is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”

However, Merleau-Ponty saw things differently.  We must give up “technological sight.” We must see the world as Cezanne did, full of wonder and ever changing, fascinating and in a sense magical.  Most of all we should see that the world was given to us and for us and we are given to the world and for the world.

Merleau-Ponty tries to explain this idea using the phrase, “The Flesh of the World.”  I don’t believe he means the world is alive in the sense which medieval philosophers thought.  He is not arguing for hylozoism, the idea that everything is alive.  Rather he is emphasizing that the world is in a way like a womb, which is there for our nurturing, and like the family and community we are born into. We don’t ask for it, but it is there and it receives us.

In my lectures for the course, “Foundations for Theology,” covering David K. Clark’s book, To know and love God, Clark speaks of what the true church is: a community. The New Testament Greek word is koinonia. The church is meant to be a community gathered.

Sometimes we are, most of the week we are, actually the community scattered.  We don’t see each other sometimes for the rest of the week. But when we gather on Sunday it is more than just singing hymns or worship songs, saying a liturgy or praying prayers, it is a family, a community gathering.

Gathering virtually just doesn’t satisfy me.  Sorry, this is how I feel.  Our ministers are doing a wonderful job providing a worship service each week.  They have also been providing prayer times for those interested three mornings a week and three evenings a week.

I think of those who have no spouse and have been stuck working from home.  Most of the time I have been so busy learning new technology and spending extra time preparing for classes that I have been disconnected from those folks.

Our ministers in our local church here have gone the extra mile to arrange to have members deliver flowers or send cards or do online Bible study or theology sessions.  It is wonderful.  They are wonderful. But for me, sorry, virtual church is still unsatisfying.  Our ministers are amazing. They are doing the best that can be done.  They are going far beyond the call of duty.

We were meant, however, to see each other, to hear each other, to be able to hug and shake hands.  I’m not saying we should defy sound medical advice to avoid contagion.  I’m saying this temporary quarantine is not what God meant for us.  

It is a result of the Fall into sin.  We still live in a sin ridden world.  Things are not, even on good days, as they were meant to be.

Adam and Eve caused a lot of damage.  The earth, which had been prepared for them, was given over to a curse to work against them. Death and disease became our normal.

One day, though, our “quarantine” will end.  One day our savior Jesus will return and he will recreate the New Heavens and the New Earth.  We will not be disembodied spirits then, but rather we shall continue to be embodied individuals who are then all that we were meant to be.

Then we will never again treat others as a means to an end, but all as ends in themselves. Then we will no longer view people as “human resources” or the world as a “renewable resource,” but as our family and as our home

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