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The Eternal, the Ephemeral, and the Political

by David Romanik

At a recent meeting, the Vestry was discussing the future of online worship at Heavenly Rest. The general consensus was that, while broadcasting worship online was a necessity created by the COVID-19 pandemic, streaming is likely to be an important part of our common life even after a vaccine becomes widely available. As a result, the Vestry has been exploring the possibility of investing in new streaming equipment, which will improve the “production values” of our broadcast and make it possible for more members of the parish to be involved in the livestreaming process. As we discussed what this investment might look like, one member of the Vestry asked our Director of Communications how long the equipment we purchase might last. “Well, we take good care of things around here,” Blaine mused, “so I would say at least seven years.” We all laughed, in part because seven years does not feel like very much time at all, and in part because we knew that he was probably being optimistic. Indeed, technology advances at a rate that can be difficult to keep up with. The fancy new phone we acquire is usually rendered obsolete within a few months. Digital technology is, by its very nature, ephemeral: designed to be replaced as soon as something better comes along.

The more I have reflected on this conversation, the more I have wondered how the ephemeral nature of technology has impacted our experience of the Church over the past few months. Several members of the parish have expressed that they are tired of online worship, but are not yet comfortable with the idea of returning to church in person. I am sympathetic to this dilemma. On one level, I think that many of us are simply overwhelmed with screens these days. Researchers, after all, have discovered that excessive screen time can have deleterious effects on both our mental and physical health. I wonder, however, if there is a deeper reason that online worship is not fulfilling everyone’s needs. In the Church, one of our primary objectives is to help people “hold in mind eternity”: to help them look beyond their parochial interests and acknowledge the ultimate reality at the heart of creation. Throughout history, the Church has discovered and honed many strategies to accomplish this goal: employing liturgy, architecture, music, and other tools to point people to the divine. Our reliance on digital technology over the last six months, however, has forced us to express that which transcends time and space with a medium destined for replacement. I do not mean to suggest that our efforts to make worship available online are not worthwhile or necessary. Rather, I think it is important to acknowledge that, since March, we have been attempting to confine the eternal within the ephemeral.

It occurs to me that this is at least part of the reason that our political culture has become so intolerable in recent years: we’ve lost the ability to distinguish between the eternal and the ephemeral. During the Second World War, C.S. Lewis challenged his readers to put the war in its proper perspective: to acknowledge that, however calamitous the events surrounding us may be, they are secondary to the future that we have in eternity. It’s hard to know how effective Lewis’s argument was, but his point remains valid. We have gotten to a point where we assume that our political choices (and those of the people around us) make determinative statements about who we are and who we will be. Our call as Christians is to put these political decisions in the proper perspective. We have to resist the urge to confine eternal questions of meaning within the ephemeral preoccupations of politics. Now, I don’t mean to imply for a moment that it does not matter who or what we vote for. We are called to discern ways to engage faithfully with the world around us. As we make decisions about the future of our country, however, we must “hold in mind eternity”: remembering that each and every person, no matter who they vote for, is created in the image of God.

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