Memory, Safety, Belonging, and Identity

We started with the assertion that Church and Web are perceived by many as Home, only to discover that interacting with Church and Web as Home leads to the realization that both experiences are so much larger and so much more the seat of adventure then we first dared to imagine.

The Odyssey  starts (as do so many great stories, including Lord of the Rings) at home.  Whether that home is Ithaca, or The Shire, it is (because it is home) the place where we first began to know ourselves.  It is the place where we developed memory, safety, belonging, and identity. It is also the place where we began to suspect that there exists a wider world.  As we grew, we learned that the road from our front door also connected us with adventure, battle, and great forces quite outside of our control – yet we could play a role in them, no matter how small we are or our insignificant our home was.

For many currently in the Episcopal Church, home is the church.  It is the one enduring place of memory, safety, belonging, and identity that has endured all of the changes witnessed by those who lived through the second half of the 20th century.  

For many who are not currently in the Episcopal Church and who were born sometime after, say, 1980, home is conditioned by and experienced through the state of being connected to a social reality that exists online. Memory, safety, belonging, and identity weave in and out of physical reality until the difference becomes cumbersome – home is where your friends are – yet many have ‘best friends’ they have never met.

Church is more than home.  It contains its own memory, for it is older by far than any collective memory… it is older than every spoken western language, older even then our political structures themselves.  As we speak the liturgy, it speaks back to us with the sacramental rhythms of Baptism and Eucharist, of Easter and Christmas. As we perform again these ancient rituals each new year, they in turn describe our lives in ancient symbols of bread and wine, oil and water, light and shadow – collapsing in on itself the mighty arc of history even as they point to the one in whom time itself is fulfilled and through whose acts in the world we ourselves shall be brought up into the wedding feast of the lamb – and so the ancient ritual becomes at once a promise, and a partaking in, and a memory re-lived each Sunday.  

It forms therefore an identity that exists primarily in the experience of community brought together in worship.  This experience expects God in Christ not to create new things, but to renew all created things. It expects the brokenness of the world to be put back together — not just at the end, but also in the actual transaction with reality that is our very lives.  This expectation, this hope, guides and nourishes us, providing us with belonging and identity.  Yet, we experience hope differently than how Frodo  or Odysseus experienced it.  

For them, whether on the long journey to the Mount of Doom or being stuck with Circe unable to escape, hope is the ‘light in a dark place where all other lights have gone out’.  It is the mechanism by which home is remembered, and are given the strength and clarity to complete the journey so that they can come back home.  For us, in church, hope is an expectation that happens in the midst of home. It is the mechanism that promises, through our experience of community brought together in worship, that both home and world shall be transformed, and that “the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.”  

Web is more than home.  It is the single largest compilation of human knowledge in the history of our species.  It is also the primary vehicle of transit for world commerce. And, at the same time, an experiment in largely unfettered human social connection and speech at a scale never before seen or imagined.  It serves the contradictory role of ‘public square’ in a fractured global society where, in Yeat’s language, “the center cannot hold”.

It forms an identity that exists primarily in the dislocated and dislocating experience of severing the connection between speaker and word, between action, and person.    H. G. Well’s Invisible Man has become all of us.  We read and talk and engage in transactions with reality online, yet it is not clear that the words being spoken are spoken by the person they claim to be.  One could of course, say that social profiles on something like Instagram or FB are the exception. Indeed, half the global population has one, and most of them probably are who they claim.  Yet, what shows up on the feed? Do we see organic updates of friends, or posts that have been paid for by entities with a reach we can only barely begin to grasp? The reality with which we transact is one in which we (the ones who own and maintain social profiles) share words spoken by large influencers with whom we agree.  We (the non influencers) determine then our friend group based off of things like, “I can’t believe you posted that from them!” and “Yes, I agree, I’ll also share that”.  Our circles shrink as we ‘dig in’ – and so our reach shrinks as well.  

This dichotomy between influencers who produce content and sharers who share content all takes place in an ecosystem which works because it can harvest the data gained from every share.  The sharers become the raw material which is sold in the form of adds to influencers.  This selling makes influencers wealthy if they also sell a product, but it makes the ecosystem itself (Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc) wealthy beyond imagination or comparison.  

The Web as it currently exists, monetizes human interaction, and treats humans as raw data points, as raw material.  We sharers create and name our identity by what we share, and reactions of others to this sharing and liking give us a sense of belonging.  We remember what works for us and what doesn’t. Web becomes woven into our sense of Home.  

We started with the assertion that Church and Web are perceived by many as Home, only to discover that interacting with Church and Web as Home leads to the realization that both experiences are so much larger and so much more the seat of adventure then we first dared to imagine.

Frodo comes back to The Shire (at least in the books) and finds it polluted by the evil forces still represented by Saruman.  Odysseus comes back to Ithaca, to find it polluted by dozens of suiters, aggressively trying to make it their own.  The stories aren’t over until Home is restored.  The journey gives our heroes the strength to restore home to “how it should be” yet is is never “what it was” – the journey changes the hero, and therefore also changes the experience of HomeHome becomes re-created by the hero not, as it was, but as it should be – as a reflection of adventure that took place outside of home.

We come back to Church and find, not the purity of youth, nor the wealth of the sacraments, but the convoluted politics of navigating future identity.  We come back to Web, and find, not the purity of youth, nor the joy of first friendships and identity expressed and explored through ever changing statuses, but the global reach and market power of influencers and multi channel omnipresent content domination expressed through the power of brand identity.  

There is, then, a felt loss of home that is a shared experience.  Frodo and Achilles are angry, and so are we. 

We are all, (both those who identify Church as Home and those who identify Web as home) in the remarkably uncomfortable position of realizing that our home has changed. Much to our surprise, and unlike Oddyseus and Frodo, home didn’t change while we were away. In fact, in many ways, this change of home is our adventure. 

Home will never be the same for either of us.  So what do we do about it? Odysseus leaves Ithaca to Telemachos, and Frodo departs and leaves the rest of the book for Sam to finish. Part of the experience of those who were born in the second half of the 20th century and consider the Episcopal Church home is mirrored by this final farewell.  

This, then, is where we find ourselves. There is a shared experience of loss of home by both groups of generations – even though the way home is experienced is different. The generation that has not yet departed on their final journey but is aware of a time limit carries with them the grief of leaving their Ithaca, their Shire, to a generation that identifies home in a different place then they did. There isn’t a shared sense of memory, safety, belonging, and identity. The desire to ‘pass on’ what they’ve built and loved and fought for mixes with this grief. The feeling is one of departing from this world leaving behind a home that, while treasured, is no longer relevant, asked for, or valued.

The generation that was born after the 1980’s and identifies the Web as Home, carries with them the grief of loving the Church, but not being able to express or engage in discourse about it in their own native language. For those in this generation who also view the Church as home, we feel the noble helplessness of Telemachos who embarked on a hopeless journey to find his father.  The feeling is that this beautiful church with its insistence on welcoming all, may not, institutionally, be ‘for us’, after all. Unable to use its voice to share our love with our colleagues, we are left with a choice – embark on a journey to recover our tradition in our voice with no hope of success, or finally let go, and discover a new home.    

I’m not trying to resolve the tension. The way that the generation born after the 1980’s interacts with reality is not superficially different from the generation that preceded it. Rather, a whole new pattern of belonging, and identity, (and therefore safety, and even memory) was created through the use of the Web, and later, of Social Media. 

The next article attempts to layout a framework for how Web and Church can intersect. It tries to hold this tension without resolution, while also indicating how we may all, together, conceive of a future that honors both realities.

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