Invasion on the Empty Universals: TECHNOLOGY IN THE HOUSE OF GOD

Invasion on the Empty Universals: TECHNOLOGY IN THE HOUSE OF GOD

Devices such as iPads and e-readers are poised to take on a liturgical function — as objects from which Scripture and liturgical texts are read.

By Paul Malocha
December 2015

Paul Malocha is studying for a Masters in Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

Imagine you’re at Mass: The epistle has just been read and the deacon turns to receive a blessing from the priest. He then goes to the altar and picks up an object that he lofts over his head, and processes thus to the lectern. There he incenses and then reads the Gospel from the object while an altar boy standing by gently swings the thurible. After completing the proclamation, the deacon bends down to kiss the object: a seven-by-nine-inch iPad.

Any Catholic with a little sensibility would cringe to see such a thing. Yet in many parishes, computers already have accidental functions in the worship space (e.g., as a lighting control panel). And now, mobile Internet devices (including iPads and other e-readers) are poised to take on a liturgical function — as objects from which Scripture and liturgical texts are read.

Many think that the transition from printed material to e-readers is a natural step — even at Mass. After all, computers are the technology of our day, whereas leather-bound books were the technology of the fifteenth century. Indeed, there are already computer applications (apps) that arrange the daily propers and ordinaries, mitigating the need to search through physical books or to set ribbons. Moreover, Mass parts can change, necessitating even more elaborate page markers in printed books. The invocation of St. Joseph in the eucharistic prayers authorized by Pope Francis in May 2013, for instance, has required the insertion of hand-written notes into printed sacramentaries. Even without such changes, a priest who determines to use optional readings for a particular saint’s feast may leave Massgoers in the pews flipping through their missals in order to keep up. Web apps could, and in fact do, easily solve problems like these. With the help of a Wi-Fi system, Massgoers’ mobile devices could synchronize instantly to the correct readings upon entering the worship space.

Such an arrangement surely would be convenient. But with things liturgical, more than mere convenience must be in play. Of great importance is the symbolic meaning of objects that serve a primary role in the liturgy (e.g., the Lectionary). Liturgical objects derive their symbolic meaning from both their form and their conventional use. Thus, unlike a physical book, an e-reader or similar mobile device cannot serve as an apt symbol in the Christian liturgy. Nor is an e-reader neutral in this regard: Its symbolic import is mostly negative where the liturgy is concerned.

A computer is, of course, much more than a book. It is at once a way of producing, storing, and displaying data. Linked to the Internet, a computer becomes a portal to a vast world of images, sounds, and ideas — a world as varied and disorderly as human society itself. Complex equipment manages this world, making its sundry offerings immediately available to the portal. The portal — computer, laptop, e-reader, smartphone, etc. — is essentially undifferentiated by the data it stores or displays. The words on its screen are not bound to the device with any real permanence; they are stored in its memory and can be swept away with a few keystrokes. A computer is unattached to and (barring a serious “virus” or malfunction) unchanged by any specific data set; even more so a mobile Internet device, which displays externally stored data that may reside internally only for a moment. Like a television or telephone, a mobile device is animated by an external formal agent, in this case, the Internet.

Such objects are marked by what Aidan Nichols, O.P., calls “radical functionalism.” In his book Looking at the Liturgy (1996), Fr. Nichols applied this term to church architecture, noting how the rich symbolism that once spoke from every corner of the structure had been washed away in favor of generic space, creating “essentially an empty universal, determined only by the function occurring in it at some time.” The same fundamental problem characterizes mobile devices: They are “empty universals,” distinguished mainly by their active function. Like a rented hall where a church service occurs on Sunday and a PTA meeting on Wednesday, at best a tenuous connection exists between the electronic device and the data or images it displays.

A computer’s lack of differentiation with respect to data is problematic with regard to worship-space sanctity. This problem compounds with mobile devices. The Internet is profane, or worldly, and as such cannot be made holy — that is, holy in the Old Testament sense of “that which is set aside for God,” as opposed to holy as a substitute for virtuous, or as a trait of being itself (e.g., “all creation is sacred”). The Internet itself is not evil, but its very nature prohibits its being “set aside” because it is an undifferentiated conglomerate of innumerable things. Likewise mobile devices because their formal mover is the Internet. It is up to each individual user to separate the wheat from the chaff. Yes, we all must do this in the grind of the workaday world. But the Mass is supposed to be that setting apart, already achieved by the Church. With complete trust, we immerse ourselves in Christ-centered liturgy upon entering the worship space. Mass is no place to interact with the Internet or fiddle with a mobile device.

On this count, automatic synchronizing of one’s device to Mass parts via Wi-Fi perhaps scores a point: The user makes an election for something pertaining to the faith, and the device is in that sense limited. But the device is never really limited by such a choice because its intrinsic nature is not to be bound to any one set of data. It is a faux boundary, one that can be violated literally by lifting a finger.

By contrast, proper liturgical fixtures are truly oriented toward a single purpose and thereby emphasize the set-apart nature of liturgy. The Lectionary, with its red-leather covers, bound gilt pages, and wide silky ribbons, is completely tied to the liturgy and is out of place elsewhere. What would one do with a thurible except burn incense during liturgy? The same goes for special liturgical garments, furnishings, and fixtures.

In addition to having a specific function well understood by convention, a liturgical object ideally has an act identical to its liturgical function, making it iconic of a particular spiritual reality. Other things in the liturgy, such as bread, wine, water, and oil, are ordinary by nature but set aside by blessing and/or confection as a sacrament. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, “Water may signify both a cleansing by reason of its wetness, and refreshment by reason of its being cool; but when we say, ‘I baptize thee,’ it is clear that we use water in baptism in order to signify spiritual cleansing” (Summa Theologiae, III, q.60, a.6). Even though verbal designation is necessary for a sacrament (which was Aquinas’s point), a matter’s natural act is suggestive of the spiritual effect for which it is an instrumental cause. Water’s natural cleansing properties relate analogically to what happens to the soul in baptism.

Here an objection arises: Could an e-reader be similarly designated, not as matter for a sacrament, of course, but for service in the temple? Profane uses could be imagined for water, but water can also be designated as a sacramental and put into fonts so people can bless themselves as they enter or exit the worship space. The nature of an e-reader is similarly diverse; could a special blessing designate such a device for liturgical use only?

Not necessarily. The signifying form of holy water is determined not only by the blessing but also by its placement into a proper vessel. The form of the water becomes, in a sense, bound to its vessel. Placed in a font, water strongly signifies physical cleansing and thus spiritual blessing. Moreover, the preferred material of construction for a font — stone — harkens to the immovable finality of death, thus suggesting baptismal death and rebirth in Christ. And an e-reader? Even when situated in a dignified leather cover, its physical form is only minimally impacted. Once someone sees what is really inside, the cover looks more like a prop than something that binds the device’s internal form to a particular meaning. The device’s strong signification remains undifferentiation.

In fact, the e-reader is a sort of anti-sacramental symbol. At first blush, there may seem to be a compatibility in view of the fact that its differentiation derives from an external formal agent (the Internet). With the sacraments, the priest’s words are the instrumental cause of the sacrament’s form, while God Himself is the principal cause. Indeed, the principal cause is separate from the matter, except in the sacramental transaction. The e-reader, with its external formal agent that merely passes through for a momentary designated purpose, might, for example, be understood as a metaphor for the eucharistic bread. In its sacramental use, there is more than meets the eye in the accidents of bread — there is grace available to the recipient that originates from an unseen mover.

Bread is no “empty universal” — it is the specific matter designated by our Lord Himself for this purpose, and it also has natural connotations that suggest the spiritual act. Moreover, the sacramental grace it dispenses is not at the disposal either of the minister or the communicant. Quite the contrary: The minister and communicant are both servants of the principal agent. With an e-reader, on the other hand, the data it displays are completely at the disposal of the user (technical restrictions aside). Thus, as a metaphor, an e-reader is utterly inverted: Human will commands the forms that enter. The fact that it is animated by an external principal agent makes it in a sense a parody of the sacramental transaction, which is all the more troubling a thing to allow in sacred space.

A physical book, on the other hand, does make an excellent metaphor for spiritual truths and liturgy. This stems from the fact that a book’s particular matter is permanently tied to particular words. A book is a union of bound pages containing a fixed set of words that express specific ideas. Scripture can be printed in innumerable books, but it exists formally as part of each book per se. Therefore, every particular Bible or Lectionary has significance because it is permanently tied to Scripture. The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies such books as signs worthy of emphasis: “To nourish the faith of believers, the signs which accompany the Word of God should be emphasized…[including] the book of the Word (Lectionary or a book of the Gospels)” (no. 1154).

A book of Scripture symbolizes the eternal Word incarnate in the particular body of Jesus Christ, and by analogy it also symbolizes the Church, whose soul is the Holy Spirit. The Church is designated and particular. For this reason, the book of the Gospels is carried high overhead, incensed, and kissed. More than a symbol, it can even be called an icon of Christ and the Church. Pope St. John Paul II takes as an obvious fact the iconic nature of the physical written word in order to defend painted icons: “Just as the reading of material books allows the hearing of the living word of the Lord, so also the showing of the painted icon allows those who contemplate it to accede to the mystery of salvation by the sense of sight, ‘What on the one hand is represented by ink and paper is represented on the other hand in the icon, thanks to the various colors and other materials’” (Duodecimum Saeculum, 1987).

Though not a sacrament in the strict sense, the written Scripture is an instantiation of the exitus — God’s going out to man. The traditional arrangement of reading Scripture at the altar thus reinforces the substantive exitus of the eucharistic sacrifice, where perfect being, perfect truth comes forth to the faithful.

Indeed, truth itself is traditionally understood as a unity of mind with thing, with being. But, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger lays out in his book Introduction to Christianity (1968), modern thinking, with its abandonment of metaphysics, turned first to man’s own creations as truth, because it was supposed that man could know only himself and therefore could know only what he himself had made. Eventually, however, even “that which is made” was deemed inscrutable, and truth was then conceived of as the very project of producing repeatable results and changing the future — which is to say, action and change became the truth.

While Cardinal Ratzinger accepts that Christian belief has something to do with making the world a better place, the heart of one’s Christian faith is not in one’s good plans for the future but in trusting God as the ground of one’s own being. An e-reader, whose content is continually updated per the will of the user, represents the perpetual forward-leaning urge to change and do. Computers are very much tied up in the fleeting projects of men, which are necessary aspects of our lives and livelihoods. But the liturgy is not the place to celebrate our activity; rather, it is where the faithful are chiefly maintained in union with Christ, where we contemplate God’s activity and permanent metaphysical truth. The book of Gospels raised overhead, as also the elevation of the eucharistic elements, draws attention to that which alone holds fast in the changing world.

In the variety of perspectives regarding any object’s symbolic meaning and the impact of that meaning, it is not enough merely to dismiss the question by pointing out that traditional things of liturgy come from a time before computers and electricity, and that therefore adjustments need to be made for what is common in our own day. For as our Lord entered into history, and the sacraments therefore are bound to specifics of history, liturgical symbolism is at some level also fixed. Perhaps there is no golden age of liturgy to which we must look for our model, but it does not thereby follow that the things of every culture and age are equally suitable for solemn liturgy.

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