In theological education, serious criticisms have sometimes been voiced about online classes and degree programs.1
Do they adequately promote community? Do they adequately promote spiritual formation within that community?
By definition, don’t they run counter to the “incarnational principle”? Aren’t they the opposite of what formative community for theological education should be?
Doesn’t the “online-ness” of online education necessarily involve the kind of absence that impoverishes theological education?
Thinking Differently about Presence
These questions bear serious and careful reflection, not least in a world freshly scarred by a global pandemic.
Online and face-to-face education obviously differ. But their differences aren’t the absolute binaries of presence or absence.
Instead, each has at play different kinds of presence. And recognizing this fact paves the way for fostering rich community—even when that community gathers online.
Insights from Aquinas
In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas observes that “a thing is wherever it operates.”2 So, “incorporeal things are in place not by contact of dimensive quantity, as bodies are, but by contact of power.”3
That is, we say physical bodies are in a particular place because they occupy that place’s space. But we say incorporeal entities (e.g., God, the soul) are in a particular place not because they “take up space” but because they exert power within that space.4
As it happens, cognitive, emotional, and social presence are incorporeal realities as well. They may, therefore, be genuinely present through “contact of power”—through using one’s ability to act. And that ability may play out physically or in some other way.
So, robust, formative community isn’t limited to face-to-face interactions. You can also foster and find it when you engage others online.
How communities interact online will obviously differ from how they will interact if everyone sat around a table together. But there are any number of intensely practical ways to foster community as something that genuinely is there online.
Resources for Thinking about Presence
For additional resources to help you consider what this may mean for you, drop your name and email in the form below. I’ll then send you a couple articles that you might find helpful.
In the end, if “online” is a means of “moving away,” then it clearly supports checking out and a lack of connection. But where it means “moving toward,” it too can be a powerful way of being present with and for others in meaningful communities of learning.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 22 vols. (London: Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, 1913), I.8.1. ↩
Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.8.2; see also Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.8.3. ↩
Cf. Thomas Aquinas, A Summa of the Summa, ed. Peter Kreeft, trans. The Fathers of the English Dominican Province (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 103n62. ↩
J. David Stark, “Being Present at a Distance,” Didaktikos 1.2 (2018): 12–13. ↩
J. David Stark, “Gaming the System: Online Spiritual Formation in Christian Higher Education,” TEd 52.2 (2019): 43–53. ↩