How to Be Present Online amid COVID-19

In recent days, there’s been no shortage of announcements about plan changes and cancellations in the States due to increasing efforts to halt the spread of COVID-19.1 Education and biblical studies have been no exception.

The Society of Biblical Literature and Association of Theological Schools have both announced changes in plans or other advisories for upcoming meetings.

And a growing number of institutions have altered plans for spring classes. Many of these are at least temporarily moving online and away from the classroom.

Problems with Online Education?

Not least in theological education though, serious criticisms have sometimes been voiced about how appropriate online classes and programs are.

Do they adequately promote community? Do they adequately contribute to spiritual formation within that community?

Don’t they by definition run counter to what a formative community for theological education should really be?

Doesn’t the “online-ness” of online education necessarily involve the kind of absence that impoverishes theological education?

These questions bear serious and careful reflection, even and especially amid the need for appropriate and timely efforts to avoid fostering further spread of COVID-19.

Online and face-to-face education are obviously different. But the difference between the two isn’t a binary matter of presence or absence.

Instead, it’s a matter of different kinds of presence. And recognizing this fact paves the way for maintaining rich community—even when that community gathers online.

Thinking Differently about Presence

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, physical bodies occupy space and are said to be in a particular place because they occupy that place’s space.

But incorporeal entities (e.g., God, the soul) are said to be 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.

All of this means that robust, formative community doesn’t have to go out the window if and when you find yourself engaging with others more online in coming days.

How a community interacts online will obviously be different from how they will interaction if everyone is sitting 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 in Online Education

If you’d like additional resources to help you consider what this may mean in your context, drop your name and email in the form below. I’ll then send you a couple articles that you might find helpful.

One goes deeper analyzing presence as I’ve summarized above.5 The other discusses how you can foster formative community in online education.6

The coming weeks are sure to see further adjustments as institutions continue grappling with how they want to help restrict COVID-19.

If those shifts take you increasingly online, I hope you’ll find these thoughts helpful as you work to maintain meaningful and formative community amid those changes.


  1. Header image provided by Nathan Dumlao

  2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 22 vols. (London: Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, 1913), I.8.1. 

  3. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.8.2; see also Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.8.3. 

  4. Cf. Thomas Aquinas, A Summa of the Summa, ed. Peter Kreeft, trans. The Fathers of the English Dominican Province (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 103n62. 

  5. J. David Stark, “Being Present at a Distance,” Didaktikos 1.2 (2018): 12–13. 

  6. J. David Stark, “Gaming the System: Online Spiritual Formation in Christian Higher Education,” TEd 52.2 (2019): 43–53. 

Theology’s Hermeneutic Interest

Photograph of H. G. GadamerH.-G. Gadamer concludes his essay on “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem” by commenting on the importance of language, with an interestingly theological turn. Gadamer suggests,

The … building up of our own world in language persists whenever we want to say something to each other. The result is the actual relationship of men to each other…. Genuine speaking, which has something to say and hence does not give prearranged signals, but rather seeks words through which one reaches the other person, is the universal human task – but it is a special task for the theologian, to whom is commissioned the saying-further (Weitersagen) of a message that stands written. (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 17)

To be sure, Christian Scripture and the broader Christian tradition can and do speak for themselves. But, it is doubtless specially incumbent upon those with vocations in theology, biblical studies, preaching, and other Christian education areas to see to the passing on of this testimony and to its interpretation in various contemporary milieux.

For other reflections by and on Gadamer, see also previous posts on his thought.

Babyak, “Teaching strategy for a Christian virtual environment”

I’ve recently had the opportunity of working through Andrew Babyak’s article, “A Teaching Strategy for a Christian Virtual Environment” (Journal of Research in Christian Education 24, no. 1 [2015]: 63–77). A number of Babyak’s reflections are quite insightful and helpful. According to the abstract,

The current landscape in education is changing rapidly as online learning programs are experiencing great growth. As online learning grows, many professors and students are entering into new learning environments for the first time. While online learning has proven to be successful in many cases, it is not a journey upon which Christian professors or students should begin without some preparation. This article articulates a basic Christian teaching strategy by providing recommendations for those who are entering the online environment for the first time or desire to improve their online teaching effectiveness. These principles and recommendations are presented so that Christian professors can create Christian virtual environments in which they can have a significant impact on their students’ spiritual development in an online environment. It is critical that professors design their courses with the needs of online students in mind, ensuring that students of all learning styles are able to excel. Furthermore, professors should understand that online teaching often takes more time than traditional methods of teaching, increasing the importance of clear instructions and communication with students.