The importance of the bodily senses is certainly not limited to Protestant traditions. Drawing on insights from the ancient Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, Pope Francis highlighted the role of the bodily senses in an address from the Vatican in 2017:
In the human body, the senses are our first connection to the world ad extra; they are like a bridge towards that world; they enable us to relate to it. The senses help us to grasp reality and at the same time to situate ourselves in reality. Not by chance did Saint Ignatius appeal to the senses for the contemplation of the mysteries of Christ and truth.
Pope Francis, like many theologians before him, indicates that the bodily senses play a crucial role in interacting with the world in general and worship in particular.
Eastern Orthodox theology also has something to say on this topic. John Zizioulas, in his Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church, explores how the church is an incarnate community in communion with the Trinity. According to Zizioulas, one cannot be fully human without being in relation to others, just as the church cannot be the Body of Christ without being incarnate: “A Church must incarnate people, not ideas or beliefs.”
Although Lutherans, Calvinists, Catholics, and Orthodox may disagree on worship theologically, they agree on worship anthropologically. These Christian traditions agree that worship involves wholly human creatures engaged in the ongoing communion of body and soul, eyes, ears, members, reason, and senses.
Worship: An Assembly with What?
Having established that worship is an assembly of human persons (sensory creatures), we can now venture to another nuance of the worship question: Worship is an assembly with what? With what tools or technologies do we assemble for worship?
Contemporary worship is an assembly with many different technological artifacts: There may be pulpits and pews, buildings and baptistries, crucifixes and candles, speakers and screens, cameras and computers. Those gathered for worship assemble with multiple forms of media, such as Bibles, hymnals, artwork, and video.
While technology and media are often conflated, they are not identical or interchangeable. Technology can be understood as tools or instruments. (To be certain, this is not an exhaustive understanding of technology.) Media, on the other hand, are often understood as conduits for communication. Media are that which convey ideas, images, or information. For example, Martin Luther in his lectures on Isaiah recognized the ways in which worship and media intersect: “As the God who is worshiped, God is clothed in the earthly media of the Word, of Baptism, and of the Lord’s Supper, wherein he reveals himself.” Although it may often go unnoticed, corporate worship—both past and present—relies heavily on media.
Just because media are conduits of communication does not mean they are entirely passive or neutral. Marshall McLuhan, an influential media theorist, highlighted the ways in which media shape not only communication but also the sensory creatures involved in this communication. A prevalent theme within McLuhan’s work is the notion of media serving as an extension of the human body in some way. For example, in his book The Medium Is the Massage, McLuhan notes: “Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments. All media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical.”
These extensions, however, are not without consequence. As one aspect of the body is extended, the other senses and human faculties are transformed as well. McLuhan goes on to say, “The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act—the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, men change.” Thus, media are conduits for communication that influence not only the message itself but also the recipients of the message. For example, livestream video of in-person worship extends the sight and sounds of the sanctuary, but not the taste, touch, and smell of the worship service. Those viewing the livestream worship see and hear the sanctuary while the rest of their senses are located elsewhere. Their eyes and ears are extended into the worship space while their nose, tongue, and other body parts are not. Digital media allows part of you—but not all of you—to be somewhere far from the rest of your body.
Digital media’s ability to extend some of our senses results in a fragmented bodily experience, hence a disintegration of the senses. Part of you may be somewhere, but not all of you. The opposite of this is common sense (sensus communis), wherein there is communion and harmony of the bodily senses. Common sense occurs when all your senses—sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell—are gathered together in a harmonious and singular experience.