“Virtual Community? The Absence of Presence” by Bill Holmes

It is now our turn to confess that we no longer know what presence means. —Ralph Harper 1

She had just been told she had metastatic cancer. At the oncologist’s request and with her permission, I sat at her bedside listening to her story. Six family members sat around the room, but only two appeared to be listening to what she had to say. The other four were staring at their smartphones; they were tuned into Facebook, checking emails, or texting. At her hour of greatest need, some of her family was in cyberspace, a virtual world—or ironically, on a “social network.” Their bodies were in the room but their attention was elsewhere; they were not truly present to their loved one. There was an absence of presence.

With Harper, I see presence as not only our bodies being in spatial relationship to each other, but also as a full awareness of what is happening and being said, both verbally and nonverbally. Presence is experienced by all the senses. We see each other with all of our wrinkles and scars; we hear each other with all our intonations and nuances; we touch each other with a touch that we have hopefully known before or will know again. Even our sense of smell at times might identify the scent of significant people in our lives, even before we see or hear them.

In our age of “virtual” everything, our sense of presence to each other and to God has diminished. Sherry Turkle observes that technology has offered us a substitute for face-to-face connection.2 And we have bought into it as we have let technology redefine the boundaries between intimacy and solitude. Rather than investing ourselves in others, rather than getting to know each other face to face, we build a list of Facebook friends and then are left to wonder if they are really friends and what that means. As we recreate ourselves as online personae and avoid real-time happenings (because they might take too much time), we may find our- selves feeling utterly alone. Knowing each other and God intimately takes investment of time and of ourselves.

At a recent chaplains’ conference the virtues of technology were extolled as a means of spiritual presence. A good deal of excitement and affirmation was voiced for what I call “techno-spirituality.” While I see the possibilities offered by new technology, I fear we will be fooled into believing we are fully present to one another. Why must we feel more at home or comfortable with a virtual presence than a real presence? Is it because we are not capable of giving ourselves completely, an act that cannot be done in virtual space or cyberspace but requires what Martin Buber called “the real, filled present”?3

Social media offer some good things, such as keeping in touch with old friends and family in distant places. For those confined by ill-health or other circumstances, Facebook can be at least some level of connection. And who does not want to see pictures of grandchildren or use FaceTime to chat with them? Texting clearly has value as a means of rapid communication and can be lifesaving in emergencies—but life-taking when done while driving. We seem preoccupied now with such technologies, allowing them to become a poor substitute for real presence, for face-to-face encounters.

We are in a sense becoming digitally disembodied. Observe any public event and you will find that a substantial number of people are on their “smartphones” as the ball game or the lecture or, yes, even worship happens. Ironically, in the age of Facebook, we are in danger of losing face-to-face presence. How do we come to know and understand the mystery of the other without real or actual presentness? If we must do our technological communication ad nauseum, let us never fool ourselves into believing that we are in fact present to the other in our entirety, with our whole being.

We risk remaining strangers to one another. We fail to give ourselves to each other by sitting face to face and listening in a life-giving manner. We keep ourselves for ourselves as we hit “send” or “post.” To leave cyberspace for real presence is to give ourselves without the fear that we will have nothing left if we do. We cannot afford to be dismissive or take lightly that which is communicated by a grasped hand, a breathing pattern, an intonation, a look, and the ineffable experience of just being there. It is in the face-to-face encounter with our iPhones turned off that we find real presence rather than loneliness and even darkness.

Why do I hold these concerns? Why am I so convinced? I have been both the one holding the smartphone and the one who experienced the absence of presence when real presence was direly needed.

~ J. WILLIAM HOLMES, M.D., M. Div., is chaplain at Norton-Brownsboro Hospital, Louisville, Kentucky.

Copyright 2015, Word & World. Used with permission. This article originally appeared in Word & World 35/2  (2015). Not for further distribution.


1 Ralph Harper, On Presence: Variations and Reflections (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006) 1.

2 Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2012).

3 Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (Edingurgh: T. & T. Clark, 1937 ) 12; online at http://www.tjdonovanart.com/Martin%20Buber%20-%20I%20And%20Thou%20%28c1923%20127P%29.pdf (accessed February 13, 2015).