On Presence

What does it mean to be “present”? If we think about if for a moment, our understanding of presence looks very different from that of someone living even two hundred years ago (though not necessarily two thousand), and the term quickly becomes complicated. Defining the term now may be putting the cart before the horse, but it may help us get started: by presence, I mean the concept of what it means to be “present,” to be “there,” or to be with someone. This is “presence” in the sense of “he is present,” “their presence was reassuring,” and (perhaps) “God is present.”

In a pre-literate world, the only “presence” is immediate, personal interaction or mediated, personal interaction. That is, to be present is to be in the someone’s physical presence, to occupy a space close to them. Perhaps we could also speak of presence when a mediator is present: a king may be present through his herald. That is, they are able to act or make their will known through a trusted messenger.

In a literate world, a new avenue is opened for “presence.” In addition to those above, someone can be “present,” though in an admittedly analogous sense, through a letter or book: they can communicate emotion, indicate their will, impart knowledge, and make a demand. Through literature, a person may act or communicate across time and space.

Enter the modern world. Through the telegram, radio, and the telephone, someone could communicate to many people at once and across vast distances. Moreover, a person may hold a conversation without the limits of spatial presence. That is, a person may be present to comfort, console, or command. With the rise of the digital world, presence is further expanded. Across time and space, we can now see one another, read each others body language, and be present in a dozen ways, excepting only those that require spatial presence (such as touch).

Things get more complicated when we contemplate VR technology or the potential future. In the case of VR, we can physically present in one place and consciously present elsewhere. We may remain conscious of our physical surroundings, in which case, we are consciously present in two places, though to different degrees. Moreover, the relationship is inverse, the more we are present in one place, the less we are elsewhere. A similar relationship obtains over a video call: we are consciously relating to those in the call, so present with them, yet also conscious of the present, physical location. We are limited in our ability to be present in this way so that the more we are engaged with those with whom we are talking, the more we lose consciousness of our present situation. This limitation is evident when we consider the hypothetical future.

In the movie Avatar, the characters are able to consciously indwell physical bodies other than their own. They are, in this way, physically present in two places. However, physical presence is not conscious presence: they may only be consciously present in one place.

I think it is here that presence is far more complicated than it may at first appear. Physical presence is not the whole story, for we can be physically present in one place and consciously present elsewhere. Science fiction yields illustrations of this, but we experience this in sleep, Biblical characters experienced it in visions, and the dead also experience it. In addition to conscious and physical presence, we can add mediated presence, such as that experienced through a messenger, letter, book, phone or video call. All these forms of presence share several things in common: first, they involve our ability to act; second, the presence or absence of awareness; and third, the ability of others to interact with us.

Type of PresenceAbility to ActConsciousnessPresence to Others
SpatialFull range of actioneither aware or unawarefully available to others
LetterCan communicate verballyno awarenessnot immediately available to others
VideoCan converse verbally and nonverballyfocal auditory/visual awareness, lack of peripheral awarenessavailable to vision and for communication
PhoneCan converse verballyauditory awarenessavailable to converse with
Virtual RealityAct according to rules of the program and act externally as limited by awarenessconscious awareness of programmed world, dim awareness of real worldavailable to digital world, available to others for viewing not interacting
Avatarphysically present in two places, acting where awareness is presentfull awareness in avatar, no awareness of bodyavailable fully to others through avatar, available passively at body
Sleepphysically present but unable to act consciouslylimited awareness in dreamspassively available.
Visionphysically present but limited ability to actawareness located elsewhere than physical/sensory experienceactively present to give of vision for communication, passively present to others or limited active presence.
Deathphysically present, unable to act where physically present  awareness elsewherepassive at physical location, active at conscious location.

As technology increases and our ability to be present expands exponentially, we face a single limitation to our ability to be present, that of consciousness. No matter how hard we try, we can only be conscious fully here or fully there, or partly here and partly there. We have finite consciousness. What if someone wasn’t bound by such a limit? What would it mean for them to be present? This is where I intend the rubber to hit the theological road: how can our brief meditation on presence help us better understand God’s presence?

I don’t think it is anachronistic to say that the Bible doesn’t share the intuitive limitation of presence to physical presence. In addition to God’s omnipresence, Paul can be physically on earth and consciously in heaven (2 Cor 12:1-10), as can numerous prophets—not to mention the dead! Returning to God, think of what we are told about God. God knows all things: so his awareness extends across a space and time. In addition, God can act anywhere and everywhere at once, whether through his direct governance or the angelic hosts. Already, if God is aware of everything at all times, he is consciously present everywhere. If God can act everywhere, he is actively present everywhere. We can not escape his all seeing eyes or the reach of his hand in Sheol or across the sea (Psalm 139:7-12). God does not need to be physically present to be omnipresent as the Bible so presents him. We do not thus have to be constrained in our doctrine by the difficulties of explaining what it means for God to be always physically present everywhere. Now, God can be physically present in multiple locations: He was in heaven while the Son was incarnate, and he surely did not leave his throne when he appeared to Abraham or Moses. Moreover, he was present in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem and in his heavenly throne in tangible ways. Physical presence in this sense is our perceptible presence to other people: God could be everywhere in this sense but has not yet been so.

Leave a Reply