Intro and Disclaimers
Most of my writing energies these days go to keeping Appium Pro current, so it may surprise some of my Internet people to know that I have a personal blog, where I have (with decreasing frequency) mused in long or short form on a number of topics, most recently evaluating technology from a critical philosophical perspective. Of probably even greater surprise to many would be the fact that I have a strong interest, not just in the philosophy of technology, but in the theology of technology (and indeed, theology as it relates to technology).
Personally, I grew up in and remain in the Christian tradition, though over the years my faith has become something very unlike what often goes under the adjective “Christian” in our world today (especially in the United States). If I thought you had the patience, I would heap paragraphs on top of one another critiquing contemporary “Christianity” from top to bottom. As is readily visible to anyone with the eyes to see, mostly what people mean by “Christian”, and uphold as Christians, is a set of beliefs and practices at best orthogonal to, and at worst diametrically opposed to, the teachings and actions of Jesus. But that is not what this post is about, so I will have to (uncomfortably) settle for this brief disclaimer.
This post is about the SARS-COV-2 virus, and more specifically how it is changing our culture and our theology as it rampages in pandemic form around the world. This post is also about the phenomenon of increasing virtualization of everything, even the practice of “church”. And finally, this post is about embodiment, which is under attack at this moment in history, and not only in the direct and obvious form of COVID-19. This post is primarily addressed to people who would themselves care about what church is (or is supposed to be), but others of you might find the reflections interesting as well.
To get into this discussion, let’s talk about VR church. A year and a half ago, CNN aired a video on the new phenomenon of VR church (take the time to watch it now if you didn’t catch it earlier). The video description asks the question, “What if you didn’t have to leave your house to go to church, and all that you needed was a computer and an internet connection?” There are multiple kinds of digital church envisioned here, from the equivalent of huge video calls, to the extreme of church meetings taking place purely via the interaction of VR avatars. The basic tone of the video is: of course church could be digital and/or virtual, just like everything else! Why wouldn’t it?
The thesis I want to promote here is contrary to that position, and quite simple: VR church is not church. To be more helpful, I can rephrase in more specific language: According to the vision for humanity, and for the trajectory of humanity’s relationship with God, found in the best and most careful exegeses of the Judeo-Christian writings, the idea of a purely “virtual” or “digital” church is a contradiction in terms, because it loses sight of the intense biblical focus on the value of ordinary, embodied human existence.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and a lot for people to disagree with. To argue for the essential opposition of “church” and “virtual” that I’m proposing, we need to first make sure we understand VR, and then we need to make sure we understand Christianity’s vision for church and indeed for humanity in general.
The Nature and Purpose of VR
What is VR? As we all already know, it involves covering our sense perceptors as completely as possible with digital inputs, so that we are transported to a completely digitized reality. Today, this means mostly the covering of our eyes and ears, but in the future it will mean the wearing of special suits for tactile feedback, and potentially olfactory feedback as well. Why would anyone engage in this kind of apparently odd behavior? Proponents of VR point to any number of uses of the technology, but as far as we can tell, the primary uses today are in the realm of entertainment: gaming (first and foremost), and passive consumption of immersive content (as always with technology, pioneered by the porn industry). Other more mundane uses include team meetings, group chats, exploring houses and buildings before they are complete, “trying on” new furniture, immersive virtual shopping experiences, or virtual tourism. In the future, it is promised that VR will unlock new kinds of educational experiences, and also provide high-fidelity training for workers of all kinds.
Researchers and technologists are also excited about the prospects of VR for allowing humans to inhabit other kinds of mental states than the ones we normally do. We might, for example, use VR to teach empathy with other people’s experiences. Somebody without the use of certain limbs might regain the experience of using them through a VR interface. We might even put a person in place of an insect, and explore a range of psychological possibilities for the human brain that we have not been able to fathom yet.
One basic and obvious fact about VR that goes unmentioned is that people use VR because they think it will provide something better than “real reality” (which I will denote as RR). Either a more intense gaming experience, a more immersive media consumption experience, a shortcut for the imagination when trying to pick a color for a room, or just an escape from a dull or anxious everyday life. I’m focusing on the “entertainment” uses of VR, because these are (and always will be) the most prevalent. The use of VR, then, implies either the dissatisfaction with RR or the hope to find something better than RR, if only for a period of time. This is not so different, someone might argue, from how we currently use movies and TV shows, or indeed books. We turn to them to provide a different sort of experience for our minds, often in an intentional effort to escape our prior experience, whether out of boredom or some other motive.
Indeed, we can place VR on one end of a spectrum with a number of other developments in human history, with something like the oral tradition of epic poetry on the other end. The question for us as people wishing to analyze VR from a cultural, philosophical, or ethical perspective, becomes: what are the distinctives of VR, and do these imply a different analysis than the kind we would give about books? On the face of it, VR is certainly distinct from reading a novel. The whole point of VR is to provide complete immersion, overwhelming the senses in order to convince the user that what they are seeing is “real” (even if that “realness” is cached out in terms of an aesthetic quite different from RR, e.g., the pixelated and blocky aesthetic of Minecraft). The point of a novel is to meet the reader halfway—the author provides a sort of schema for understanding a set of descriptions, and the reader constructs an imagined experience with those pieces. The reader of a novel is still doing her own “work” to cognitively build the reality she then inhabits, whereas in VR, the reality comes of its own accord (however malleable that reality is via the user’s manipulation of it).
Movies would occupy an intermediate space between novels and VR experiences, because the filmmaker does the work of crafting a single reality for all viewers to experience, and yet each viewer sees the bounds of the screen, and knows that what is happening is that a story is being told, rather than a reality being constructed for their participation. This is the other distinctive of VR—the user actually inhabits the entertainment world in a way that the reader of a book or a viewer of a movie does not. This habitation of the virtual world brings with it a whole new set of psychological and emotional investments. Users of VR are described as merging with their avatars in a way completely unlike our experience of watching a character on a screen. Users of VR have also reported a sense of loss or dissatisfaction or disorientation with RR, upon returning from their VR excursions. Something real in our identity is given over to the VR world, as indeed can happen with the imagined worlds of novels or movies, but in a way which is much stronger and unconscious in the VR case.
Crucially, VR experiences involve the phenomenon of disembodiment in a much more significant way than other forms of media. This is quite the point of VR—to encourage a person to forget the reality experienced by their body and to invest in the reality delivered by the device. The fact that usually the user inhabits some point of view or a personal character in a VR experience might convince us to use the neologism otherbodiment instead, but the end result is the same—the dissociation of one’s mind and experience of reality from one’s concrete physical situation.
Users of VR might argue that I’m wrong about VR being disembodied, at least relatively speaking. They might point to the variety of VR games that crucially involve the use of body movements for playing the game. It’s true that compared with sitting at a desk and using a keyboard and mouse, VR games can be more kinetic (and I think this considered on its own is a good thing). However, the fact that one’s body is involved does not amount to “embodiment”. First of all, the user’s body in this case is separate from the game “body”, and used merely as a sort of controller. Secondly, the motions used for controlling VR games are (at least to this point) merely coarse-grained pantomimes or symbolic representations of real bodily action (for example, the digital version of nocking an arrow and loosing it has to be quite a bit more generic than the real thing). Finally, the use of one’s body to drive VR experiences is probably ultimately a hindrance to the delivery of the most immersive content, and will ultimately give way to neurological control according to the nature of the Device Paradigm.
We could say a lot more about VR, and we are almost in a position to give an ethical and social analysis of it on its own terms. But the point of this essay is to explore the phenomenon of VR church, so it’s time we took a look at the other side of that question—the “church” side.
The Vision of Christianity
In this essay, there is no way to give the appropriate qualifications on the meaning of the term “Christianity.” There is in actual practice of course not just one thing to which that term refers. Historically, the thousands of years of the religion’s development has seen many and sometimes conflicting variations. And yet, I would argue that we can indeed trace one thread from the Mosaic Yahwism of the authors of the Pentateuch through the prophetic ministry of Jesus of Nazareth to the current practice and tradition of at least some of modern Christianity. It is this thread, which has almost always been misunderstood in various ways, or pulled in erroneous and contradictory directions, which I mean by “Christianity.” It is this thread which I am attempting to speak on behalf of (with the appropriate amount of humility) in this essay.
What does this kind of Christianity propose is true about the world? Let me highlight the points which I take to be relevant for the current discussion in bulleted fashion here:
- Reality is good, not something to escape. God created a good (yet still “in-progress”) world, and nothing humans can do could made it a “bad” world in its essence (though the evidence is clear enough in the Bible and in our present experience that we can do an awful lot to make it worse—see the next point).
- Pain and evil are real, and real problems, and the appropriate response to their existence is to work faithfully against them with the ultimate awareness that God will not suffer them forever. We should neither fatalistically succumb to the existence of evil, nor attempt to escape and transcend it in an ultimate denial.
- The sphere of our existence is resolutely physical. We are embodied beings, living in a physical world with other embodied beings. Nothing in the Bible suggests that some kind of escape from the physical is desirable or appropriate (that idea is of Gnostic or Neoplatonic origin, and it has unfortunately been attractive to people for a very long time). The focus for ethics and even theology in the Bible is always brought back to the well-being of the earth’s creatures, considered at least physically (not denying however that the ultimate source of physical goodness is the “spiritual” goodness of appropriate relation to God).
- Humanity is basically personal, relational, and communal. We are responsible for one another as well as for the earth in general. To attempt to escape a painful or evil situation while leaving others in it would be immoral. Because humans are embodied, our ethical responsibility is first and foremost in the sphere of physical needs and well-being, all the while acknowledging the intrinsic relationship between the physical and spiritual (they do not vary freely with respect to one another).
- Human beings, and indeed all the earth’s creatures, are dependent. We are not gods ourselves, though God does want us to grow in relationship with him to the extent that we eventually become something quite different than we are today. The way to grow is by trusting in the good gifts of God despite circumstances, and indeed by suffering even death in the service of God’s creatures while remaining in that posture of trust.
- Created reality is “sticky”, and “hard”—we are to work with it, and will inevitably experience its resistance. If we fall on the ground, we will get injured. This is a part of living in an ultimately good and ordered creation, and not a result of a moral or metaphysical “Fall”. We cannot reshape reality as we see fit just by a word—that power is clearly on the side of God and not of his creatures. We are to shape reality, but only by working with the tools available within the created world (and indeed by developing new tools to help us better work with reality).
This might not sound like the Christianity you grew up in or around. It certainly would have sounded foreign to my Bible-belt-dwelling teenage self! But it is nonetheless the story the Bible paints when it is read carefully and well. Crucially, the climax of this story involves what we call the Incarnation, which is God’s act of becoming a human being. If anything could be the nail in the coffin of the Gnostic heresy of Docetism, it would be this doctrine that the supreme spiritual being chose to become a physical, flesh-and-blood human being, with all the physical and intellectual limits that implies. According to Christianity, God’s purposes never included rescuing people from physical reality, but was and is to work with human beings in physical reality, encouraging humans and all the rest of Creation to become more and more like him (i.e., creative, free, and loving).
Christianity vs VR
Now that we’ve looked at VR, and looked at what I mean by “Christianity”, we can consider the phenomenon of “VR Church” more directly. It’s true that we haven’t discussed ecclesiology (i.e., we haven’t defined “church”), but even if we take “church” to just mean something like “a group of people living out the vision of Christianity together,” it’s clear that “VR Church” is a contradiction in terms.
First of all, VR experiences are completely disembodied (or otherbodied), which undercuts the Christian emphasis on embodiment and on physical reality being the zone within which God has chosen to relate to us. What’s so bad about disembodiment? In general, I see it as having a variety of negative consequences. I’ll list a few:
- Disembodiment can discourage care of the physical world and its creatures—if we don’t inhabit that world, why would we maintain it?
- Disembodiment can distort human relationships. On one hand, the ability to present oneself in any form one chooses is a freeing experience. On the other hand, whenever I encounter someone so presented, I am not actually interacting with them. It becomes that much easier to engage in the process (not limited to VR, certainly) of mutual projection—I project onto the other person what I want them to be, and vice versa. The difference with VR is that mutual projection can continue forever—there is no rubber to meet any proverbial road in showing me who my interlocutor really is.
- Disembodiment goes hand in hand with distemporality. Space and time are essential features of our physical experience, and time is a key ingredient in most physical and psychological processes. VR experiences, like many other digital experiences, contribute to a reliance on instant gratification, which is at odds with the way RR works. In general disembodiment leads to a greater dissatisfaction with anything difficult or unpleasant, because there is no intrinsic need for difficulty in an entirely constructed world.
In fact, VR opens up a kind of new Platonic Gnosticism, giving us the power to finally be our own gods, at the cost of our universe(s) becoming totally solipsistic. Still, the ability to forge our self image with complete arbitrariness, and to experience whatever we will, whenever we will it, is intoxicating. The better the VR experience, and the more compelling our own existence in it, the more dissatisfied we will become with RR, leading to a vicious cycle of disembodiment.
Ultimately, VR is a tool, like many other technological devices, designed to help us avoid pain and death—even if the pain to be avoided is the minor pain of a daily inconvenience. The real danger of VR, from a Christian perspective, is that the price for doing so is buying into a reality that disregards what Craig Gay (in his book on modern technology) calls “ordinary embodied human existence”. This kind of existence might not hold much appeal for many people, but for the Christian, it is the kind of existence which has been stamped with the ultimate seal of value by the Incarnation. And it’s not hard to see why! On the Christian view, we are not meant to be gods (at least not without first going through a process of maturation into the character of God). Physical reality, with all its pains, toils, and rough edges, keeps us grounded in trust and dependence along the journey towards that maturity. Physical reality involving other people reminds us of our intrinsic social and ethical dimensions—we aren’t meant to live solipsistically, and sometimes we need the messiness of other people to help us see that.
So, should churches adopt VR services to reach a broader audience and increase the convenience of all involved? No, I don’t think so. The point of church is not to reach a broad audience, as if the Gospel of Jesus Christ were a marketing campaign (and obviously some people treat it just like that). Nor is convenience a spiritual virtue. Instead, churches should remember that Jesus became the first true human being so that we too could be truly human beings in a truly physical world, not to escape to a disembodied Heaven when we die. Churches should take seriously the parable of the Good Samaritan and look to the physical well-being of their neighbors, inside and outside the flock. And finally, churches should be critically aware of all the ways disembodiment can sneak in. VR services are just one end of a spectrum—what about fully remote video services? Do these differ substantially in analysis from what I argued about VR? Ultimately, I would argue they don’t. And so it is interesting to see that, despite the “fringe” nature of VR services, fully remote online services are exploding in number across the world as we speak, due to the social distancing recommendations attached to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The current pandemic is unique (in my experience at least) in moving almost all social interaction online. This probably couldn’t have happened even 10 years ago, but it is now possible to use video conferencing tools successfully for a lot of social interaction. There are two questions I want to consider in this connection: first, should churches run online services, given everything we said about “VR Church”? And second, more generally, what is an appropriate Christian response to the pandemic, based on my understanding of Christianity?
My take on the first question is that remote online church services are a net negative, or maybe instead that they reveal a negative truth about what church has already been. The fact that we could, within the space of several weeks, have fully-functioning church services online without intense disruption of people’s faith lives, signals to me that most churches have already become virtual, even while meeting in their sanctuaries every Sunday. It’s not hard to believe, especially for megachurches, that actual “ordinary embodied human existence” is not a central feature of church life. Sitting as a more or less faceless member of a huge audience watching a pastor speak, or a worship leader play music on a stage, one is not actively engaging one’s ordinary embodied existence in the direction of spiritual maturity!
Let me clear about the present situation: I’m not saying that video chats with your parishioners, friends, or family during a shelter-in-place order is a bad thing. I’m grateful for the technology that lets us connect in high-bandwidth ways that keep the wheels of society from grinding completely to a halt, and I’m not suggesting that we live as Luddite hermits merely because we’re not allowed to be physically present with our friends and neighbors (although, pretty much everybody in our overly connected society would probably benefit from some screen-free solitude).
My real problem here is that, as I look around, I don’t actually see that many churches even nominally living out the vision of Christianity I framed above. As a result, for the average church, a move online is probably not going to make much of a difference to the experience of their average member. Moving everything online might, however, further sanction the kind of disembodiment I find so dangerous about VR, contributing to a naive and problematic openness to VR on the part of Christians and the wider culture. Rather than facilitating this transition, I think churches should be actively resisting it!
So, should churches continue to meet in person, in the midst of a pandemic? No, of course not. Christians should listen to scientists and doctors when they say that social distancing is the best way to care for the especially vulnerable in our society. Caring for the especially vulnerable is practically the charter of Christianity, so it would be a horrible irony if Christians valued some abstract concept of embodiment over the concrete well-being of their neighbors! Christians should be eagerly seeking advice on how best to care for others in society, and if that means staying at home and not going to church—so be it!
But of course, there are options besides just canceling church on one hand and doing a purely remote online version of a church’s normal service on the other, and this brings us into my take on the second question (about how Christians should respond to the pandemic generally). In addition to paying attention to the recommendations of trustworthy doctors and scientists, Christians should be creative in finding ways to help others in what is currently a mounting crisis not just of health but of the economy. For someone in the church’s neighboring community who has just lost a job, what they need is probably not an online church service, but cash to get them through the coming rough season. Why wouldn’t churches take their online marketing budgets and create a fund for those in need in their communities? Transferring money can be done without the risk of infection!
Or, what if churches acknowledged the fundamentally consumption-oriented model of online services, and decided to scrap the whole thing? Churches could connect smaller groups of members, who could meet in video chats where at least everyone has the sense of participating. Or, at an extreme, what if churches sold their big and expensive buildings and gave the profits to those in need, pledging to instead spin up a house-church model after the pandemic subsides? There are lots of things that churches could do, in other words, that don’t sacrifice ordinary embodied human existence even as we all abide by the social distancing policies that temporarily restrict our embodied existence in certain ways. In my awareness, however, churches in general have not been asking creative questions about what they could do along these lines, and instead have been focused mostly on asking how they can continue to do the same thing they did before, but online.
In terms of the individual Christian’s response to the pandemic, it is clear from Scripture that at the very least we should not be panic-buying and hoarding toilet paper. Instead, we trust that the God of the widow of Zarephath will provide for our needs in such a way that we can allow our neighbors their fair share—or more—of toilet paper as well. Trust is the key posture. For the Christian, there is no guarantee of happiness or health in life, or even of the continuation of life itself. A lot of things can happen in this world, and even some of the things that aren’t morally bad about the world (e.g., viruses) can kill us. The Christian merely has the confidence that the same God that made the world (and allowed for the evolution of viruses) has the power to restore life, and moreover knows each of us by name. And in the meantime, we should do all we can to prevent the kinds of bad things humans are responsible for (like poor pandemic preparedness, or the hiding of information, or the injustice in the distribution of tests and medicine, or taking advantage of people’s rights in a crisis, etc…). The virus on its own is one thing, but compounded by all kinds of human evil and thoughtlessness, it becomes something else entirely!
This has been a long essay indeed, so allow me to summarize what I’ve tried to communicate here: according to the kind of Christianity I take to be most authentically Christian, churches should think twice before virtualizing their operations. In fact, they should already be thinking twice about what on earth (pun!) they are doing. Churches should recover a theological focus on the value of ordinary embodied human existence to such an extent that the very idea of “VR Church” should appear to be a contradiction in terms, and they should moreover be asking what it means to value the ordinary embodied human existence of their neighbors.
In the current COVID-19 health crisis, this very regard for the embodied human existence of our neighbors implies that Christians should refrain from the kinds of embodied gatherings that could bring unintentional infection and harm to the vulnerable. This abstinence should be regarded as unfortunate and temporary, not as merely a convenient catalyst for moving to purely online delivery of church services or a slide into the normalization of a more “virtual” humanity. Finally, Christians everywhere should be praying and working for the elimination of the virus, and more importantly, the elimination of any human folly or evil that makes the impact of the virus worse than what it needs to be on its own.