The future is here and it’s a box on your head. We know it as Virtual Reality (VR) and it will be massive for Christians. If you haven’t experienced it yet, you will soon. It’s one of the biggest technological changes this decade and is set to change our culture for the next century. It will alter our experience of faith.
Christians will need to be more involved in producing and using VR because it will likely redefine how we worship together. Given that its use will become increasingly pervasive (not unlike the internet) a clear Biblical stance on its use and misuse is needed for the good of all.
So why are we suddenly talking about it? After all the idea of VR has been around since the 1990s and websites such as Second Life already create a virtual world for their users, albeit on our conventional devices. But recently there’s been a recent technology leap in the quality and accessibility of VR. Now with the release of the oddly named Oculus Rift a new product that brings VR into the homes of millions. Other makes are on the market notably the Samsung Gear VR and the HTC Vive.
It’s a little hard to explain on a page or a screen, you do have to (no pun here) see it to believe it. But this analogy may be helpful: in the way headphones create an audio surrounding for the listener, VR headsets represent a visual surrounding for the viewer. By putting on the headset, the real world is obscured and the user is immersed in a fully digital experience with a view all around with just a turn of the head.
What’s also powerful is that you can potentially interact with others connected via the internet in real time creating, for want of a better description, a ‘third place’ separate from where you and the other(s) are situated. Many are predicting that this is the future of social media.
Personally, I haven’t tried the full VR headset yet but I’ve had a go with google cardboard, a VR experience you can use with your mobile phone.
Even with the much cheaper Google Cardboard viewing box (some apps are free) you get to experience the possibilities of VR. After trying one VR app, I felt like a boy again at the excitement of being taken on this virtual ride flying over the ocean with the birds. In the midst of the digitally created film, I confess I heard myself saying, ‘wow, that’s so cool’, as I regressed into a childlike state of wonder.
But I’ve had that feeling before, kind of. It took me back to another childhood memory. A friend of mine brought home from the States a flashy red ViewMaster. Remember those?
It was like looking through a small pair of binoculars to see a series of amazing 3D views of scenes from around the world. That was ‘so cool’ for its time as well.
Of course, VR is a massive jump ahead in every way but it taps into the same human fascination for escape and experience.
It’s this fascination that’s going to drive our desire for more VR. It’s bringing unfathomably creative possibilities but also perils. It’s another forbidden fruit we’ve taken a bite from and now there’s no going back. VR isn’t going to go away.
What’s Virtual Reality being used for?
VR is already being used in education. Students are able to become avatars (a digital representation of someone in a virtual environment) and interact with other students. It’s proven to be a very effective tool to teach subjects such as maths, science, and medicine where abstract ideas can be represented in more creative ways. This whole field can only get bigger and more innovative with I’m sure some astonishing possibilities. How about a university with students from all over the world being taught in one virtual place? How about global tutorials on any given topic? Imagine inter-faith discussions with a Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu in a religious education class? And there’s no need to worry about language, a virtual instant translation will take care of that too.
The creative possibilities for VR are obvious and enormous. A new area of filmmaking is now opening up with companies producing ‘digital worlds’ that users can experience and explore. It’s a different kind of filmmaking to traditional narrative movies but Hollywood directors are already interested in the commercial prospects of this new kind of experience. A unique production that’s called Clouds Over Sidra places the viewer inside a refugee camp in Jordan. This filming has been enabled with increasingly sophisticated 360° cameras and more and more 360° short films and promos are coming on stream. The fact that a viewer can be immersed into the experience of another part of the world, in this instance a refugee camp, is hugely powerful. It can only create a higher degree of understanding and empathy.
VR is also taking on a healing role and is being used as a therapeutic tool to help overcome trauma. It has been trialed successfully for those overcoming Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because the user is able to realistically relive and therefore manage the stress of the trauma.
I haven’t even mentioned the gaming industry yet. Currently, worth just under $100 billion VR will be a huge boost to its impact and reach.
This is just only the beginning of the already amazing possibilities and benefits beginning to emerge with this nascent technology.
But there has to be a downside, right? Sadly, I believe yes.
The problems and dangers of Virtual Reality for Christians
I don’t think for one moment we’re entering the new dawn of a digital utopia where we can all have out of body experiences and live in an alternate state of bliss. Some futurists might think so but this will never happen.
We get anxious about change, especially pervasive technological change where we can’t imagine where it will end. It’s a guarantee that with any new trend or technology there will be a moral panic in society. In my experience, my parents would sometimes be concerned about the hours of TV I’d watch or the time spent on the computer, all of which were new technologies at one time. They were right to panic. Hours of wasted time are not good for grades and nor would hours lost in a virtual world for that matter.
The temptation to really disappear into VR and escape the difficult realities of life must surely be a difficult thing to resist, especially if life gets tough. So the same importance of self-discipline, regulating time in and out of VR is just the same as any other pastime such as gaming or watching movies online. Some, however, will struggle and there are inevitable problems that arise from being too immersed in the escapism such as anti-social behavior, addiction or missed real life opportunities. I’m sure VR will hold even more of a grip on some people because of its escapist appeal.
It then begs the question, just where exactly are we, when in a virtual world? It’s important to understand in the realm of VR the idea of ‘presence’, it’s the feeling of really being present ‘elsewhere’. It’s a projection of yourself into a completely different environment but still being able to act in that place.
Judging by how our body responds in these ‘places’ psychologists have demonstrated that our emotions can’t be switched off between real and virtual worlds. Your subconscious mind actually can’t tell the difference. For example, in a game, you’ll duck and dive at things coming your way as your body’s physiology responds in the same way as in the real world. The emotional impact of experiences and interactions with others in VR are also as real as the actual world and more troubling is that our emotions can be as easily affected or manipulated by the environment we’re in. All our human nature and frailties we know so well in the real world is as strong in the virtual. This is another danger with VR, it impacts on our emotional wellbeing. We just can’t escape our own natures there.
It is possible in VR to form relationships with others and it has been known for people to form deep attachments and even have ‘affairs’. Like every new technology on the scene, the sex industry is always there at the forefront, leading the way (in a bad way). It is possible to have sexual encounters through VR too. I will spare our good readers the details of how this happens but if you feel you’d like to know more, the following article on VR adultery is a safe discussion on this new moral issue.
Bizarre as all this may sound, it has been shown that the emotional consequences of the virtual world do spill over into the real world. They can’t be separated.
All our vices and sins are as real in the virtual body as in the actual body.
Humans still act as they usually do in this different space and often exaggerate our worst characteristics too. Someone’s avatar could be an inflated version of themselves or their egos; a projection of a false self or impossible fantasy. In the VR realm, you can create for yourself a physical ‘perfection’. But this is to surely denigrate who they are as actual persons, with bodies and personalities given to us, stamped in our maker’s image.
We’re now moving into very troubling areas indeed for a Christian, to what we call idolatry where we choose to focus our worship on something created or artificial other than God.
‘You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them’ Exodus 20:4-5.
This may well be the big ethical question surrounding a Christian response to VR, where is the line to be drawn between experiencing and devoting ourselves to that virtual image or created the world? If we do we denigrate our own natures and lose out on the fullness of life and who we’re meant to be in God.
Developing a Christian theology of Virtual Reality
The warnings above should give us more than enough pause for thinking, reflecting and praying but it would also be a colossal mistake for Christians and the church to complete reject this technology. Instead, it needs to be handled with great care because it is powerful. The good news is that we have a two thousand year tradition and even older God given scriptures to help us navigate a way through, to develop a theology of VR that will help ourselves and others with no faith commitment but who see the need for ethical guidelines on VR. Here are some initial areas to explore and debate.
Firstly it’s my contention that VR is not actually new. What I mean by that is that the church has also been engaging the senses for centuries, impressing visual and aural experiences to educate, inspire and move the emotions to worship God. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this:
What is this created to do if not to take the believer beyond themselves into another realm of spiritual experience and contemplation? The Sistine Chapel is one of the greatest artistic achievements in human history but also a little bit VR, don’t you think?
So many works of religious art and music were created to take the viewer beyond their current state and to worship or contemplate God in a different state of mind or presence. Might VR just be an extension of the same thing? Is it possible to develop devotional experiences where viewers can learn and experience God’s word, in VR? Of course, companies like Bible VR are doing just that and there’ll be more and more.
Secondly, VR will redefine the ‘place’ of the church. People will be more able to worship in shared virtual spaces with other members who share similar perspectives on faith. This has the advantage of connecting and having ‘fellowship’ with believers you wouldn’t otherwise meet from around the world. I’m not suggesting this is good or bad, it just is and we will have to develop a theology to fit a body of Christ that is meeting in a very different way. The advantages of worshipping in a virtual church mean those who are housebound, unwell or feel unable to attend a ‘real world’ church can still partake in worship. Virtual churches are also more likely to be outside the establishment where more radical doctrines might be given freer reign. In the virtual world of Second Life, this has proven to be the case. How the established churches manage this and ensure good doctrine is taught in the virtual church may well be a challenge.
Thirdly, the virtual realm has the possibility of altering our perspective in the real. With more opportunities to be taken elsewhere and to experience other places and states of emotion, we may return to the actual world changed for the better, perhaps feeling more empathy for a situation or more inspired to remake the real world in ways that are more perfected in the virtual. This is a fascinating possibility. Might we then get a creative glimpse of the Kingdom of God in some way in the virtual world and bring that back into the real? Or if we are impacting people positively for God in the virtual, are we then building his Kingdom there (or here) at the same time? This raises all sorts of fascinating and deeper questions that will need to be worked out.
We remember Jesus’s words ‘for where two or three gathers in my name, there I am with them.’ Matthew 18:20. Do Christ’s words now bring his presence into the virtual world too? I see no reason why not. It is entirely possible that people may find faith in the virtual world for the first time and ‘be sent’ back into the actual world as disciples of Christ.
Now that is mind expanding, astonishing stuff.
As Christians in the church, we are entering into a time unlike any other. It opens incredible, creative possibilities, opportunities to communicate good news and reach millions of people in ways unimaginable. This alternate virtual space could be the new place for mission and we may even send out ‘missionaries’ to virtual spaces. It could all happen in our lifetime.
We have also seen the dangers and distortions that VR can create and how it can take away and degrade our humanity.
Now, more than ever should we need to discover, talk, experience, share and pray ‘your kingdom come, on earth as in heaven’, with the earth now encompassing this amazing newly created, virtual world.
God give us wisdom, discernment, and guidance for such an incredible time as this.
© Not Only Sundays, January 2017.
Scripture quoted from the NIV translation.