Sermon: Technology & Religion: God As Virtuality

2018 October 14
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

“Open your eyes. You are a fisherman in the Pacific, a weaver in the Philippines, and a journalist on the front lines. You act with kindness; you fight with courage. You swim the depths of the oceans; you float the heights of the skies. You walk on top of the world and you are someone else’s world. You are with family; you are with friends; you are with ancestors.”


So goes the voiceover for latest ad for Oculus Go, a virtual reality headset that allows you to virtually travel to all these places and be all these things. As the female voice narrates the virtual experiences you can have, the images are gorgeous. You see the fishermen in their wet yellow rain slickers hauling in baskets of shining fish; you see the earthy colors of the weaver’s loom in the Philippines. When she says, “you’re a journalist on the front lines,” you see an urban stairwell shredded by shrapnel. When she says, “you are someone else’s world,” you see a baby staring up at you with wonder. And when she says, “you are with ancestors,” you see a native American drumming circle around a bonfire. The images flash faster and faster – all the choices, all the things you can be, all the experiences you can have without even having to get out of bed. You can order this thing on Amazon for $200 and if you have Prime you’ll get free shipping and have it by tomorrow. In the words of the ad, you can, “live every story.”


What’s not to like? Where the physical world has limits, the virtual world is limitless. Where our own bodies can’t do certain things, in the virtual world we can do anything. Where in real life the laws of time and space dictate where we can go, in the virtual world, we can go anywhere anytime. A real fisherman pays for his experience of the ocean in sweat and injuries and backbreaking labor. With Oculus Go we get it for free. A real weaver in the Philippines pays for her immersion in the rich colors of the threads by decades of practice and monotonous, tedious work for dollars a day. We get it for free. A real parent pays for the wonder of their baby’s love in sleepless nights and countless sacrifices. We, the wearers of the Oculus Go headset, sacrifice nothing.


You might say that there’s nothing really wrong with this. That these are just fantasies and everyone knows it. It’s just a taste. What’s wrong with playing? And to be fair, virtual reality has been used for therapeutic purposes. In one experiment, domestic abusers get to experience a virtual reality scene of a larger man looming over them, threatening them. And they emerge from that better able to empathize with their own victims and understand what they’ve done as abusers. Aspiring pilots use flight simulators. Medical students learn in virtual surgical theatres. It’s great because mistakes in that dimension won’t mean life or death.


But the notion of virtuality in our culture goes way beyond these specialized applications. With our virtual desktops and virtual navigation systems and virtual meetings and virtual gaming and virtual doctors and virtual communities and virtual assistants and virtual tours and virtual shopping, we are creating an entire parallel reality – a life overlay. It’s all easier than real life and most of it is free or close to free. We are God-like, re-creating the world, but one level removed.


But the difference is this: when God – or the wisdom-flow of the cosmos – first created the world we know, biblical and evolutionary accounts agree that it was all rock and fire and water that became earth that became our bodies. The first human in Genesis was named Adam, which comes from the Hebrew word “adamah,” soil. We are earthlings. We are physical beings and everything that we are springs from the soil beneath our feet. We are literally what we eat. We are what we breathe. We are shaped by the billions of microorganisms who live in our guts. We are shaped by those whom we physically touch. We are living in a material world and we are material beings.


When we deny this fundamental truth, we do so at great risk and great cost. And deny it we do. Virtuality is becoming, not just play, but a growing collective misunderstanding of what we are. The virtual world in so many ways seems better to us (and I don’t mean us as individuals, us as a culture). Virtuality is unencumbered by the nuisances of location and history. Picture the American highway. If you use a GPS to get around you may never actually know where you are. You follow the directions, turn here, exit there, and arrive at your destination. It’s like playing a video game. The highway stretches out infinitely in front of you. The road on the screen becomes more real than the road beneath your wheels.


Everything in the virtual world has a kind of uniform sheen and sparkle. Instagram stars get paid big bucks to convey a “lifestyle.” Even things that are supposed to be gritty and harsh like that image of the torn-up stairwell in a war zone has a kind of romantic shine. Everything is clean and even when it’s made to look dirty, that dirt never really sticks. You never get dirty and you never get hurt. If you run into trouble in a virtual community, you never have to be held accountable. You can just disappear. And it’s all free from unpleasant political realities. A native American drummer on Oculus Go isn’t freighted with a history of genocide and oppression. A beautiful woman on Oculus Go is never going to turn to you and say “me too.”


And so virtuality represents a kind of collective dream – a world where everything is simple. It’s two-dimensional, even when it creates the illusion of 3D. We’ve recreated reality but with latex gloves on. It’s life abstracted. It lives on the plane of ideas and images and denies the plane of the body.


In some archetypal systems this cerebral, rational world is the masculine, whereas the embodied, emotional world is the feminine. This is not to say that women aren’t rational; it’s about the interplay of cosmic energies. Women and men participate in both. But as a society we are catapulting headlong into the world of the disembodied mind and we are collectively deciding that it’s better than our voluptuous earth-bodies.


The etymology of the word “virtual” is helpful here. It comes from the Latin virtus (“virtue” in English) which meant “excellence, potency, efficacy.” It also meant “manhood” or “manliness,” from the Latin root vir, which means man. So virtual in the 14th century basically meant “good and manly.” And then down the line virtual came to mean what it means today. The virtual world is virtually the same as reality itself, but better and more manly. It’s almost as if the virtual world is primary – like Plato’s “forms” – the virtual is the ideal while the physical is just a pale imitation. It’s as if virtuality is God to us.


So we have two worlds before us: the shiny, Platonic, virtus-virtual world and the earthy, messy, adamah-physical world – the wetware as they call it. We all know which is ascendant right now. SEARS – which used to be the largest retailer in the U.S. – is just now filing for bankruptcy. They are the most recent in a string of giant retailers (including Toys ‘R’ Us) to do so. Little mom and pop shops are closing every minute as Amazon now sells online everything they used to sell, but for less. We are in the midst of what experts are calling a “brick and mortar retail fiasco.” They speculate about whether there will even be brick and mortar stores ten or twenty years from now. Print publications are shutting down, one after another, as people get their corporate news and entertainment for free online. New York’s Village Voice – an alternative newspaper – is the most recent casualty. The iconic red plastic boxes are empty all over the city. The physical world is failing.


The recent UN report on climate change shows us that the natural physical world is also failing. And I can’t help but think there is a connection. We are embracing cerebral virtus and closing our eyes to Mother Earth. We are so entranced by the logic of virtuality we have forgotten how organic matter works. As we can draw and erase on a screen, change themes and colors at will, we’ve forgotten that the natural world is not malleable like that. As location is irrelevant in cyberspace and your address is in “the cloud,” we’ve forgotten that ecosystems are place-based, cannot be moved, and each serves a vital, irreplaceable function on earth. As a click of a mouse creates instant effects, we forget that in the natural world, change takes decades or millennia. The global warming we’re seeing today is because of fossil fuels we burned years ago.  As we can easily hit “delete” on a screen or move something to the trash and throw it away, we’ve forgotten that there is no “away” – there’s only moving our waste from one place to another. As virtual space is infinite, we’ve forgotten that space on earth is finite. And as life online is largely free and easy, we’ve forgotten that anything worthwhile on earth takes effort, time, work, and even sacrifice. Our collective fantasy is crashing into our reality with devastating effects.


And in the midst of all of this, humans are more isolated from one another than ever. We spend more and more time online, ordering what we used to go out to stores for. We text and browse social media, where we used to get together with our friends. Studies have shown that as people use their phones and live in the virtual world more, we slowly lose our ability to read social cues and body language and communicate with real people. The birthrate in Japan has been dropping dramatically and in surveys and speculation, they’re finding that – among other reasons – it’s because people are scared of each other. They’d rather watch online porn or play games than risk face-to-face contact with all its uncertainty and vulnerability. Here in the U.S. too, teenagers are going out with their friends less, dating less, getting more depressed and anxious, and having less sex – which has the happy side-effect of fewer teen pregnancies, but the reason is not good. As a human species, we’re deciding that we’d rather be on our phones than have sex. Think about that!


Sex aside, we have too little touch. With all the cases of violent and unwanted touch in the news these days, we forget that touch is something that we need as physical adamah-beings. Babies and even monkeys who don’t get touched can die. Elderly people with too little touch suffer much more from depression and disease. We humans need physical contact and eye contact with other human beings. It matters so much that we are in a room together right now. I know some people are watching online and although that is way better than nothing, I think they would be the first to tell you, it’s not the same. This is why we’re building a chairlift – so everyone can get into this space. Because our physical presence together, our singing together, our talking together, our shaking hands and our (consensual) hugs matter.


There is something ineffable but irreplaceable about the physical presence of another human being. We rarely pause to take in the miracle of our existence – the genius conglomeration that is us – somehow physical and spiritual, energetic and emotional. We give off heat and scents and create vibrations with every word and every heartbeat. Our eyes tell an entire story, while taking in the story of another. Our bodies die and the foreknowledge of that death makes everything urgent. We are earth animated by spirit. Try to siphon off just the spirit and upload it to the internet and you are left with virtually nothing.


Plato got it backwards: this world is not a wanna be imitation of some ideal world of forms in the clouds. Actually, it is the virtual world of the cloud that is an imitation of physical life on earth. God is at least as present in the adamah as in the virtus. As we find ourselves in the midst of autumn right now, with days getting cooler and nights getting longer, we can immerse ourselves in the unique beauty of place and time, of leaves that fall from trees, of things that fade and die. Let’s take a moment to marvel at our own skin, the miracle of our own adamah-bodies, made the bodies of everything and everyone who came before us.


The Oculus Go ad ends with the line: “Live every story. Because when you learn to love a life different from your own, the world becomes a little closer.” That sounds so romantic, but the truth is, we cannot live every story. We are finite beings and it’s all we can do to fully live our own story. And if we really want the world to become a little closer, the real challenge is to bridge the enormous gulf between ourselves and our closest neighbor. To commit ourselves to that – to be present with who we actually are and to open ourselves to the physical presence of the other; to look into the eyes of another human being – that is as wild a ride and as much adventure as any of us can ever really handle.



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