I am a football fan. My love of the game started when I was young, grew in me as I playing high school football, and blossomed when I was a sideline "Chaplain" for Regis High School. Though no greatness was born during my days on the gridiron, my different experiences with football have given me a deep appreciation for the sport. This past year, while getting ready to watch some college Bowl games, I ran across a TV news piece on how virtual reality is changing the way that the Stanford football program is training their athletes. Check out this short clip for a summary of what they are doing.
After watching this piece, I started to do some more exploration into the subject and became fascinated by the many ways that different professions are using virtual reality. For example, I found another brief clip on how NASA is using virtual reality to help train astronauts for missions on the International Space Station (ISS). With virtual reality, they can simulate entire missions, allowing astronauts to experience working in space while still on the Earth. Here is another video clip on how this "virtual training" takes place.
Now, as fascinating and cutting edge as this technology is, there is another aspect of virtual reality that I am a bit uncomfortable with: Is there a point that the "virtual world" is so preferred that the "real world" is increasingly ignored? I had a taste of this danger in my youth because of my love of video games and role playing adventures. As with most things in life, there isn't anything wrong with either form of gaming. However, if proper boundaries are ignored with these pursuits, the long term impact can be devastating. I am reminded of the rare, but painful stories about how some youth that played role playing adventures became so engrossed in the game that, if their character died, they began to lose the will to live. These stories would often give me moments of pause (along with my parents) about my gaming habits, wondering whether or not I was falling into dangerous territory emotionally and spiritually. In the end, one of the lessons I learned is that, regardless of what type of gaming I did, I always needed to make sure that I stayed grounded, literally, in the real world. Yes, in moderation, I could enjoy the occasional video game or day of role playing, but if those activities began to pull me away from reality, ignoring the day to day responsibilities of life, then I knew I was approaching the edge of the emotional "cliff." Though I have no idea what the gentleman below is doing with virtual reality, I sometimes fear that this powerful tool and gift to humanity has the same risk as my gaming and role playing did in high school, creating a culture in which the virtual world literally blinds us to the real world.
You may be asking, "What, if anything, does virtual reality have to do with theology?" After all, the title of this blog post points to an overlap between faith and science in regard to the topic. One of the connection points I see is in regard to an ancient controversy having to do with the relationship between this world and the metaphysical world otherwise known as Gnosticism. One aspect of Gnostic philosophy and theology was its metaphysical dualism. What this means is that the only reality that one needed to care about was the spiritual realm, rejecting the material realm as evil, teaching that life's goal was to liberate one's self from the material into the spiritual. This was accomplished through a secret knowledge that was reserved for the few and spiritual elite. Therefore, Gnosticism was not a philosophy of inclusion, but it was intentionally exclusionary, isolating and distancing its followers from the real world.
Again, you may ask, "But how is this different from Christianity's emphasis on life's goal being to get to Heaven?" Yes, Christians believe in a metaphysical world that transcends the physical world. However, one of the big differences between Christianity and Gnosticism is that Christianity affirms the fundamental goodness of all of creation while Gnosticism does not. Further, Christian Anthropology reminds us that a Catholic vision of the world affirms that, despite the damage Original Sin has done to our world, the fundamental goodness of creation still remains. To use a metaphor, the "glass" in the "window" is badly cracked, but not completely shattered; the world may be severely damaged because of sin, but the fundamental goodness of creation remains despite this damage. In Gnosticism, the window itself is an illusion that needs to be rejected. Whether our metaphorical window be cracked or not, it doesn't matter: All material is evil to the Gnostic. To contrast this with a Christian worldview, the pursuit of heaven emphasizes that what happens in this world matters and that we have a responsibility to be good stewards of this world. Therefore, desiring the metaphysical world doesn't take us away from the physical world, but rather calls us to embrace it even more as we strive to be citizens of the Kingdom of God. Christ has already established this kingdom through his life, death, and resurrection, but will not be fully revealed until we pass from this world to the next. From this standpoint, Christians live with both feet in this world, while acknowledging that we eagerly strive and hope to enjoy eternal glory in the next.
At this point, I feel the inclination to start drawing the parallels (or distinctions) between virtual reality, Gnosticism, and Christianity. Can I argue that there is an inherent danger of escapism in virtual reality that is similar to the metaphysical dualism of Gnosticism, rejecting the material world? Yes, I can definitely see that danger and connection. However, does that mean that I can just do away with virtual reality, labeling it as intrinsically evil and all good Christians should stay away from it? Well, no, I can't say that because if it is used to help better ourselves and the world, similar to the Stanford football team and NASA astronauts, there is a hint of the Christian disposition that an "other worldly" experience is helping us live better in this world. Then again, is it an improper metaphor since virtual reality is an illusion while heaven is real? Yes, I could easily see somebody giving honest criticism about this connection given the fact you are dealing with two very different realities (or virtual realities). Welcome to why I included "speculations" in the title of this blog.
Despite my inability to draw a pure analogy in this comparison, the deeper question I have is this: What does our fascination with virtual reality, video games, and role playing tell us about our natural human wiring for something that is other worldly? Let's face it, regardless of age, gender, culture, or religion, there is a natural fascination with the question: Is there something other than the world we see? The pursuit of this question is at the heart of a healthy spiritual life, but can also find expressions in more destructive behaviors. Growing up a teenager in the late 80's and early 90's, I remember the strong social call for a "War on Drugs." I remember hearing that one of the religious takes on this "war" was that teenagers (of which I was one of at that time) often turned to drugs in order to create a "false mysticism" in contrast to a "true mysticism" offered by faith. Given my lack of experience with drugs and my priestly ministry to those who have struggled with drug abuse, I don't feel qualified to elaborate on this mentality other than to say that the reality of drug abuse is far more complex than what this distinction implies. At the same time, have I met people who have told me they use substances, gaming, and role play to escape reality? Absolutely! At the same time, have I met good, grounded people who have never had drug issues that live a happy life in this world due in large part to their desire to be with God for all eternity in heaven? Absolutely! What I often find between these two examples is a simple rule of discernment: The fruit that comes from our pursuit of heaven often reveals how healthy that pursuit has been. Put another way, a true pursuit of the true heaven grounds you more deeply in the real world with the fruits of joy, peace, meaning, and purpose. A false pursuit of a false heaven can lead to escapism, sadness, exclusion, and depression.
What would your contribution be to drawing parallels and distinctions between virtual reality and faith? Post your thoughts and, together, let us try to find a healthy balance between this world and the "virtual world" that seems to be an inevitable part of our future.