Faith in a Virtual World

Don: We’ve been talking about faith in the context of Jesus’s statement that faith, justice and mercy are the weightier matters of the law. Last week, we were looking at the relationship between culture and faith. That is: What effect does faith have on culture, and what effect does culture have on faith?

Just as we were concluding our discussion, the subject of technology came up, as a component of culture and how it might affect faith. It raised the question in my mind: What does faith look like in a virtual world? What does faith look like in an artificial intelligence world? (These are not the same things.) It’s clear—and something I think that’s intuitive to all of us—that through technology we can now experience and appropriate things we could not have dreamed of in the past. Things not seen before now can be seen. Things not heard before now can be heard.

It raises the questions: What is real and what is not? What is reality and what is fake? Is virtual reality real or is it an illusion? And where can we find God in it? If two or three are gathered together in God’s name on Facebook, is God there? If 10 Jewish men meet on Zoom as a community of Israel, can they say the Mayan prayer? If 40 Muslims congregate on Skype in order to perform the jummah congregational prayer, does it count? What does faith look like in a virtual world?

The COVID crisis has plunged us into the virtual world suddenly and en masse, in ways that we could not have imagined in the past. When it’s over, nothing will be the same again. Humans are by nature a rather suspicious lot. We don’t want God in a virtual world. We want a God with skin on him. Scripture implies that our deepest needs can only be met in the flesh. The Apostle John writes at the beginning of his gospel: “The Word became flesh, welling among us.” That’s the gospel we need. We have a God with “skin” on him.

Statistical trends suggest that the virtual reality and artificial intelligence challenges will only intensify as teens approach adulthood. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of teenagers who own a smartphone doubled from 2011 to 2013. And by 2021 (which is almost here) more than 95% of teens will have access to a cell phone of their own. 45% of teens say that they are online “almost constantly.” 94% have a Facebook account and although Facebook interest is declining, the use of YouTube and Instagram, Snapchat, and other social media are all-consuming to teenagers.

These statistics suggest that the rising generation will face a virtual world down the road.

It’s a good thing that people have faith. It’s a good time for people of faith to now reflect on how well digital technologies serve faith communities, and consider how the future of religion will be altered and changed by the virtual world and what it is that binds people together. Virtual reality allows anyone to join meetings regardless of their physical ability or appearance. It offers a chance to be viewed without judgment in ways that offline communities do not. You don’t have to have good hair, you don’t have to even have good clothes to join the virtual community and look good. We worry that the internet may make physical presence secondary to manufactured sights and sounds. But for some, this can be liberating.

Just last month, Kanye West gifted his wife Kim Kardashian a 40th birthday surprise. Through the power of technology, a hologram of her father, who passed away nearly a decade ago, appeared in her living room to felicitate her birthday. The hologram spoke to her of her childhood, of her recent successes, about her husband and her four children. She was blown away by this experience and shared it with many on YouTube. Recently, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Barack Obama about his new book. They appeared to be talking to each other in a living room in front of a nice fire. [Click here to watch.] Barack Obama was in Washington DC, and Oprah was in her home in Santa Clara, California.

So the question is, what is real? What is faith, and how does it work, in a virtual world? In studying for this class I came across something even more remarkable: A ”virtual church.” [Watch video here.]

Hebrews 11:1 says that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. What is virtual prayer? What is virtual baptism? What is virtual communion? What is virtual fasting? What is virtual almsgiving? What is a virtual sermon? And what is virtual faith?

Can the “God spot” be satisfied in a virtual world? What does it mean, after all, to be human in a virtual world? Can faith be real and felt? What are your thoughts about faith in a virtual world? We’re going to talk later about faith in a world of artificial intelligence, which is not the same as the virtual world.

David: The examples shown above are worlds in which real humans are represented on the screen by the “avatars” in the form of a bear and so on. But increasingly, as gamers know, many of the “people” you may interact with in virtual worlds, especially in gaming worlds, are not actual people. They are artificial intelligences that can speak and act as though they were people. Right now, non-gaming virtual worlds are populated by human beings, but increasingly we will share those worlds with artificial autonomous intelligences that make their own decisions. They have their own free will, in a sense.

Jay: We tend to think that the virtual is fake and the physical realm in which we live and can touch with our own hands and taste and so on is real. But how real is God? We can’t touch, smell, or taste God, so how “real” is God? That’s where faith comes in. I think we believe in the reality, the realness, of God because it invokes some emotion in us. It invokes goodness, love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. If the virtual reality does the same thing, is the experience any less real?

Donald: In a sense, God is virtual, by our definition of virtual. No one has touched him or felt him or seen him. But we try to make him real, we try to make him analog. I think we strive as human beings to make God, who is virtual, into somebody real in our lives. That’s our effort, and we do it through faith. That’s a tool. Another tool is probably belief. When we feel very close to God, it’s getting close to being analog. I don’t think I used the word “virtual” as a teenager or even as a young adult. Now we use it all the time.

In the future, do you think that the rooms in our houses will be green rooms? In order to have Oprah and Obama appear to be together, they had to have a green drop behind them. The virtual baptism is very good but it’d be even better if you the people were more real, less cartoonish.

Don: I think we have to acknowledge our biases, including our age biases. Some older people can’t imagine interfacing with people in this way and being able to establish what they would consider powerful binding relationships. Younger people seem to believe that they can build these kinds of relationships in a more virtual sense.

Noah: It’s a tool like any other kind of like tool that we have. It’s important that we use it as such. It’s a way for us to communicate, at the end of the day, and I’m noticing that the ways we can communicate are expanding. On top of that, it’s also somewhat important to mention personal experiences. A friend who played the game League of Legends got along well with another player. Their communication was so genuine, they were able to use that as a jumping off point to actually meet in person, in the flesh, and one of them moved to the other’s state to be closer and build the relationship. So it’s like a stepping stone to get to know people even better.

Something I found interesting about the VR church video was that it brought up a very important point of anonymity, of being like a mystery. And I think that’s really important, because the fact that you’re a mystery person on the internet can be strongly used either for good will or for bad will. But it’s all about that genuine concern, and a genuine intent for good will, that people can actually learn something from the virtual church.

Virtual reality is definitely not 100% there, it’s not physical, it’s not something we can touch or feel. We can see it, but we can’t touch it, we can’t taste it, we can’t really connect with it as strongly, but it’s definitely a tool for communication. And as such, we can use it to better spread faith.

Chris: Many times, when it comes down to it, when we’re wanting to portray something— whether it’s our relationship with God or our relationship with our fellow man—we almost feel sometimes like we can’t be genuine. Or we put up facades or barriers. What I find interesting about the use of technology is that what I’ve seen it do in specific instances is actually remove those barriers, remove those facades, so that people are able to be more open. Sometimes it’s open for good, and sometimes it’s open for evil.

I think it’s important to not underestimate technology and virtual reality and what it can actually do. In the videos above, I saw genuine connections between Barack Obama and Oprah created just because of the technology that was used. And likewise, in that virtual baptism, there was genuine connection with people as you could tell from the “Yay!”s at the end.

Dion: I’ve attended class in person, I’ve attended via Skype. I have the same connection to it either way. We use technology as a tool, but technology is transient. So we use it for a purpose and then we stop. But the pandemic has forced us into a new era where it’s a chronic symptom of what is to come. So it’s here to stay, and we need to change. And that’s where we need to see how these relationships can be fostered, not in an acute sense, but in a chronic sense, as Chris seemed to suggest. And as Noah said, people within this virtual world make a different kind of connection that moves people differently. That’s where it’s important to consider our biases (age and so on) about online reality and relationships, and building communication across different generations or different people. It might open our eyes.

Jay: You mentioned the tool of virtual reality. Donald mentioned the tools of faith and belief. Last week I approached this from the premise of faith being universal and from God, and therefore it is what it is. Whether a million years ago, 6000 years ago, 100 years ago or yesterday, faith is faith. But what we’re really talking about, in my opinion, is the interaction with faith and how we do that.

We’ve used many different tools over the course of human history by which to interact with faith, with this gift of God. In the creation story, it’s very simple: God walks with us in the garden and we exercise our faith through that. Over time, I think a tool that we have to acknowledge that we’ve used to interact our faith or build our faith, along with prayer and belief and these sorts of things, is religion. We established religions, so that we can have a paradigm, a construct, by which we can interact with faith.

So these are all tools, constructs, things that the human strives to put into place to continue to exercise faith, build faith, interact with faith, and so on. I see the potential of virtual reality as another one of those tools. So to say that faith is going to change because of virtual reality is contrary to my premise that faith is faith. But just as we’ve interacted with that same faith (I’m talking about a genuine goodness, love, grace, belief in, acknowledgement of) we’ve chosen to interact with that in many different ways.

Think how radical it is to be a Seventh Day Adventist! It’s not like we’ve been around since the beginning of time. I’m not saying that Adventism is wrong, please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that this has been a way for people to exercise their faith, to exercise a connection to goodness, grace, love and mercy, or even more, I would say, an acknowledgement of those things. And so if faith is faith, virtual reality may be another tool that we use to do that exact same thing that we’ve done all along. There’s no doubt that how we interact with faith, how we look at faith has evolved since the garden to now. But faith is faith.

Donald: I couldn’t agree more. I think church is a tool. Let’s not use “religion” only. We say church has been a tool for us to find God, but we actually have it as a tool to find relationships too. But in a virtual church you can’t shake hands with each other or hug each other. You can’t touch. And there’s something about touch. I think it’s going to take a little bit more technology.

I have never thought of church as being a tool. I have to bring faith to church, or church is meaningless. Faith, to me, is an environment. I want to find myself an environment to find God. And faith is the tool I use to do that, and church is an even more specific tool. But the pandemic has been a very interesting thing.We don’t touch each other much anymore but the pandemic has shown us that technology is another way in which we can connect. It’s not pure. We can’t hug. I still say we need to start building green rooms and up the ante.

Chris: What if we put the younger people into a room together for a “texting only” Sabbath School Class—no touching, nothing except texting. I think that they would connect in ways the elders would not understand. We’re trying to define what’s genuine, what that true connection is, what’s pure, when it’s different for everybody, because in a way, faith is different for everybody.

Donald: I agree with you. If some older people had to rely on technology as the only tool to find faith, they’d find themselves coming up pretty short. Technology can seem overwhelming. So we’ve got to recognize that until it becomes as simple as sitting down and talking to each other….

Jay: … Even that rings of: “There’s this tool and it’s the right tool.” Older people do not have to get to the point of accepting virtual reality and all that in order to have a faith relationship. Faith is not based on the tool. It’s the other way around. The tool is used to interact with faith. This is another bias—that there is this number-one tool, this right one. Maybe it’ll be the VR suit that we all put on and we put our goggles on and when somebody touches you, you feel the touch through pressure sensors in the suit. And you’re so immersed in the virtual reality that it feels like you’re right there. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right tool. I don’t think there is a “right” tool. I think we have to keep that in mind.

Kyra: I agree that faith is faith and not necessarily different for everyone, but that everyone practices faith in a different way. But I think that sometimes church can often be like an exclusive, closed space, yet faith is for everyone. In the virtual world, people are more understanding of people’s differences. Sometimes when you’re in church, and you see someone walk in whom you do not know, and they don’t look like you, and they don’t act like you, you tend to just feel closed off from that person. But when you’re online (going back to the issue of anonymity) you can’t see that person, you don’t know what they look like sometimes. And that’s okay. You could still have a real a genuine connection with those people. Because online, I think more people understand that faith is for everyone.

Janelin: It’s just so hard for me to grasp that I could connect with Winnie the Pooh. There are limits! At church, for sure, there’s a facade, and it does take the superficiality away in virtual reality. But as human beings, we’re creative. It’s supposed to be touch and hugs and face to face. I think it’s back to its being a stepping stone, because with VR, it’s good, you can take all that away and get to understand each others’ personalities, their likes and all that. It takes away the external look. But there’s that facade. I mean, you’re not Winnie the Pooh! It’s just crossed the line. It’s hard for me—I guess I’m older too. I just can’t grasp this concept.

I had a patient, an elderly lady. I saw her a couple weeks ago. And she said: “You don’t understand how much I miss hugs. I just want a hug.” And at that moment, I really wanted to let my guard down but I still just gave her an air hug, which was not even enough. It made me so sad. Humans were created to have interaction and physical touch. It’s a huge part of relationships. And even if you wear a datasuit that creates pressure points, it’s not the same.

Jay: I agree, touch is a huge part of the relationship. It’s the tool we use to show a meaningful connection with people. There’s no doubt about it. The question is, if I can’t hug and touch God, how am I building relationship with him then? That’s where I struggle. I think it’s also important to say that the virtual touch or hug will be better than the other one. This is the other thing. We think of technology as a continuum of “better-ness.” And there’s no doubt that what is better for my dad is very different than what has been better for me and that is very different than what is better for my daughter, especially in interfacing with technology.

For example, an old friend, Jim, asked me to give out a flyer for honey (he keeps beehives). The flyer was amateurish. I have third graders who can make a better flyer. It was as bare bones as it could be. I said, “That’s great. I’m sure you have it electronically, just send it to me in an email.” And he said, “No, I don’t.” I said, “Well, how did you make it?” And he said, “Well, you know, I took some pictures and I cut them out and I put them on the copier. And then I had the other piece of paper and I put it over top of that with the words and I copied it. Now I have some copies!”

That’s old school. Right? So then I think automatically, OK, give it to me—I’ll scan it, then I’ll have an electronic copy to email out to people. But I know that my daughter will think, “That’s unnecessary. Let me put together a little Facebook advertising campaign for you and Bam! We’ll have this thing out there and we’ll be done. Bingo!”

So it works for everybody. That’s the point I’m trying to make. It’s not that one is better than the other; it’s that Jim’s way is really good and meaningful for Jim. And it is meaningful for me to say I will blast it out as an email. And it’s meaningful for my daughter to say “I’ll get this out on Instagram and Facebook.” It’s okay if it’s better for you. The problem is that we tend to think that if it’s better for me then it has to be better for you too, since we’re both human beings. And that’s where we get into trouble.

Noah: I definitely think it’s more of a tool. But I also think it’s important to note that it’s about when to use it and how to use it. It was mentioned that there is a kind of dissonance in seeing Winnie the Pooh as a facade—as the wrong kind of facade. And it’s definitely important to note that there are right tools for right people. And there’s a certain way that some people do some things. And there’s other ways other people do other things. And I think it’s really important to note that it’s who uses what and how we can also convene somewhat, and use our own tools with other people (as, for example, in the honey flier story). The point is to work together with other people who may be older or younger and more or less tech savvy, but to start working together to spread faith, that’s also really important.

Obviously, you can’t do everything in VR, and you can’t have all the sensory connections. But it’s possibly also a point to make, that it’s about making the emotional connection and then being able to meet together to make that physical connection. It’s really about using the right tools at the right time. And then also making sure to connect with people so you can expand your array of tools and the ways you can meet people, the ways you can interact with people. So that way, you can expand the entirety of faith.

To digress, I heard an interesting phrase: “The World Ends with You.” The world ends where you make it end. Essentially, the world is as big as how many people you connect with. And I think that connection is what’s really important. It’s not necessarily about if it’s real, if it’s sensory, if it’s analog, if it’s physical, or if it’s digital. It’s not physical. It’s really about person to person and connection to connection. Granted, artificial intelligence is another story. But when it comes to one person and another person, it shouldn’t matter the distance, or the situation in which you meet—it’s how you’re meeting that person, how you’re talking to them, and if you’re having a genuine experience.

Ahmed: I want to applaud the choice of the topic. It’s very interesting. One fact is that the Internet and virtual reality will continue to exist. They’re here to stay and they will continue to evolve. And they are a tool, a very important tool that allows us to facilitate many things in our lives—like these meetings. But from a personal standpoint, I still think that it will never replace, for me at least, face to face personal interaction with human beings.

One thing that struck me about the Oprah / Obama interview was that if they had not told us that it was actually taking place in two distant places, we wouldn’t really know it, and we would actually believe that they’re sitting in the same room having this conversation. When I reflect upon this, it’s another pointer to the limitations of our senses in appreciating the true reality of things. Maybe our senses are not sharp enough or sophisticated enough to appreciate God.

He could definitely have chosen to be visible to us, and for us to see him; but he chose otherwise. He chose for us to believe in him despite that we actually cannot see him. This is part of the whole idea of faith: You believe in him, despite the fact that you cannot see him.

David: We’ve had quite a bit of discussion about the part the senses of sight and touch and hearing play in faith. I personally conclude that the physical senses play no part in faith. At least, not in my faith. But I believe there is a sixth sense—the spirit, the inner voice, something you can “hear” but not in the physical sense—which alone is what makes a spiritual connection possible.

None of the virtual worlds being created even pretends to bring anything like a spiritual sense with it. If there was one in the virtual church baptism clip that we saw—if you could sense a spirituality there, in the act of the baptism—why not? That spiritual sense would be there whether you saw the baptism in the virtual church or in a real church. The spirituality, the wonderment, of baptism would be there in any case.

The new technologies are creating a new Babel. Virtual worlds are becoming more and more broken up. Everybody can create their own virtual worlds, their own channels. We’re close to the point where there can be one virtual world per individual, one church per individual. But then why not go a step further and create your own your own virtual heaven on earth, and walk with God in it> All it takes is that green room Donald talks about. You would set it up as a paradise and spend your day walking in there with your virtual God. We haven’t got to the topic of AI yet but let’s suppose our virtual God is a super-intelligent AI?
Will it make any difference to faith if we all end up constructing our own heaven on earth? Are we going to allow the victim of the Good Samaritan to get mugged in our territory? Do we want to see the poor and the weak and the destitute in our virtual world, or will we shut them out?

Donald: If, as Ahmed pointed out, we were not told the Obama / Oprah interview was virtual, we would not have known otherwise. What if we saw Oprah interviewing God? She could do it, and we might even believe it if we weren’t told it was virtual. They could make God in a way that maybe God isn’t, or maybe they can draw us closer to God. My oh my, I don’t know where we are. I just know we’re on the journey. And the journey is continuing to change.

Kiran: I personally experienced virtual relationships using digital communication as a tool to connect with people. And what I realized is that there is so much good in it. There is a judgment-free zone where you can have courage to go in and talk to a person you would not talk to in real life. So it gives me an opportunity to talk to somebody that otherwise I would not, and then helps me to build a connection.

But when I met, in real life, a guy I had met in a virtual environment, it was weird, because I had pre-conceived notions about him that jarred with the reality. His body language and other parts of the whole communication made me feel like we were not having a good conversation. So I kept thinking, in my mind, how can we have such a good connection online but when we meet in person we’re like strangers? So now I talk with this guy only online.

The second thing is, I realized when I have a conflict with some of my friends, with whom I have to spend a lot of time, I have to deal with the conflict, I have to apologize. But in a virtual world I can escape, I can quit the group and go to another group instead. My friend pulls me out of this inhibitive phase where I don’t want to be with people or want to get involved in something. He puts me in an uncomfortable place, and then brings me into a place where eventually I see the good of it.

But if I’m in a virtual world where I’m anonymous, and I don’t like the place, and I can escape to some other place where I could be with people like me, would this relationship get to the point where we help each other and grow, where there would be commitment like the commitment of my real friend who is kind enough to observe something in me and point out to me that I have to address it? In the online world, I don’t have to do that. So I don’t know. I enjoy the benefits of VR, but I also see some areas where it is lacking. So I guess it’s going to evolve.

Don: If you could put all of the sensory stimuli that you have in a relationship in a virtual world, would that bridge the gap between face to face and the virtual world?

Kiran: Commitment seems key. Here I have no choice but to see you face to face on a weekly basis, so I can’t escape. But in a virtual world, I could go anywhere.

Ahmed: The problem is that you will still know that it is not real, and this will undermine your overall experience, in the end.

Janelin: Kiran used the word “escape” in the sense of almost buffering one’s feelings and not deal with the problem. Part of our growth—faith being a journey—is battling stuff head on. Escape limits our growth. Relationship conflict is all part of it. So it’s a slippery slope to escape for happiness. It’s an easy way out. We don’t like discomfort. Escaping is just our way of not dealing with what’s at hand at times.

Donald: The Ten Commandments say to have no other god before God. In other words, we must not escape from God for another god.

Don: Next week, I’d like to talk about faith in the artificial intelligence world. It takes the virtual world and puts it on steroids, in a sense. It is disturbing, and very, very thought provoking.

David: Today we’ve discussed faith and virtual reality technology from our own individual and generational perspectives. I think it’s important to think about the younger age groups, even those not yet born; about the future generations and the technology that they will be born into. Because technology is not standing still. It’s evolving, getting better and better and better. The gossamer-thin nanoweave datasuit of the future will provide a much more realistic sense of touch than today’s datasuit. You can bet your life that within a given time period haptic technology will advance so far that you can hug people and it will feel like a real hug. That is going to happen. So let’s not think just in terms of ourselves, and how it might impact our faith, because we’re ephemeral and so is the technology we’re dealing with today.

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One thought on “Faith in a Virtual World

  1. David Ellis says:

    I am posting this on behalf of Alice:

    I’ve just finished reading the transcript of last week’s class on faith and virtual reality. I like to do so usually because that gives me a better understanding of the whole view. I like it when people see the world now as Babel. I’ve been seeing it as such ever since I learned of the internet. It’s not only that the internet is the new Babel, it’s also a tool of deception to those who are led to believe that Man can reach the Most High by their own construct, like the people of old who foolishly tried by constructing the tower of Babel.

    I don’t believe that we, believers, need the internet as a tool to have faith. We have often said that faith is a personal thing. It’s the innermost connection point with God.

    Timely and right on the subject come these verses from God’s Word:

    But as for you, Daniel, keep these words secret and seal up the book until the end of time; many will roam about, and knowledge will increase.” (Daniel 12:4)

    Let the one who does wrong still do wrong, and the one who is filthy still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous still practice righteousness, and the one who is holy still keep himself holy.” (Revelation 22:11)

    For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12)

    For, while speaking out arrogant words of no value they entice by fleshly desires, by indecent behavior, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error,… (2 Peter 2:18)

    As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of people, by craftiness in deceitful scheming;… (Ephesians 4:14)

    God bless you.


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