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Friday, January 19, 2007

Second Life and St. Ignatius

What is real? Waht is virtual? Can something be both virtual and real? I think St. Ignatius of Loyola would say yes.

This week's Tablet has an intertesting article by John McDade SJ that touches on the impact of illusion on our true selves ... he contrasts the effect of presently existing virtual worlds (like Second Life), with the virtuality of the imaginative prayer of St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises.

If like me you're a fan of science fiction, you'e familiar with the idea of lived virtual reality ... think William Gibson's Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Maybe it's that familiarity that makes me optimistic about use of virtual reality, secualr as well as religious ... Fr. McDade is more cautious.

Here below is a bit of the article - Mine Is The Kingdom. I had to do quite a bit of chopping, so best to read the whole thing ...

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In this article, I want to raise some questions about the relation between illusions, or if you prefer the term, "virtual reality", and religion.

We are shaped by the outer world intermingling with our inner world - that, after all, is how children develop and why horror films terrify us. We are all marshalled by the outer world in ways that connect with patterns in our nature to the point where "inner" and "outer" are indistinguishable. Using the eye as a metaphor for this contact, Jesus says in the gospel of Luke: "Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but if the eye is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness" (Luke 11: 34-5).

Darkness, Jesus seems to say, can come into us and fill us: darkness without, once admitted, resonates with darkness within, and, as he points out, we are potentially such deluded creatures that this very darkness can seem to be filling us with "light". But read his contrasting teaching in the Gospel of Mark, that what defiles us is not what comes into us from outside, but what comes forth from the heart: "for from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts ... " (Mark 7: 20f). The picture emerges that what comes to be dominant in a person has a double source: coming from outside, it is internalised and may come to govern us because it connects with something in our nature; coming from inside, it presses for expression through the body and the social and cultural world. Everything in our cultural world has natural roots and it is the way it is because we are the way we are and vice versa. Nature and culture are mutually reinforcing.

Why do these reflections matter? Because we are now living in a cultural context of such power that its constructs are internalised rapidly and painlessly without our being aware that this is taking place. The capacity of digital culture to blur image and reality targets our innate susceptibility to what is unreal ....

Visit a website called Second Life, an online digital world, imagined, created and owned by its residents, which presents itself as a "metaverse", a user-defined world. Here users create animated avatars, imaged versions of themselves - usually as humans, sometimes as imaginary creatures. The number of registered users is 2.3 million, up from 100,000 in early 2006, making Second Life a worldwide cyber phenomenon. It is growing at 20 per cent a month. "We are competing with the real world", said one of its founders, "to create a better place for your mind to live." .....

Perhaps the meaning-giving function of religion at a popular level is being replaced by digital versions of the real. At many stages in the Church's life, Christianity must have functioned as the parallel, image-laden version of life, its possibilities and terrors, the "metaverse" that peopled the cosmos with images of heaven and hell, and invited participation in a cosmic drama of the end-time. Now, when sensual fulfilment can be ravishingly portrayed digitally, when cosmic battles with unmatched horrors can be engaged in in the hour after supper, do we really need to think about dull things like an impending heaven and hell?

Several questions are worth pondering. Can the flourishing of our nature through virtues and connectedness to the absolute truth and love, which God is, be seriously impaired by the "metaverses" imagined by the self? Might the features of transcendence in our nature be diverted, redirected, modified, diminished and perhaps effectively quashed by the imagined world that we internalise almost addictively? Can the self become dependent on the unreal? The answer to these three questions would be clearly yes.

Imagination always matters, for good and ill. In the Ignatian spiritual tradition, it has a central role in enabling the person to become stimulated in relation to the truth of our condition and the revelatory visitation of God in Christ. Think, for example, of the meditations in the Spiritual Exercises on how the Trinity contemplates the state of the world that needs an Incarnate Saviour, the imaginative entry into the Nativity and Crucifixion of Christ and the contemplation of God labouring in all things. Through imaginative contemplation I am to visit these dramatic religious "sites" with the aim of orienting my real self towards Jesus who is God's self-imaging, his avatar or epiphany in our created order .....

I will end with two remarks which I think are increasingly incisive in relation to our present circumstances: the first is that "God is missing and is not missed". Many people now live in a desacralised landscape in which God is not mentioned, but in which digital versions of reality are increasingly pervasive: these features are not unrelated. The second comes from Simone Weil: "Idolatry is a vital necessity in the cave". Picking up Plato's image of the cave in which we have access only to projected images of the real, she judges that the worship of false gods in which we invest our attention is only to be expected. The principal issue for human beings, as the Bible repeatedly tells us, is idolatry by which the self constructs its imagined avatars. Of course, in a desacralised age, the idols that we worship will not be called "God" but will be simply those we create and to which we become addicted.

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8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

very interesting despite that confusing business of the absolute truth "that god is".

2:46 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks for your comment. Is this the line you were quoting ...

Can the flourishing of our nature through virtues and connectedness to the absolute truth and love, which God is, be seriously impaired by the "metaverses" imagined by the self?

I'm not sure myself what the writer of the article, the writer, Fr. McDade, meant by that. Maybe something to do with transcendental properties of - Truth, Goodness and Beauty (and Love)? I'm not a brain about theology :-)

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting subject crystal and I guess what I wrote today in my blog might fall into that kind of surrounding or would it? I would really be interested in what you think!

A little of what comes to mind at this time concerning your post is that "The Holy Trinity" should be our only true source of twin fiction and reality but I know that many would not come close to slightly agreeing with me.

To think that Our Heavenly Father could place in a single grain of sand His Entire Universe by simply Commanding it to be, I would think is not for us humans to understand less agree and maybe that's why He gave us Faith?

I also believe that if any body was to ever reach God's Light through Faith then we humans certainly will have achieved a much prefered state of reality, would you not agree?

It is so tempting to have fun with virtual reality in other state but I also believe that we better stay very close to prayer while we're at it. (lol)

7:42 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Crysal,

All very metaphysical for me. I'm not sure I can follow it. One thing I do notice as I watch my kids online is that their generation is one in which the virtual is very much a part of their reality. Their mother and I warn them about how much time they spend on the computer and ty to limit it, but we also see that for their generation, being wired (or should I say wireless now) is entirely normal. Perhaps this is why some forms of charismatic religions are so popular nowadays. Perhaps it is an attemptto come back down into real earthiness and real human emotion. I know it is one of the things I most appreciate about sacramentalism, the ability to find grace in the physical and the commonplace.

8:58 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Victor,

I visited your blog and read the latest post - that is kind of like virtual reality, like writing a fictional story about yourself ... interesting dialogue.


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Jeff,

I think it's all about imagination. People daydreaming. It's just that now, the technology is so advanced that it can happen outside our heads.

In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius has people imagine a virtual world - the one of the gospels - and to put themselves in it with Jesus ... a low tech virtual reality that has a profound effect on a retreatant.

Remember Star Trek and the holodecks? That's like a high tech version of the Spiritual Exeercises (though secular, of course).

9:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't recal the exact talk right now but ther's a 20 min TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) talk but one guy mentoned that one of the things which set the first humans apart from their ancestors was this abaility to generate virtual experiences in order to 'practice' life choices prior to making them. It's why we just 'know' that liver and onion ice cream just won't work. We can experience the end result without actually having to make some and taste it.

I think that, as with all human creations, we will find both our divine roots and our penchant for sin influencing the ultimate outcome. Can it be any other way? Even now there are places of great light and horrifying darkness, scattered through the www. This is what we are about as we travel this pilgrim Way. I don't think further foray's into creating virtual 'metaverses' will have a traumatic affect on how we percieve the Truth of who God is and who we are in light of that. It may seem to at times but in the end, Truth remains (this is it's nature) and thought we may underline the contrasts on a more graphic level in a virtual experience, Truth and the choice to ignore it or not will remain.

What blows me away with this Second Life thing (saw a news story on it a few weeks ago) is that people can 'invent' a virtual pair of sunglass and become a real world millionaire selling them to other 2nd Lifers...that's crazy!

5:54 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Cura,

I agree with you. The technology may advance, but we'll pretty much remain as we have always been, with the same options.

Did I read that you dabble in virtual life a little yourself ... online fantasy role-playing games? I had a friend who made one of those just for himself and friends. It sounded like fun.

Yeah, Second Life's finanacil side is really interesting. Maybe I could get a virtual part-time job there :-)

11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hehehe....you did! My wife and I LOVE playing NWN together. Generally over our home LAN with either the campaigns that came with or user-made ones. It can be a very imersive 'world' and the persistent world communities really have evolved into universes unto themselves. Beating on evil monsters is a great way to relieve some of the day's stress and anxiety!

3:26 PM  

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