In the beginning was the Word

Sometimes new technology gives us a new perspective on old things. Ever since our species learned to use shaped grunts as symbols for things and actions, we have been talking about the meaning of life and where it all came from.

So I cannot really avoid the topic of religion, even though I dread being hammered with comments informing me of the correct one and how I should belong to it.

I am not here to tell you who or what to worship. Indeed, although some will tell you otherwise, one of the principles my country was founded upon was the idea that religion is something you cannot force on people. Back them when there was no actual Constitution, there was so much concern about the ability of a strong central government to suppress individual rights that a set of guarantees had to be written and appended to the Constitution before it could be ratified. This set of guarantees is called the Bill of Rights, but it is actually not a bill at all — it is the first ten Amendments to the Constitution — added to make representatives more comfortable with signing the document on behalf of their States. It’s basically a list of things the government is NOT allowed to do to reduce human liberty.

It is sad and funny that decades ago someone went around New York showing an unlabelled copy of the Bill of Rights to people trying to get them to sign it as a petition, and were told that no one wanted that kind of “commy stuff.” Many Americans do not realize that freedom of religion is not just a concept — it is specifically guaranteed by the First Amendment. It is that important.

Back to virtual space and religion. Many religions (no, not just Christianity) have contained the idea of one or more Gods entering our world as one of us. Sometimes it is done to travel about incognito and see how we are doing, sometimes it is for some kind of intervention. One of the words used for this kind of incarnation is, of course, “avatar”. I am no expert, but I believe that in India there are numerous depictations of gods and goddesses who are actually avatars of a few gods. Apparently, a god can wear many hats….or bodies. Sometimes these different versions of the God are called “aspects” or manifestations.

Early on in cyberspace the term avatar was, therfore, appropriated to mean the incarnation of a user in the virtual realms. You log in and control the actions of your avatar, and the words you type are “said” by it to the other avatars there….and read by their human creators. This was used in the movie Tron in an even more extreme way, in which the hero Flynn was a human sucked into the computer and incarnated there as a virtual denizen of the virtual habitat.

In a way, proponents of Christianity and other faiths might be indebted to the new medium of online virtual worlds, because it finally gives people an easy way to visualize how God might decide to incarnate in our world as “one of us”.  Making an avatar in World of Warcraft or some other online game gives you a seemingly godlike ability to insert yourself into the scenenery without all the questions evoked by a virgin birth, etc. Indeed, I believe I am not the first or only one to wonder if our world is God’s video game. The word “avatar” has come full circle. There is even a video game of the same name, based on the movie.

Online games have gotten sophisticated enough to step out of the “black-and-white” thinking of pure good and pure evil. For example, in the World of Warcraft, the human-led Alliance fights against the Orc-led Horde….but the Horde is not actually evil, by any means. Oh, there is evil in the game: the Burning Legion of demons who at one time manipulated the Orcs. But the Orcs rebelled and freed themselves of that control. They are different from the Alliance, but not evil, no matter what Alliance players will tell you. I have played on both sides, and I can tell you that either side can look pretty evil when they gang up on you for an easy kill. But the honest truth is that different does not equal evil. It’s a good lesson for us here in the Real World, now that we have grown beyond the simplistic demonizing of the “Evil Empire”, as one of our presidents characterized it.

Virtual worlds offer numerous metaphors for religious concepts. Objects and people can be “created” from nothing. Well, not nothing, obviously…they take up memory space in the computer and fills records in databases. But you know what I mean. The scientist in me rebells at the idea that something can come from nothing. But as a player I know if I click a certain button, I can make something appear that was not there before. Skeptics have asked how a God could make things appear from nowhere. Physicists know that extra energy involved in a particle collision can appear as a new particle that was “not there” before. You smack a speeding proton into one coming the other way and you end up with extra stuff you didn’t have before. But while we see this happening in accelerators, many scientists have trouble with the idea of, say, loaves and fishes appearing out of nowhere, because of the incredibly huge quantities of energy needed to create all the particles that make up the atoms and molecules of this created food. (E = mc squared) Where was this energy before it became food? they will ask.

I’m not here to contradict or to support Scripture. I’m just saying that in virtual worlds we can see the sort of things happen that used to be only referred to in the realm of religion. In Warcraft and other games, your avatar can be killed…and brought back to life. He or she can be wounded in battle…and healed by a priest or shaman. Things can be created. Spirits and demons can be summoned. And so on. it gives us, therefore, a new way to experience things that heretofore we could only read about in religious literature. Anything that can be imagined and rendered on the monitor can be yours to experience.

Does this easy access to virtual miracles water down the uniqueness of religious experience? Or does it help make descriptions of miracles and resurrections easier to visualize – and thus easier to believe? I am sure some religious speakers would complain about the time people spend in virtual worlds, since time is a finite resource, and time spent playing is not spent praying. But I will bet others have seen how cyberspace expands our ability as humans to minister to each other. It is a good and worthwhile thing to visit the sick and the infirm to relieve their isolation and loneliness. And now we can “visit” people far away in the click of a mouse. There are even ecclesiatical websites and virtual churches where people can go for inspiration and fellowship without hopping in a car and burning gasoline. if I ever get put in a nursing home (er, sorry, I mean “assisted living” residence heh), it damn well better have fast Internet access — because TV isn’t enough for me anymore.

There are those who say who say this veil of tears is watched over by a God. That “all the world’s a stage” where we act out our roles, and hope for a good review. I’m not here to tell you what to think or believe. But I hope you do think about the meaning of it all. Victor Frankel said that the most fundamental psychological need is a need for life to have meaning. He survived a concentration camp in WWII and observed first hand that prisoners without hope sickened and died, and that those who still had hope held out far longer in the cruelty of the camps.

Those who consider gods unlikely have to find another way for life to have meaning, or face the horror of a pointless life in an uncaring universe. I’d like to think that there is meaning. I’d like to believe that Someone cares. Because I do. –MRK

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15 Responses to “In the beginning was the Word”

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    Please, Virgil. I am trying hard to tell it all. But you have to look! Look up on the top of the page. The URL to my WordPress theme is there! IN the blue rectangle, under Futiquity. It is not a link. but you can highlight it and copy it and paste it into your browser’s address field. Or just type it in. I am trying, friends. Please meet me half way by paying attention! Repeating myself takes time. I do not have time to keep repeating this URL so I put it there, right there at the top of every page! Forgive me for getting cranky. This I give the World. Take it! Don’t keep asking for what is already given! Take it! –MRK

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