Occasional discussion has been popping up again within the past months on religion in virtual worlds such as Second Life. As I’m a believer in the validity of at least some aspects of religious practice in world — I’ve devoted over 20 articles here to my activities at the Anglican Cathedral in Epiphany region — I’ve been curious about the matter, and would like to weigh in briefly.
First, let’s get the groundwork out of the way. Most people, at least, don’t particularly worry about church sacraments unless they happen to be a member of churches in the “liturgical tradition” — such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church (or its various other sisters in the Anglican Communion), or the Lutheran Church. Sacraments are defined in the Christian tradition as “a Christian rite (as baptism or the Eucharist) that is believed to have been ordained by Christ and that is held to be a means of divine grace or to be a sign or symbol of a spiritual reality.” (Merriam-Webster Online). Since the fracturing of the Catholic Church during the Reformation, there has not been a complete agreement on how many of the “great rites” are true sacraments — gotta love doctrinal wars, don’t ya? The Catholics give seven: baptism, confirmation in the church, Holy Eucharist (Mass), penance (confession), anointing of the sick, holy orders and matrimony. Anglicans see only two, baptism and the Eucharist, as “true” sacraments, as they were directly instituted or sanctioned by Christ; the Orthodox traditions call the list of seven the “major sacraments,” but see almost anything the Church does as being of a sacramental nature. You can see how messy this gets in the long run; arguments over such things have resulted in many a schism over the past twenty centuries.
Leaving aside the above discussion, and staying with the “big 7,” there are various physical things that go on in a sacramental rite in the Real World. The example most focused on in discussions over virtual-world sacraments would be Holy Eucharist, where the priest blesses the wine and bread, and then distributes them to the communicants for eating — “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven; the Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation….” You have certain physical elements that are blessed (we won’t go into questions over the actuality of transubstantiation here), and then consumed by the participants. Baptism is another — the recipients of the sacrament are touched with the blessed water, either by having it poured on them or through immersion, symbolizing being washed clean of their sins. Confirmation and anointing involve blessed oils, another physical element.
You can detect the theme, I think. How do you translate physical elements into a virtual world — blessed physical elements? I haven’t been aware of anyone saying that pixels of a host wafer are the same thing as the Host in real life. Is the avatar representation of a person being immersed in a virtual baptism ceremony actually imparting that baptism to the real person controlling it? And, of course, the most public sacrament, marriage, has its own boat load of questions. People have played with performing marriages by telecommunications for years, usually marrying their spouse by telephone; but Second Life is the place where people are getting into actual relationships and marriages performed in the virtual world, often while married to someone in real life as well. Are these marriages valid, especially if the celebrant performing the marriage is a priest? If valid, are the people committing potential bigamy? What obligations are the parties under, especially in the eyes of their respective churches? You can see why I’ve avoided anything but simple friendships in world, beyond the fact that I’m happily married in real life.
I’m not over-comfortable with most other aspects of online sacraments, either, with the exception of confession, which is prayer-based (see next). Online worship is good to the extent that it brings people together in new communities for spiritual contact and renewal of their faith. It’s especially relevant for the work of prayer, which can be done by anybody anywhere. The Anglican Cathedral, for instance, holds several prayer services during the week, including one in German, and a weekly prayer service and homily on Wednesdays. But I go along with the Cathedral’s leadership here, that sacraments are something that we shouldn’t get involved in. I wonder if the seriousness of such things becomes trivialized to some extent in an “environment” that isn’t real, and if the grace of the rites is truly communicated through the screen to the real person. Others have concurred with this; for instance, see this article at Ship of Fools about a survey concerning online worship.
It’s a tricky thing, though. In some ways, virtual reality is a reality, one that you can become easily immersed in. And who are we, as mere mortals, with no direct connection to the mind and thought of the Almighty, to say that grace and sacredness isn’t present in an artificial world such as Second Life? While I don’t approve of in-world sacraments, I accept the Cathedral as sacred ground, dedicated to the glory and purpose of Christ. Is this inconsistent on my part? Should I accept both if I can accept one as “real”?
As you can see, like most questions of religion, there is little easy about this. Does anyone else have thoughts on the matter?