Trying to think about life and how God makes it full

Virtual culture, virtual community, virtual humans: ergo, virtual God? (updated)

Yesterday, blogscapes left an encouraging message on my post about: 15 tips for blogging. Very kind. I had a look at their blog, and this post of theirs reminded me of the following article I’d written a couple of years ago, and posted here almost a year ago. As I revisited the article, I noticed that the footnotes and hyperlink relating to Tim North’s thesis that includes the reference to Sandia’s Elaine Raybourn no longer work, so here’s the reference: (Tim North, ‘The Internet and UseNet Global Computer Networks, 1994).

Is it possible to have a virtual society with virtual humans who create a virtual culture? Just over ten years ago, a thesis was produced by Tim North, which looked at these issues in the wider context of an anthropological study of the Internet and its users. Underlying his thesis was the primary research question of whether the users of the Internet and Usenet global computer networks form a society that has a distinct culture of its own. After discussing whether it is possible for a society to have more than one culture, North concludes that, ‘It seems reasonable…to assume that the members of a particular society all share the same culture.’ However, he goes on to argue that the nature of the Internet is such that it spans the globe, and that if it were to conform to the classical anthropological understandings of society and culture then its users would need to be from the one society. This obviously cannot be the case, and so he resolves the issue by creating a new term for the Internet’s societal structure, which he calls the pan-societal superstructure. So, a new way of thinking about society is created with the Internet. This pan-societal superstructure frees the Internet from some of the responsibilities of ordinary society such as providing food and shelter for its inhabitants, because its members are also members of societies that already provide those things.

This new way of thinking about society, virtual community and culture, (which sounds like an oxymoron) has nevertheless been taken seriously by the private sector as it engages with globalisation. For example, Sandia, a major research and development agency in USA is doing work in conjunction with BT in this country in developing virtual culture in cyberspace so that Internet communication becomes more like a ‘real’ place.

Some of the work they are doing incorporates the use of ‘avatars’ – human-shaped figures that can be generically representative, or fairly sophisticated 3D representations of an individual which include skin texture, hair and eye colour, all faithfully reproduced on the screen. Sandia’s Elaine Raybourn says, ‘The avatar is you in cyberspace… your avatar might ‘walk’ on the computer screen and ‘sit down’ at a table with others in virtual meeting space. It’s your persona on the Internet.’ Essentially, it’s a more sophisticated form of a ‘chat room’.

So, to some extent, a virtual human exists in cyberspace. But what effect does cyberspace have on valuing a human being? And where does cyberspace’s valuing of human beings lead in the discussion about humanity’s relationship to, and valuing by, God?

A remarkable youthworker in London’s East End, Shara Brice, has these thoughts as she reflects on the way the young people she works with use the Internet,

‘The interactions they have in these cyber chat rooms go unmonitored. My primary concern is not sinister acts going unmonitored, but senseless conversations that lead people to make decisions based on some unfounded realities they create amongst themselves. As a youthworker, I despair at then trying to decipher behaviour that is based on these alternative (and often absurd!) realities that fit nicely into the young people’s comfort zones and affirm them for whatever action (or lack thereof) they choose to take. It makes it difficult to work with them effectively. But even more importantly, I think it stunts their growth and character. They find a place where they can say and hear just what they want to remain comfortable. Their circle of support feels strong, as they are part of a cyberspace community that knows no limits and is not confronted by anyone who challenges this comfort zone.’

But one of the difficulties we face in cyberspace is how to tell the difference between what is virtually right and what is really virtual. This is because the Internet is one way in which the world has transformed irreversibly, and we have not yet figured out how to live in this new environment. The thing about cyberspace is that an individual can be completely disconnected from the norms of who they are: their name, skin colour, community relationships, family ties, even their body itself. In other words, the virtual world represents total freedom from traditional constraints. It is a venue for the fantasy inhabited by anonymous beings, who become what they are (not). (see Meta Mechlenborg on Douglas Davis art on the Internet)

However, we do not live alone as individuals in the Universe. Historically, we are creatures of community. The social sciences are in general agreement that we are products of the shaping of our communities, and that we in turn shape others who encounter us. So if a person’s community is predominantly virtual (e.g. being an only child of absentee parents, who is brought up with massive TV and computer input, lacking in social skills, who is home-tutored for schooling, who gets a job as a computer operator working from home), will that person’s self-image correspond to a virtual self-image, and only be able to conceive of a virtual God?

Embodying the Trinity in the Incarnation
From a Christian perspective, it seems quite weird to think of humanity being able to be valued if it is ‘disembodied’ in cyberspace. The apostle Paul sees no separation of being, either physical or spiritual, as he talks about the body being the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19-20). At an essence level, we cannot be who or what we are not. Later in that letter, he speaks of the resurrection of Christ, the dead, and our resurrection bodies. Paul insists that what will be for us will be as it was for Christ: transformed bodies for a transformed existence. But the reality of that eschatological transformation is not reserved for that ‘pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die’ sense, rather, it provides the Christian with a hope that must also be grounded and lived out in the real world in the present (1 Cor 15:58).

Of course, Paul’s context was very different to our current context from a technological perspective. But does that necessarily mean the hermeneutic for valuing human beings will need to be wildly different? One of the basic tenets of social Trinitarianism is that human beings are only fully human in their imaging of God when they are in living relationship with one another. Their individuality is only ever fully realised as they encounter the ‘other’ (see Andrew Hake, Theological Reflections on ‘Community’; Theology in the City: a Theological Response to Faith in the City, Anthony Harvey, ed. SPCK; p.65). This is because God is a ‘community’ of three persons who are fully individual only in their relationship with one another. As mentioned above, this ‘relationality’ has been a great insight from post-modernity about identity formation, and the nature of the Trinity. So perhaps the hermeneutical critique of relationality needs to be brought to the new context of cyberspace.

So, let us try to put these thoughts together. God is love in the fellowship of the Trinity. The Trinity is something we cannot see (and so could be loosely argued that it itself is in some kind of analogy to cyberspace). If the Trinity is something we think of as being encounter-able when we die and are resurrected, but we also bring Paul’s critique of the eschatological transformation of our bodies which means something very real to us in the present, then we cannot escape the obvious implication of the invisible (disembodied?) God taking physical human form in the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. So if the Ultimate Reality of the God of the Universe finds it necessary to show Ultimate Love and Value to humanity and the rest of creation in physical human form, then anything less is also bound to be something less than fully human, and subject to being treated in ways that are less than how we have been treated by the Trinitarian, Incarnational love of God.

Surely, this lies at the very heart of the festive season of Christmas.

Cyberspace needs the critique of the Trinity and the Incarnation if it is to be a place where humanity can be truly valued as we enter the new world before us.

Brice brings this incarnational approach to her own work, using the Internet and mobile phone technology:

‘I text my older teens regularly. They respond well to this and I find out a lot more because I have opened this channel between us. We feel like we are connecting. Because we are connecting, there is an added bond between us that can yield trust and accountability when we get together later in the week. Incarnational ministry means going where they are and meeting with them.’

Some Implications
As humanity finds itself in a shifting, transforming context through post-modernity and has to learn to live with itself and the world in new ways, it seems to me that the valuing of humanity is not something to be done in abstraction, or any disconnection from real flesh and blood interaction.

This brief article has many implications that I think will need to be grasped and interacted with by the Church if it is to meaningfully engage with the rapidly changing context of western civilisation. Some of these implications could be:

  • If missiological anthropologists tell us that God speaks to us in ways we can understand, then how does God speak into a virtual world inhabited by virtual humans who are participating in life in hitherto unknown ways?
  • How do we create moral virtual communities?
  • How will the Church be a foretaste of the new humanity in relationship with God as expressed in cyberspace?
  • How will eschatology and incarnation need to be addressed in cyberspace?
  • If only a small, but very powerful minority of the world have access to this form of virtual reality, will that minority exercise its power over the rest of humanity by insisting that virtual reality has precedence over normal reality?
  • How will the various humanities express their love to each other, and how will they value one another’s humanity?

The Church must take up the issue in this new millennium. Happy New Year to one and all!


January 7, 2007 - Posted by | blogging, contemplative, culture, god, jesus, mission, religion


  1. A cyber culture. I’m kind of in one that started out only as a place to put my thoughts. Now I’m in contact with several folks whom I otherwise wouldn’t be. There’s a danger to this. My daughter “lives” in MY Space and I really don’t know who all she talks to. There’s so many aspects to this whole thing that a lone comment in the middle of a sleepless night couldn’t possibly address them all. It’s a topic that needs to be brought up nonetheless as it’s impact is huge.

    Comment by timbob | January 7, 2007 | Reply

  2. Hi, thanks for the comment in blogscapes. Glad that a posting there kinda resurfaced this useful posting of yours. It looks like some of the socio-issues with the cyberworld have not been addressed or resolved yet, and frankly, don’t think they are easy ones to deal with.

    What you mentioned about avatars sounds very “Second Life”. I just read that Second Life now has its own virtual press! And users or inhabitants have to pay real dollars to read the virtual press!’s amazing how the real and the virtual are merging..a bit insane too!

    Comment by blogscapes | January 7, 2007 | Reply

  3. Yes blogscapes, its a massive new world. I hadn’t heard of “Second Life” before and have just gone over for a quick look. It seems nuts to me that you can build a whole virtual world and spend real money in it (even sounds weird writing ‘in’ it…). I can’t say I really understand it all, and as a naturally outdoors person, going into that virtual world doesn’t appear that attractive.
    Having said that, I can distinctly remember in the early 1980s, when personal computers were really starting to get going, that I wasn’t interested in them and didn’t want to get interested in them. I could never have envisaged using a computer everyday as a ‘normal’ part of work and life, and certainly not interacting with people like this in cyberspace. And for the last 3 months, having been laid up in bed with a badly broken heel, the internet has been fantastic – its made me re-think my attitude to folks who are completely housebound and bed-bound due to illness or infirmity etc.
    So, it makes me wonder how much further I’ll engage with the digital world.
    Timbob, it sounds like you’re quite concerned about your daughter, and I s’pose I would be too if I were in your shoes. My kids are all grown and did their teenage years when chat rooms were just starting, and back then we had a very old computer and a slow dial-up connection, so their getting involved in cyberspace like your daughter is was not a problem.
    But have you tried to get her to teach you about myspace and her cyberworld, and simply become a ‘learner’ in order to understand? In other words, take a deep breath, and allow yourself to be taken by her hand to places you’ve never been before and allow the Spirit of God to guide your questionings. And keep your nose open for the whiff of where God is already at work in her world – coz he will be. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

    Comment by revtc | January 7, 2007 | Reply

  4. Good questions!
    Being totally new to this blog world I am still navigating my way through and finding it interesting.
    Already, in less than a month I have connected with some other christians and there is this community feel that you speak of which has both surprised and blessed me.
    It also feels like an extension of our ministry in some ways.
    So far so good, but then we only visit other christian sites so my experience in cyberworld is very limited.


    Comment by faithwalk | January 8, 2007 | Reply

  5. Thanks for your comment on my blog, faithwalk.
    As you mentioned that the only part of cyberworld that you operate in so far is the Christian end of it, I was wondering whether you were considering taking on a missionary role into some of the non-Christian parts. I note from your ‘about’ page, that you’re very concerned about those who don’t know Christ yet, and for a real integrity to be present in Christian ministry.
    You seem to have a pretty good readership too, so maybe there’s already the genesis of a small mission crew committed to incarnating into the new world of cyberspace. New forms of mission are so desperately needed these days, and it will take some real courage and imagination for these new forms to arise.
    ‘Ask therefore the Lord of the harvest….’
    Bless you all.

    Comment by revtc | January 8, 2007 | Reply

  6. Amen Rev, it has been on my mind and being lifted in prayer! It is a different world than it was even ten years ago…
    new strategies are definitely needed to reach the lost.
    Bless you, and thanks for stopping by the blog!

    Comment by faithwalk | January 8, 2007 | Reply

  7. I will start off by repeating what I said in my comment on your second last blog – I could not understand this one at all!

    However, I am sixty years old, and you are a little bit younger!
    I have lived through an amazing sixty years of change.
    But that is nothing to what will happen in the 21st Century – the economies of China and India will possibly be the dominant world economies within a generation, and there is climate change. It will indeed be the end of Western Civilisation as we know it, just as I have lived through the ending of Western Civilisation as it was known in 1946 when I was born. To younger readers I would repeat the well known Chinese good wishes:
    “May you not live in exciting times”
    However, my atheism gives me a total conviction the Human Spirit will survive, with its age old Spirituality, often expressed in all forms Art.

    All this “Virtual Society” and “Cyberspace” stuff is a totally new language to me, and life is too short for me to learn a new language. To me it is simply a new art form. We have developed from the essential story tellers of the past …. to the written word …. to the printed word …. to cinema and television …. through to something I do not understand!

    To me all this computer stuff it is just another step in Human evolution – Art is now more and more for everyone.
    I quoted Elton John’s comment about Art in an earlier comment, but I feel it is worth repeating:
    “Art can transform lives Art can make you look at life in a way you never have before. And it can take you to places well beyond your wildest dreams”

    LIVE – Feel Connected (sometimes) – Be Joyful (sometimes)

    Comment by Lawrence Woods | January 11, 2007 | Reply

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