The pandemic has accustomed us to Zoom and other digital communications and allowed us to “bring the face of Christ to the Internet.” CNS photo/screen shot

Sr. Helena Burns: Virtual reality and theology of the body

  • November 19, 2020

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Virtual reality and theology of the body

Sr. Helena Burns, FSP

If you’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time staring into a screen these days … raise your hand. Or, as a gentleman tweeted recently: “How many people want to SCREAM after every Zoom meeting?” (He didn’t mean scream for joy). And, BTW, you can virtually, silently “raise your hand” on Zoom, also!

There has been a lot of kvetching about the overabundance of digital communicating since the pandemic began, but I’d like to put in a good word for virtual reality. Think about it. If we’re going to have a pandemic, we might as well have it in a digital age when many activities can continue, at least for now, online. Important activities like work, work meetings, commerce, baby showers, education, entertainment, keeping in touch with far-flung and near-flung relatives and friends, etc.

We’ve already heard many negative perspectives on this major uptick in virtuality. Harried parents have weighed in. The mental health profession has weighed in. Gym trainers have weighed in. Literally. I think the average human being can also agree that in-person physicality is almost always preferable to electronic encounters. But let’s also be grateful for having already had the interweb’s infrastructure in place before COVID-19 hit the fan. By now, most folks — including those of a certain mature age — have mastered basic Internet skills, but if not, the virus named corona has given ample incentive to all to finally get on board. Motherboard.

Why am I calling digital communications “virtual”? Isn’t virtual reality computer-simulated environments, worlds and games accessed by wearing clunky goggles and headsets? Yes and no. A narrow definition of virtual reality (VR) would be just that. But a broader definition of virtual reality is: “real in appearance and real in effects.” Therefore, all media representations are virtual. If we tend to think of the world of media as “not real,” maybe we need to think of it as real, but a different kind of reality: virtual reality. In an address for World Communications Day, Pope Benedict XVI famously observed that “the digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world, but is part of the daily experience of many people, especially the young.”

Although Pope Francis gives some much-needed warnings about the grave misuse of digital media in Fratelli Tutti, it’s really all up to us to use the power of our virtual presence not only responsibly but optimally, isn’t it? And it can be done! I am watching many individuals coming into the Church because of the online witness of charitable, civil, knowledgeable and joyful Catholics.

Bodies are not optional. There’s a reason God created us as bodies. Why can’t we go to Confession by Skype? Because the body must be present. (This sacramental question was actually settled much earlier with the invention of the telephone.) The sacraments are not convenient — but that makes them quite beautiful, and each one of us quite valuable. God stops everything He’s doing, the Church stops everything she’s doing, and now this or that particular person — body and soul — is the most important thing in the world and receives the fullest attention.

The negative way to talk about the virtuality of media is: “The full gift of the bodily presence is not there.” The positive way to talk about the virtuality of media is: “At least a part of the gift of the bodily presence is there.” And thank God for that! The good can be multiplied in space and time! Archbishop Fulton Sheen is dead, but millions can still listen to his voice on the radio or watch a YouTube of him. We simply need to be mindful of the nature of the beast. Virtuality is not a bad thing in itself, but we don’t want to constantly feed into this separation, this splitting of body and soul. Media are good, but we can’t choose to live a primarily disembodied, dualistic existence, essentially choosing to leave our bodies behind. Marshall McLuhan himself noted this potentially “Luciferian,” anti-flesh nature of the media (2 John 1:7).

Those of us who grew up in an analog world (with no digital media) had a great life without it and know that we’d all be just fine if it were to suddenly go away. But let’s take advantage of this human achievement, and heed John Paul II’s advice when the World Wide Web was a wee thing: “Bring the face of Christ to the Internet.”

(Sr. Helena, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA.  Twitter: @srhelenaburns)

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