Virtual reality is poised to dramatically change our culture. Is the church ready?

I once stood in the middle of the galaxy and walked up to the sun. I couldn’t wrap my arms around it, but I could pick up the planets—like tiny marbles—and toss them into space.

Then I stood on the deck of a sunken ship, hundreds of feet under water. Stingrays and schools of fish flowed around me. A blue whale swam up and paused, staring at me with one great eye. I looked in every direction but the animal was so big I couldn’t fit the whole creature in my line of sight.

Then I stood at the bottom of the ocean in complete darkness, save for a small flashlight. An angler fish, waiting for prey, hovered not two feet away within the massive, skeletal jaws of some long-dead sea-monster. I reached out to touch its pale blue light, but it fluttered away. And then thousands of glowing jellyfish came alight for hundreds of feet in all directions. It was like standing in the middle of a constellation of Christmas lights, only deep underwater.

I actually had these experiences. They are crystalline in my memory. Only, I had them in virtual reality (VR), wearing a headset called the Vive. The Vive is virtual reality technology developed by two companies, HTC and Valve. Valve is based in Bellevue, Washington. Cascadia has long been a hotbed of technological development and Valve, in true Cascadian spirit, pushed the field forward with the development of the Vive. VR technology has the potential to revolutionize a number of industries and Cascadians are at the forefront of it. This means the Church here has a unique opportunity. If we’re willing.

When Reality Isn’t Real

VR can’t really be described without experiencing it. The best description I’ve heard comes from my wife: it’s like going from still pictures to movies.

What is virtual reality? It’s … difficult to explain, actually. You put on a goggle-like headset, grab hold of a couple joystick rods, and press go. Immediately you’re transported to an entirely different world. The first thing you see are the words “This Is Real” miles in the distance while you stand on a platform in space with Earth hovering above you. VR can’t really be described without experiencing it. The best description I’ve heard comes from my wife: it’s like going from still pictures to movies.

Gamers are behind the major push for the technology, but its potential goes so far beyond the gaming industry. Imagine teaching a history class about the Battle of the Somme. Instead of having your students read some textbook with grainy pictures, they could actually walk through the battle while it’s occurring. Once the technology is more sophisticated, you could learn how to do surgical operations without having to use a dead body or risk a live one.

Why is this important? Because this technology will have an impact on the church. We need to be talking about it, its advantages and its dangers, because it is that powerful. You might think I’m being hyperbolic, but it has the potential to be as significant a shift in communication as the advent of the Internet. Remember before the Internet? And how different things are now because of the internet? The church needs to talk about VR because it will change the way the world works and, thus, our role in the world.

So, let’s talk about it. I have two hopes here. First, I hope to show you that this technology, theologically speaking, is a good thing. We need not fear or combat it. We ought to embrace it. Second, I’m hoping to start a conversation. The church ought to be imaginative. We ought to be creative when it comes to our engagement with the things (e.g., technologies) of the world. Let’s brainstorm about VR.

A Worshipful Creation

Let’s start by talking about why VR is a theological good. The reason is simple. God created everything. He created every object from quarks to stars. More than that, he created every possible way any of those objects interact. As James Davidson Hunter writes in To Change the World:

The Spirit that God breathed life into creation was life itself, not only in its manifest beauty and delight but also in its potentialities. The goodness of his creation was anything but inert. It was vibrant, dynamic, and full of latent promise.

If Hunter is correct, that means all creation, even of the human variety, finds its origin in God. All technology that has ever existed or ever will exist can only exist because God willed it to be so. When you arrange certain physical objects in a particular way, you get a computer. No human created the fact that those objects combine in that way, we just discovered that they did. So, in short, God created computers. God also created boats, helicopters, cars, beer, spaceships, particle colliders, and, yes, virtual reality. God also called God’s creation good. So, as a beginning theological position, we must affirm the whole of the physical—and virtual—world as good. I say beginning because the world has also been twisted by sin, so it’s not as wonderful a world as God originally created. But twisting something is different than creating something. We must affirm that everything in existence only exists because God willed it to—and that God called all of it good.

There’s a second reason to think of VR, especially, as a theological good. J.R.R. Tolkien famously argued in his poem Mythopoeia and his essay On Fairy Stories that humans, since we are made in the image of God who is Creator, engage in a kind of worship when we create. He called it “subcreation.” He was talking about “fairy stories,” today known as the genre of fiction called “fantasy.” He thought that in the creation of a consistent, fictional “secondary world,” we become subcreators. In doing so, we offer worship to a God who is Creator.

VR represents the creation of a secondary world. The act of making virtual reality is not our trying to usurp God’s position as Creator. Rather it signals our desire to engage in the creative act, because we are made in the image of a creative God.

Virtual Reality and the Church

What can the church do to utilize virtual reality? There are a number of avenues we can go down. Eventually, VR will progress to the point where the virtual world will be indistinguishable to our senses from the real world—like the holodeck from Star Trek—and we’ll be able to project the avatars of multiple people into the same virtual space. (Like Skype, only much, much more immersive.) So, consider worship spaces. VR will make it possible for a community of believers to gather in a virtual space that is compelling and realistic. Spaces of worship are formative. The way the place looks, the way it’s designed, its actual presence, has a spiritually formative effect on the worshipper. In VR, you could design the world’s most beautiful church and put it in the most beautiful location. Whatever it takes for a worship space to be formative, you can do that in VR and do it cheaper and on a grander scale than anything in the physical world.

Virtual reality exists within God’s created reality and falls under all the same rules, such as the omnipresence of God. In other words, the Holy Spirit is as present in virtual space as he is in physical space.

This probably causes some unease. We instinctively want to think of the physical world as being more important than a virtual one. And I agree, to a point. But the idea of VR as something like Tolkien’s subcreation means that it is a part of actual creation. Virtual reality exists within God’s created reality and falls under all the same rules, such as the omnipresence of God. In other words, the Holy Spirit is as present in virtual space as he is in physical space. Thus, we need not fear the virtual space as being spiritually impoverished compared to physical space. That way we can take advantage of its many potentials.

This is just one way the Church could utilize VR. Imagine attending a worship service in the world’s largest and most beautiful cathedral, on top of the tallest mountain, with thousands of other Christians from all over the world in attendance, singing songs of praise in every tongue. Something like that will soon be possible, if we pay attention.

It’s Not All Fun and Games

VR’s potential for good is profound, but so too is its potential for evil. Already, companies are creating VR porn, for example. Additionally, self-representation in virtual space has all the same problems that chatting online has. Indeed, science fiction has long warned us of the potential dangers of virtual space. Think about The Matrix or the TV show Caprica, or any number of other examples. We do well to remember these warnings.

As far as the church is concerned, it’s pretty obvious I’m in favor of well-done virtual spaces. But there is one act essential to worship that I don’t think can be done in virtual space: The Eucharist. I’m open to arguments to the contrary, but I believe the elements of communion being physical is crucial. There might be ways to introduce the physical elements into virtual space (e.g., every worshipper in their own home has the bread and wine that they take while in VR), but this is an area that would need to be explored more fully before embracing VR as worship space.

And that’s sort of my point. We should explore as fully as possible how VR might better enable the church to do the work of God’s kingdom. We should not merely slough VR off to the side, assuming that its only potential is for corruption. Once we do that we forfeit any say in how the technology will be developed. We forfeit any say in what effect it will have on the world. Because this technology is powerful. If the average consumer adopts it, it will change the face of the world. We stand at the precipice of its inception, like an anxious parent awaiting the birth of their child. How will we raise this child? With acceptance, maturity, and guidance? Or with arrogant misunderstanding and rejection?