The Other right here: In search of the virtual sacred
For millennia, the sacred “Other” was inhabited by notions of heaven, a Platonic ideal of Perfection toward which we looked with longing and which we attempted to understand with rituals and sacred architecture. Today, with the appearance of virtual reality, the “other” realm of the Sacred has new competition. Virtual reality is commonly described as “other” from physical reality, despite its increasing spillover into physical life. Virtual reality is a diﬀerent “place” where we can live out our fantasies, where we can be other people. What are we to do with this new conceptual interloper? Contemporary ritual theorists have complained about Mircea Eliade’s (1961) perhaps too easy dualism of “sacred” and “profane,” even as we persist in using the terms as conceptual and religious tools. Assuming we do not dispense with the categories of “sacred” and “profane” altogether, where does “the virtual” go? Is the virtual a form of the Sacred? Does the virtual nest within the Sacred? Is the virtual a sacred hierophany? Can it be? Is the virtual a mere manifestation of the human profane? Attempts to locate or deﬁne virtual reality present immediate problems
made worse by the tendency to deﬁne the “virtual” in relation to something else: for some, virtual reality is not-actual or not-physical or not-real, all of which display diﬀerent nuances of meaning. Thus, some see the virtual as the opposite of the physical; for others, it is “unreal” when compared with the sacred; for others, it is a “realm” of its own; for others, it is imaginary and not a “place” at all. For others, it is a mere designator of space, a territorial marker, such that “virtual space” is as real as physical space, it’s just in a diﬀerent, well, place. As Keith Ansell-Pearson puts it, the notion of the virtual “is widely treated in imprecise and ill-deﬁned terms, namely as all the other stuﬀ that is not actual, something like the universe in its totality and unfathomable complexity” (2005, 1112). Of course, such an observation is only helpful if we know what it means to be “not actual,” and if we are already disagreeing on what is “real,” then we aren’t going to get very far. The problem is not merely philosophical. Recent debates about such issues
mark the importance of dealing with Eliade’s sense of the “sacred” and the “profane.” Indeed, the appearance of “virtual reality” on the conceptual scene
seems to have spurred a rehabilitation of Eliade’s terms as tools for thinking about what to do with the messy specter of the virtual as it relates to contemporary religious belief and practice. I’ve already alluded to how the Church of England responded to a digital shoot-out that takes place in virtual replica of the “sacred” space of Manchester Cathedral, ultimately charging Sony with “virtual desecration” (Chapter 1). A few years earlier, Sikhs had objected to a virtual murder that takes place in Hitman 2: Silent Assassin in a virtual representation of the Golden Temple. At the same time, churches in Second Life attract devoted followers and Muslims visit a virtual replica of Mecca, complete with a digital Kabah. In England, a real church struggled with the question of whether or not the church building itself could be sullied by virtual taboo information streaming through a cell tower mounted on its roof. The question of where we situate the “virtual” in relationship to the “sacred” and the “profane” exposes the indeterminacy in our own understandings of what religion even is, and how we can know it when we see it. In attempts to ﬁgure out what to “do” with the virtual, a host of voices have
weighed in from game theory, ﬁlm studies, ritual studies, religious studies, and theological traditions. Some of these voices invoke conversations about realms or worlds, and thus seem to be interested in issues of ﬂuidity and boundaries between conceptual realms or worlds. Some of these other worlds are considered “virtual,” others “sacred,” and some both virtual and sacred. Some thinkers use the language of conceptual “frames” to think about boundaries between realms or modes of being, while others focus on physical features like computer screens or architecture. Some focus on ﬁlm as a means of contemplating the sacred, whereas others are more interested in contemporary computer-enhanced experiences of otherworldliness. What they all have in common is an attempt to make sense of this new category of the “virtual” in its relationship to the “sacred,” and for some of them, the stakes are quite high. If the sacred and the virtual are identical in both being non-material opposites
of the physical world – that is, both are “not real,” then there is no reason to protect brick-and-mortar buildings from violation, nor is there any reason to worship in one place over another. If the sacred is real and the virtual is not, then nobody should be going to church in Second Life. If the sacred can manifest in both the virtual and in the physical world, then virtual miracles are possible, and virtual desecration should be resisted. Because so much depends upon the practitioner’s perspective, we can’t solve these problems in any normative way. But we can add nuance to the questions by looking at how contemporary thinkers from diﬀerent ﬁelds with diﬀerent motivations try to make sense of where and what virtual reality is, especially as they themselves employ language of the sacred or talk about other “worlds” and the bounds between them. By synthesizing the views of a host of scholars from a variety of ﬁelds, ﬁve primary streams of discussion emerge, each with diﬀerent implications about virtual reality’s relationship to the sacred: (1) virtual reality as hierophany; (2) virtual reality as multiple worlds; (3) virtual reality and the magic circle;
(4) virtual reality as streaming, that is, as increasingly ﬂuid with physical reality; (5) virtual reality as a reﬂection of already existing earthly things, or put another way, as a mere human construct. These are not mutually exclusive categories; rather, they represent recurrent concerns across many diﬀerent ﬁelds of study, and thus demarcate rather what kinds of questions we as humans are now asking about the sacred and the virtual.