What comes to mind when you hear the word “metaverse”? Maybe you have seen images of a metaverse while watching a movie like The Matrix, Inception or Ready Player One. Perhaps you access the metaverse with your own virtual reality headset and gloves. Or maybe you have never heard of the metaverse.
The metaverse consists of shared, three-dimensional online spaces that aim to make virtual reality seem, well, real. Investors claim that as technology becomes more sophisticated, the immersive quality of the metaverse will be limitless. You can browse the internet, they say, but you can live in the metaverse.
Engaging the metaverse requires creating an avatar that serves as one’s virtual identity. Avatars communicate with each other and use digital currency to purchase digital items such as clothing and property. A plethora of tailor-made experiences are available. The most well known are games such as Fortnite and Roblox. But conference centres, gyms and banks have begun popping up. Even governments are getting involved—in 2021, Barbados announced it was opening an embassy in the Decentraland metaverse.
Metaverse churches attract people interested in connecting virtually with a faith community. Some are offshoots of existing, physical churches; others are independent church plants. Any avatar can be a member, and people for whom mobility is a challenge gain particular benefit from joining. Membership requires less in terms of practical commitment. No one has to make a casserole for tomorrow’s potluck, pick up children for Sunday school or stack the chairs after a service. And the personal relationships can contribute to one’s faith development.
I have my doubts about the metaverse becoming a routine way of operating. But given current interest, it’s prudent to explore the ethical concerns that arise. What kind of privacy standards will be established? Who will gain financially? Will some of us prefer virtual life to actual life? As virtual versions of ourselves, will our regard for other avatars differ from the regard we have for other people?
Followers of Jesus Christ approach these concerns from a faith-based perspective. One aspect of our faith is how we understand who we are as God’s creation.
The church has long flirted with the philosophical idea of dualism. A Christianized version of dualism begins with the belief that we are created with two kinds of parts: material (our bodies) and non-material (our souls or spirits). But when it comes to who we are, the non-material part is of primary—if not singular—value.
If this is the way we think of ourselves, the metaverse can be quite attractive. Virtual church has the potential to nourish our innermost part. But I think this version of Christian dualism is both incorrect and dangerous.
First, why is dualism incorrect?
To start, Jesus Christ did not come to us as an unembodied spirit. Nor was he God encased in a human body. The Word became flesh (see John 1:14). Jesus was fully God and fully human. He was born from his mother’s body. He went to weddings. He ate with people. He slept. He felt the grit of sand between his toes.
Likewise, the resurrected Jesus bore the wounds of his suffering, walked a long road and ate with his disciples. But he could also appear and disappear without warning, go unrecognized and ascend to heaven. His was a transformed body made of flesh and bone (see Luke 24:39). If this is so, how can our bodies be insignificant to who we are as created people?
Second, what makes dualism dangerous?
During the pandemic, social isolation wreaked havoc on the lives of people who needed close, personal attention. Younger people were separated from their schools and experienced a lag in learning. Older people were quarantined in understaffed long-term care facilities and hospitals. And though many of us took to online worship, not everyone was equipped or techsavvy enough to join in.
Virtual fellowship was a necessary substitute and not without value (sweatpants in church, anyone?). But the world breathed a sigh of relief when pandemic restrictions were lifted. Finally, we were together—physically together—again. Clearly, there is something significant about our bodies when it comes to living in community. While social isolation was a necessary security measure, it can never be a permanent one.
A metaverse church may serve some individual worshippers well. It can even build relationships. But physically vulnerable people become more vulnerable when they are isolated or excluded. And while some of us experience greater physical vulnerability, we are all vulnerable people.
God created us to love God. God also created us to love in community, calling us to care for one another, whether that means rejoicing with people who rejoice or suffering with people who suffer (see 1 Corinthians 12:25-26). We all need close, personal attention. We cannot give or receive this in exclusively virtual ways.
Our whole selves need the whole selves of others.
Dr. Aimee Patterson is a Christian ethics consultant at The Salvation Army Ethics Centre in Winnipeg.
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