Theologizing Virtual Reality

Author
A. Trevor Sutton

July 25, 2019

Dead chickens should not garner the attention of the United States Supreme Court. You would think not, but you'd be wrong.

In 1946, United States v. Causby went before the Supreme Court. Dead chickens—and modern technology—were at the center of the debate. Thomas Causby owned a chicken farm near a military airbase in Greensboro, North Carolina. He argued that airplanes flying over his farm were scaring his chickens, causing them to fly into the walls of their chicken coops, dying on impact. Causby claimed that, according to ancient property law, his land ownership extended usque ad coelum, “up to the heavens” (part of the longer phrase: cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos, “whoever owns land it is theirs up to the heavens and down to hell”). By this doctrine, the planes flying overhead were trespassing on Causby’s property. 

The Court determined that the planes flying at low altitude were indeed an invasion of the landowner’s property. However, it also recognized that property ownership extending indefinitely upward “has no place in the modern world.” The new technology of airplanes rendered the old doctrine of ad coelum obsolete.

But, one might understandably ask, what do dead chickens and low-flying airplanes have to do with “sighting” religion? Well, nothing directly, but the case does demonstrate how technological innovation has the potential to disrupt long-held beliefs and customs—social, political, and even religious ones. Emerging technologies call for new frameworks of understanding, challenging us to rethink that which was once settled. 

The emergence of virtual reality (VR) provides a perfect example of this in the realm of religion. Believe it or not, VR is beginning to alter religious rituals and beliefs. VR headsets, such as Oculus Go and Google Daydream, are steadily moving this technology from the realm of obscure gadgetry to the mainstream market. 

VR is quietly-yet-certainly beginning to disrupt certain Christian practices and beliefs. For example, some online churches have begun performing virtual reality baptisms. While online baptisms have been occurring for over a decade (such as this online baptism), VR baptisms take the practice even further by using virtual water as the sacramental element. 

In VR baptisms, the baptizer and the baptized wear VR headsets in their respective locations and meet in an online baptistry by way of avatars. When the time comes for the (virtual) baptism, the pastor instructs the person to be baptized (wearing a VR headset) to squat down in place so that their avatar is submerged under the (digital) water while the pastor says, “[Name], I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” thus blending the traditional words and motions of the rite with the emergent technology. 

The phenomenon of VR baptisms elicits wide-ranging reactions from observers—fascination, outrage, skepticism, intrigue, excitement, horror, or bewilderment. And, to be certain, VR baptisms are only one example of how technology poses questions for religion. (Heidi Campbell, in her book When Religion Meets New Mediaexplores how various Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities engage new media. Campbell offers several examples of digital technology raising theological questions for various religious traditions.)

The phenomenon of VR spirituality raises a host of questions for religious folks and those who study them: Can spirituality truly happen in the digital realm? Does the internet provide a new avenue for religious experience? Which religious practices can and cannot be performed online? Theologians, religious leaders, and scholars of religion would do well to spend time attending to these pressing questions.

The academic study of religion provides some helpful frameworks for approaching conversations about VR baptism and digital spirituality. One such framework, among others, is “lived religion.” Lived religion, according to religion scholar Robert Orsi, is disciplined attention to the religious lives of real people: “Religion is always religion-in-action, religion-in-relationships between people, between the ways the world is and the way people imagine or want it to be. … The study of lived religion is not about practice rather than ideas, but about ideas, gestures, imaginings, all as media of engagement with the world.” 

VR baptism relies on technological components—broadband, screens, headsets, and speakers. Yet, we should not forget that it requires a human component. A human head is in the VR headset. Human fingers touch the keyboard. A human voice speaks into the microphone. Religious studies scholars and theologians, with their emphases on ethnography and embodiment, can help people recognize and consider the human dimension of this technological phenomenon.

Adjacent to the study of lived religion among religious studies scholars are questions pertaining to liturgy and ritual, issues that theologians and religious leaders have long studied and discussed. It’s not a new revelation that habit is shaped by thought and thought is shaped by habit. James K. A. Smith, in his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, describes liturgies as “calibration technologies” that have the power to orient lives and bend the needle of human hearts. Praxis actively shapes minds and hearts. Naming and exploring the formative influences of this practice is essential to making sense of this phenomenon.  

Finally, while technologies seem to advance at breakneck speed, we should remember that theology is more often than not a slower-moving enterprise. While this can be a source of frustration for some, this patient deliberation can provide an important counterbalance to the wild gyrations of modern technology. While there is a growing exigency for understanding digital spirituality, it will take time for scholars of religion and theologians to understand and speak about these practices. And that’s alright. A slow evaluation of fastmoving technology is a vital contribution to this conversation. 

It might be easy to look upon VR baptisms as simply an internet aberration. But to do so would be a crucial misstep. It is incumbent upon scholars of religion and theologians alike to bring their unique disciplinary resources to bear on this conversation. In 1946, the Supreme Court had to help make sense of new technology and dead chickens. In 2019, scholars of religion and theologians must help make sense of a new technology and waterless baptisms.  


44a9050d-c75d-4651-93c1-a73aee48cce1.jpgAuthor, A. Trevor Sutton (@atrevorsutton), is a PhD student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. You can find out more at www.atrevorsutton.com.

Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD Candidate in Religions in America at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

See all articles by A. Trevor Sutton