By Mary Shivanandan, S.T.D.
At the Interface: Theology and Virtual Reality, Mary Timothy Prokes, F.S.E.(Tucson AZ: Fenestra Books, 2004), 181 pages.
The internet is a revolution comparable to the invention of printing in the 15th century. Like the earlier revolution ushered in by the printed word, the internet is having wide-ranging effects on culture and society. We are only dimly becoming aware of these effects. The web site Christendom-Awake can instantly make this book review available around the globe. At the click of a mouse the whole Encyclopedia Britannica or the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas is at our fingertips.
These are the amazing benefits, but there is also a downside. For the under-20 generation, for whom the internet is like breathing, it is engendering some not-so- beneficial effects. For example in Finland a significant minority of recruits to the army are rejected because of “internet addiction.” These young people, it is said, spend most of their day surfing the internet. Isolated and sedentary they are unfit for military service. The term “presence,” which in common language means physical presence, has a technical meaning for those under 15. It refers to when someone is on line and can answer instant messages in real time. Where the telephone replaced the calling card, now instant messaging creates a whole new social life that is even more tenuous than voice contact.
It is to address these new situations involving “virtual relationships”, and their impact on an Incarnational theology that Timothy Mary Prokes has written, At the Interface: Theology and Virtual Reality. She seeks to answer the question: “How does ‘virtual reality’ pertain to the divine realities of faith revealed in Jesus Christ?” At the heart of the Christian message is a God who became flesh and has left us his bodily presence in the Eucharist. When presence becomes “virtual” what impact does it have on not only our understanding of the second person of the Blessed Trinity but also of creation and of man and woman made in the image of God.
Prokes begins by giving a definition of virtual reality. She points out at once that the term is an oxymoron, since “virtual” refers to potential beings and “reality” to existent beings. According to the definition by Michael Heim, “virtual reality is an event or entity that is real in effect but not in fact.” Heim categorizes virtual reality under seven headings. 1) simulation: The creation of images and sounds that seem real. Simulation is much used in training pilots. 2) Interaction: On a computer there are virtual places like the recycle bin or files. Virtual universities exist on line which students attend in virtual classrooms. 3) Artificiality: Articifial flowers, or jewelry or foods masquerade as the real thing. 4) Immersion: When the person is totally immersed say in a three-dimensional, multi-sound environment. Imax movies of flight at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum employ this technique. The audience has the sensation of actually flying at the controls of the helicopter. 5) Telepresence: Increasingly used in medicine, a physician can work inside a patient without actually being in the same place as the patient. 6) Full body immersion: This is hard to imagine but a live human body is enabled to interact with graphic images on a screen. 7) Finally networked communication which connects two virtual worlds.
A key Christian belief is that we are body-persons destined for eternal life as a unity of body and soul. Imagination is a legitimate gift through which we can surpass our bodily sense life. It gives us the power to meditate, to form analogies, to reflect on the beautiful and to come up with scientific inventions. Like all good gifts it can and is being perverted. With the plethora of animal images with human faces on children’s TV programs, cosmetic surgery to create a single vision of beauty, implants of organs and mechanical devices or parts, the question arises, will man still be recognizable as made in the image of God, uniquely of all creatures. What will happen to the body as the locus of the sacramental? Prokes sums up what is at stake here as “the basic faith reality of presence.” A fundamental question is the relationship of interface to presence. How does virtual reality impact personal presence or interpersonal relationships?
As Prokes points out the sacraments are a place of meeting between the divine and human. Through the sacramental sign, what is signified is truly made present and effective. There is unity between the signifier and what is signified. Jesus Christ in his glorified body present under the Eucharistic signs of bread and wine is referred to as the Real Presence. In instant messaging the person both is and is not present. It is an impoverishment of the meaning of the term presence and will inevitably confuse the real meaning of the term presence both materially and theologically.
In most traditional cultures the meal has a significance much greater than simply satisfying hunger. It is surrounded with ritual and cultural symbols. Each region of France or India for example, prides itself on its unique cuisine or curry. Now food through various processes is made fat or sugar free. Artificial colors, flavors and preservatives are added; vegetable burgers are made to look and taste like hamburgers.
Why should this matter theologically? Prokes once again looks at the Eucharist. When food is looked upon as something evil that will make the person overweight or sick, it is eaten in isolation or reconstituted to completely disguise its ingredients, it obscures the symbol of food and drink as life-giving and community-building, essential elements of the Eucharist.
Prokes has much more to say also about the interface of freedom, truth and sexuality as well as the impact of virtual reality on the supernatural. Enough has been said to indicate the groundbreaking nature of this 181-page book. Prokes concludes that there is no turning back to a pre-virtual reality age. The new technologies bring great promise as well as peril. But that promise can only be brought to fulfillment when they enhance not substitute for the presence — of the risen Jesus in the Eucharist, of human beings with one another and all material creation as a sacrament of God’s love in the world.