How Might Spirituality Shape the Metaverse?

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash

Shannon Mullen O’Keefe is Chief Curator of the Museum of Ideas and a commentator on leadership and current trends in technology and business. Jim F. Alexander is a Silicon Valley-based lawyer, a lay Episcopal theologian, and author of the spiritual adventure novel I Am Sophia.

Shannon Mullen O’Keefe (SMO): Jim, it’s a pleasure to connect with you today to explore the intersection between virtual reality technologies and spirituality.

Jim F. Alexander (JFA): The pleasure is mine, Shannon. So tell me, what do people mean these days when they refer to “virtual reality” and “the metaverse”? VR headsets are now common, but what other types of VR are there? Will “the metaverse” be something tangibly different than today’s VR, and if so, how soon is it likely to be upon us?

SMO: It may be helpful to distinguish between three broad types of digitally-mediated experiences. “Non-immersive VR” would include, for example, video games played with a keyboard, mouse, or game controller. “Semi-immersive VR” would include most platforms that use VR headsets and other technologies that partially replicate the design and functions of real-world mechanisms. “Fully immersive VR” is still primitive, but Facebook’s parent company Meta and others are working to create immersive virtual worlds. These simulations will feel indistinguishable from physical reality. The idea is to develop a full-sensory, interactive digital experience along the lines of what you may have encountered in science fiction works such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash or Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One: the so-called “metaverse.” Realistically, fully immersive VR is unlikely to be available for several years. In the meantime, it’s not too early to consider how it may pose challenges and opportunities for spirituality and religion.

JFA: I agree. People with a spiritual bent should give serious thought to the likely impacts of digital platforms becoming even more powerful and ubiquitous.

SMO: Your novel, I Am Sophia, was recently released by Wipf & Stock Publishers. It’s set in the near future, and it explores religious themes. Among other things, it portrays certain characters who are addicted to fully immersive VR. Do you really think it could become addictive in the same way as narcotics?

JFA: As the psychologist Gerald May wrote, just about any habit can become an addiction to the extent that it involves an increasing need or “tolerance,” withdrawal symptoms, self-deception, loss of willpower, and distortion of attention. We already know that social media, despite being non-immersive, can be addictive. Certainly, more powerfully immersive digital technologies will pose a serious risk. I should note that I Am Sophia treats addiction in a generic way — I did not really intend to “pick on” fully immersive VR!

SMO: But you think there’s a real danger here?

JFA: To my mind, immersive VR does pose a particular danger insofar as it enables us to add another, powerful layer of distraction and self-deception between ourselves and reality. Spirituality is “the art of union with Reality,” in the words of the Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill. A constructed universe is likely to foster escapism — it may provide yet another avenue for us to flee reality and the difficult spiritual work reality inevitably demands. From a spiritual point of view, do we really need additional seductive distractions in our lives?

SMO: Good point. Some have argued a similar point from a strictly biological perspective. It has been found that excessive screen time can be harmful to our wellbeing, walking in a garden makes us happier, and activities such as “forest bathing” can even act as preventative medicine. This has prompted Fast Company senior writer Mark Wilson to ask: “Why are we still building more screens instead of more gardens?

JFA: The reason, of course, is that it’s much harder to deliver targeted ads to people strolling in a garden or a forest.

SMO: Let’s hope no one figures out how to do that! I prefer my forest strolls without popup ads. But, even so, have you considered the potential benefits of the metaverse, Jim? Perhaps it might offer us an imaginative space in which we can first catch a glimpse of a better future. Walter Isaacson, as quoted by Flynn Coleman in A Human Algorithm, put it this way: “Innovation will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors.” What if, for example, people get together to redesign a simulation of their real-world city in the metaverse? My friends and I could use such a simulation to imagine concrete ways in which Omaha, the city in which I live, might be made even more beautiful. What if the metaverse were to provide opportunities for creative modeling and experimentation that could help us improve the real world? We could experiment there and become inspired to turn our visions into reality here.

JFA: That’s an appealing use case, but it reminds me of those who thought television would serve primarily as an instrument for education and edification. It seems likely that highly immersive VR will also be used primarily for escapism. That’s not to say that a little escapism isn’t a good thing. But in the case of “the metaverse,” the escape will be into a highly mediated reality, which presents certain dangers.

SMO: What do you mean by “a highly mediated reality”?

JFA: Virtual reality provides enhanced opportunities to shape user behavior via algorithms, likely in ways not transparent to users. Becoming a user of such technologies involves submitting oneself, to a greater or lesser extent, to a reality constructed and governed — that is to say, “mediated” — by someone else.

SMO: You’re concerned about the motivations of the corporations which will control these platforms?

JFA: Any group of humans will tend to use its power to benefit itself. To the extent that one submits oneself to a constructed reality, one is giving over power to whatever entities are providing the service — likely a lot of power.

SMO: Sounds bleak.

JFA: Just making sure the skeptical point of view receives full representation! Perhaps you want to toss some techno-optimism into the mix?

SMO: Yes, I do. I have been thinking about how immersive VR may help us open the door to new kinds of conversations. I recently read Dorothy Sayers’s The Mind of the Maker, which paints a picture of a transcendent “Creative Imagination” unfolding via the unique human ability to make, create, and imagine. As you’ve reminded me, certain strains of theology within my Roman Catholic tradition, for example, view humans as co-creators with God. Sayers points out that “a characteristic common to God and man is the desire and ability to make things.” If this is true, then, like artists, we’ll always be drawn to create something where there was nothing. Perhaps crafting new virtual spaces and new social structures to go with them is to be embraced as an inevitable outpouring of our creativity.

JFA: I can’t really argue with the underlying principle. If we were put here to be co-creators with God — and I agree on this point — then we cannot huddle in fear of actually creating new things. But I do think this healthy impulse to create and experiment needs to be balanced with the recognition, found in all of the enduring religious traditions, that human beings have a tremendous capacity for self-deception. This capacity — quite apparent in today’s political and cultural discourse — should temper the utopian notion that we can save ourselves strictly through technology and social engineering. Unfortunately, techno-utopianism, both actual and feigned, tends to color much of the messaging churned out here in Silicon Valley.

SMO: Granted, utopian visions about the metaverse will probably suffer from the same flaw as utopian visions about the internet back in the nineties — namely, the fact that human beings are still human beings, regardless of the medium. But I think the metaverse can be a real benefit to spirituality in certain concrete ways.

JFA: Tell me more.

SMO: There are indications that religious belief is trending downward. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly clear that faith generally improves wellbeing. Consider Arthur Brooks’s research on happiness. He cites three key factors: family and relationships, meaningful work, and spirituality. As to spirituality, he finds that many different faiths and secular life philosophies can provide a happiness edge. So even if you don’t believe in God, it matters whether you have a spiritual framework that is meaningful to you. “The key,” Brooks says, “is to find a structure through which we can ponder life’s deeper questions and transcend our narrow self-interests to serve others.” Keeping this in mind as we envision the perhaps-inevitable metaverse, why not use our imaginations to incorporate the positive aspects of faith traditions and life philosophies there?

JFA: How?

SMO: Barcelona’s Sagrada Família Cathedral by Gaudi has been under construction for generations, its vision and inspiration enduring over time and connecting one generation to the next. It is an example of what Margaret Heffernan refers to as a “Cathedral Project.” A project based on “the pursuit of knowledge, powered by the energy and commitment of participants that lasts more than a single lifetime.” Something that inspires us — and even future generations of us — to be a better version of ourselves. Maybe there will be a Gaudi-like project in the metaverse? Another opportunity might simply be to take advantage of the space as a clean slate, so to speak. Some of our narratives here in “the real world” are tired. We often hear more about the headliner issues in our faith traditions — those that make the news and stoke disagreement — than we do about the simple and beautiful aspects of faith: those aspects that might connect people or provide inspiration when we most need it. “Love one another,” for example. Perhaps the metaverse could be a space for new and refreshed narratives to emerge?

JFA: These are creative ideas, particularly the thought of “cathedrals” in the metaverse. While I love real-world Gothic cathedrals, cathedrals in the metaverse will be much more interesting and meaningful if they do not simply copy established designs. No one-to-one digital copy could measure up to the beauty of the actual Freiburg Minster, but a newly designed cathedral in immersive VR could incorporate creative architectural and artistic elements that may not be possible to render in actual stone and glass. I imagine that this sort of project, if done thoughtfully, could creatively combine elements of tradition and novelty in ways that are inspiring to spiritual seekers.

SMO: See there! Immersive VR may empower new ways of creatively serving spirituality.

JFA: It sounds as if it’s fair to say that, as of mid-2022, you are cautiously optimistic about spirituality in the metaverse and I’m cautiously pessimistic. You and I studied international relations together at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, so we have been well exposed to both hard-bitten political realism and possibilities for progress enabled by technology. I suspect the eventual emergence of one or more so-called “metaverses,” as with most novel social developments, will require examination through both of these lenses.

SMO: Indeed! We’ll have to check back in later as things develop. In the meantime, what are you working on these days?

JFA: I’m writing a nonfiction book which will propose a new set of analytical categories for understanding religious systems, with particular application to Christian theology in the twenty-first century. You’re working on a book, too, aren’t you?

SMO: I’m looking forward to your next book, Jim! I’m a big fan of your first, I Am Sophia. And to answer your question, yes. I am working with my partners in the QCollective (fellow Residents of the House of Beautiful Business) on a book that will offer up a recipe of values and powerful questions — an ethical framework — for technology leaders to use. I’m also working on my own. Remember how Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince reminds us that “what is essential is invisible to the eye?” I believe that. I aim to explore the unseen forces that matter to our lives. It will be an examination of the power in what isn’t there (but is) and how we might wrangle that power to our benefit.

JFA: I’ll look forward to reading your work. Thanks for the fun conversation.

To learn more about the Museum of Ideas, visit themuseumofideas.com.

Visit J. F. Alexander’s author website and blog at jfalexander.net. His spiritual adventure novel, I Am Sophia, is available in paperback, hardcover, and digital formats from booksellers around the globe.

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Shannon Mullen O'Keefe

Shannon Mullen O'Keefe

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A lover of wisdom, dedicated to imagining what we can build and achieve together. Founder & Chief Curator |The Museum of Ideas https://www.themuseumofideas.com/