The Relational Ontology of Virtual Community

The Relational Ontology of Virtual Community November 4, 2018

Previously, I introduced the phenomenon of The Robloxian Christians (TRC), a church that exists in the virtual world of Roblox. We considered the impactful mission and dramatic growth of TRC; both would be the envy of any brick-and-mortar church. Later, we reflected on the question of if, in fact, TRC is a “real” church, which immediately begs the question of what “real” means. This led us to the thought of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. His notion of hyper-reality describes a state of affairs in which reality and representation become indistinguishable; in fact, Baudrillard argues that, eventually, in our media-saturated societies, representation comes to replace reality as “true.” Most religions are naturally hyper-realistic in that they always deal in representations of a deep reality that is metaphysically beyond us. This is even more obviously the case with the increasing proliferation of information and communication technologies. Churches such as TRC simply make this fact explicit.

Many may balk at the idea that churches such as TRC are “real” congregations because they are virtual. But are the faith-based communities in that realm any more or less disconnected from “real community” than those of the physical world? There are, indeed, limitations to the way that TRC does congregational life and worship. “We can’t baptize people,” says Daniel Herron, the 18-year-old senior pastor of TRC. “We can’t see each other’s faces. We can’t give each other a hug.” The avatars viewed at the different TRC sites are, of course, merely representations of reality, yet the people behind them are quite real. And the relationships formed between those people are just as real. Is this any different from the relationships between my fellow congregants at Bethany as we communicate our very real-looking avatars to one another? We are always managing the “brand” we present to the world; the fact that we see each other “face to face” can become a fig leaf that excuses a lack of authenticity. At least in Roblox, there is no pretense that what is being represented stands, at least in significant ways, in front of the real.

In fact, perhaps the virtual nature of TRC actually lends itself to authentic community. As with other churches, the structure of TRC has both strengths and weaknesses. For those who have only attended churches “irl,” the weaknesses of virtual churches are evident: Without connection to physical bodies, there is a danger of a neo-gnosticism in which only binary codes that represent information about us matter. Without witnessing the preponderance of non-verbal data, communication can be truncated. And without the ability to see and touch, intimacy can become reductionized. It seems that Herron and others are fully aware of these drawbacks. But what about the strengths of the TRC structure?

In his seminal work I and Thou (1923), Jewish philosopher Martin Buber defines personhood as existing only within a relational ontology. This means that, while we may be biologically human in our atomistic individuality, we do not achieve full personhood except as we relate to others. I become more fully myself in, and only in, relationship to you and others. “Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other,” says Buber. “Secretly and bashfully he watches for a YES which allows him to be and which can come to him only from one human person to another.”

Of course, this relational ontology has biblical foundations. In Genesis 2, God declares that it was not good for the solitary human to be alone. When humanity sins, it is through relationships (with God, others, and the earth) that its consequences are felt. God makes his covenant with the community of Israel and not merely with Abraham. The followers of Jesus were told that they were meant to carry out their mission corporately as the church. It is this community that will together come into the fullness of the Kingdom. We are meant to be in relationship; this is essential to what it means to be a person and follower of Jesus.

In looking at who chooses to involve themselves there, it becomes clear that TRC not only enables the actualization of this relational ontology, it in fact encourages faith-based community that would not otherwise exist. TRC offers accessibility of fellowship and worship to those who are far away from brick-and-mortar churches. To those whose bodies make movement out of their houses difficult. To those who live in regions where Christianity is discouraged. To those in families whose dynamics may make church attendance dicey. In a world in which youth – the overwhelming majority of TRC membership – have increasingly been relationally abandoned by adults, TRC is a place of belonging for them. And in a world in which technologies offer multitude upon multitude of connections without thought of real intimacy, TRC offers real relationships through accessible faith-based connections. Are all relationships there truly intimate? Of course not. They aren’t at your church, either. But I would posit that there are pathways to relational intimacy at TRC more accessible, more inviting, more inclusive, and more real than many of our irl churches.

The congregational life that people can find in TRC is a blessing, and certainly the Holy Spirit can give them, no less than anyone else, some experience of Christian community. In fact, next time, I want to propose the idea that TRC offers a uniquely real experience of God. But, for now, I simply suggest that The Robloxian Christians, a church in which people connect with each other – and with God – is a real church because the community that is created there is real.

What’s more, could it be that TRCers have something to teach the rest of us about ecclesiology because they have had to do the hard theological work, from the ground up, in their own space, thinking through what Christian community really is, and how to make space for it, how to encourage it, and how to sustain it? Could it be that, by thinking through those things, they have at least a conception of real Christian community that the rest of us no longer see because we are so steeped in the illusory hyper-real culture of our brick-and-mortar churches?

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