Second Life and the Second Estate

Second Life and the Second Estate June 12, 2014

From a hillside in Missouri, one can look out upon a relatively nondescript valley verdant with seasonal crops. It is to here, it is said, that Adam and Eve fled upon expulsion from the Garden of Eden and offered prayer to God and it is to here, it is said, that Adam will gather his posterity at the last day. Adam-ondi-Ahman, as Joseph Smith called the valley, is a locus of human-divine communication and visitation in Mormon theo-history.

There is, however, another Adam-ondi-Ahman in the pixelated world of the free-form online world of Second Life. It is a plot of virtual land tended by several LDS digital denizens which features a scale replica of a typical Mormon meetinghouse, a family history center, a walkthrough museum of Book of Mormon stories and key Mormon doctrines, a Salt Lake Tabernacle reconstruction complete with organ and President Monson at the pulpit, and a large model of the London, England temple.[1] And at one crossroads stands a portrait of Elder David A. Bednar, one of the twelve present-day LDS apostles and, most curiously, next to him stands a display of his talk “Things As They Really Are,” in which he invokes Second Life itself.[2]

Most Mormon leaders’ talk of technology casts it as an instrument to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the Church’s objectives.[3] Elder Bednar’s aforementioned talk, however, is one of the few to speak of technological advances that exceeds a merely pragmatic appropriation of technology and instead attempts to articulate a Mormon theology of cyberspace. In light of this talk, which I summarize below, I ask: can one “walk with God” in Second Life’s Adam-ondi-Ahman?[4]

Bednar’s first concern is that when our cyberspace interactions take the place of physical ones, we run the risk of “minimiz[ing] the importance of [our] physical bodies” by growing accustomed to “think[ing] and act[ing] as if we were in our premortal, unembodied state.” This theological link to embodiment is no mere coincidence, either; because “the great principle of happiness consists in having a body,” distraction or detraction from that bodily experience is part of the unembodied Satan’s plan for making humans “miserable like unto himself” (2 Nephi 2:27). Bodily experience is imperative because it provides us with opportunities for “developing and improving interpersonal skills, for laughing and crying together, and for creating a rich and enduring bond of emotional intimacy.” The devil wants us to “substitute the monotony of virtual repetition for the infinite variety of God’s creations” and, if we succumb to his wiles, we will be damned/dammed: unable to continue progressing toward greater and greater things. One might say that in favoring the digit-al to the external, we worship gods made by human hands.[5]

Unpacking some of these critiques requires us to examine Bednar’s second point of warning against cyberspace life: fidelity, which he defines as “the similarity between reality and a representation of reality.” A high-fidelity virtual world, bound by code and hardware, has “no lasting value” outside of its immediate usefulness for the real world. However, “virtual” at one point mean “efficacious,” not only “unreal”[6]; a Second Life can spill over into one’s first life. This overflow can become pernicious when one lives one’s second, cyber life with low “personal fidelity”—a disconnect between “an actual person and an assumed, cyberspace identity”—as occurred with the man Bednar mentions who had his Second Life avatar propose marriage to another avatar while his legal wife sat in the other room. The “alluring illusion of anonymity” leads people to discount the moral weight of merely “virtual” actions. No matter where you are—in the flesh or in the spirit—Bednar admonishes that you should be true to “you as you really are,” spirits dispatched to Earth to navigate the last days in righteousness and establish Zion.

In many ways, Bednar’s warnings are incisive. However, I worry that we can leave his talk with the impression that a basic utilitarianism (for example, creating computer models of church buildings before breaking ground or facilitating pre-existent communication) is the only righteous or justifiable use of digital technology. A brief foray into a virtual world is only justifiable when one’s actions therein are intended to be reiterated or capitalized upon posthaste in the real world. I believe, however, that Mormon theology—including Bednar’s talk itself—has resources to consider more nuanced conceptions of cyberspace.

For one, we must consider Bednar’s characterization of cyberspace as “monotonous” and “repetitive” against the (supposedly) multivocal and ever-original Earth on which we live. On one hand, I believe that this attitude evinces peculiarly Mormon ideologies of divine creation and ontology: creation consists not of an authoritative “let there be” followed by somethingness flashing out of nothingness, but rather a higher intelligence working to organize both co-existent matter and co-existent intelligences.[7] The limits of human capacity to understand, on the other hand, only allow us to create closed systems based on rigid, repeating rules that are little replacement for the infinite diversity in infinite combinations that is reality.

Nevertheless, I think this dichotomy can occlude the similarities between divine and human modes of creation. In Mormon accounts of the Creation, for instance, God is never alone: in all of them, both Jesus and Heavenly Father take part; in the temple, another party is added; and in the Book of Abraham, an unspecified number of “gods” contribute. Creation is a collaborative project to organize pre-existent materials into new systems of ever-increasing complexity and agency, though if faith-based religious history is any indication, they are not watchmakers, scrupulously uninvolved in the post-creation progress of the work of their hands. While video games that carry players along predefined tracks can certainly merit accusations of repetition, cyber-communities like Second Life—in which people take of the materials of the outside world in all their variety to create worlds of their own imagination with little restriction—seem to provide an opportunity for humans to play God, for good or ill.[8] Furthermore, we must remember J.R.R. Tolkien’s talk of the “subcreation” of “Secondary Worlds”: they provide for us an opportunity to glorify God so long as we maintain some fidelity between the divine cosmos and the human-engineered ones, though fallen man is bound to corrupt his subcreations from time to time. The problem is not human creativity per se, but uninformed or untethered human creativity.

Moreover, I would also argue that Mormon theology makes significant use of virtual worlds to frame our earthly, human experience. For instance, Elder Randall L. Ridd, [9] in a recent General Conference talk cautioning against the misuse of technology, related a story about a young man who had strayed and announced he would not be serving an LDS mission but, upon his father’s urging, received his patriarchal blessing. The blessing reversed his decision for, during it, “he had a glimpse of who he was in the premortal world. He saw how valiant and influential he was in persuading others to follow Christ. Knowing who he really was, how could he not serve a mission?” The boy’s First Estate—the premortal existence—provided him with a more authentic identity, to which he felt obligated to swear his fidelity, than his Second Estate—the Earth. This theological outsourcing[10] of identity to the premortal life subjects our present lives to our conceptions of a life that, for all observable intents and purposes, is virtual: not physically existing but made to appear by divine revelation, and thereby wielding significant power.[11] In the frequent and prominent contests over the contents of the premortal life, we are contending over a strategic piece of virtual real estate.[12]

I also believe that low personal fidelity is a tool of which the LDS Church actually makes effective use in our most sacred ordinances.[13] In my opinion, personal fidelity is blurred most intensely in the sustained temple drama of the endowment in which all men play Adam and all women play Eve. Special spaces are built for the ordinance into which only those with approved accounts and new names can enter. Elements of the external world are brought in through artistic representation—murals, plants, lighting, video images—to situate the participants in the ordinance’s narrative. Within this constructed setting, participants reiterate the same story each time they attend, a story which leaves them with charges to change their lives outside of these spaces. Though none of the participants are really Adam and Eve, they virtually follow our Progenitors’ progression and finally qualify to enter the heavens. This play with virtual identity, in turn, has real efficacy, and is considered the only means by which humans can enter into exaltation. Subsuming our Second Estate into a ritual second life—played out from creation to exaltation in two hours—allows us to attain New Life. Indeed, in the virtual space of Mormon temples, Adam once more walks with God.

Interestingly, the digital London Temple in the digital Adam-ondi-Ahman is a mere façade without an interior; there are no saving ordinances (or even open houses) for avatars, but only for embodied beings. However, I do believe that virtuality, including cyberspace, can do much more than replicate first life sites and situations. If used with prudence, a second life (even if not of the uppercase sort) can help us explore and increase our reverence our world, our relationships, and our Heavenly Family. Indeed, to reference Tolkien again, it might be better to put aside the question of “seeing things as they are” and, aided by fantasy and virtuality, “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them” despite our preconceptions.[14] Through this new sight, a field becomes a temple, a building becomes heaven, and perhaps even a bit of digital land can bring us into contact with the divine.

[1] Until recently, it was the Washington, DC Temple.

[2] Though presented in 2009, it was published in the June 2010 Ensign and can be found here.

[3] Any General Conference evinces this, as well as discourse around things like missionaries using Facebook, moving youth curricula to online venues, streamlining FamilySearch submission procedures, and so forth.

[4] To be clear, I love that Elder Bednar has done this theological work, as it opens doors for perceptive application of exclusively Mormon theology to things we often regard as the simple trappings of our daily lives. Thus, I present the musings that follow as further exploration of the subject rather than critique.

[5] To his credit, he admits that other media—”television, movies, and music”—provoke the same critique, but that cyberspace makes these effects “more pervasive and intense.”

[6] I learned this while consulting the 1886 Webster’s Dictionary about the use of “virtual” in a contemporaneous newspaper article, and am fully aware of the fallacious nature of argument from etymology or past definitions. I use such things as inspiration, not authority.

[7] Personally, I tend to believe that matter and intelligence are to some degree synonymous, but that is beyond the scope of this column.

[8] Furthermore, it should be obvious that humans can create things we do not understand even though we establish rules to channel our creations; the fields of sociology and economics, among others, are perpetual witnesses to that fact.

[9] Second Counselor in the Young Men’s General Presidency. The talk may be found here.

[10] I owe the very productive concept of “theological outsourcing” to Blair Hodges’s fascinating series on intellectual disability in Mormon thought. Part I is found here.

[11] Please note: when I say “not physically existing,” I do not in the least mean “false.” I merely mean what Mormon authorities have said time and time again: save through revelation, all our mortal knowledge of the premortal life is consigned to oblivion. Part of this sentence was shamelessly paraphrased from the Wikipedia article on “virtuality,” which mentions a 1959 OED definition of that word: “not physically existing but made to appear by software.”

[12] This virtual world and the stories surrounding it—namely, the “war in heaven” instigated by Satan’s rebellion—are so potent that they are constantly invoked and contested in Mormon discourse. See, for instance, justifications for racially-based policies to anti-communism, opposition to family planning (see Saturday’s Warrior), and rumors about the impressiveness of modern Mormon youth that are promptly squelched by Church authorities (see this).

[13] Perhaps the most obvious is baptism, in which we the utterly unworthy take upon ourselves the name of Christ, pledging to be (like) the Savior.

[14] See Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” available here.

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