In response to the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29), Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan. The lawyer’s motivation in asking this question, the Bible tells us, was to evade moral responsibility, but Jesus patiently unpacked the question and the lawyer’s motivation, delivering one of His best remembered teachings in response. The question we are still asking today is: “Who is my neighbor?” Do Christians have a moral obligation to love those with whom we come in contact via the internet and VR? Is it possible to express Christian love to someone whom we know only through virtual reality and whom we have never met in person? In Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, we learn that it was not the one who was physically nearby but the one who showed love who proved to be a neighbor (Luke 10:36-37). Jesus’ concluding words to the lawyer and to use are: “You go, and do likewise.”
Are we loving God and loving one another through our use of technology? Saint Augustine (AD 354-430) introduces to us the concept of rightly ordered loves. This is the principle that we are to love God first, bringing all other loves into a subordinate relationship to our love for God. This is the only way that we can properly love anyone or anything. Augustine reminds us that we ought to love God through all other relationships, including our relationships with people and our relationship with technology. When we begin by loving technology as an end in itself, we are bound to experience the impoverishment of soul that wrongly ordered loves inevitably produce. We will experience the disorientation of self-deception and the pain of disintegrated relationships if our loves are for anything but God first. This method of evaluating our use of technology calls for soul searching, but it really is the best way to discern whether our use of technology is spiritually beneficial or self-destructive.
To evaluate our use of technology, we can ask ourselves: “Am I loving God through this or that specific application of technology?” We love God first when we love something or do something for His sake. We can use technology to extend ourselves to other people and to foster relationships of love, or we can use technology as a weapon to pursue our own interests at the expense of others. Technology can be a bridge for us to extend ourselves to others in love, or it can be a barricade we hide behind in selfishness. Technology continues to change, but God’s call to love Him first is eternal.
What does it mean to love God and to love one’s neighbor in a world where Christians have the option of congregating for church services in VR? Proper use of VR will require checks and balances to compensate for the limitations of the technology. Reflecting on the limitations of VR as a medium, Craig Detweiler stated: “I think the thing that I don’t want us to lose in a VR church is that we are an embodied people. If I’m sick, I might need somebody to actually come to my house and bring me a cup of soup.” He continued: “I might need someone to sit with me and be present – somebody that’s not a robot, that’s not a virtual friend. It’s maybe not enough on Facebook to say, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ or to send a heart emoji. It maybe takes us to actually get in the car and show what that heart emoji means.” The spiritual difficulty of following Jesus in the way of sacrifice is not a problem created or solved by digital technologies, but perhaps more than others, churches that assemble in VR will need to be especially exercised in developing practical ways to minister to one another and to the world around them.
Excerpted from Virtual Reality Church: Pitfalls and Possibilities (Or How to Think Biblically About Church in Your Pajamas, VR Baptisms, Jesus Avatars, and Whatever Else is Coming Next) (Moody Publishers, April 2021) by Darrell Bock & Jonathan Armstrong.