I went to an interesting set of presentations this morning about ritual as performed in virtual worlds. The first thing that stuck out for me is that everyone has a different working definition of the word ‘ritual’. For some, everything is a ritual, everything we do, from sitting in a room listening to an instructor or presenter to accepting the eucharist. Because of that wide definition, all kinds of things got crammed into a session about “ritual” and I’m not sure I’m completely in favour of that. For instance, one of the “rituals” presented was online gaming activities, like trying to kill a dragon in online Dungeons and Dragons. Gathering together and attempting to complete a task communally is ritualistic (hiding behind a rock, everyone with their task to accomplish, the order in which people stand in the virtual world, etc.). I can understand how there are traditions and customary activities in that context, but I seriously hesitate to call them rituals. That’s like calling everything that has any impact an icon, which I’m also not delighted about.
But the key piece that I’m going to take away from the presentations and the discussion is the sense I got that in moving ritual and religious experience online, we’ve in a sense brought it back to an earlier form. Religious authorities are not the only ones with rituals to preside over and religious knowledge to impart, and much as christian leaders needed to fight with local ritual and knowledge to be heard in a medieval and early modern European context, so modern religious leaders need to cope with the influx of religious information and authority that’s available online. And one of the points of discussion was this: can you have a legitimate ritual without a body? Apparently there is some debate around this. Can you? My goodness, how can you not? If Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Avila were given the opportunity to worship God in a ritual that did not include their physical bodies in any way, they would have jumped at it, I’m sure. Christianity has traditionally had such disdain for the physical body, I don’t understand how anyone could suggest that there’s even a question about whether the virtual ritual is possible. The virtual ritual has been the most desireable kind since medieval christians climbed up on pillars and stood on one foot for 10 years. Remove the impact of the body, remove it from your consciousness, and then you are free to approach the divine with your lustful, sinful flesh tamed and left behind. In many ways, Second Life ritual could be seen as the consumate religious experience.
Can the same be said for jewish ritual, however? Jewish traditions isn’t nearly as flesh-hating, and jewish ritual respects the physicality of the performing the ritual itself, often above the intellectual understanding of it. Perhaps jewish ritual cannot move into a virtual context, but I’d suggest that christian ritual absolutely can.
An interesting morning! I never though my Master of Theological Studies degree would could in handy at an internet researchers’ conference, fancy that!