The other day, someone told me she had an Oculus Rift. I was just about to commiserate with her over what sounded like a painful eye condition when she went on to explain that the Rift is in fact a sophisticated new virtual reality device produced by a Facebook-owned company.
The Rift is more beguiling than any similar product. It has the potential to let you watch movies as though you were in the heart of the action; experience the adrenalin rush as you soar high with Superman; share with friends on the other side of the world as though you were all in the same room.
‘The magic of presence changes everything,’ says the promotional slogan on the Oculus web site. I am sure future versions of the Rift will be more discreet, but at present it’s a black box (albeit elegantly engineered) covering the upper part of the face. And this is disturbing. It seems wrong, somehow, to be so immersed in another reality that you are oblivious to your surroundings.
And yet, should I be disturbed? After all, we disengage from reality in many other ways. We day-dream. We succumb to that busy-ness which has us focussing always not on what we’re doing now, but on the next thing on the list. We close our hearts to things (some of them in our own lives) which we simply don’t want, or can’t bear to see. And of course, we lose ourselves in books and movies.
All these ways of escaping reality! Are some more valid than others? I have found the escapism offered by books therapeutic at times when, though crippled by anxiety, I’ve still been able to find some peace in reading. Thank you, James Herriot. Thank you Anthony Trollope for those massive novels. Thank you, Daniel Defoe – I will never forget that long afternoon in the bottom bunk at Nethy Bridge with Robinson Crusoe.
I think the helpful escapes are those which prepare us to live better in the real world when we return to it. Unhelpful escapes return us to reality even more alienated than before.
Virtual Reality expert Jaron Lanier claims that ‘the most amazing moment of virtual reality is when you leave it, not when you’re in it.’ It returns you to the real world with open eyes, he implies.
Christianity and other faiths insist that the present moment is the best place to be – in the fullest and deepest sense of ‘to be.’
Thich Nhat Hanh has said ‘Our true home is the present moment, the miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment.’ We are most fully alive when we are alert to the now.
Some people, hearing my concerns about virtual reality, would retort ‘But don’t Christians live in a virtual reality? Isn’t the Bible an Oculus Rift sweeping you into delusional dreams about God and Jesus Christ and a better place to come?
I acknowledge that faith can become a way of shutting ourselves off from everyday life, living in an artificial bubble awaiting the coming of the King. But this disconnect between faith and life is not helpful.
I also suggest that it is quite legitimate for Christians to take shelter periodically from the pressures of the everyday – in times of retreat, for example – but this withdrawal is to enable us be more fully and joyously present when we return.
But faith doesn’t mean jumping between the reality of spirit and the reality of everyday. Christian faith means viewing the one reality through different eyes. We see not simply the physical and material; we see the world as God’s world and the beauty of the green, green grass as an ever-given gift.
We are alive to suffering in the world, and we understand the pain God feels, and see God in the eyes of those who suffer. Our hope and joy comes not from living in a virtual world, but in embracing life in this world and discerning many signs of God’s life-transforming touch, believing that in the end all will be well.
In fact, people of faith would argue that it’s when we look at the world and see only the material that we have an Oculus Rift to our eyes. Coming to faith is not about putting on a virtual reality device, but about taking off the shades which have greyed out the glory.
In this 'amazing moment of homecoming' - a timeless moment - we discover that the magic of presence does indeed change everything. For we are present to ourselves, present to others, present to the world, present to God's love as seen in Jesus. And the greatest wonder is that we find God present to us.
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 10th March 2016)