When discussing my activities in Second Life on Bahá’í Web forums, most comments have been encouraging, but some have challenged me to clarify my own thinking on how the Bahá’í Teachings might help understand the place of virtual worlds in society. Being a relatively new technology, it will take some thought to assimilate from a religious perspective, and I imagine that other faith communities are facing a similar challenge. So I would like to share a few personal musings as a contribution to what might be an interfaith dialogue on the subject. I have explored various approaches, but today I will address only one of the questions that were posed: “Are avatars real people?”
One Bahá’í recently asked, “Are you talking to virtual people about a virtual faith?” I imagine that this was prompted by the poster’s knowledge of games such as World of Warcraft, which include a lot of interacting with scripted ‘Non-Player Characters’ (NPCs) who assign tasks or ‘quests’ and provide various inworld services. However, in “3-D immersive social networking environments” such as Second Life, InWorldz, Avination, Kitely, OpenSim, etc., the situation is quite different. While some regions or ‘sims’ make limited use of ‘bots’ (robots) as greeters, auto-responders and the like, most avatars have real people behind them who are having real experiences, even if it is through a ‘virtual world’.
Studies have shown that people tend to design their avatars to express certain facets of their personalities, and can even come to identify with their virtual ‘bodies’. Some who have ‘alts’ (alternate accounts) have even noted that their personality changes to match that of the avatar they are using. This seems similar to how we come to identify with our physical bodies, how we dress and make them up to reflect the ways we perceive ourselves, and how we feel and act differently depending on whether we are clean or dirty, informally or formally dressed, skinny or well-rounded, in ugly or beautiful surroundings, and so on.
Second Life residents have expressed their relationship to their avatars in different ways. For example, “[My avatar] is what I would be without the… constraints of the real world. It is the ‘real me’. It is my soul.” “The avatars are the ‘real’ people, we’re just the meat and bones that allow them to exist.” “The body is different but the mind is the same.” And my personal favorite: “In SL I both lose and find myself.”
The word ‘avatar’ comes from the Sanskrit अवतार or avatāra (literally “descent”), meaning an incarnation, appearance or manifestation of the spirit in a physical form, which the soul takes upon birth onto this mortal earth. In this sense, our physical bodies would not be our ‘real selves’ either, but also avatars, mere outer shells of who we really are inside. If this is the case, then to identify with our bodies of flesh and blood, our “temples of the spirit” as Bahá’u’lláh calls them, is no less of an illusion than to identify with an avatar of pixels and code.
Granted, both of these ‘bodies’ are, to a certain extent, outer expressions of our inner selves, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says, “…the face is the mirror of the heart.” But the Bahá’í Teachings clearly state that in reality we are spiritual beings – not bodies with a spirit, but rather spirits with bodies. Bahá’u’lláh calls the human spirit “a heavenly gem… whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel.” It is “immortal,” an “indivisible substance… entirely out of the order of the physical creation.” It is “the sun by which his body is illumined, and from which it draws its sustenance.”
This precious spiritual being, which is our true reality, uses the physical body as a medium to experience the material world, much as we can use avatars to experience virtual worlds. When we see and hear, it is the soul that sees and hears; when we think and feel, it is the soul that thinks and feels; when we speak or act, it is the soul that speaks and acts; like the person behind the computer managing a virtual avatar.
Similar to the way we are not ‘inside’ our avatars, but related to them electronically, the Bahá’í Teachings say that the soul is not somewhere ‘inside’ the body but rather related to it like the light in a mirror or the radio frequency in a radio transceiver. The spirit is not limited to space, but is “exalted above all egress and regress. It is still, and yet it soars; it moves, and yet it is still.” So too, in a virtual world we can walk, run and even fly, while our real life bodies may be still.
Nor is this physical body the only ‘avatar’ our soul will ever have. Bahá’u’lláh teaches that this material world is only one of the infinite worlds that the Creator has made and will continue to create, all of which we will experience in our eternal journey: “The worlds of God are countless in their number, and infinite in their range. Worlds, holy and spiritually glorious, will be unveiled to your eyes. You are destined… to partake of their benefits, to share in their joys, and to obtain a portion of their sustaining grace. To each and every one of them you will, no doubt, attain.”
Not only does an infinite creation include “worlds besides this world,” but also “creatures apart from these creatures.” In each world it passes through, the soul takes on the “form” that is best suited to experiencing and acting in it, much as an avatars makes it possible for us to experience and act in a virtual world. Bahá’u’lláh says that in each world, the soul “will assume the form that best befitteth its immortality and is worthy of its celestial habitation.” This is nicely illustrated by the fact that our material and virtual avatars, while perfectly adapted to their own spheres of action, could never trade places, much less exist in the world to come.
Our purpose in experiencing each of the worlds of God is the same: to develop the divine potential of the soul that that lies latent, waiting to be developed: qualities such as love and wisdom, forgiveness and generosity, justice and mercy, dignity and compassion. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains that “the human reality can be compared to a seed. If we sow the seed, a mighty tree appears from it. The virtues of the seed are revealed in the tree… Similarly… the Creator has deposited within human realities certain latent and potential virtues. Through education and cultivation, these virtues will become apparent in the human reality, even as the unfoldment of the tree from within the germinating seed… We must strive with energies of heart, soul and mind to develop and manifest the perfections and virtues latent within the realities of the phenomenal world…”
‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains that in this process of developing our latent potential, we “must walk in many paths and be subjected to various processes in our evolution upward.” Just as the material body “passes through consecutive stages of fetus, infant, childhood, youth, maturity and old age” in its physical development, so too the soul needs to experience all conditions and states in its spiritual evolution. We comprehend infancy by being infants, youth by being young, old age by being elderly. We recognize light where there is shadow, truth where there is falsehood, and virtue where there is vice. “Briefly, the journey of the soul is necessary. The pathway of life is the road which leads to knowledge and attainment…”
It is my sincere hope that both our First and Second Life will provide each of us with the many experiences we need to develop spiritually, and that we will always be ready and willing to take full advantage of each of these experiences to grow and serve.
By Peter (pcnewtone)