Virtual Reality Baptism (VRB)

My daughter showed me a thing that has been making the rounds on various parts of the web. It was a baptism being done in “virtual reality.” The baptism wasn’t done in the real world utilizing real water and real physical bodies. Rather it was being done with “avatars” in a virtual/digital environment. I hadn’t heard of such a thing before… but with a bit of reflection, it seems surprising that I hadn’t thought of the possibility. If you want to see an example, you can simply go to the web browser of your choice and type in “VR baptism.”

Image result for vr baptism

It is an interesting idea in missions. I would like to make a bit of a list of what I think are the good (or potential good) as well as the not so good (or potentially bad) things from my perspective. <My perspective is Baptist. As a Baptist I consider baptism to be symbolic rather than “sacramental.” In other words it is a ritual that expresses meaning rather than being a bestower of special blessings or grace. As such, the water does not need to be specially blessed (nor do wine or bread for Eucharist/Communion). Additionally, Baptists see baptism for believers only. Also as a Baptist, we believe baptism should be by immersion in water… vice sprinking, or pouring. However, I am not as legalistic about this one as many Baptists. Immersion is more historically correct and links better as symbol with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. However, since it is a symbol only, the exact formula is not critical. And since pouring, for example, does fit fairly well with baptism as symbolizing (in part) ritual purification, and no better or worse than immersion as symbolizing spiritual unity with the church, I don’t fuss with other traditions about that one.> Ultimately, I am not going to argue whether water has to be real (the oxidized form of hydrogen) or whether it can be virtual. Symbolically, it doesn’t matter, only sacramentally or denominationally. That is not my concern.

So here we go.

Good.  VR baptism (VRB) does well in making baptism public. One idea of baptism, both at the beginning and in the present, is that baptism is a public presentation of one’s faith. In many places, baptism is done in a baptistry with only a few friends, relatives and church members present. In some parts of the world where religious conversion is discouraged or outlawed (remarkable thought, huh?) baptisms are often done very secretly… perhaps in a hotel bathroom for example. VRB arguably is more in line with one of the main purposes of baptism.       But…

Not so Good.  VRB actually hides identity through the use of avatars. As such, it perhaps really isn’t a public display of faith at all. In fact, it is possible to fake it… for basic trollery.    But…

Good.  For those in countries where convesion is illegal, VRB could potentially allow a person to express faith in Christ in a public (virtual) setting that is outside of the reach of religious police.  But…

Not so Good.  VRB may be expressing faith within a virtual environment, but not really a local congregation (generally). As such, one could argue that the ritual is not simply virtual, but fictional.  But…

Good.  For some people, cyberchurch is a reality. While there may be serious questions as to whether  this “New Thing” is a “Good Thing,” it certainly is a “Thing.” For some, their virtual community is more real to them than their brick and mortar world.  But…

Not so Good.  Rituals have an impact in part due to their visceral nature. The taste and texture of the bread and wine are part of the spiritual connection. The water on the skin is part of that experience. Especially for sensates (those who experience the transcendent through impact of the various senses), there is something lost in VRB.  But…

Good.  For some people, real world baptism is not a very viable option, due to disability, health, or locale. As such, VRB may be appropriate.  But…

Not so Good.  While it may be a door to religious experience for some people, it can be a wall for others— drawing them further into “cyberspace” and out of real-world socialization. While it may sound contrary to the thoughts of some, the church should draw one into the world not away.

For me, a few things seem like worthy of thinking about when it comes to VRB.

1.  VRB can actually do baptism better if it allows testimony to be given to the faith experience of the one being baptized. Probably the best baptism I witnessed was one in a non-Baptist church I attended in Taiwan. In that a woman joined the church with a baptism ceremony. She gave a maybe 15 minute testimony of her conversion to Christianity. It was actually quite moving. (Thankfully, it was translated for those of us suffering from language barrier). With VRB a picture of the actual person, and a written or spoken testimony can be associated with the ceremony on screen or with a clickable link. The baptism can also be kept in a file that can be viewed whenever people choose, rather than ONLY at a single point in time and space.  (Accommodations can be made for those who truly need to maintain some anonymity.)

2.  There needs to be a good vetting and catechetical process. While we can ‘t avoid posers completely, there should be a process to minimize this. And there should be a process of training to ensure the person understands what they are doing as well as the faith that they claim to now be an adherent to. <Unfortunately, real-world baptisms often fail greatly in this area as well.>

3.  The avatars allowed should be carefully thought out. Should one be able to be baptized using “Spiderpig” or “Family Guy” as his avatar? I don’t really think so, but avatars do have symbolic value to represent a person, so some flexibility should be allowed.

4.  Some thought shoud be given as to who can be baptized— beyond issues of faith and identity. Should VRB only be done for those seeking to be active members of a cyberchurch? Should all be allowed to be baptized? This should be thoughtfully worked out beforehand.

Of course, expect many real-world churches not to accept VRB. I am from a Baptist church and Baptist churches do not accept the baptism of infants since we see baptism as expressing faith of the one being baptized, not the faith of the parents. Many Baptists don’t accept believer’s baptism of transferees who were baptized utilizing a different ritual. (Goodness, there are some groups that won’t accept baptism if it did not use their preferred formula “In Jesus Name…” or “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…”). As such, VRB is likely to be valuable personally not corporately… except in cyberchurches or other such online communities.




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