Here’s a question: is a virtual-reality baptism valid?
On its face, it seems like an absurd question. Better: who would get baptized in virtual reality, and why?
The answer to that is a person who we will call “Drumsy.” As you might have guessed form the peculiarity of the scenario and the specificity of the pseudonym, this is not a hypothetical, but something that has already happened:
So, has Drumsy been baptized? Has she been reborn through water and through spirit, as Jesus requires of believers in John 3:5-6?
The Christian friends I have asked about this expressed some skepticism over the legitimacy of virtual baptism, but they couldn’t quite put their finger on what was wrong with it. Something clearly felt wrong, but no immediate argument presented itself. They wanted to say something about the importance of the water itself, but it is unclear that Jesus was being literal in his explanation to Nicodemus. In any case, “literal” water is essentially of this world. If the point is to be reborn in the spirit — to become “not of this world” — then what is wrong with virtual water? Is this not, in essence, “spiritual” water?
Come to think of it, could there be anything more divorced from this material world, and “spiritual” in nature, than virtual reality?
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
– John 3:8
So it is with everyone in virtual reality.
As a religious person, I think it is clear that something is deeply wrong with a virtual reality baptism. But the problem with VR baptism — the problem that Christians can all sense, but cannot quite explain — is invisible to Christians because the problem is essentially physical in nature. The very purpose of baptism is to kill the flesh-self — the self of this world — and to be reborn in the spirit, divorced from the world, and in marriage with God. But if one is to escape the trappings of this world, by what argument can one emphasize the importance of worldly, physical aspects of a religious act, like literal water… especially a religious act which delineates and celebrates that very separation?
As with many things, the Catholic church has a unique and paradoxical head-start in dealing with this problem, at least for the moment. Given its long period of developing tradition without the laity being able to read the text in question (and thereby notice the contradictions between the text and the “Christian” practices advocated by the church), the Catholic church was able to introduce some natural and important religious practices, such as visual representations (“graven images”), multiple deities (“saints”), and hierarchy (in contradistinction with the equality preached within the New Testament) which set it up to be a powerful, sustainable, and effective religion for over a thousand years. Unlike Protestants, Catholics have a legitimate basis in tradition from which they can reject the practice of virtual baptism. The only problem, of course, is that this tradition has no basis in actual scripture, but in spiritual knowledge that both pre-dates and transcends Christianity itself. The advent of Protestantism was the natural and inevitable by-product of translating the Bible into local vernaculars. Only time will tell if Catholicism will survive the slow but steady erosion of their beautiful tradition, emanating from that very same rock-foundation upon which their own Church was built.
If any Christians do read this, I would be very curious if you know of or have heard of any serious scriptural rejections of virtual-reality baptisms. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, or to ask Christians you know if they might have any ideas.