Cyberpilgrims : Introduction
Pope Benedict at World Youth Day near Cologne. Photo: AFP
Pope Benedictus XVI will be sending daily text messages to the masses gathered at the World Youth Days taking place July 2008 in Sydney, Australia. According to the Sydney assistant Bishop Anthony Colin Fisher, this is a way to reach the youth with inspiring messages. Moreover, the Australian church will erect digital prayer walls and set up a digital social network. It seems like the Roman Catholic Church is trying to be relevant in a multimedia age where traditional churches have difficulty connecting with the younger generation.
The religious framework shaping the experience of birth, life and death has disappeared for many individuals in Western Europe. The demystification of nature by technology has left little room for a cosmological worldview where a god steers all that is happening in the world. This younger generation consists of many seekers who are not sure what they believe exactly and what they want to belong to. Going to the World Youth Days can be considered to be a pilgrimage; a spiritual journey.
Promo-video for the World Youth Days
This spiritual journey not only takes place on the road to Santiago de Compostela or at the World Youth Days; one of the sources for spirituality and identity is cyberspace. The greatest example of cyberspace is the Internet, a worldwide information network. Other examples are virtual worlds like the immensely popular computer game World of Warcraft or the simulation Second Life. Although extensive research has been conducted into their cultural and economic effects, the religious and spiritual dimensions of new media have received considerably less attention in the academic world.
In the last 20 years, computer-mediated communication technologies have been integrated into every part of the public and private lives of individuals, organizations and businesses. Besides the increasing use of computer technology, the process of individualism, secularization and social change also characterizes Western society. These processes have had a large impact on reflections concerning personal and social identity. New information and communication technologies play a crucial role in the transformation of identity. Cyberspace is the fast-growing medium where technological, social-economic, cultural and religious developments occur and are communicated. Our age has been coined as 'post-modern' or 'radical modern'. Two of the central features of modernity are rationalization and disenchantment. At the same time, esoteric literature, magic and spiritual movements seem to be spreading everywhere.
I am interested in cyberspace, and the 'virtual space' as a place for the construction of spirituality and identity. My key question is:
How can cyberspace be a place where spirituality and identity are to be constructed?
I have several reasons to pose this question. In the first place, as I already argued, the relationship between spirituality and cyberspace has received little attention, especially in the sociology of religion field. In the popular debates about media, a critical and well-balanced view is often missing. Advertisers promote how much fun and easy electronic communication is, while parents or politicians seem to overemphasize the bad influence of 'the media'.
Before elaborating on how I will answer this question, I will start by defining the concepts of cyberspace, spirituality and identity:
"The self is not a passive entity determined by external influences; in forging their self-identities, no matter how local their specific context or action, individuals contribute to and directly promote social influences that are global in their consequences and implication."
The construction of a stable identity is not a matter of fact. Identity originates from the Latin words idem, the same. Identity refers to who we are to ourselves. But what is our identity, what is our self? That is a philosophical, sociological and psychological question. Is it in our bodies or in our minds? Paul Ricoeur wrote a book Soi-même comme un autre, the self as another. We are forced to think about our identity as if it were another person that we need to know. Identity construction always contains a spiritual dimension. The spiritual dimension, more fully explained in this chapter, is the metaphysical framework that gives meaning to life and the world. Identity and spirituality are two concepts that have a lot in common. A stable narrative of the self needs spiritual reflection. Who am I? Why am I here and where am I going? According to Charles Taylor (1989), the self is constructed using several sources. These sources derive from elements such as culture, education, ethnicity, race, sex, and so on. Taylor argues that there is no autonomous self. This contradicts the romantic idea of an inner self that has to be realized. The French sociologist Hervieu-Léger invokes the image of the pilgrim as an example of the individual on a spiritual quest. A spiritual quest can be seen as a quest for the personal narrative. A popular narrative of a spiritual quest is described in Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, in which the main character broadens his horizons by travels and experiences in distant countries. The following passage shows how he portrays the construction of spiritual identity.
"We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it's our life or our possessions and property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand."
The idea of the self as a spiritual identity is very present in New Age thinking. In popular media including the Christian ones, there is a lot of emphasis on becoming what you are, on authenticity and self-realization. The autonomous individual-subject, so important in modernity, is omnipresent.
To develop a stable identity, trust is crucial. In the development of a child, the child fully and completely trusts his or her parents. Later on, the child learns to think for him or herself, supported by structures such as family, school, friends, and church. Before the decline of institutions such as the church and the traditional family, there were rites of passage such as baptism, communion, graduation and marriage. These formal rites have since lost their power as it is currently less common to baptize or to marry. Tradition and habit are replaced by doubt and reflexivity. The self has to be constructed by connecting personal and social change. Forms of mediated experiences nurture this reflexivity. The media play a central role in connecting distant happenings, such as September 11, to our intimate life. With the development of mass-communication, self-development and global systems interact.
Books, magazines, television programs, movies and Internet sites shape our view of the world as well as our identity. At the moment the presentation of women and beauty is a hot topic. The fact that many photo models are extremely thin while their pictures are often enhanced by graphical software such as Photoshop raises the question of how this affects our view of femininity. People wonder to what extent a negative image of the self, or worse, anorexic phenomena, are caused by this view of femininity. Pro-anorexia websites encourage teenage girls to lose weight, facilitating anorexia.
We are encouraged to think and reflect on everything we do. The break away from traditional patterns and fixed social roles has created a society where the status quo of authority, knowledge and relationships is questioned. The freedom of choice, study, religious identification, relationships and work presents so many options that it is hard to choose. This freedom can become a burden and lead to anxiety. My social category of students is a good example. Students are expected to choose study directions, courses, formulate opinions about their field and the world around them while preparing for a future career. Besides their studies, they experiment with relationships, responsibility and part-time jobs. The variety of options causes stress, especially when a clear framework in the form of religion, a stable worldview, social network or a family is not available. The self-identity becomes a reflexively organized endeavor. It is, therefore, important to sustain a coherent personal biographical narrative that we constantly need to revise.
In discussions on religion and identity, speaking about religious identification is quite usual. Of course, religion can become part of the identity as it is a social activity that presumes contact with some transcendent reality while maintaining morals and ethics. Cultural identity also appeals to a more or less defined social context. But what exactly is spiritual identity? To answer this question, we first need to consider the word 'spirituality'. It is a fashionable term nowadays yet the content of this concept seems to differ in each context. The word spirituality originates from the Latin spiritus meaning 'spirit', the opposite of the material. In other words, spirituality is concerned with making sense of things. The existential questions about being in the world are part of it. People need to make sense of life, and rituals are an expression of placing events within a framework.
Spirituality in the Christian and Buddhist traditions is a part of salvation and liberation. It can be liberation from a distorted relationship with the divine or liberation from the limitations and sufferings of daily life. Today, spirituality is seen as a spiritual journey to make sense of life and seek the 'inner self'. A very important part of spirituality is experience. This experience, often mediated by meditation, is perceived as communication between the self and the divine, nature, or another holistic concept. The sociologist Stef Aupers states that the secularization process and, at the same time, the emergence of New Age thinking have created an increase in interest for the spiritual side of identity. Aupers speaks about the sacralization of the self. Adherents of New Age thinking use traditional concepts to identify the spiritual core of a human being. As stated earlier, they borrow the term 'higher self' from theosophy, the 'divine spark' from the Gnostics and the 'soul' from Christianity. It creates a form of self-spirituality where one aims for spiritual evolution, realization of the self or personal growth. Self-realization and authenticity are not only perceived as spiritual concepts. They are widely used in self-help and self-therapy books or sessions. Anthony Giddens argues that this is not a product unique to current Western individualism.
"'Individuality' has surely been valued - within varying limits- in all cultures and so, in one sense or another, has been the cultivation of individual potentialities."
His emphasis on self-realization and authenticity is persuasive because original structures and institutions are losing their influence. The search for the self by continuous reflection presumes, in many self-helps books, a narrative.
According to Mariasusai Dhavamony, an Indian Catholic theologian, identifying with many religious and spiritual traditions offers an excellent perspective on spirituality.
"It is true that all basic human spiritual traditions are open, clear and direct expressions of the manner in which humans have structured their personal and social life in order to give it a higher, transcendent significance. In fact, spirit, spiritual, spirituality can be described as the belief in some reality in human beings and the universe beyond the physical or material or biological which is related to the Supreme Reality and which is required to explain and justify certain human capacities, aspirations and ideals. It is that which explains, validates and makes it possible for humans to rise beyond all aspects of their physical material and selfish selves. It is spiritual reality, which accounts for human self-transcendence and world-transcendence. It is its relation to the Supreme Reality, which is at the basis of human religious experience."
Spirituality, according to Dhavamony, is a metaphysical perspective that explains and justifies human capacities, aspirations and ideals. This perspective is not necessarily a personal God, but can also be a personal and subjective conviction about reality. It can be holistic, rationalist, based on experience or something else. In contrast to religion, it does not have to be a social phenomenon. Its essence is based on the structure that humans give to it. It is based on human religious experience, or the lack thereof. William James describes religious experiences as personal, inward experiences. Though they may occur in social and religious contexts, the meaning people give to it is ultimately personal.
Spiritual identity is based on a metaphysical perspective on life and reality. It is composed of social, cultural and religious sources that provide a framework for human capacities, aspirations and ideals. Today, spirituality is not institutionalized; it is open and fluid. There is a whole spiritual marketplace from all kinds of traditions that provide meaning, spirituality and authenticity to seekers and pilgrims. Spiritual identity can therefore be constructed from a variety of sources and provide each individual with a framework that they can or attempt to live with. One of the platforms for this spiritual marketplace can be cyberspace.
"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding"
Cyberspace is a word that originates from the cyber-punk writer William Gibson, who used it for the first time in his book Neuromancer. Gibson describes cyberspace as the electronic realm where millions of people are connected through computer technology. The 'cyber' refers to the web of electronic connections, clearly seen in the now common concept of the World Wide Web. It is, therefore, not surprising that cyberspace is often used as an equivalent for the Internet. The word cyberspace is not limited to this medium, essentially all means of communication mediated by computer networks can be called cyberspace. Another word closely connected to cyberspace is cybernetics, the science that describes the interaction between human and machine. Well-known is Donna Haraways's Cyborg Manifesto, in which she explores the notions of the 'cyborg' as a hybrid between human and machine.
The sociologist Stef Aupers states that there is an affinity between cyberspace and Gnostic philosophy and esotery. Gnosis is secret knowledge that claims to liberate mankind from the dungeon of the body and unite mankind with the divine. Working in cyberspace by programming code, surfing the Internet and walking through virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and Second Life can be so absorbing that the physical becomes unimportant. Computer technology can become a means for immersion or flow in such a way that the user is able to liberate himself from his or her physical limitations and realize a new identity in cyberspace. This, at least, is what writers like William Gibson and Timothy Leary claim. A counter to this is found in the film Avalon (Oshii, 2001), where immersion in virtual worlds leads to madness and alienation from the 'real' world.
Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin have developed a very applicable framework that can be used to distinguish the different forms of cyberspace, also known as 'new media'. In their book Remediation (2000), they argue that many media such as books, films, and photos are all integrated in, for example, the Internet. They call software such as internet browsers and its different windows 'hypermediality'. The 'hyper', refers to hypertext defined as words, sounds and images that exist in the hyper reality of computer-generated content. The windowed style of media, where sound, text and images appear next to each other is known as hypermedia. With several windows, we can switch from one source to another. Bolter and Grusin connect virtuality such as takes place in, for example, Second Life, with transparent immediacy: the three- dimensional world is presented so directly that the medium itself becomes invisible. I will apply this framework of hypermediality later on, when I describe social media such as Facebook or Youtube, and transparent immediacy when I describe virtual worlds in Second Life, World of Warcraft, and the film Avalon.
I have given the definitions of identity, spirituality and cyberspace. Identity, and the construction of identity, refers to the self that is constructed from several sources. Various media do play an important role in the construction of and reflection on identity. Spirituality is concerned with making sense of things; some kind of meta-physical framework on the self, life, and the world. Cyberspace relates to the network of electronic communication, illustrated most clearly by the Internet.
In discussions concerning religion and identity, speaking about religious identification is quite common. Religion can clearly become part of the identity because it is social, presumes contact with some transcendent reality, and contains morals and ethics. Culture and ethnicity also appeal to a more or less defined social context. Spirituality, however, seems to refer to a personal conviction about making sense of things. Danièle Hervieu-Léger uses the metaphor of the pilgrim to describe the search for identity and spirituality. While the pilgrim seems to shape his own spiritual narrative and thus his identity, there is also a dimension of 'play' to identity. As the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga described in his book Homo Ludens (1938), a great deal of social interaction is based on play, where the rules are arbitrary and socially constructed. It goes even further when play becomes a game limited by borders of time and place. Play becomes a part of the construction of identity when the player identifies the rules and practices of the game.
In order to answer the question how we can create a spiritual identity in cyberspace, I will use an interdisciplinary approach. I use perspectives from sociology, sociology of religion, media studies, philosophy of culture and anthropology when I discuss the following subjects:
- In the chapter 'The Pilgrim', I will focus on the spiritual
journey and the changing religious landscape in which this
occurs. The metaphor of the pilgrim illustrates the search for
spirituality and the role of religion. Moreover, I will cover the
changes that occurred in traditional religion and the emergence
of New Age thinking with its sacralization of the self.
My sociological framework draws heavily on Hervieu-Léger and I will also deal with Davie (1994), Taylor (2007), Aupers (2004). In the description of the phenomenon of New Age, I use Heelas (1996), Hanegraaf (1996).
- In the chapter 'Spirituality in a technological mediated environment', I discuss the relationship between spirituality and technology. Spirituality and identity are constructions of culture. But how is it possible to experience spirituality in a technologically mediated environment? Is virtual reality causing a new enchantment or a source of alienation? I will try to answer this question using the work of Dagonet (1990) on nature, Heidegger (1962), and Henry (1987) on technology. I will use Oshii's film Avalon (1999) as an illustration of virtual reality. Aupers (2004), De Mul (2002), Heim (2003) will be used for this framework of virtual reality.
- In the chapter 'Media, Religion, Culture and Spirituality', I will discuss the role of the media (from 'old' to 'new') in the construction of identity and spirituality. Besides, I will focus on the relationship between media and religion using Brown (2001), Hoover (2006). Because audiovisual media, especially television, and its effect on the audience have been extensively debated, I will give a short overview of the most important positions using Kline, Dyer-Whiteford et al. (2003). Finally, I will finish by describing the role of cyberspace in the construction of identity and the search for spirituality.
- In the chapter 'Under construction: Cyberspace and Identity', I will show how cyberspace can play a role in the construction of identity. I will distinguish between cyberspace as a place for experimentation using Turkle (1996), Turner (1982) and, cyberspace as a social network using Lövheim and Linderman (2005). Special attention will be paid to the role of religious social networks.
- In the chapter 'Spiritual Identification in Virtual Worlds', the largest chapter, I will apply narrative frameworks of Ricoeur (1983)and ludic frameworks of Huizinga (1951), Turner (1982), De Mul (2005) on spirituality and identity. I will argue why the apparent illusions of play in virtual worlds are so important for spirituality using Van Baal (1972). I will apply these frameworks to the computer game World of Warcraft and Avilion, a world in Second Life. What could be the motivations to live in a virtual fantasy world? In the two virtual fantasy worlds it is possible to create a virtual identity. People can construct a cyber-self and play with it. I will try to illustrate the interaction between the construction of a coherent narrative self and the playing with identity. This construction of identity will ultimately be connected with the idea of the sacralization of the self.
- In the Conclusion, I will summarize and synthesize the different perspectives on the creation of a spiritual identity, and show how cyber pilgrims can construct their spiritual journey online.