The summer of 2016 gave us a glimpse of the future, and the future is virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). In 2014, the mega brand Facebook signaled the tech industry’s prediction that VR was is going to be an important part of life by betting $2 billion in its acquisition of the virtual reality company Oculus. This summer, Oculus Rift was finally released just as the AR game Pokémon Go became arguably the most popular video game of all time, as players tried to catch all the virtual creatures, interacting with the game and the real world at the same time. While Oculus did not have the explosive reception that Pokémon Go had, and while the Pokémon Go craze has quickly cooled, tech moguls are still betting that we, the consumers, are going to use VR and AR in major ways. They are probably right. We are drawn to the imaginative possibilities VR and AR technologies promise because they offer us something of the divine utopia we all long for—the kind we were designed to inhabit. We are intended for shalom.
Technology promises to give us our own personal utopia. But is that better than God’s shalom?The Hebrew word שָׁלֹום, transliterated as shalom, is most often rendered in English translations of the Old Testament as peace, but any biblical theologian will tell you that shalom is a complex concept about the state of one’s life. The Jesuit theologian Xavier Leon-Dufour begins his entry on peace in his massive Dictionary on Biblical Theology with the claim, “Man desires peace from the very depths of his being.” (411) In English, the word peace has a limited meaning, usually only referring to an absence of conflict. If peace is the absence of conflict, then it is easy to assume that everyone desires it. However, this desire for peace is usually on our own terms. For instance, I desire the absence of conflict with my neighbor as long he doesn’t play his music too loud.
The ancient Hebrew concept of shalom is more than the absence of conflict. Shalom has a much richer meaning than the English word peace, one that is intended to permeate every facet of our lives. As Fr. Leon-Dufour S.J. says:
To appreciate at its full value, the reality concealed beneath this word one must sense the earthly flavor which subsists in the Semitic expression even in its most spiritual conception. We find it this way in the Bible right up through the last book of the New Testament. . . . The Hebrew world shalom is derived from a root which, according to it’s usages, designates the fact of being intact, complete. (411)
Understood as a state of wholeness or of being complete, shalom is less about avoiding conflict and more about accessing the potential contentedness in all the various components of our lives, directed by a top down, right relationship with God. It is the idea that when we are faithfully and obediently following God—or say, seeking His Kingdom and Righteousness first—then everything else will fall into place. Yet, shalom is not simply a pact with God that gives us access to a tranquil or blessed life. As Leon-Dufor goes on to write, it is “the well-being of daily existence, the state of the man who lives in harmony with nature, with himself, with God. Concretely, it is blessing, rest, glory, riches, salvation, life.” (411) It is not that each of us possesses a hidden desire for the absence of conflict. We want to inhabit a better world, one that includes the absence of conflict as one of the many harmonious blessings. This is the desire found at our core, and of which St. Augustine says, our heart is restless until we find ourselves in that world.
The promise of all new technology is to make life better, and augmented reality is one of the latest to make this promise by allowing us to use our imaginations to actually inhabit a world that is somehow better than our own. In her book, Augmented Human, Dr. Helen Papagiannis describes augmented reality as “a form of make-believe, creating a virtual story that can be visual, audible, tangible, olfactory, and even one you can taste.” By blending our experience with the real world around us with a digital world of our own making, we are able to enhance how we experience the world in just the precise ways we would like. In Pokémon Go, our world is transformed into one that involves quests, adventure, and camaraderie. If the broken world we inhabit in reality is mundane and boring, the Pokémon Go world promises something better. However, the possibilities of AR are fettered only by our own imaginations. AR promises the ability to enhance and tweak any of our perceptions of the world around us, in order for us to feel as though we our inhabiting our own personal utopia.
If, like the smartphone, augmented reality becomes more entrenched in our daily lives, as many tech gurus believe it will, and as we get better and more sophisticated at curating and inhabiting our personal utopias, will we have the ability to create shalom through AR? In a TedTalk delivered to an industrial elite in Dubai, Helen Papagiannis explains that AR “allows us to layer the future onto the present.” With AR we can imagine how our real world, in a perfectly peaceful state, might appear, and then afford us the chance experience that world immediately. Futurists such as Pagagiannis have marketed AR as a veritable high tech shortcut to shalom.
However, we should be leery of such shortcuts. In his book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, the theologian and pastor Alvin Plantinga Jr. describes the ancient Hebrew concept of shalom as, “a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights.” (10) Missing in the enhanced worlds of our own designs is the natural, holistic, and relational satisfaction only our Creator can provide. When we employ the use of technology, such as AR, to make our worlds better and more personal utopia like, we are attempting to access the benefits of shalom, like the inspiration of joyful wonder, without experiencing the Divine fullness of shalom as it was intended.
While it might be the case that each of us individually yearns for shalom, the biblical concept is not founded upon our own personal desires. Because God is the designer and executor of shalom, and because our ways are not like His, the image of true shalom found in the Bible is not exactly what we would design for our own augmented reality. For example, Isaiah 11’s messianic description of shalom, is a dynamic image that makes no mention of individual human desire. Rather, it is entirely relational.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Biblical shalom is not about meeting our deepest desires; our deepest desires are satisfied by shalom because in shalom we find ourselves in interconnected and interdependent relationships with the components of the world around us. Shalom is nothing short of a theocentric ethical community, wherein we find ourselves in harmonious relationships with creation, other creatures, and other humans; and the harmonious relationship that informs and energizes all of this abiding harmony is our properly faithful relationship with our Creator and Savior. Moreover, this ethical aspect means shalom is something we can participate in bringing about.
Therefore, technology like AR might give us a glimpse of shalom, and such technology might even help us make progress toward bringing about shalom. For instance, using AR might aid in envisioning new and creative ideas for developing harmonious relationships with creation in the way we design eco-friendly buildings and sustainable infrastructure. However, we must always be aware of the limits of technology in its usefulness for bringing about shalom, with the greatest limitation lying in the fact that no technology will ever be capable of bringing about shalom between ourselves and God.
Virtual reality is also at the forefront of new technology the potential to bring about shalom. While augmented reality promises the ability to enhance our experience of the real world, VR promises to allow us to completely create our own new worlds. The totality of control VR provides requires us to step out of our own worlds, and in exchange, we can explore worlds that are not encumbered by the one we live in. The potential for VR has inspired companies like Facebook and Sony to invest billions of dollars in its development. For now, the uses for VR are predominantly in entertainment, and specifically in gaming. For instance, Facebook’s Oculus is designed for high-end gaming PCs, and Sony recently launched a VR headset for the PlayStation 4. However, tech titan’s such as Mark Zuckerberg, envision VR as something that will eventually be a ubiquitous part of our daily life. At this year’s Facebook F8 conference, Zuckerberg predicted that:
Over the next 10 years, the form factor’s just going to keep on getting smaller and smaller, and eventually we’re going to have what looks like normal-looking glasses that can do both virtual and augmented reality. In this version of the future, AR and VR will transform how we conduct ourselves in almost every aspect of our lives, from how we work to how we interact with those near us or online. For instance, Zuckerberg believes, “Virtual reality has the potential to be the most social platform, because you actually feel like you’re right there with another person.”
In this sense, the use of VR appears to be quite useful in the bringing about of shalom if used appropriately. If harmonious relationships with others are necessary components of shalom, then VR and AR technology should be a boon to this mission of shalom. The technologies like the ones described by Zuckerberg have the potential to afford an unprecedented level of intimacy, or in the words of Lauren Vegtar, Oculus social product team leaders, “This is the first time that tech has made this level of social presence possible.” However, while these potential uses of AR and VR might help us make certain gains, as long as they are virtual, they will always, in some sense, be relegated to our minds. In this way, the potentials of AR and VR are mostly paths towards intellectual happiness.
Shalom is more than intellectual happiness. In his book Until Justice and Peace Embrace, Nicholas Wolterstorff constructs an argument imploring Christians to social justice and the well-being or happiness of others, especially the poor, in the name of shalom. Central to social justice is the adequate provision of the physical needs or external goods for the happiness of the poor and needy. For Wolsterstorff, we are not only capable of bringing about instances of shalom, we have a duty to do so. He writes:
Shalom is both God’s cause in the world and our human calling. Even though the full incursion of shalom into our history will be divine gift and not merely human achievement, even though its episodic incursion into our lives now also has a dimension of divine gift, nonetheless it is shalom that we are to work and struggle for. We are not to stand around, hands folded, waiting for shalom to arrive. We are workers in God’s cause, his peace-workers. The missio Dei is our mission. (71)
Implicit in this argument is the rejection of intellectualized concepts of happiness, like that of Thomas Aquinas who believed Christian happiness should be found solely in the intellectual contemplation of God. Likewise, our work to bring about the harmonious relationships of shalom should not be relegated to the works and experiences of our minds.
It is our deep desire for peace that draws us so strongly to new immersive technologies. AR and VR can either inhibit or promote our relationship with God, and the shalom He wants us to experience with Him. We can employ AR to help us envision a better future, one that is more harmonious and honoring to our Creator. We can also enjoy the benefits of VR and use it to forge deeper relationships with other human beings that the older technologies could not come close to. However, may we never forget that when we come to any technology looking for what only God can provide, the best we will find are slight glimpses of peace and merely virtual shalom.
Illustration Courtesy of Thomas Powell Griffith