We have all seen this in one way or another: A bunch of teenagers are in a room, each of them staring fixedly at their smart phones. They have headphones on and they are intensely concentrating on whatever they are seeing on their screens. They are oblivious to each other.
At first, one is tempted to say, “So what? They are not bothering anyone. Better this than they should get into trouble out on the mean streets of our city!”
Such a judgment is very glib, though. While these teens are not in any seemingly dangerous activity, they are far from being safe. They are each immersed in their own worlds that are virtual, but not real. They, in a sense, have chosen to sleep away segments of their lives. If, suddenly, their Wi-Fi fails and they are forced to take out their headphones and actually look at each other and dare to (O my!) converse with one another, they would have to actually involve themselves in reality with all its messiness and its promise!
Community is only possible when people can look at each other and begin to take the leap of faith in trusting their perceptions, accepting or rejecting their opinions, and evaluating the next things that ought to be said and done, given the reality of the situation. It is simply what children learn to do if they can stay away from the many screens that surround them.
I remember a very funny piece in one of the magazines that I read recently in which the author satirically tries to convince someone glued to a computer screen to “GO OUTSIDE”. He gives the following reasons: It is interactive, three dimensional, of physical good to the body, and always new!
The problem that this points to is that we are losing our ability to be inter-personally present to one another. We are substituting the unreal world of the internet with its constant stream of news, fake communities, and elongated time to the real world of things actually present to us.
I have heard of many young people who are always at the computer or smart phone and yet who are extremely lonely. It sounds so terribly obvious: there is no substitute for acknowledged physical presence to one another. In the fake world of the internet, there is no time, nor a real space to be. We can be living in a world that does not exist and will never exist. So, what happens to be people who are trapped there?
One would think that what we say about virtual reality as something unreal, would also be true of the spiritual world. Were not the saints lost in an unreal spiritual world of angels and demons? While there have always been seekers in the world of faith who, following their own designs, live in a world far far away from the daily reality of life, the person of faith is kept in the daily reality of life by the Incarnation and the protection of the Magisterium of the Church. In the Incarnation, we see God in everyday reality, not in an imaginative world of manufactured impression mistakenly called ‘reality’. Church teaching underlines this identification of the real with the created. Scripture, the tradition of the Church and her underlying philosophy of life (in such Church greats as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas) are a unified world view that sees God not in the mind or the imagination, but in all things created (including the mind and the imagination).
Connected with this is the fact that sin is a form of unreality. The person who sins does not connect with reality as God shapes it, but produces, under demonic influence, a world as he or she wants it to be, perhaps to justify the sin looming as a possible course of action. Sin therefore is the great paradigm to virtual worlds of all types. When we want the world to be a certain way and participate in it as such, then we are involved in the nefarious production of the untrue that the devil weaves around us to justify the course of action that will lead it to sin. All sin is a virtual world that does not in fact exist.
To be in God and with God is to be allied and connected to the world as it truly is in all its terror and promise, uncertainty and hope.
It is, in short, real.