Are Video Games the New Religion? Part 2 – Revealing, Concealing, and Religious Experience

Part 1 Here.

So, is game culture a religion? Let’s take a look at some traditional examples of religious experience and conversion to find out.

wiliam-james

The de facto textbook of religious experience comes from the aptly named Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, the great American pragmatic philosopher (not the same as modern “pragmatism”). He was not a traditional Christian believe in any sense, yet his analysis still remains helpful for us. In it, he defines religious experience by its empirical reality – in other words, its affect on a person. In this case, of course, empirical reality is the experience of a divine force itself. James calls religion

…the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. This belief and this adjustment are the religious attitude in the soul.

James categorizes these experiences that persons take “just as we feel it” in two shapes: the religion of “healthy-mindedness”, so called, and the religion of “morbid-mindedness”, or the sick soul. These designations, obviously, are not mutually exclusive, and James does not present them as such; rather, they are general designations, both for the audience of the lectures from which The Varieties of Religious Experience derived and for the experience themselves, more a symbol than a typological analysis. Much in the same way that reality can be experienced in the same way, albeit with different percepts, different religious experiences lead, in many cases, to the exact same end of conversion (religious or not).

The healthy-minded are optimists who hold a natural trust in the innate goodness of the universe if only the individual would realize it. Those who retain this mental state reject any feelings of sin or guilt for the most part, seeing them as a misapprehension of the universe. The ‘sick soul’, on the other hand, perceives a universe where something is fundamentally wrong, and some transfiguring force must swoop in and save the individual. A consciousness of sin and guilt is fundamental, and true joy requires their removal and destruction.

The resemblance almost appears uncanny; how many Christians do you see focus on grace exclusively or sin exclusively? Both arrived at conversion through a different encounter with the risen Christ, and a different religious experience. It’s only natural to suspect, at least without any reflective thought as to the meaning of said experience, that it will color all their future actions and ideas on that path. Some of us shoot for a middle ground, but the vast majority tend to lean on one side or the other.

Both, practically put, provide results. James, however, aligns himself with the ‘sick soul’, albeit not directly. In fact, one of the ‘religious experiences’ used as examples is from James’ own writing, disguised here as a French correspondent. He imagines an epileptic patient in an asylum who “moves nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human.” Perhaps James’ greatest fear is that he could become this person – this left him with a horrible dread and insecurity he could not quell simply by thinking optimistically, or by willing it away. In this sense, James believes that such an experience invalidates the healthy-minded sort, as their all-pervasive positivity does not always line up with true experience, and especially not in his own case – evil demands the idea of a pluralistic universe. James makes this clear:

Healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our ideas to the deepest level of truth.

James understands that, while the community and its rituals and associated traditions may impact the individual, that individual must feel the weight of religious experience to truly change. I imagine most Christians do believe in such a thing; it isn’t that the conversion remains the most important, but that it is certainly a defining moment. As a marking point, it deftly cleaves the human life into a before and after scenario from which one cannot return. A reckoning with Jesus Christ certainly leaves an impression, I assure you!

If we we to describe a video game religion, it would arrive solely by its empirical value and observable phenomenon, but that can’t be the full story, can it? Do all of these rituals and actions truly give us an inkling of a “video game religion”? Given that practical experience shows that religion can be understood best by its practical and empirical results, James must turn to the idea of value. Is a religious experience simply a psychological instinct of humanity that can be entirely explained by natural causes, or is there real value in it? What makes a religious experience “valuable”?

Certainly, these phenomenon can be studied apart from a “valuation” of their significance, but that obviously misses the idea of religion itself, which gives significance to the person who adheres to it. James gives us two categories: existential propositions, or examinations involving history, science, and origin, and judgments of value, which determine the meaning of the object of examination. These judgments are separately pursued, and then combined, but one does not determine the other. For example, simply because I had an experience of God entering into my bedroom, the fact that this can be explained in neurological terms does not necessarily discount the value of such an experience (in this case, to me). Whether a theistic or natural explanation can be offered, only the “fruits”, here considered as both the actions and beliefs that it produces, give us an evaluation of its value.

As James states, “Immediate luminousness, in short, philosophical reasonableness and moral helpfulness are the only available criteria.” These are all components of the pure experience, simply evaluated after the fact. As a result of this, all religious experiences have some kind, mostly stemming from its significance to the individual. Interestingly, this is understood as such in both the Old Testament’s concept of “turning” (more like repentance, but that is a more literal translation of the word shubh used 100 times in reference to the act of repenting) and the New Testament (which uses the same words as translated into Greek – epistrepho). While one counters with the idea of communal sin in the Old Testament, it seems obvious from the beginning that individual responsibility and turning were a fundamental concept in God’s creation order.

So I say, with the reams of content just presented, what exactly does the video game “community”, a large group of people centered around a multi-billion dollars industry revolving around a hobby, have to do with a religion? What does sociology have to do with Christianity? What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? If Andy Robertson is religious, then he has made an unoriginal appeal to whatever cultural zeitgeist sweeps the Western world at the moment. Christian denominations have done such and will continue to do as such for the near future, certainly! A Church with the true Gospel does not need to fear “engagement” with culture, for it exists as an oppositional force to human cultures at its very core.

I find these desperate appeals don’t often work in the long term. Whatever’s going on here isn’t the Gospel, but an extensive metaphor and allegory designed for hoodwinking people into Christian faith. I would not like that discourteous method applied to myself. That is hollow, fake. That lacks the real quality of relationships and other people. I’d rather be honest and straightforward about the whole thing then try to snatch people. I think that is the problem. I survey a wide divide between using media as a way to glorify God, and as a device used to convert people to Christianity.

The analogy that Andy Robertson presents isn’t useful because the two are so different. Or, to put it in harsher terms: The Gospel is the Gospel, and gussying it up with cultural artifacts and means makes the Gospel contingent to the delivery vehicle rather than God. I have seen that dangerous road traveled before, and it happens far more often then we would like to admit. It is a mere reduction of faith to appeal to a mass audience, and since when has that ever worked out but in heresy and unbelief? People truly seek and desire truth, and we give them this mangled little thing. Oh, Christian faith is…like this! Oh, it’s like…your favorite hobby! But we do a disservice to compare our faith, and we strip it of mystery.

Like the pornography addict, we do not desire nudity anymore; we’re certainly seen all of that. Now concealment – the last thing he cannot get, for it is the one thing he has broken. We’re a little too close to God. We know it all. We can point out the whole faith in the blink of an eye, and then compare it to earthly things. That’s a bit of a compromise from a faith that breaks into the world like a bombshell and declares Jesus as Lord and Savior to the whole world.

Is it as revelatory in the true sense of revelation that we think it is, or is it not? Do we believe it true enough to show people without disguise what we truly believe, or must we hide it in the shadows? I ask this question in dire seriousness: what kind of faith do you want?

Andy Robertson has his, certainly, but I have my own.

Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart, 2 but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, 4 in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

2 Corinthians 4

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.