TAKING LIBERTIES WITH PIXELS
Earlier this year, Westernesste‘s adventures negotiating with the US Federal Government (the IRS) to confirm our nearly three year old application for 501(c)3 non-profit religious church status finally resolved positively. Our exemption extends back to the reformation of Westernesste (formerly a Nest of the Church of All Worlds) as a separate religious entity in 2001.
One of the sticking points we wrestled with is the arbitrary line the IRS has drawn regarding their opinion that activities of a church in Cyberspace are somehow less valid than those taking place in the Outworld.
The IRS appeared to have formed an opinion about “online churches” that predated the burgeoning interactions made possible in the past few years by a variety of social media and more recently in virtual worlds. As is common, policy had not caught up with new technological developments.
Specifically the IRS commented that Westernesste’s activities in the Sidhevairs “appear to be a fairly abstract concept” and they requested clarification as to how our activities and Lands in cyberspace, particularly virtual residence there, furthers our religious goals.
I have thought for some time that the successful arguments I made on behalf not only of Westernesste and theSidhevairs but also by extension (and possibly precedent) on behalf of all practitioners of religion or spirituality in 3D worlds ought to be shared further and not languish in a file folder somewhere in some vast US Government documentation warehouse (think Raiders of the Lost Ark). It also occurs to me that some of the arguments I made apply to those of us who periodically find ourselves attempting to explain that social interactions and emotional ties formed in virtual worlds are valid and real despite the incredulity, resistance or even contempt of the uninitiated.
For this reason I offer an edited version of these arguments here in the hopes that they may be of use or interest:
Abstract concepts are certainly not new to religion and in fact might be seen to be a central characteristic of religious activity. That said, we believe that it is very clear how our activities in the virtual setting promote, and in fact embody and express our religious philosophy.
The Sidhevairs, while composed of pixels infused with cyber-semiotic symbolism are in essence an artistically evolving, co-created three-dimensional expression of inspirational and religious art which also serve as virtual space for our religious activities. The medium used is simply a new one but the intent is not so far from traditional examples of sacred art as expressed by such forms as the Sistine chapel for Catholics, or sand paintings for Navaho and Tibetan religious practitioners. In the analogous examples I have given, what defines the sacred purpose of such art is how it is used and what the goal is for the media.
Sacred art is imagery intended to uplift the mind to the spiritual. It can be an object to be venerated not for what it is but for what it represents; Catholics are taught that such venerated objects are more properly called sacramentals. While some religious practitioners are still taught to regard the art and images of other religions as cultish “idols” that are worshiped in and of themselves, and should not considered as “sacred art”, Westernesste opines that the use of art regardless of the religious group, is essential, as art can symbolize understandings and feelings that words simply can’t describe.
Westernesste has chosen to express some of its sacred art through the medium of 3D imagery facilitated by virtual worlds, art with which its members can directly interact. Imagine if you will a Christian walking through St Peter’s Basilica or perhaps more accurately, stepping into Salvador Dali’s Crucifixion.
Similarly, consider Tibetan sacred art which includes thangkas and mandalas, often with depictions of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Creation of Buddhist art is usually done as a meditation as well as creating an object as an aid to meditation. An example of this is the creation of a sand mandala by monks; before and after the construction prayers are recited, and the form of the mandala represents the pure surroundings (palace) of a Buddha. This form is meditated upon to train the mind. Imagine a Tibetan Buddhist able to explore an online 3D version of the Mandala.
The Sidhevairs are an important example of Westernesste’s sacred art, they are created with prayer and religious techniques such as spiritual contemplation and immersion in an altered state of religious awareness.
In essence, Westernesste’s work in virtual worlds is directly related to explorations of concepts like de Chardin’s Noosphere – defining the layer of being (thought, emotion, action) which surrounds our planet. Westernesste, through our visual and community work as facilitated by the Internet, and specifically through virtual world technology, is participating in a religious experiment in the integration of our metaphors, especially through something as profound as the Noosphere. The Noosphere, we believe, has a body from which it acts, and this body has both physical and energetic natures. The wiring of the planet – lately via the Internet, the worldwide web, social media networking and virtual worlds—provides proof positive of the existence of a physical body which we believe is extant in Cyberspace as it is in any forest or grove in “the Outworld”.
Lodging in the Sidhevairs allows members to participate in this work by “living” there. The IRS stated in its first response to our original application and narrative: “creation of an avatar and interaction in a Second Life environment provides significant social and recreational activity which dilutes your assertion that the primary purpose of your organization is to promote the religious philosophy of your organization.”
We beg to differ. Aside from the fact that the virtual world interactive platform we originally used [edited: we’ve moved to an open source version–see NOTE above] is used by many business organizations to further their organizational goals (a notable example would be IBM), and also putting aside the fact that many churches serve to provide their constituencies with both social and recreational activities in addition to their religious services but situated directly in their sacred sites and properties (Bingo, for example, or Easter Egg hunts), Westernesste’s presence in the virtual setting is in fact a direct expression of our religious philosophy and purposes and is part and parcel of a primary expression of our religious and philosophical world view.
The IRS response to Westernesste’s original narrative goes on to ask us to cite case law or other authority and we must point first to the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States specifically regarding the intent to secure religious freedom. Respectfully, we do not believe that it is appropriate for the IRS to base its determinations of our exempt status as a church upon what may be their employees’ individual opinions about this one aspect, this one medium of our religious expression. While the expression of religion in a new medium such as Cyberspace may be abstract or unusual, we believe not only that it is our right to do so, but also, please pardon the pun, our rite.
As Mircea Eliade points out in The Sacred and the Profane, “sacred space is where all space begins”; without it, cyberspace could not have begun. You can detect this in the fictive evocations of cyberspace — Vernor Vinge, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson have all articulated sacred themes in their works on cyberspace. As authors they understand that the imagination when freed is swiftly informed by the divine.
Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, has elucidated an important aspect of what Westernesste is contributing to (no less than global illumination) in the virtual world setting as follows:
“If the work of the city is the remaking or translating of man into a more suitable form than his nomadic ancestors achieved, then might not our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?”
McLuhan goes on to warn how this group consciousness and global information can be a destructive force. Westernesste believes that it is we “Cybernauts” and “early adopters” of this new technology and this explosion of “social media” who must seek to create connections which preserve our community from the pressures of forces which would seek to dominate them. Thus, our work in the Sidhevairs, our creation of this new form of three dimensional sacred art is just such an effort. We seek to point the way for a culture which, like it or not, is hurtling at a headlong pace into electronic forms of social media.
We believe that we are providing an example of how the sacred can provide an alternative and some defense against an empty or merely commercial cyber-domination; places like the Sidhevairs in the virtual setting are an example of how we can create a place where the individual exists in communion with a greater whole in a positive and deeply spiritual and religious manner.
Following McLuhan we realize how electronic and simulated mediations can be seen as a technically arbitrary approach to the social and spiritual amputations of the internet which can be seen as supplanting naturally-occurring abilities or sensations with a technically mediated prosthesis. In our immersive virtual environment of the Sidhevairs, while this amputation still takes place and even results in a dislocation of the self from the self, we believe that this is analogous to the soul’s journey through the Bardos of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
We believe that in a synthetic but fluid cyber-universe, the dictates of being become the laws of the world; or, more simply put, the creation of a world necessarily implies the creation of a world view.
Human communication is essentially shaped by the medium of that communication – the medium is the message. All mediations engage humanity in a structural coupling which changes both. In this sense, the emergence of a sacred electronic aesthetic is the natural reaction to the discovery of a space in which we wish to place ourselves – but we can not set foot into this world until we have sanctified it. Hence, we bless our creations, declare them sacred and fit for humanity. Otherwise, we intuit, our creations will dehumanize us.
The fundamental practice in sacred art is the creation of a place for sacred being within any work of art. Our work with virtual reality attempts to provide a profoundly embodied experience in a purely imaginal virtual and mythic environment. The contradiction inherent in this situation mirrors the Cartesian mind/body split, in reverse.
The Sidhevairs specifically attempt to create virtual lands which express peace, calm, beauty, divinity, and “a container” for the embodiment of the sacred through virtual art and virtual reality. Westernesste through this medium also provides imagery that encourages the expression of mythopoeia through our bringing of archetypal characters to life.
Most religions contain a body of traditional sacred stories that are believed to express profound truth. Some religious organizations and practitioners believe that some or all of their traditional stories are not only sacred and “true”, but also historically accurate and divinely revealed, and that calling such stories “myths” disrespects their special status. Other religious organizations and practitioners have no problem with categorizing their sacred stories as myths. We fall into the latter category although we do believe that definition of our stories as myth does not detract from their potential status as divine revelations. For Westernesste, both religion and mythology are overlapping systems that are of high importance as they express broad and/or inclusive statements concerning the supernatural and the sacred. We believe that mythology and specifically mythopoeic efforts include and communicate aspects of ritual, morality, theo/thealogy, and mystical experience. In a break with traditional views where given mythology is almost always associated with a certain religion, Westernesste is interested in discovering ways in which traditional myths overlap, share common features, and blend in syncretic forms to naturally evolve into a new mythos of significance to a new world view that simultaneously incorporates the beauty of the ancient perspectives. Mythopoeia involves intentional creation or revelation of new and meaningful myths.
To clarify the meaning and the importance of mythopoeia to our religious philosophy I will expand upon this here with a nod of thanks to Wikipedia:
The term mythopoeia is from Greek μυθοποιία, “myth-making” In early uses, it referred to the making of myths in ancient times. It was adopted and used by Tolkien as a title of one of his poems, written about 1931 and published in Tree and Leaf. The poem popularized the word mythopoeia as a literary and artistic endeavor and genre.
Works of mythopoeia are often categorized as fantasy or science fiction but fill a niche for mythology in the modern world, according to Joseph Campbell, a famous student of world mythology. Campbell spoke of a Nietzschean world which has today outlived much of the mythology of the past. He claimed that new myths must be created, but he believed that present culture is changing too rapidly for society to be completely described by any such mythological framework until a later age. Without relevant mythology, Campbell claimed, society cannot function.
Westernesste believes we can create this mythological framework and views mythopoeia as an essential aspect of our religious philosophy. Basically, we opine that breathing life into our archetypal creativity so that it takes on form and fills the need for such modern mythic images that Campbell describes above is a sacred duty for those who are gifted with mythopoeic talents.
We reverence the creative works of past mythopoets such as J.R.R Tolkien or more recently Marion Zimmer Bradley, Charles deLint and Neal Stephenson, and we seek to offer an expression of similar mythopoetic work both in terms of our stories and lectures and our visual creativity in sacred world building.
Our lands and community center and our temples in the virtual setting allow for the immersion of our members in the Sacred. While possibly as abstract as concepts such as the transmutation of wine and bread into the body and blood of Christ, we believe that work such as our groundbreaking religious work in Cyberspace is an essential next step for religious thought and expression in the 21st Century. This is central to our religious philosophy.
Lodging for our membership in our virtual lands in [edited: new location is Inworldz] allows for co-creative immersion in our sacred art. It allows far-flung and isolated individuals to come together to share in the sacraments of new expressions and articulations of ancient archetypes.
Until recently, few works of electric art articulated a sacred aesthetic; and unfortunately, this influenced many to see the media in a less than inspired light. With work like the Sidhevairs we are hoping to make it possible for a multitude of far flung celebrants to immerse themselves in a sacred embodiment and bring the numinous to light. For now, we step through the interface, to encounter and reveal a veiled element in ourselves: our divinity.
The images generated by Westernesste are intended to act as a sort of virtual cathedral in which we generate emotional impacts upon our own creations such that we are transformed and transported and that others experience this as well and feel compelled to help us with this new work. The emotional reaction we have and hope that our members experience is a recognition of the essence of the Sidhevairs, that they embody us in Gaia, and show us something that we can’t easily see on our own – our relation to the whole and a peek into the essential elements that comprise the body of the Noosphere.
The Sidhevairs are an expression of not only the evocative powers of immersive virtual environments, but also an opportunity to co-create and participate in a synthetic environment which embodies the sacred nature of the self. You’re more than an observer in the Sidhevairs you’re a participant, and if you choose and are found to be in harmony with the other online members there you can also be a resident participating in the co-creation of the art of a shared sacred space. The body, confronted with this pervasive 3D interface, gives into it. The suspension of disbelief found in older media has become the place for being in this immersive medium. That is the essence of the sublime interface.
The Sidhevairs are intended to evoke inspiration, embodiment of myth and the peaceful quietude of Nature and while they are naturalistic, they are not natural. Lands in the Sidhevairs are intended to invoke the feelings associated with Nature, but not necessarily Nature itself, and the immediacy of the experience is essentially personal. That the Sidhevairs have a profound and immediate religious effect is absolutely certain. It is our hope that this powerful relationship with the feelings associated with Nature also inspires our members to get up from their computers and go out into Nature if they are able to do so. In fact, our literature, rites, rituals, and events encourage just that as a complement to the inworld experience (or vice versa).
Many of our members and visitors to our Lands report feeling a tremendous sense of calm, they often access the Lands through their electronic interfaces (computers) to “just sit”, to “recover equilibrium”, to “share the divinity” and the “mythic embodiment” of our work there. That these comments are applied to such a work of sacred art may be singular, that they emerge from a work of electronic sacred art may be new, it may even be unprecedented but it cannot be said that it is not religious. In essence, the Sidhevairs are the millennial equivalent of a Greek or Hindu monastery, or a European cathedral—Westernesste is creating a sacred space for sacred being in the medium of a new era in humanity—the era of new technologies and Cyberspace.
While some may lament the passing of the book or the newspaper for Amazon’s Kindle or the blogosphere, it cannot be denied that our cultures are moving in this direction. We believe that we are on the forefront of similar new ways to express religious philosophy and new ways to worship and gather to experience religious community.
In 1968, the World Council of Churches stated that:
“A changing culture constitutes a call from God. Many people today live in a variety of worlds such as family, job, leisure, politics and education. These worlds represent different social structures.”
Since then, Cyberspace has dramatically altered human interaction and added to these worlds of “different social structures”. It is no longer necessary for people to physically meet to interact. While there are still many who are uncomfortable with this idea, it cannot be argued that with the change emerging from new media and social networks and the increasing ease and familiarity that many of us now have with non-physical community, that it behooves all faith communities to listen carefully to the “call from God” in this “changing culture.”
Westernesste is doing just this. While we are not a larger, more established religion like the Muslims or Anglicans in the virtual setting, we express an important religious view which, as we have stated, is blended with the noosphere and with mythopoeia. This urge to breathe religious life into our archetypes and mythic structures…to give life to the sacred in a new medium not only through the islands of the Sidhevairs but also through how we ourselves are embodied in a virtual world, as creatures of fantasy and myth is, in some ways, not as new a practice as it might seem.
In “the Outworld” there are quite a few people who go about their mundane work week shopping, mowing the lawn, putting up their feet to have a beer and watch a football game, but on Sunday they put aside the mundane, go out from their house or apartment to a special place, a structure, a cathedral, a container for the Divine. There, they go into a back room and they change. They doff their slacks and sports shirts and put on vestments, liturgical raiment specifically set apart to serve and convey symbolic meaning during religious ritual.
In Isaiah 61:10 is written: “My soul will rejoice in the Lord, for he has clothed me with a garment of salvation and wrapped me in a robe of gladness; he has placed a crown on my head as on a bridegroom, and adorned me with beauty as a bride.”
Religious Vestments, robes of gladness, reserved specifically for services and worn specifically to embody and communicate a connection to the divine are an “analog” version of the assumption of the sacred that is possible when a Priest or Priestess of Westernesste—or any member of the Faelf of the Sidhevairs, for that matter—takes on and embodies a sacred image as an avatar in a virtual world.