Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Orthodox Monk Has Come Back From ‘Second Life’

Orthodox Monk has come back from ‘Second Life’ to compose a post on popular culture and the Orthodox, and stumbled on the live televised presentation in the presence of the President of the United States, of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama. One fantasy to another.
We were originally intending to discuss popular culture and here we have another sort of popular culture: the ‘Presentation of the Colors’, the singing of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, the self-congratulation of the American authorities in the face of the Chinese oppression of the Tibetans. Bizarre.
Let us start with ‘Second Life’. We originally got interested in it because it seemed to be very popular. So we signed up. We have spent some hours wandering around and talking to several long-time denizens of ‘Second Life’.
In Second Life’, you chat with a real personsavatar’—his personal animated icon. Each person has control over the appearance and behaviour of his avatar. He is on-line and gives you, through the mask of his self-created on-line identity, whatever answer he wants to give you, whatever behaviour he wants to show you. You can purchase animations for ALL aspects of human behaviour within Second Life’. Private parties sell these animations. These animations constitute the repertoire of behaviours that your avatar can engage in with other avatars.
The conversations take place in an animated environment that it is possible for a person to buy a piece of. He can then build a building, plant trees and decorate his stake according to his taste. This is all animated. For a price he can upload his own visual furnishings into Second Life’.
A person can move around this animated environment via a variety of techniques. His avatar has a location in space and can converse in public with avatars found in the same space. It is also possible to send a private IM (instant message) to an avatar either locally or at a distance.
If the person is off-line, the best you can do is send him an IM (instant message), which he later picks up coming on-line.
Its an animated chat-room dedicated to people role-playing their dreams.
In Second Life’, for a price there is the possibility of setting up a group according to your taste and of inviting others to join it; there is also the possibility, usually free, of joining existing groups. So there is a very strong aspect of social networking in Second Life’. We are struck by the degree to which Americans seek out social networking: they must find their culture very lonely.
Some Real Life organizations have outposts in ‘Second Life’. These outposts are explicitly identified with the organization’s Real Life identity and carry out promotional work for the organization.
We imagine that some Real Life organizations also have a covert presence in ‘Second Life’, just as they do on Wikipedia.
Second Life’ is important. It is probably one of the most important recent inventions in popular culture.
On the other hand, if we were a parent (as we are writing these words, we are listening live to the boilerplate rhetoric in praise of the Dalai Lama) we would be very worried about letting our son wander around ‘Second Life’—and as for our daughter: well!
Most parents probably don’t realize just what their children have access to on the Web. Give your child a computer in his or her room, a web-cam and a broadband link to the Web—and there you go. It’s not just ‘Second Life’. There’s a whole lot on the Web that is just plain dangerous, not only for the immature but even for the mature.
One of the things that they have access to is a live video stream of the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama, just like Orthodox Monk has.
We now have the Allegro from Mozart’s ‘Divertimento in D’ with the Air Force Strings.
We got out of ‘Second Life’ rather dizzy this time. We had gone shopping for free goods. We tried to strike up a conversation in the shop with an overly sexy woman (we are describing her avatar). She was more genteel than some of the flesh in ‘Second Life’ but this is surely a matter of degree. There were prominent signs in the shop (its name is something Dove; you can find it in Inventory under Freebie) saying no weapons and no nudity and no self-advertising for escort services’. There must be a reason. The weapons range from hand-guns to knives to wands. This is a reflection of peoples fantasies but people’s fantasies are based on the life they know lived in the real world and in the media.
In our initial exposure to ‘Second Life’, we were rather struck by the very commercial orientation of Linden Lab, the creator of ‘Second Life’: everything in ‘Second Life’ is bought and sold. With a little real money you can get from Linden Lab a little on-line play money to buy these things. You can then make Linden play money doing business in Second Life’ and reconvert through Linden Lab the Linden play money to real money. We didnt check the spread that Linden is offering. Linden Lab evidently gets very, very rich.
This is the philosophy that is being promoted in ‘Second Life’. It’s not just about Linden Lab making money but the promotion of a money philosophy. It’s hard for us to explain. It’s a cultural thing: life is about money. This seems to be connected to other aspects of the Web.
We saw evidence in Second Life’ that some Second Life’ users were trying to make a buck and comments we heard in our conversations with avatars indicated that sex and money are the two big problems in Second Life’. We would add deranged religion to that list.
We did have a very long, pleasant and interesting conversation with one denizen of ‘Second Life’ who was very polite and very polished. She comes from a different culture. Sometimes, of course, she was a little harried and fell out of character. But we had the impression that we were dealing with a good soul—and one very delicate.
Now we have Eli Weisel in the presentation ceremony.
We also had a long talk with someone who was distressed with the commercialism and immorality of ‘Second Life’ and who wanted to do something about it. He was hoping to offer counselling to the denizens of ‘Second Life’ (he claimed to have training). This would be on-line counselling through his anonymous avatar at the place he has built in Second Life’.
We have no way of knowing if he is or is not a charlatan.
We were somewhat put off by his ‘build’ (his cyber-building; what his visitors see and experience when they visit his avatar at his place in Second Life’). We told him so with some suggestions for improvement. Since his build was a bit up our alley, we thought that we could tell him something without revealing that we had practical experience in the field: after all, we are anonymous too.
He was somewhat put off by our remarks and disappeared on us.
The truth of the matter is that—
The Dalai Lama is a man of true spiritual convictions….’ Eli Weisel.
As we listen to Eli Weisel, we wonder about American Civil Religion.
We’re now up to the Republican Leader of the House of Representatives.
We’re now up to the Republican Leader of the Senate.
This is going to go on for a while.
Now it’s Senator Reid.
Senator Reid thinks that there is no one in the world more deserving of the Congressional Gold Medal than the Dalai Lama.
We thought the United States was run by Evangelical Christians. What’s going on?
With this Gold Medal we affirm the special relationship between the Dalai Lama and the United States.’ Nancy Pelosi. (We are live-blogging without a recording so we might have a few words wrong.)
Roosevelt’s Gold Watch. The one he sent to the Dalai Lama as a child in Lhasa.
Just a simple monk.… Living manifestation of the Living Buddha.’ No such thing, Nancy. The Incarnation of the Buddhist God of Compassion. Chenrezig in Tibetan, Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit, Nancy. A Buddhist Bodhisattva, Nancy.
And then a pitch from Nancy Pelosi for the Chinese authorities to invite the Dalai Lama to Beijing.
If President Bush is indeed a fundamentalist Christian, how is he handling this? He’s sitting two metres away.
Unfortunately, a photo from TIME Magazine, which we came across a week after the event, seems to give us the answer.  (Update 2011-03-25: the TIME link we originally posted is now dead, so, claiming fair use, we insert a screen capture of the photo here:)

And today you bring peace to the capital (Capitol?) of the United States. Thank you and congratulations.’ Nancy Pelosi.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States.’
Thank you.’
Religious freedom and basic human rights. This is a pitch for religious pluralism in a liberal democratic context. We are rather surprised to hear this coming from President Bush. We thought that he was a fundamentalist Protestant elected by right-wing fundamentalists. Have his views been misrepresented?
Statue of Liberty at his bedside.’
When he first visited Washington, the Dalai Lama walked to the Jefferson Memorial.’ But Jefferson issued his own version of the Gospel with all the miracles deleted, George.
Do they know what the Dalai Lama teaches?
The Dalai Lama has the medal in his hand amidst flashes and applause.
Now he speaks. This we wanted to see.
He handles himself very well.
We are getting bored with the Dalai Lama. That we didn’t expect. Hes going on and on.
He firmly supports the President on the issues of religious freedom and democracy. The same and more for Nancy Pelosi.
He wants the Americans to help the dialogue with the Chinese leaders to move forward.
As a champion of freedom and democracy you must… Global warming…’
This seems a little trendy.
Isn’t this dangerous? If the United States weren’t at war, encouraging the Bush program of democracy would be okay—but with the United States at war and breathing the flames of an attack on Iran, isn’t this encouraging chaos? Isn’t this sowing the wind so as to reap the whirlwind?
Not a word about the wars that America is involved in and threatening to get involved in, not a word about human rights abuses by America.
We suppose that this might be marked up to upaya, skilful means, on the part of the Dalai Lama.
Given that the Chinese hold a trillion dollars in American paper, is presenting the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama as part of a gesture of political pressure on Beijing, upaya, skilful means, on the part of America?
Deeply interconnected nature of today’s world.’ Well that’s what this post is about.
The Dalai Lama leaves arm-in-arm with the President of the United States. The Air Force Strings play a recessional.
The Dalai Lama’s speech was quite political.
Let’s get down to business. No, Orthodox Monk hasn’t been spending the last month or two in ‘Second Life’. That would be charming: ‘Orthodox Monk lost in ‘Second Life’. If spotted, please IM (instant message) the Abbot.’
We visited some of the religious stuff in ‘Second Life.’ Watch out. Bad vibes. There is some very clearly demonic stuff—even and especially in that which purports to be real religion and not outright occultism. Since ‘Second Life’ is all about dreams and since dreams are the province of demons, it shouldn’t surprise us that demons are influencing the people building personal stakes in ‘Second Life’. In this regard, it might be a laboratory for the enterprising psychologist. The enterprising monk doesn’t need such a laboratory. He has it in his cell. Ask St Silouan.
People act out dreams in ‘Second Life’. Sometimes the dreams are charming, as with the first person we had a long conversation with. Sometimes they are devilish. And this is what you and your children are getting involved with.
What is clear is that if you are a jerk in Real Life, you are a jerk in ‘Second Life’. If you are courteous in Real Life, you are courteous in ‘Second Life’. If you are a fundamentalist in Real Life, you are a fundamentalist in ‘Second Life’. If you are an artistic genius in Real Life—well, then, you might produce momentous work in ‘Second Life’.
People bring to Second Lifethe passions they have in Real Life. As we have been discussing, our passions are what the demons stimulate when they tempt us.
We also bring our talents and our virtues to Second Life’, but Second Life’ rather opens us up to the tempting influence of our passions, so that in Second Life’ we might fall rather more easily than we would at the breakfast table in front of our mother. And if we are unformed children, even 80 years old, we are truly defenceless lambs in the midst of ravenous lions.
Should Orthodox Monk strike up a charitable fund among his readers (say, via a PayPal tip jar in the margin of his blog) in order to get a big fast machine and a big fast broadband link and waste his time playing the philosopher to people wearing funny hats in ‘Second Life’? (For our visits to ‘Second Life’ we have been guests on another link far away from our home.)
On the Web people usually have polls about such things. We can announce the result in advance: It’s not for us. We think that there is room for a real Orthodox presence in ‘Second Life’, but given the obvious charlatanism masquerading as Orthodox Christianity in ‘Second Life’, you would have to be very, very strong spiritually and very, very bored in Real Life to become an Orthodox cyber-missionary to ‘Second Life’. Moreover, since there is so much deranged stuff in ‘Second Life’, how would anyone know you were legit? And how would you know that the person talking to you for your counsel was talking to you sincerely and honestly?
While we think that ‘Second Life’ is very important culturally, it reminds us a bit of the Haight-Ashbury in the 1960’s: there was a life-cycle, we understand from our reading, in the evolution of the Haight-Ashbury which led to its eventual demise as a living sub-culture. We wonder if ‘Second Life’ is not going to go through the same evolution, so that while the concept might be very important, the actual atmosphere in ‘Second Life’ might be such that good people will just leave for other parts while the hustlers move in, while the paedophiles prey on the young.
We noticed that there is a group in Second Life’ dedicated to eradicating paedophilia from Second Life’. As St Gregory of Nyssa remarked, people don't make laws about things that don't happen: if theres a Second Life’ group dedicated to eradicating paedophilia from Second Life’, there must be a reason.
That is not to say that a genius in art or theatre or architecture couldn’t do wonders in ‘Second Life’.
Well, so here is our post. Welcome back from Second Life’, Orthodox Monk. Try to do something about your own spiritual life.


  1. Welcome back, indeed!

    This is a very timely post for me. I have thought on and off over the last year about getting a Second Life account. The thing that always stops me is the thought that I could easily lose myself in something like that. The temptation to control your environment in such profound ways isn't entirely different from the temptation toward occultism--and I just refuse to go down that road again. Your post confirms that those suspicions about it are probably pretty accurate.

    Thank you, Father, very much for the report on Second Life.

  2. This is a very sad post, to me. It shows a black-and-white view of the U.S. - an unfair stereotype, since the people in the U.S. are quite diverse in beliefs about the economy, religion, and everything else. The "news" media makes money by showing the most shocking elements of the U.S., so people will keep watching; its depiction of my country and its people is very skewed.

    Also, judging Second Life based on spending a few hours or even a few weeks, is unfair. Perhaps you know of situations where someone has spent a few hours or days in your country, and has passed judgment on your country and its people as if they know everything about it. People spend time in Second Life for all kinds of reasons, including the ones you state, but many other (better) reasons as well.

    I invite you to watch "The Drax Files: World Makers" series on, or look for the series on youtube. He highlights the many incredibly diverse and creative ways people use Second Life.

    All the best to you!