One set of virtual footprints: a collective cyber-pilgrimage

How is modern technology transforming our engagement with the sacred? Does life lived in symbiosis with cyber-simulacra divorce us from contact with Real? Or have new ways of being arisen from the ashes of the Victorian edifice of formal religion, facilitating the mass sacralisation of life.

Image result for journey screenshot sacred mountain

As academics, classically trained in the anthropological analysis of pilgrimage and mythology, we have become increasingly interested in the way that certain online platforms provide opportunities for the flourishing of what we are terming exoreligious encounters with the numinous in the modern world.  That is to say, powerfully felt experiences of communion with something beyond the limits of ordinary existence in a context that is not easily attributed to either common sense or traditional understandings of religion. Cyberspace (and the realm of adult play that lies within it) suggests itself as one (although not the only) arena for the fruitful exploration of these phenomena.   It is both obvious and well documented (Campbell, Hutchings, McWilliams) however that many sites of cyber-pilgrimage have a direct relation with preexisting offline religious communities and places. Nevertheless, it also seems probable that the cyber world does not simply augment the offline; rather, just as physical action is transmuted, so too sacred space is transformed.

At one end of this transformative continuum stands that gamecompany’s 2012 game Journey, which is a sort of cyber pilgrimage to a sacred mountain, that has deeply affected globally dispersed (and culturally divergent) people of all faiths and none.  This is captured wonderfully in an online discussion forum, where one player wrote “I’m pretty much atheist myself, but that game gave me a sense of spirituality that other forms of media have failed to ever do.”

Image result for journey screenshot sacred mountain

To explore this further, in early 2016, we stated a cyber pilgrimage project and (in June 2016) we ran a laboratory at the annual meeting of the Association of Social Anthropologists of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, which happened to be held that year in Durham. The laboratory aimed to communally explore and collectively debate the game Journey by directly experiencing it. The game-play and discussion were then recorded and offered to the global community through you tube – the journey therefore continues through this secondary, perhaps more passive engagement, which forms the next step of our experiment.

The full online video captures (in real-time) the blended collective movements of the workshop participants through the onscreen movement of a single avatar. At the same time the pilgrims’ individual voices can be heard weaving a collaborative understanding of the experience through reactive discourse. The shorter, highlights videos, explore the responses and transposed movements more thematically and represent a further movement of knitting both time (the individual moments of the pilgrimage) and personhood (the individuals present) into a single, cohesive, narrative.

If you would like to find out what the workshop participants did and how vocalisation entwined with digital movement on the pilgrimage trail then you are invited to  view the videos here;  if you wish to help form the experience then please feel free to inscribe the movements of  your own fingers onto the cyberspace of the comments box  and (in so doing) join this, ongoing, journey.

Jonathan Miles-Watson is Senior Lecturer in the Anthropology of Religion, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University.

Vivian Asimos is a PhD Student, Research Assistant and Teaching Assistant in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.

AAR/SBL: A Report



Along with assorted others from Durham’s Department of Theology and
Religion, I recently attended the 2015 American Academy of
Religion/Society for Biblical Literature conference in Atlanta. The
conference is notoriously enormous – 10,000 delegates was the number I
heard bandied around, and while I didn’t do a head count it does at least
seem plausible. The conference took place in several hotels in downtown
Atlanta, though in some ways it would be more accurate to describe it as
multiple conferences happening in roughly the same area. Never mind the
Society for Biblical Literature: you could spend most of the length of the
conference just reading through the book of AAR abstracts.

My strategy was to go to the panels my friends were presenting on, and to
spend less time in panels than I did taking the opportunity to catch up
with old friends from around the world and finally meet people I’d only
met online. It worked pretty well, for me at least. Social media really
came into its own for me here: in the middle of such a vast and anonymous event it was weird but nice to turn round in the first panel session I went to and realise that half the room was made up of people I’d met, but only on twitter.

I went to a great panel about debt, which dealt with the historical
connection between Christian theology and ideas of indebtedness, a
critique of the demand for Jubilee as a solution to indebtedness, and a
discussion of the role of Christian charity in the questionable pursuit of
microfinance as a solution to global poverty. I presented on a panel about
‘Thinking Critically about the Future(s) of the human’: I gave a paper
about angels, cyborgs and theological accounts of work, while my
co-panelists (including Durham alumnus Thomas Lynch) spoke about religion, hope and nihilism, and messianism and nature through the lens of Ismaili Islam. I finished the conference at a panel on ‘Micrologics of the
Postsecular’ which dealt brilliantly with a huge range of topics, from
creolization to black theology to death, with a discussion of Pussy Riot
thrown in for good measure.

I didn’t enjoy the jet lag, which had me awake from 4am every morning
right through the conference, but it’s good to get out of Durham
occasionally, especially for a city as expansive as Atlanta. The
intellectual stimulation and academic meeting of minds was all very well
but I’d do the whole trip again just for the vegan wings I had in a smoky
bar the night before I came home.

Dr Marika Rose is a former research postgraduate in the Department of Theology and Religion, and is currently Research Fellow in Digital Discipleship and Curator of the Discipleship, part of the CODEC Research Centre in Durham.

Religious Literacy, Mike Higton, Durham University, Theology

Theology and Religious Literacy by Mike Higton

Higton, Durham, Christian, TheologyIt used to be possible to think that religion was playing less and less of a role in shaping our world, and that it might be destined to disappear into irrelevance within our life times. Yet the events of recent decades have made such a view itself disappear into irrelevance: we clearly live in a world in which religion makes a difference.

That means that, to understand our world well, you need to understand the strange, complex, diverse social phenomena that we call ‘religion’. To put it another way: intelligent citizenship requires religious literacy.

Adam Dinham, Professor of Faith and Public Policy at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Matthew Frances, Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University, have put together a collection of essays exploring this idea of ‘religious literacy’. What is it? Why exactly do we need it? Where can we get it? what does it look like when you have it? Continue reading

Durham, Religion, Theology, Centre for Death and Life Studies, Douglas J. Davies

Sacred Selves, Sacred Settings by Douglas J. Davies

Hans Mol, Durham, Douglas J. Davies, Centre for Death and Life Studies

Prof. Hans Mol

Sacred Selves, Sacred Settings (Ashgate 2015)- is an edited collection, subtitled ‘Reflecting Hans Mol’, exploring his important work on identity and the sacred. Having survived Nazi imprisonment Mol spent a lifetime engaging in sociology and pastoral forms of ministry as an active Presbyterian. His notion of the sacralization of identity is probably more germane in today’s world of competing ‘sacred selves’ that easily offend or are offended than when he first saw the import of human survival through religiously intensified identities decades ago. There is much here on religion in Canada and Australia and New Zealand that takes issues of ‘secularization’ and many other social factors beyond their usual contexts of western-Europe and the USA.

Continue reading