Whether a politician wants our vote at a ballot box, or a film production studio wants our vote at the box office, both of them have to take into account one basic characteristic common to all of us as consumers: we indulge in ideas that flatter us. On the individual level, we are attracted to messages that tell us we are somehow being cheated, and everyone is to blame but ourselves; on the entertainment level, we are drawn to protagonists that somehow reflect the way we subconsciously wish ourselves to be…
Across the spectrum, from political candidates to advertisers and producers of various media (often these groups of people overlap), this principle is taken into account and used to achieve quite a lot of political and financial gain. We are made to feel good about ourselves, but often we are patting the back of an avatar, a continuant character based on ourselves but often detached from the reality of who we really are, either as individuals or as a culture.
Perhaps this is why the word “avatar” has been taken to define online personas in the digital age. When we make an avatar for ourselves, we choose an image that we think represents us most ideally, we take on a language that we think represents our persona well in our online interactions, and we visit and post to sites that we think best reflect the demographics with which we would most ideally associate. Even the screen names we pick for ourselves when navigating various social media are reflective of the things that we want others in the digital community to know about us first, before they read a single one of our thoughts.
“Avatar” is itself both an interesting and remarkably appropriate term to use when it comes to these online representations of ourselves. The word comes to us from the Hindu religion, and refers to an earthly manifestation of a heavenly being of some kind. In Hindu theology, a god, such as Vishnu or Ganesha, is able to project manifestations of itself in the physical world.
As fathers and doctors of the Church have been quick to point out, however, there is a vast chasm between incarnation and mere manifestation. The fullness of Vishnu doesn’t dwell in an avatar; the consequences of living in the reality of the natural world don’t apply to Ganesha. In the Hindu understanding, avatars are little more than glorified holograms. Jesus, on the other hand, took on human flesh, lived a life on earth in that same flesh, and in him, as St. Paul tells the Colossians, all the fullness of the Godhead was and is pleased to dwell. Jesus is not an avatar of the Father; he is, as we state in the Nicene Creed, “consubstantial with the Father.”
It hardly requires a stretch of the imagination to apply this difference between Hinduism and Christianity to the way we might project ourselves in the world of social media. When we interact online, we are not incarnate in the digital medium that we choose to inhabit; when we log off, our comments are still online even though we ourselves are not. We can be “present” to the peers who encounter our thoughts because the internet keeps our comments available for viewing by others who may be reading them while we sleep. We are not truly present online; we are transitionally present at best. Our social media profiles cannot be our incarnate selves; they are merely manifestations of aspects of ourselves that we wish to display to the online community. We are no more true gods than Vishnu or Ganesha; when we condescend to communicating who we are in a social media environment, we do so more often as personas than persons, acting in accordance with the image of ourselves that we have decided is most representative of who we want others to think we are.
It is remarkably easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that our online interactions are more incarnational than they actually are; it is frighteningly common to fall into the trap of investing more into our online identities, which are nothing more than avatars, than in our holistic lived realities of work, home, and community, which are the only environments in which we can truly be incarnate.
In prayer, the concept of the avatar is often operative as well– how often have we spoken with God in such a way that we run interference for ourselves, as though he weren’t familiar with whom we really are? How easy is it to whip up a manifestation of ourselves that we can present in prayer so that our real, sinful selves can be tricked into thinking that we’re off the hook for whatever we decide God doesn’t really need to know about us? If we are falsely oriented in the way we present ourselves to others, then this tendency toward falsehood will show up in the way we present ourselves at prayer as well. If we do so, we end up brokering a make-believe conversation between false image of ourselves and a false image of God.
Whatever else this might be, it isn’t prayer. True prayer must involve our whole selves in communion with God, and not a mere interaction between a character we’ve created for ourselves and a character we’ve created based on Him.
Excerpted with permission from “Prayer in the Digital Age,” Copyright 2011 Liguori Publications. www.liguori.org.