Joseph Ratzinger and Pokémon Go

Much digital ink has been spilled in the last month about not only the financial phenomenon of the smash hit Pokémon Go, but also the Christian opportunity to evangelize the gamers roaming the grounds of churches functioning in this augmented reality as PokéStops or PokéGyms. Christianity Today, for instance, appropriately seizes the moment and offers best practices for pastors looking to populate their pews with the diverse gaming set. Yet before dismissing Pokémon Go as fickle child’s play, take heed: this popular behemoth is the way of the future and at the same time uniquely promotes a sense of community, on the one hand, and a blurring of reality on the other, that hints at the Catholic way of looking at the world. We would do well to study it.

The basic premise: Using their smartphone cameras, players must seek out simulated characters who appear in real time within a real setting (that Pokémon Go is contingent on players’ GPS coordinates tracked by their smartphone, and that it was developed by Google’s Niantic, is for another piece). So entrenched in this reality and obsessively focused, players roam zombie-like until they find their digital prey. The coordinates of the Diocese of Orange’s Christ Cathedral, for instance, serve as a PokéStop for players, and Pokémon creatures can be spotted in between cathedral statues, gamers huddled around the Holy Family, heads down, thumbs ablaze at their phone screens. When the game first launched, cathedral personnel were startled by the influx of newcomers to the campus. Its runaway success has owed much to its novel format—augmented reality, AR, and its future is tantalizing. Perhaps moreso than virtual reality, which to date takes players into a realm by way of a bulky (and decidedly unhip) headset, AR blurs reality with fantasy. Its possibilities threaten to revamp not only entertainment, but all aspects of life—including not only social interaction but man’s sense of the otherworld, his definition of divine.

Technology’s footprint on our consciousness, hitherto stamped by the effects of the Internet, now enters a new phase with this fabrication of reality. Pokémon Go’s merging of the unseen with the seen is the latest to define the digital revolution. It was a revolution, from the beginning, of the unseen, personified by wi-fi, hotspots, and the cloud. Mankind’s faith in wireless is at a fever pitch—it is impossible to imagine the world without it. Intentional or not, secularism has created its own form of worship for their faithful: with augmented reality, the creation of the seen and unseen mirrors the Creedal appositive “visibilium omnium et invisibilium,” “of all things visible and invisible.” Intentional or not, secularism has rebooted its Catholic underpinnings into a form that for its audience is more attractive, visceral, and relevant than what the Church has been proclaiming—and will, ad infinitum.

Perhaps too often the Catholic response to social phenomena is to bury its head in the sand, to wait out the wave knowing another is not too far behind. While the kingdom is certainly ultimately otherworldly, knowing what is capturing imaginations at a particular time is integral not only for evangelization, but also for apologetics and understanding the methods and motives for such popular movements. Ultimately, everything is a conscious or unconscious response to the proposals of the God of Jesus Christ and His Church, and digital’s burgeoning reality promises and the mass movements praising it is just the latest example. The unthinking capitulation that has galvanized the world and defines the millennial generation into turning over personal data, unconcerned with privacy and security, threatens to materialize into a totalitarian global religion of singular thought streamlined by a select number of online networks, this religion’s priests—already now transpiring, with Google’s and Facebook’s tentacles controlling what was once a sprawling and varied world wide web.

This kind of faceless and soulless movement was foreseen by Joseph Ratzinger more than 40 years ago. It is an insight worth quoting at length, from a Lenten sermon given in 1973, later compiled into the book The God of Jesus Christ:

The Revelation of John speaks of the adversary of God, the ‘beast’. This beast, the power opposed to God, has no name, but a number. The seer tells us: “Its number is six hundred and sixty-six” (13:18). It is a number, and it makes men numbers. We who lived through the world of the concentration camps know what that means. The terror of that world is rooted in the fact that it obliterates men’s faces. It obliterates their history. It makes man a number, an exchangeable cog in one big machine. He is his function—nothing more.

For when functions are all that exist, man, too, is nothing more than a function. The machines that he himself has constructed now impose their own law on him: he must be made readable for the computer, and this can be achieved only when he is translated into numbers. Everything else in man becomes irrelevant. Whatever is not a function is—nothing. The beast is a number, and it makes men numbers. But God has a name, and God calls us by our name. He is a Person, and he seeks the person. He has a face, and he seeks our face. He has a heart, and he seeks our heart. For him, we are not some function in a “world machinery”. On the contrary, it is precisely those who have no function that are his own.

The digital revolution and the rise of relativism threaten not only to mislead hearts and souls into faceless beasts, branded only by numbers, floating through actual life as ghosts, but to be utterly unmindful of the wonders of the natural world—and the One who created it, factorem caeli et terrae, the One who took on a face, to walk with us among the marvels and trials proffered by existing in this universe.“At other times he might forget everything and daydream with a new softness and surrender, listen to the wind or the rain, gaze into the chalice of a flower or the moving waters of the river, understanding nothing, diving everything, lost in sympathy, curiosity, the craving to comprehend, carried away from his own self toward another, toward the world, toward the mystery and sacrament, the at once painful and lovely disporting of the world of appearances.” This is the narrator of Hermann Hesse’s 23rd century-set The Glass Bead Game, describing its protagonist, Joseph Knecht. It is also a book that has been titled under a different name, Magister Ludi—Master of the Game.

Daydreaming in the way Joseph Knecht found himself doing above portends to disappear in today’s reality of illusions. For a curious development has transpired the more equipped peoples have become with an accumulation of digital know-how: the digital revolution has bred a cynical age. Daring to dream “what if” is quickly hampered by distraction, if not by one’s dinging phone with an incoming text, than by thoughts of life’s demands: profession, economic, familial—and hopefully, one’s relationship to God. Such healthy daydreaming can lead to prayer, and prayer can lead to anything. “Sometimes he felt capable of any achievements,” Hesse wrote.

Joseph Ratzinger’s biographer, Peter Seewald, detected the similarities between Joseph Knecht and Ratzinger himself. After all, Hesse was one of Ratzinger’s favorite authors. “Ratzinger is illuminating, sensitive, and convincing,” Seewald wrote in An Intimate Portrait. “Exactly the same as someone like Magister Ludi Josef Knecht. He sees the movements of history and classifies them. He steps into the stream. Even if only to swim against the current.”

All the revolutions under the banner of the dictatorship of relativism have shown their promise and their principles. We are only now propping them up by our investment in them. What was counter-cultural is now the mainstream. There are others, though, swimming against that current, the current of distraction. Joseph Ratzinger—Benedict XVI is one of them, and he has left us a lifetime of inspiration to put down our phones and allow ourselves to daydream. Only in Resurrection light do we then see the face of God.

image: Matthew Corley / Shutterstock.com

James Day

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James Day's work has appeared in Crisis, Catholic World Report, and Catholic Exchange. He is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (November 2016, Sophia Institute Press).

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