The Avatars of Change are among the first groups attempting to create a new spirituality unique to the metaverse.
“We are an ecumenical religious and cultural order, united
By designation, at least, it is interdenominational, welcoming members of every faith based on traditions rooted to the material world. So Avatars of Change count among their followers Christians, Jews, Hindus, and even more exotic sects, all greeted as brethren by every member with open arms.
Residents who are Muslim, however, have an extra hurdle to
leap. That’s because Balderdash recently
put a group proposition up for a vote: "... Islam is not a faith that is tolerant of other faiths and therefore cannot be Avatarian. Please vote yes if you consider Islam tolerant of other faiths and a valid Avatarian Way."
The vote, as Taras Balderdash put it to me mildly, caused “a
lot of misunderstanding, a little stubbornness (that's my part), and a
democratic process.” Nonetheless, he
continues, “if people feel very strongly that they have to accept belligerent
intolerance as an
This is the challenge of creating a new kind of religious
affiliation in Second Life, separate from the world that was left behind. To explore this uniquely modern burden of
faith, I visited a Confucian Scholar in a sky temple that loomed high above a
shopping mall— and later, with a dreadlocked Sufi mystic in a steampunk
dirigible hovering near the sea.
When I met Balderdash a couple days ago, he was in a chamber of the Great Avatar Hall, pondering how to fulfill the latest task handed down to him by the group’s Oracle.
“You ask it a question and it gives you something to do,” he says. Taras is a plump and wizened Chinese man in a silk robe, with a long pipe belching occasional white plumes, and a sleek blue dragon on his shoulder. “Sometimes something simple and SL-ish like 'go shout underwater'. Sometimes a bit more exotic like: Go find lucky mice.” In this case, the Oracle had instructed, “Offer food at the center of the world.”
“So I'm trying to figure out the center of the world with the crappy new mapping system we've had for some time,” he grumbles. By undertaking these randomly generated, whimsically koan-like quests, the Avatarians practice their faith.
The particular faith of the Taras Balderdash avatar and the user behind it are different, but fused in a decidedly eclectic manner. “As Avatarian Prelate I have to maintain an element of all our Ways,” he allows. “But chiefly I am Confucianist. In real life my human is an Orthodox Christian. But philosophically a mix of neo-Confucianist and Legalist.” In a similar fusion, the “Supreme Avatar” that the group refers to is the God of both realities— “or for polytheists,” Taras adds, “the Gods. I've found from working with the Oracle here that there is no real dividing line between Second Life and real life. Though people try to pretend there is.”
Which is perhaps why Taras Balderdash brought the exclusion of real world Muslims from Avatars of Change up for a vote.
“There are many jewels of Moslem culture,” he avers. “Music, Sufi mysticism, etc., but the world is now dealing with the youthful energy of its fundamentalism. What I am hoping to hear from our Avatarians is a positive argument against my position; someone who argues, based on the Quran, that I am wrong. So far all I've got is constant reminders of other religions being intolerant, particularly Roman Catholic Christianity.” Taras considers this an evasion of the point. “I am interested in the theology. People are people, whatever their faith, and God loves them all. But what hope do we have that a tolerant Moslem theology will win out?”
His decision to force the debate is based, he tells me, on real world experience. “My human has indeed spent some time in a Moslem country,” as Taras puts it. “So I have some insight both into the personal goodness of individual Moslems and some of the challenges of their scripture and its interpretation.” He states a hope that this can happen.
“After all, if the Order can accommodate Pagans and Christians, groups which in the past have been deadly enemies... So what I've challenged the Moslems of Second Life to do is to demonstrate that their theology is tolerant, or at least can be interpreted as such.”
Another power of the group’s Oracle is to answer questions put to it, and this again is a synthesis of realities.
“It's based on the I Ching,” Taras explains. “So there are sections of the text lifted right from the Chinese original, and many other things that are Second Life items, usually relating to the original text.”
To pose the question, you must consult the dragon perched on Taras’ shoulder.
“Jia Gu Wen,” Taras tells me, by way of introduction. “He is the embodiment of the Oracle— as crafted by Daryth Kennedy. If you have a question for the Oracle, Jia can answer it for you.”
As it happens, I do have something I’d like to pose to Jia Gu Wen:
“Is it wise, oh Jia, to bring the religious concerns of the real world into the spirituality of this unreal world?”
Avatarian Oracle Client v0.85: Tossing coins... Coin tosses from bottom upwards are 9, 9, 6, 7, 8, 6 Lower trigram is Dui. Upper trigram is Zhen : This is hexagram #54 - Gui mei / Spurned Maiden. Nanjing number is 10, Nanjing line is 3, We have 4 changing lines. Please wait - you will receive the reading shortly. Giving card for line 3 of hexagram 54… “Marrying badly. You accept a compromise and undermine your future. Donate at a church.”
“'Marrying badly',” I muse. “A reference to the matrimony of real life and SL religion, which do not mix, says the Oracle?”
“Well, that's very much what it's said from the beginning,” allows Balderdash. “This whole controversy is not ultimately good for the Order. But it must be hashed out. The medium cannot fully mirror reality...yet. But many people have spiritual experiences here and move along the path toward union with the Great Avatar. But inevitably there is going to be some kind of compromise. And that is not necessarily a healthy thing.”
Drown Pharoah did not consider it healthy, but for reasons of his own: “I am a Muslim,” he says, “a religious studies graduate and a committed member of an interfaith community on SL, Koinonia. I accepted, as a matter of courtesy, despite some personal reservations with regards to Avatar of Change's syncretism,” an invitation to respond to Taras’ challenge.
A Sufi by tradition, Drown is known to host daily prayers among the Muslims of Second Life, in the mosque at Chebi. His written rejoinder to the Order of AoC was eventually posted to the group’s messaging system, in tones both harsh and indignant. (To make matters worse, Pharoah claims it wasn’t received in good faith.)
“That Muslims need to be told about their own faith in the face of their own beliefs and experiences,” it reads in part, “is entirely typical of the inherently contradictory discourses which seek to misrepresent Islam in the West: Muslims are stupid yet devious, dangerous yet weak, zealous yet hypocritical, automatically bound to the axioms of their religious texts and laws, yet only as they are understood by non-Muslims. This style of misrepresentation is known as Orientalism, and it has a long history in Europe and in Western nations.” In effect, he was arguing that Taras Balderdash’s Orientalist view of Muslims was an unreal incarnation of the real thing. That Taras was an avatar, in other words, avatarizing an entire real people. (To add yet another level of avatarization, it’s worth noting that the concept of Orientalism was invented not by a Muslim, but a secular, American Christian.)
In any case, Drown has an open invitation for Residents to meet a real Muslim in avatar form, at his home in Jundishapur, a place of burnished steel and steam engines, and a personal dirigible parked right outside.
“I endeavor to welcome all people…” he tells me, “some of whom come with preconceived notions about Islam based on media and disinformation. I am always patient in my effort to challenge their views, even when such views are deeply offensive.
"I hope that, in future, where people have genuine concerns about the Islamic faith, that they seek to discuss them with Muslims face to face. Surely, it is in confronting the darker issues that separate us that interfaith dialogue truly serves its purpose.”
The final vote on Taras Balderdash’s proposal is set for May 20, but in the interim, several members have left, and many have condemned the proposal. (Some, as well, have stood behind it.) But this is no longer of direct consequence to Taras.
“My questioning the tolerance of Islam for other faiths has produced such grief and chaos that I have rethought the concept of the the Avatars of Change and left the Order,” he told me late yesterday. “I am just a monk now. The Order is falling apart pretty rapidly, so I'm not sure how much of it will survive without me.” So a demand for tolerance has led to dissolution, and left open the question of whether the different faiths of the real world can fully intermingle in an alternate place intended as a platform of common dreams.
“My favorite moment of the entire unpleasant event was when I asked the Oracle if I should leave the group,” says Taras Balderdash ruefully. “It gave me: 'Leave a group. Supreme good fortune. Do something no one has done before.'"