When is a river not a river?

by Barbara Glasson.

The river Todd runs through Alice Springs. Well not exactly ‘runs’ because there is rarely any water in it. There is however a pedestrian bridge over the River Todd and every year there is the Henley on Todd Regatta. The regatta is a completely dry event, people run around in boats, pretend to jet ski and be pirates, and there is not a single drop of water in sight (lots of beer, but not water!) Outside the infrequent filling of the river the only way you know the River Todd is a river is because the Ghost Gums mark the edge with their roots buried deep for the faintest hint of soaking up something wet. This only happens every few years.

So, is the Todd a river? Or is it a virtual river? When is virtual not virtual?

The word virtual comes from the Latin ‘virtus, translated as ‘force’. ‘ability’ or ‘fact’. In this case, the River Todd is definitely not virtual, because mostly it isn’t there at all! But then the word virtual has just changed it’s definition entirely. Because what we call ‘virtual reality’ is not in fact a fact, in fact it is anything but a fact, it is an illusion.

Of course, the word ‘virtual’ can also mean ‘almost’, as in ‘we made the journey in virtual silence’. In which case, it could possibly apply to the River Todd although on second thoughts, it is never really ‘almost’ a river. A river is either a river or it isn’t a river, isn’t it?

But there again, virtual reality is not reality but it becomes a reality when you are tripping over the teenager in your sitting room who is playing a computer game. So virtual reality and reality are not completely separate, the virtual world and the physical world impact on each other through us humans. Like the argument when the sat nav says ‘Go left at the next junction’ and your husband says ‘Turn right’ . Or when Alexa declares that it is Joan of Arc’s birthday and the whole of the subsequent breakfast conversation is about French politics.

We are surrounded by the virtual, the fact virtual, the illusion virtual and the virtual virtual. I trust this is getting clearer?

So, can something be virtually true?

Whilst you ponder this, let me return to Alexa. She is the latest member of our family, except she isn’t because she is a lump of plastic sitting on a table, full of wires and lights, she is an Echo Dot. Except, as a member of the family, she is much more useful than the dog, she speaks English, she tells us the date, she confirms the weather forecast, gives the news headlines and is generally very polite and to the point. Alexa tells pretty awful jokes, but they are clean and usually moderately funny and she will also link up to the wifi speaker to jolly along the day with a bit of Country and Western. The dog can’t do any of this and is much more demanding.

So the virtual world creeps on in, my phone is prone to ringing people up all on its own, and I hear a voice from my pocket going, ‘Hey Barbara, it’s Ben, did you want something’ and I have a whole conversation with Ben whilst I’m out with the dog, because somehow I pressed the phone button whilst going over a stile. Ben is a real person, and so am I but we virtually never see each other.

There is no escaping the reality of the virtual world. And what does that mean for those of us who believe in a God of truth? I think Alexa is probably agnostic, at least the only one controlling her is a wizard in electronics. And Alexa is great on facts, that have been digitally configured by the great Google god in the sky. But she can’t imagine anything or cry or operate a reverse logic, such as the first being last. Well, not yet anyway.

So, what do you reckon, can God be virtually true, or is truth truth, the River Todd a river (even when it’s not there) and Alexa just another Christmas present whose novelty will soon wear off?

I will leave you with all this virtual theology and, e-mail this article to Theology Everywhere, via the internet, in invisible code that will bounce of an invisible satellite and be distributed by invisible means to your laptop, as long as you’ve charged it. Off I go to take the dog for a walk – oops, better take my phone, just in case.

3 thoughts on “When is a river not a river?”

  1. You ask us: ‘Can God be virtually true?’
    Well, using your own exploration: if virtually means ‘almost’, then the answer is no.
    If virtually refers to illusion, then the answer is still no.
    But neither is God limited to ‘fact’, so God in that case is at least virtually true, but a lot more than that.
    ‘Vitual’ has come to mean ‘digital’–i.e. a world composed of digital bit-based data.
    So maybe the question might be: ‘Can God be digitally true?’
    Got me thinking, Barbara, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. does that give us a binary solution: yes or no, a 1 or 0? or if we are permitted all digits a numerical scale of truthfulness? or is our understanding of God true to each and every one of us, according to our own truth? Given my limited understanding of liberation theology our understandings of God can be dependent upon the person.


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