John Godbey, my seminary professor and assigned counselor, worked hard to get me to define what “virtual” meant. Specifically, he wanted me to make a place for “God” in my system and I didn’t want to. I don’t trust anthropomorphism. And it is worrisome to name things that can only be perceived by their impact on what IS seen.
“Virtual definition, being such in power, force, or effect, though not actually or expressly.” (Same one-sentence definition in several websites.)
When I formally withdrew my membership from the neighborhood Presbyterian congregation in 1957, the minister (who would have been more persuasive if he had had better personal character) wrote me a return letter (I was in college) that used the existence of the newly discovered planet Pluto which had only been found by realizing its impact on the paths of the other planets. But eventually Pluto was seen, an actual solid object. No exploration of space has found God.
But some of the ideas coming from Porges have meant I must consider “virtual” connections and structures among humans that are located only in humans’ unconscious capacities that are not observable directly. They come close to being virtual. The word echoes “virtue” but doesn’t mean praiseworthy. No judgement about good or bad is relevant, though Porges himself identifies them with compassion, through empathy (feeling with, participating) rather than some principle of good behavior.
Beginning in the circle of enrapturement between mother and baby (which is not always likely or even possible in some socioeconomic circumstances) which comes out of care like feeding, cleaning, embracing, stroking — all natural mammalian things to do — the possibility of participation in a “liminal” space and time is built by experience with eye-gaze, single cells of a special kind, identification with other people even in stories, and attachment. ("A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. " Wikipedia)
What I call “attachment” is called by others “love” or even compassion. I mean “attachment” to name the invisible bonds formed by experience between people or even between a person and his/her environment or habits. This can only be seen by others through behavior but to the individual is a “feeling”. It is a major part of identity, but not always felt consciously until it is challenged some way, perhaps broken so that it causes grief.
A form of attachment is what causes people to join together to further some goal that can’t be achieved by an individual. This is present in many mammals but is not expanded as it can be among humans because of their ability to communicate, even over time through writing, even after death. This results in culture, which is attachment to environment or the organizations we call government or religion which are kept in place by attachment. We can see the institutions, the places, the ecology, but we cannot see the attachment except through behavior or testimony from those who feel them.
The feeling that we call “sacred” or “holy” or hierophanies is more intense than attachment, particularly in terms of something like “fusion with all being,” which is to say participation in all the known but also the unknown. It is too intense and mysterious to be sustained, and can be labelled “madness.” The impact on the larger society depends upon the nature of the philosophy and strategy to which they are committed. If it is one of preventing change, people who have epiphanies can be made into martyrs.
In my case at seminary, I never had a sacred epiphany — I was simply acting out of what I thought was logic — that an unseen and uncontrolled concept didn’t exist. But for Godbey, who did feel it and remained Christian in a sense, it DID exist. I’ve met others who say that “feeling” a personal, palpable, human (anthropocentric) relationship with — at least — Jesus, is the whole key to their Christianity. If it’s an illusion, it’s heartfelt and there’s no reason or method for arguing except logic, which isn’t always useful. If it’s simply a very intense and meaningful metaphor, that has nothing to do with the level of epiphany that I’m trying to understand.
Maybe it’s not possible to understand. But if it is, I think the clues are likely to be in the realm of what we used to call the psychological, a term I’d like to avoid because it is used by logical people to attack those who trust their feelings.
Here is a link to another way to approach the virtual human structures and non-verbal communications that is palpable, perceived but unseen, entering though the ears instead of the eyes, but existing in the brain as a composite, a construct, with near-religious attachment. This music was used in the movie of “Out of Africa” to express the love/attachment between Isak Dinesen and Dennis Finch-Hatton, carried in the “place” of Kenya and the story related in the book of the same name. In my brain it is connected to the East Slope grasslands of the Rockies and a whole complex of events, memories, sensations, and so on.
Thus, the arts are a language, communication of something invisible but effective, life-changing, expressive and — well, one doesn’t quite dare say “eternal.” Yet eternity is fluid, ever-changing. One can imagine the continuity sometimes breaks, becomes a terrifying void. The Friday vespers in seminary that were remembered later were the ones that wove these forces into an experience by using music and words. In addition, people have described moments of unexpected sacred intensity that happened by accident of light, place, relationship that interacted to kindle something in the person.
I wish I’d been far more personal with Godbey. His formality and deafness were obstacles, but if I’d thought to talk about Garrett Theological School, the Methodist seminary attached to NU, or about Morocco or about meeting his wife in Casablanca -- even his childhood in Nebraska -- we might have found virtual forces we recognized.