For me, one of the things that has been a gift in the midst of everything that is bad about quarantine life is much more time with my son Liam. That’s because both of us are working at home now: in the morning he settles in for school in the living room while I work in the upstairs office, both of us spending more time on Zoom than we ever could have imagined. But the gift has been that, with a little effort, we can coordinate some of our breaks to spend together. When he’s free for lunch or a free period, I can often get free for a little while, and we can eat lunch together and even squeeze in a few minutes for video games before we both have to get back at it. It’s a radical change from our pre-quarantine life, and a welcome one.
As I’ve been playing with him more than I have in a long time, I’ve been picking up the current language around video games that he uses as if I should know what he’s talking about. Some of it is fairly self-explanatory, like farming, which means repeating an action or a quest in the game over and over again to build up your stockpile of rewards. Some of them are acronyms that you have to figure out like puzzles; “AFK,” for example, means “away from keyboard,” so if you’re in a multiplayer game and another player isn’t moving or interacting at all, they are probably temporarily “AFK.” And, if you ask a question like, “what does AFK mean?” you’ll probably get called a “noob,” short for newbie, someone who doesn’t know or do something that anyone who’s played for a while would consider second nature.
My favorite term, though, came to mind as I was thinking about this third sermon in our current series on “Love in the Time of Coronavirus,” in which we’re considering different aspects of Christian love to help us live faithfully through this challenging time. The term is god-mode. God mode is something that a noob probably wouldn’t know about, but otherwise it’s an open secret in many video games.
In many games, there is an option to enter various “cheat codes” that the programmers put into the game but aren’t officially published. But if you know them, they give you special abilities or upgrades that make the game easier: extra lives, double experience points, special tools, and so on. But god-mode is the ultimate cheat code; in games that have it, entering the code for god-mode gives you virtually infinite power.
God-mode almost always makes you invulnerable, no matter what enemy or environment you are facing in the game. It often makes you invincible, meaning that a single touch can destroy an enemy. It can give you other powers like invisibility, flight, teleportation. In some games you can even remake the physical environment on a whim: carving out rivers, leveling mountains, changing the weather, initiating disasters.
There’s a reason, of course, that video game designers call this set of powers god-mode. It originates not in video game design, but in theology. Once of the best examples of it, in fact, is in a Presbyterian theological document from the 17th century called the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Westminster Confession was an enormously influential theological document: it was the theological standard for Presbyterian pastors, Elders, and churches for over 300 years in many parts of the English-speaking world, including the United States.
The catechism that was drawn from it as a teaching tool for children was the basis of Christian Education for much of that time in the Presbyterian Church and well beyond it, so every child in a Presbyterian Church memorized its message as a rite of passage to be able to join the church. In the last century, Presbyterians have realized that perhaps viewing our theology exclusively through the lens of a 17th century English perspective was excessively narrow and have since adopted a whole range of confessions from different places and eras as our theological standards, but the influence of Westminster still permeates our culture, right up to today; all you have to do is compare it to god-mode in video games. Just listen; here’s how Westminster describes God:
There is but one only, living, and true God: who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will….In His sight all things are open and manifest; His knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to Him contingent, or uncertain.
Just warms the heart, doesn’t it? It’s a completely abstract and instrumental understanding of who God is; or rather, it’s an understanding of what and how God is, with no attention whatsoever to who. This is a God described in terms that a video game designer would understand: god-mode, with all attributes and abilities “leveled up” to infinite power: invincible, invisible, omnipotent, invulnerable
Human-mode, on the other hand, is practically defined by vulnerability. There are many levels and dimensions of vulnerability, of course, which build on, influence, and overlap with each other. Abraham Maslow, a psychologist in the mid-20th century, talked about this in terms of what he called “the hierarchy of needs,” which he depicted as a pyramid of levels. A need, by definition, implies a vulnerability, something that will do us harm if it is unmet.
The most basic and broad level of need, according to Maslow, is physiological: food, water, shelter, rest. The next level up is safety and security needs. The next is social belonging, including love and friendship. Towards the top of the pyramid are self-esteem, or a sense of one’s worth and accomplishment, and finally self-actualization, or a sense of reaching one’s full potential.
Now, Maslow’s model has been critiqued in various ways, but this basic sense that human beings are motivated to address a range of physiological and psychological needs, remains deeply resonant. It also helps explain why people who are relatively well-off in meeting their physiological needs still feel vulnerable, even when people who actually are more vulnerable may feel less anxious: their sense of security, of belonging, and of meaning or all of the above may feel threatened, even when their physiological needs are well-met.
For some people, many people, vulnerability is something to be neutralized. Brené Brown, a social research professor whose TED Talk on vulnerability is one of the most watched ever, points out that one of the most common ways of trying to do that is, of course, through numbing behaviors. One of the ways we do that, of course, is by abusing things like alcohol, food, shopping, entertainment, even “busyness,” using them to distract us and exhaust us and disengage us so we won’t feel the vulnerability that haunts us. And another way, she points out, is by trying to make the uncertain certain. If uncertainty leaves us feeling vulnerable, then certainty seems like an antidote to it, something that eliminates the uncertainty from our being that we feel like is poisoning us with anxiety and fear.
We’re seeing both of those playing out right now in the midst of this pandemic: alcohol, food, shopping, entertainment, even busyness are all being abused by many people in many different ways to numb the anxiety of living surrounded by this virus when so much about how to keep it at bay seems uncertain. And in the last week or so, we’ve seen a massive outbreak of conspiracy theories in videos and social media which promise to make the uncertain certain, which provide a full explanation of what’s “really” going on in all this, even when the explanation is far-fetched to the point of absurdity. But making the uncertain certain in the midst of all this can be very seductive, no matter what it takes, when the alternative is simply trying to do the best you can to accept your vulnerability while you bob on a sea of uncertainty.
But aside from the obvious problems of making sustained poor choices in terms of our bodies, our finances, or our interpretation of reality, numbing ourselves to vulnerability has another very significant and damaging side effect. “You cannot numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions,” Brown warns in her TED Talk. “You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.” We numb, in other words, everything that is best about being human in this life in order to avoid feeling vulnerable.
And in the process, ironically, we make the uncertain certain: we take the uncertainty of vulnerability and make it certain that we will not experience authentic love and connection with God or with other people because love by definition requires vulnerability. Love requires trust and empathy and self-giving, and those require vulnerability and risk, whether we’re talking about romantic love or familial love or friendship or especially selfless love, love for God and others simply for who they are. There is no cheat code available that can get us to our goal while maintaining our invincibility, our invulnerability.
But what the gospel of Jesus Christ tells us is that invulnerability has nothing to do with living or loving in God-mode. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” Paul tells the Philippians and us; “who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” It was only then, Paul says, that God exalted Jesus and gave him the name that is above every name; he is exalted not through his limitless power but through his utter vulnerability to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Because the true power of God-mode is not that God is “immutable, eternal, immense, almighty;” it is that God is love, as the first letter of John puts it simply. And the power of love is not in spite of vulnerability but through it, as God demonstrated in Jesus, and demonstrates to us over and over again in our lives when we refuse to numb ourselves to it. Gratitude, joy, forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion, connection, support, community, peace; all of the best things we experience in life as human beings comes from letting the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus, that accepts vulnerability as the only path of love, to love, in love, and that even when the path is dangerous and painful and difficult, it always leads to love in the end.
So if you are struggling with vulnerability right now, if you are feeling uncertain about what you and we are facing now, about what the future holds, about what it means to be faithful in the midst of all this, there is good news. You, right now, are in God-mode, letting the same mind be in you that was in Jesus Christ; and if you allow yourself to stay there, not fleeing the uncertainty, not numbing the vulnerability, God will meet you there: perhaps dramatically like a sudden flash of light; perhaps subtly, like the movement of a shadow in your peripheral vision. But God will meet you all the same in love, and empower you to go forth in love through whatever paths lie before you, until everything that would oppose it crumbles away, and love is all that remains.