How to evangelize an avatar: A thematic overview

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Research Design

This study intends to explore evangelization in virtual realities. Since this is a new area of research, the methodology and methods must foster an explorative study. For this reason, Action Research and the empirical-theological praxis (ETP) cycle have been chosen as research methodologies, and the Policy Delphi Method and Grounded Theory are used as data collection analysis methods.
The first part of this chapter begins with a general discussion on epistemology which underlies the very methodology and helps us understand what kind of claims can be made. Since qualitative research within practical theology and missiology has gained much appreciation in the last few years, the role and need for empirical research within theology will be discussed here (see 4.2), thereby also showing in more detail what kind of data is produced by qualitative research and how this relates to theology (see 4.2.1). Based on this general discussion the empirical-theological praxis cycle will be presented as the overall methodology for this research since it regulates this important interplay between theological and empirical research.
The ETP cycle will be supplemented by elements of Action Research methodology (see 4.3.2) through which the research participants can participate “in the design and collection of research evidence” (Fletcher & Marchildon 2014:4). This is necessary because of the unique and highly explorative nature of this research.
Furthermore, Action Research has shown to be a suitable methodology to support the Policy Delphi Method, which stands at the heart of the research as a participant-controlled data-collection and analysis technique for groups (see 4.4). According to Fletcher and Marchildon the Delphi Method is most helpful when dealing with an unexplored issue:
Despite its diverse applications, the key purpose for using the Delphi Method remains the collection of informed judgment on issues that are largely unexplored, difficult to define, highly context and expertise specific, or future-oriented (Helmer, 1967; Ziglio, 1995). […] Because it is exploratory in nature, the method is not recommended for use in areas with abundant theory and empirical literature, or where topics are already well defined (Mead & Moseley 2001; Ziglio 1995). (Fletcher & Marchildon 2014:3) Thus, precisely because this research is of an explorative nature, PDM is the method of choice for this work.

Epistemology (Philosophy of Science)

At this level we ask “What and how can we know?” Different answers have been provided and the following is a brief introduction of the epistemologies which are relevant for this research, namely positivism, critical rationalism and pragmatism, as well as Kuhn’s paradigm shifts (Kuhn 1970).
The introduction of these various epistemologies serves to show the validity of qualitative empirical research by showing that the different epistemologies offer different ways of knowing (deduction, induction and abduction) and create different forms of knowledge (e.g. verification or falsification). The goal is to show what kind of knowledge is generated through this particular research, why it is valid, and what kind of conclusion can be drawn from the results.
The guiding question of this section is: which epistemology best supports the kind of research conducted in this study?
After a historical overview, the work of Kuhn and his concept of paradigm shifts is presented since it helps us understand how knowledge changes over time. Kuhn argues that what is considered proven or true is dependent on the dominant epistemology which itself can change over time. This has consequences for the attitude in which research is done, for the place of theology in empirical research, and for the need for contextualization, not only as one moves from one culture to another, but also through history.

 Moving beyond positivism

Originating from Auguste Comte (1798-1857), and further developed by the Vienna Circle, positivism has been the dominating epistemological framework in the natural sciences in recent history (Heilbron 1990:153-162). It assumes that all knowledge has to be and can be verified by sensory experience (Cook 1988:395) and is gained through induction; in other words a statement is made or a rule developed, and subsequently verified (or not).
Yet, this method has been used predominantly (but not exclusively) in the natural sciences. It has been argued that the humanities – theology included – cannot operate in the same way, because a claim such as “All who seek God are loved by God” cannot be verified by the senses and cannot – therefore – be considered scientific. The theologian N.T. Wright summarizes this critique well: Positivism is thus marked by a strong belief in objectivity, at least at the level of data observation,70 and leaves no room for the validation of either faith claims or subjective experiences.
However, during the 60’s and 70’s a debate arose between the Vienna Circle and Popper71 on the one side and the so-called Frankfurt School (Frankfurter Schule72) with its Critical Theory (CT) on the other. CT strengthened the empirical credibility of the humanities thereby laying a foundation for empirical theology (see Mette & Steinkamp 1983:14). Whereas positivists second guessed the methodology used in the humanities,73 others pointed out that the weakness of positivism is not simply the assumption that a statement could be verified, but its lack of appreciation of the influence of the “context of discovery” (see 4.1.3) on the entire research process.
The positivists believed that the […] [context of discovery] was a subjective, psychological process that wasn`t governed by precise rules, while the latter [context of justification] was an objective matter of logic. […] The positivists would argue that it makes no difference how a hypothesis is arrived at initially. What matters is how it is tested once it is already there – for it is this that makes science a rational activity.
(Okasha 2002:78–9)
This strict exclusion of the context of discovery is later critiqued by Kuhn (see 4.1.3). According to Spiceland, positivism’s current presence within the sciences can be considered marginal.74
Among other problems positivism has encountered is the issue of the status of the verification principle itself. As a philosophical position its influence on the contemporary scene has waned. Its primary interest to contemporary thinkers is historical.
(Spiceland 1984:864) Consequently, the epistemologies which have recently grown strong, like phenomenalism, usually emphasize our subjectivity.
In response to, but also building on positivism, Popper proposed critical rationalism, through which he rejects positivism on the grounds that he disagreed with the notion that something could be ultimately verified. He believed that a thesis can only be falsified or be

  • The Vienna Circle and their so-called neo-positivism especially tried to emphasize this in the 20th century and attempted to develop Protokollsätze to create consistency and transferability at this basic level.
  • Karl Popper is often associated with positivism and the Vienna circle although he eventually rejected it and also disliked the term There are commonalities, yet Popper critiqued positivism and its idea of validating a thesis.
  • A term used to describe the ideology and work of Hegel, Marx and Freud, and later Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, and Erich Fromm.
  • Karl Popper was critical of the work of Freud and his psychoanalyses.
  • The reasons for its decline are manifold, and besides the problems already raised and the critique of Popper (see 4.1.2), there is a paradigm shift in our culture, initiated by the failure of modernity (which relied heavily on a positivistic epistemology) to create a better world. This development is sometimes called the “end of modernity” (Guardini 1986) or postmodernity and has resulted in a greater scepticism towards objectivity.

Thus, falsification took away some of the certainty which dominated the natural sciences, yet the general notion that one could operate objectively remained. Both positivism and critical rationalism operate under the assumption that scientific results can be explored objectively. They also start with the proposal of a thesis which then undergoes a process of verification or falsification. Furthermore, both of these schools of thought arise from the natural sciences and therefore carry values and standards relevant to their own field which are not necessarily relevant or helpful for research within the humanities or theology.

Pragmatism – a basis for qualitative research

Pragmatism offers an alternative epistemology more suitable to the humanities, including theology. Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) was the founder of pragmatism (later labelled pragmaticism to distinguish it from other movements).
Predicting actions (behaviour) and solving problems while steering clear of describing reality are unifying principles for pragmatists. This approach offers a third way, acknowledging the critique put forward by the phenomenalists,77 while affirming that statements can be made with regards to the outside world.
This Pragmatist position does not at all lead to radical relativism (as currently in one version of postmodernity). Radical relativism reasons that since no version or interpretation can be proven, therefore no certainty about any given one can be assumed. Instead the Pragmatists, like any practicing scientist in their day or ours, must make a couple of key assumptions. … [One is that] the accumulation of knowledge is no mirage. They are careful to emphasize that acts of knowing embody perspective. Thus, what is discovered about ‘reality’ cannot be divorced from the operative

List of illustrations 
List of tables 
List of abbreviations 
1. Introduction 
1.1 Research question
1.2 Rationale of this research
1.3 Demarcation of the study
1.4 Sequence and summary of chapters
2. Definitions 
2.1 Missiological foundation
2.2 Evangelization
2.3 Contextualization
2.4 Virtual Reality
2.5 Conclusions.
3. Literature review 
3.1 The history of research on VR and religion
3.2 How to evangelize an avatar: A thematic overview
3.3 Current related research
3.4 The rhetoric of online-evangelism
4. Research Design 
4.1 Epistemology (Philosophy of Science)
4.2 Empirical Theology
4.3 Methodology
4.4 Research technique
4.5 Conclusions
4.6 Interim summary: ETP cycle (Phase 1-3)
5. Round 1: Initial measurement of opinions 
5.1 Data collection
5.2 Data analysis
5.3 Summary and results of the coding process
5.4 Summary of contributions by experts
5.5 Conclusions
6. Round 2: Statistical group feedback 
6.1 Data collection
6.2 Data analysis and findings
6.3 Conclusions
7. Round 3: Saturation of opinions 
7.1 Data collection
7.2 Data analysis and findings
7.3 Conclusions
8. Identity, avatars and cyber culture
8.1 Identity and the role of an avatar
8.2 Cyber culture and its impact on evangelization
8.3 Summary
9. Credibility, ethics and relationships online 
9.1 Credibility through the community and the story
9.2 Relationships: Touching the heart in VR
9.3 Summary
10. Contextualizing for evangelization online 
10.1 Discernment in online evangelization
10.2 A cycle of discernment and modification
10.3 Summary
11. Retrospective methodological reflection
11.1 Quality criteria for empirical research
11.2 Reflection of the research process 308
11.2.5 Final remarks
12. Conclusions 
12.1 Summary of findings
12.2 Contributions of this study
12.3 Future research
12.4 Recommendations for implementation
12.5 Concluding remarks
On Evangelizing an Avatar: An empirical exploration of the expression of faith in virtual reality

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