The Canadian Centre for Scholarship and the Christian Faith represents a wide range of theological perspectives. This editorial only represents my own personal/academic views as the Editor in Chief of the Canadian Journal for Scholarship and the Christian Faith.
TECHNOLOGY AND THEOLOGY
Bill Anderson PhD
Director of the Canadian Centre for Scholarship and the Christian Faith
“Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of . . . .”. My first foray into technology was watching Star Trek in the 1960s. I was only 5 years old when it originally aired in 1966. But when ITV Edmonton did re-runs in 1975, I was totally hooked and obsessed. Now my wife Joan and I spend 5 or 6 hours a week in the deepest, outermost parts of the galaxy.
Before we go any further, I want to make a disclaimer. I am neither a scientist nor technologist. I am a trained biblical scholar and theologian who teaches extensively in the area of Pop Culture Studies. I am currently developing a course Technology, Philosophy and Religion and the course description reads in part: “Basic introduction to Technology with an examination of philosophical and religious ideas, themes and imagery in, and with an emphasis on the ethical dilemmas conveyed and posed by, the portrayal of technology through pop culture and specifically in the genre of Science Fiction literature, film and television”. So this is the way that I am addressing the topic of “Technology and Theology” here in this editorial.
Now back to Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry originally pitched the series to the networks as a “wagon train to stars”—picking up on the other cultural obsession with Westerns in the 50s and 60s. As any student who has taken one of my pop culture courses knows, every artifact is a reflection of the artist’s philosophy, beliefs and values, as well as the cultural milieu in which it is situated.
Roddenberry was a complex man with a complex relationship to theology and religion. He grew up in a Southern Baptist home in Texas and was very involved with church activities. He later rejected the faith when he was around 14 years old.
Often Roddenberry has been portrayed as an atheist. Later in life he asserted that he believed in some concept of God (a form of deism) but categorically rejected any notion of organized religion. My own analysis of Roddenberry’s philosophy is that he appears at certain points to function as an atheist but always as a secular humanist. I think his complex relationship with technology and theology can be seen the various manifestations of the Star Trek franchise.
In the original series, Roddenberry’s atheism, or perhaps more accurately secular humanism, was more sublime—even though in public discourse he could be quite harsh against organized religion. I speculate that this may have been because it might have damaged ratings if it was overt during a time when religion was still well-regarded and widely practiced. Yet the concept of God or spirituality have been a mainstay of the Star Trek franchise throughout.
Roddenberry gave strict instructions that Star Trek: The Next Generation was to be thoroughly secular—and that there was no place for religion, superstition and mysticism. But Star Trek betrays subtle cognitive dissonance between science and religion: It can’t seem to get away from religion and even at times portrays it in positive ways. Star Trek Deep Space Nine is a case in point—where an abundance of overt religion, spirituality and mysticism can be found—although often with the intent to portray it as primitive, emotional and unreasonable.
Religious themes, ideas and imagery are found throughout all Star Trek series. See an excellent little summary in Ex Astris Scientia at http://www.ex-astris-scientia.org/inconsistencies/religion.htm. This relates to one of my own obsessions: Non-religious artists (particularly in the science fiction genre) who are obsessed with religion and religious themes, ideas and imagery reflected in their art. Roddenberry is no exception in the Star Trek franchise. Ridley Scott is another one.
The current Star Trek series Discovery perhaps is a re-assertion of Roddenberry’s original philosophy—complete with a superficial and stereotypical portrayal of ignorant and backward Christians—in the episode “New Eden”. Here the superiority of reason and science (scientism) is strongly asserted by the Science Specialist Burman—complete with buy-in that “technology saves all”. But even in that episode, doubt is cast upon the totality and efficacy of science and technology over against the mysterious and faith as masterfully conveyed by Captain Pike’s framing of the issues.
Roddenberry and Star Trek, along with atheism, have a major problem to solve. Or as the website Ex Astris Scientia puts it: “The question crops up whether Star Trek’s philosophy can offer anything to replace religion?”. Yet the irony pointed out in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is that science and quest (“voyage”) ultimately lead to a Creator God: Science and Technology intersect with religious experience. This can also be found in Star Wars.
Modernism is the broader philosophical background to Star Trek OS. Rodenberry’s Utopian vision was based on the idea that science and reason could solve all of our problems. There would be no more hunger, disease or war. At Spock’s burial at space, in the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Kirk’s eulogy said of Spock, “Of my friend, I can only say this: Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most . . . . human”. I bawled like a baby during that scene in the Paramount theatre on Jasper avenue in Edmonton. The point, however, is that once human beings empty ourselves of emotion, base our lives and actions on reason and the benefits of technology, we will achieve utopia. Kevin Cawley at Notre Dame University has made a recent case for philosophical apathy and its benefits to humanity in his article “What the World Needs Now”—and this is a characteristic of both Spock and Data in Star Trek.
Enter Blade Runner (1982). Phillip K Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was the basis for the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner which presented the opposite perspective on the rise of technology. Instead of technology leading to Utopia, it will lead to Dystopia. Of course, much of the contemporary pop culture reflects postmodern philosophy and the radical scepticism and pessimism (cynicism) inherent in it.
Phillip K Dick was also a complex human being with a complex relationship with technology and theology. According to Ridley Scott, Dick was a “Prophet of Science Fiction”—and his influence in the work of Scott is evident in many of his films, as well as many other science fiction movies. Scott, however, is much less sympathetic to religion and especially Christianity than Dick—who was a well-known Christian mystic. Scott, however, while growing up in the Church of England and being an altar boy, is no fan of organized religion nor the God of the Old Testament. Indeed his movie Prometheus is his own portrayal of a mean and vindictive Creator God paralleling Genesis 1-11 (see “Furious Gods: Making of Prometheus”); much in the same way he portrays God as a “mean and vengeful little kid” (Scott’s Theology Proper) in Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Scott is also well-known for his obsession with origins and religion—including that fact that the main character in Prometheus is a devout Christian—namely Dr Elizabeth Shaw. In Prometheus there is a clear juxtaposition of technology and theology (faith).
Back to Blade Runner. A theological summary of Blade Runner is a formidable task. I spend three lectures on it in my pop culture course. Blade Runner’s dependence on Frankenstein and Paradise Lost are well-known in relation to Genesis 1-3 (see Desser “The New Eve: The Influence of Paradise Lost and Frankenstein on Blade Runner”). The big theological questions and problems which are explored in the film relate to Theodicy (“Justice of God”) and Predestination vs Freewill; among a number of others.
Burnette-Bletsch, in the Bible and Cinema, provides a broad context for Blade Runner (like Paradise Lost) wherein these theological struggles are worked out in a veritable hell reflected the opening sequence of the film. Like Shelley in Frankenstein, Burnette-Bletsch points out, Blade Runner portrays God the Father Creator as an arrogant scientist who blames his creatures for evil rather than taking responsibility for creating them as such with built-in limitations like life-span. There is a tragic quality whereby God’s creatures desire to seek the Creator and their origins, as well as have a relationship with him, yet hate and blame God for creating them and placing them in an impossible situation. Thus like the monster in Frankenstein, Batty hates and kills his creator, the corporate giant Dr Tyrell.
The primary theological question explored by Blade Runner is: What does it mean to be human (Theological Anthropology)? This is where technology intersects with theology in terms of Artificial Intelligence, consciousness and sentience. If Roy and Pris as replicants are in fact conscious and sentient, as their behavior seems to demonstrate, should we be killing (“retiring”) them? Theodicy again raises its head in relation to predetermined capacities and limitations by which humans or replicants are imprisoned—an issue which the Apostle Paul addresses in Romans 9-11—which still needs to be taken seriously.
The issue of what it means to be human is also raised in 2001: A Space Odyssey in relation to HAL, Artificial Intelligence, consciousness and sentience. My friend who is an IT genius that managed a 110 million dollar IT budget argues vehemently that computers will never be able to achieve consciousness and sentience for one very simple reason: Programming does not make for “soul”. HAL is programmed that the mission to Jupiter is primary and any attempts to undermine that mission must be dealt with effectively. Therefore, if feigning emotions such as sentimentality and fear of death (unplugged) accomplishes that, then HAL will employ it. On this basis, I said to my philosopher colleague that Ontology should be the hottest thing in philosophy dealing with technology, AI, consciousness, sentience and transhumanism.
Another interesting contrast of technology comes by way of the collaboration of Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick in writing the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clarke, in the documentary 2001: Making of a Myth, articulates a positive view of technology leading to Utopia (modernism). Kubrick, on the other hand, was afraid that man would lose control of technology in “Cain-like” destruction (so Burnette-Bletch in Bible and Cinema). This is, of course, the major premise of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. So far this century, dystopia is winning in the war between technology and theology in the larger philosophical context of postmodernism and expressions in science fiction.
My twenty-one year-old son Liam is kind of fed up with the whole dystopian image of the future of technology. He is studying Computing Science at the University of Alberta. He’s his own man who does his own thinking and is hyper-aware of cultural influences. So I think it’s only coincidental that he agrees with Telus that “The Future is Friendly”. Having said that, I think Liam is too grounded and realistic to buy in whole-heartedly to that slogan and rather has a balanced case-by-case approach regarding the future of technology. Given the ubiquitous dystopian view of technology in pop culture, however, I think that this tagline is one of the most brilliant marketing and advertising ploys. It speaks to the widespread fears of people in relation to technology and has a “disarming” effect. Of course, that’s how they sell technology. My son Liam’s view is more measured and grounded based in faith and reason: Technology has the potential for good or evil—and that is as fickle as Fallen Humanity—as well as being subject to the Will of the Living and Sovereign God.
Like a lot of people, I have a love-hate relationship with technology. Most of my professors used typewriters to write their PhD theses. That was a daunting task since just one typo meant that you had to re-type the whole page. So I was very grateful for technology when I got a computer to write my own doctoral thesis. I could not imagine writing a doctoral thesis without a computer with Spellcheck and especially “Find and Replace”. Now as a researcher, I cannot image life without the internet. Having said that, I do not allow internet sources in all my courses except for those in the discipline of Pop Culture Studies. One learning objective in all those courses is “How to vet internet sources for veracity, quality and substance”.
I ban all technology from my classrooms. It’s not because I’m anti-technology, or I don’t think that technology doesn’t have amazing educational value. It’s just that I have learning objectives beyond formal academic ones. One skill I want students to learn is the “Art of Being Present (Listening)”. Have an existential encounter with your dinner rather than taking another meaningless selfie of it. Moreover, you might just have a thought during the lecture that you would have been otherwise distracted away from if you hadn’t been “switched off”. Another is to think about the “role of technology” in your life: Should it be ubiquitous and eternal? Another is the utility and value of any given piece of technology: Is it just easier to manually do something like writing a note with paper and pen? Countless students who hated the policy to begin with have thanked me when they realized the many benefits over time including better grades.
The Tower of Babel in the context of the Primeval History of Genesis 1-11 has a callback to Genesis 3. The Fall in Genesis 3 is where the essence of sin and separation from God can be found. The essence of sin is this: Pride leads to a false sense of not needing God the Creator and to Rebellion against him—that we can become “god-like” and make our own way. This is the same pattern found in the Tower of Babel narrative of Genesis 11.1-9. The message of Blade Runner is that ultimately humanity will save themselves through technology—but it’s a message than runs squarely against biblical revelation—and the triumph of God in the apocalypse. Ironically, the film intuitively undermines and succumbs to its own premise: technology does not lead to utopia but rather dystopia.
It is no coincidence that Ridley Scott makes a callback in Blade Runner (1982) to the explicit Tower of Babel image in the 1929 classic Metropolis. As I have mentioned before, Scott’s obsession with religion is well-known and the parallel to the God of the Old Testament (Genesis 1-11) is explicitly acknowledged by him for Prometheus—a deeply theological film (albeit of a skewed slant in my view). Alien Covenant, the follow up to Prometheus, is perhaps even more theologically explicit. What I would have suggested to Scott for his follow up to Prometheus was a focus on the Tower of Babel. It’s where Scott ends inevitably and intuitively ends up in both movies. If one examines the religion of the Ancient Near East, it is clear that the gods and their social structure are human. That is, we make God in our image rather than accepting God as he is: “I Am Who I Am”.
Humans are doomed to the bondage of slavery under the tyranny of a few divinely favored as represented by kings in the ANE and postmodern owners of huge companies like Tyrell or Weyland. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Tyrell also lives in a veritable Tower of Babel (ziggurat). Ultimately a life built without God (including a properly revealed version of him) is a dead end.
Even if we discover our origins, without a recognition of our sin and separation from God, life is as futile as using technology to build our own way to heaven and eternal life via transhumanism. As I have already noted, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Transhumanism raise questions about what it means to be human. What is consciousness? What is soul? What are life and death? Can technology really give us eternal life?
Transhumanism is another futile attempt to usurp God and save ourselves through technology. Its fatal flaw, even if we can upload our consciousness into a cybernetic body, is that it is still subject to the fragility of human beings living in a fallen world. We know very well just how fickle the economy can be in this century and how quickly mega-corporations can collapse. What happens when companies who manufacture parts go belly up or maintenance technicians can no longer be found? Moreover, eternal life without God can never provide meaning and purpose for simple existence and perpetual meaningless activity. As a theologian myself, even if AI achieves consciousness and sentience—it will be subject to the effects of the Fall in Genesis 3—and consequently will be in need of salvation (cf Romans 1).
Theology is in a unique position to handle these questions and issues. Indeed my MA student and Research Assistant, Erin Archer, has written a brilliant paper dealing with “Does AI Have Soul?” In that paper she argues that theology is in a unique interdisciplinary position to deal with the many issues, pro and con, that technology raises. She points out that theologians like Origen in the 3rd Century and Aquinas in the 13th Century made forays into Artificial Intelligence and surrounding issues—even if they didn’t know it at the time. So Theology has a big head start dealing with Technology.
Erin is currently writing her MA thesis on Religion in the Video Game Mass Effect under my supervision. This is another platform to explore AI, Sentience and Machines—or the relationship between “Technology and Theology”. The Geth are hated enemies in the galaxy and the cause of much death and destruction. But it’s more complicated than that—because the Geth appear to have souls—and much of their actions arise out of being treated like impersonal things (machines). One blogger, Tonio Loewald goes so far as to ask: “Would Jesus Save the Geth?” at http://loewald.com/blog/2012/04/would-jesus-save-the-geth/. Mass Effect is a case in point of how science fiction is used to raise all kinds of philosophical and religious questions and issues. As a Role Playing Game (RPG), this platform forces the player to engage with complex and important questions and issues that technology raises—whether they know it or not. Therefore, the video game format is interactive rather than passive. This amps up philosophical benefits to the player and consequently the value to society.
My own view is that technology is a gift from God for which I am deeply grateful. Indeed, in my own week-daily prayer liturgy, I praise and thank God “for science and technology—which show us more and more of His Glory day by day”. But technology is developing faster than our moral capacity to deal with it. Theology is in a unique position to handle the issues.
The Canadian Centre for Scholarship and the Christian Faith at Concordia University of Edmonton cordially invites you to our eighth annual conference. The theme for 2019 is Technology and Theology. The keynote speaker is Dr Craig Gay from Regent College in Vancouver BC. The title of his lecture is “Downsized: Modern Technology and the Diminishment of the Human”. This lecture is open to the public and FREE on Friday 03rd May 2019 at 7pm, with reception to follow, in the Tegler of Concordia University of Edmonton 7128 Ada Boulevard.
This conference is presented in collaboration with the Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence Research Cluster at CUE. There will be a panel discussion on the Saturday dealing with these matters. Please register at https://goo.gl/561nKf. Post-Secondary students are eligible for a free grant to attend at http://www.ccscf.org/conference/grant/ and there are also grants for pastors at http://www.ccscf.org/conference/clergy-grants/.1