Fellow blogger Ian Lynch and I agreed this week: The latest Darkwood Brew series “Evolving Science/Evolving Faith” has taught us so much about scientific achievements that we feel as though our heads are about to explode.
Preparing to write this week’s post, I found myself quoting Psalm 8:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
“what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
“Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
“You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
“all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
“the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”
— Psalms 8: 3-8
Amid this wonder a nagging question dogs me: What are our faith communities doing to prepare people for encountering these scientific marvels and applying them creatively, ethically, and morally? This is no idle inquiry, for as we have seen throughout this series, humans now possess beneficial technologies that also carry the capacity to destroy our planet many times over if used carelessly or maliciously.
For instance, there’s the question of what constitutes “personhood.” This week’s “pneuma divina,” 1 Corinthians 12:1-7, gave us one possible answer: “God wants us to use our intelligence, to seek to understand as well as we can” (1 Cor. 12:2, The Message). Unfortunately, we religious folks don’t merely overlook such instruction; we often resist it as vigorously as we can!
Many of us who consider ourselves progressive Christians have turned to science fiction to deal with scientific questions that the Church has preferred to ignore, such as what constitutes a “person.” Two giants of contemporary science fiction, George Lucas’ “Star Wars” and Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek,” have both explored the “humanity” of sentient robots and androids as a way to critique human behaviors and attitudes. Some examples:
In “Star Wars,” robots C3PO and R2D2 were both resurrected from “death” in different movies because their central processing units – their “souls,” if you will – could be restored. As Obi-wan Kenobi said at one point, Darth Vader, the former Anakin Skywalker and Luke’s father, became more machine than human, to the point of losing his soul.
Likewise, one of the best episodes of Roddenberry’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation” television series, “The Measure of a Man,” involved a military trial to determine whether Commander Data, an android, was Star Fleet’s property or a person with legal rights. (In Data’s case, what probably clinched the deal for him was the revelation of a previous sexual relationship with a crewmate, Lt. Tasha Yar).
Another excellent but underappreciated 2007 TV series, “Masters of Science Fiction,” featured an episode based on a short story by Robert A. Heinlein, “Jerry Was a Man.” Once again, a trial determined that an “anthropoid” designed to trigger land mines to protect soldiers was actually a person with rights – because he was captured on video pushing another android into a minefield. Was Jerry guilty of murder, or had he shown the inherent human instinct for self preservation? Neither answer casts a favorable light on what makes a “person,” does it?
These science fiction stories have anticipated the real dilemmas we humans now face. Is an artificial intelligence “human?” What about a nanotherapy programmed to distinguish between normal cells and cancer cells, as Dr. Gayle Woloschak described in our last episode? Is the ability to distinguish between healthy and diseased cells merely technology, or does it require some level of thinking from the nanite? And if so, does that make nanites into “beings?” If they can think, does God endow them with souls?
Experiments with artificial intelligence aside, there’s the ongoing question of humans’ relationship with the Creation around us, from the ineffable Higgs boson to the star cradles of distant galaxies. Here on Earth, behavioral scientists learn more every day about sentience through humans’ interactions with other species, from ocean-going whales and dolphins to the family dog and gorillas in the jungle. We may have “dominion” over these species, as Psalm 8 says, but that means guardianship, not superiority. We are meant to relate to them with as much reverence for the spark of Creation in them as we do for the Creator Herself.
As these questions indicate, the scientists’ interviews in this series have been thrilling. Yet some of the most exciting news for me came from the Rev. Eric Elnes about his own church, Countryside Community. The congregation that brings us “Darkwood Brew” is now preparing a curriculum to teach people to think and act theologically about their life vocations, to put the question of what God wants in any given human situation foremost.
This prospect engenders great hope in me. After being part of “Evolving Science/Evolving Faith, I’m more than ever convinced that if more religious communities adopted similar integrations of science and faith, our future paths could be more wondrous, more righteous, and much less fearful.
Cynthia B. Astle, OSL, is a certified spiritual director in Dallas, TX. Her blog is Watermarked.