4 lessons we learned from Cornel West and Robert George

Reflections on an unlikely friendship

January 1, 2020

Recently, the two of us had the privilege to attend an event hosted by the Trinity Forum featuring a fascinating conversation between Cornel West and Robert George. The theme of the evening was “Deep Friendship Across Deep Differences.” If you know anything about these two men, you know that they are about as different as two people can be. They sit at opposite ends of the political spectrum and, in deeply significant ways, the ideological spectrum as well. For his part, West, who is African-American, is a well known progressive intellectual. George, on the other hand, who is Caucasian, is among the most prominent academic defenders of social conservatism. 

In her introduction, Cherie Harder, president of the Trinity Forum, described the two men as “an ideological odd-couple.” And in our tribal age, their considerable differences should mark them out as enemies, with the divide seeming unbridgeable. But for many years now, West and George have maintained a vibrant friendship that serves as a model of what it looks like to share deep and meaningful relationships with people unlike oneself. Their conversation touched on so many topics that it would be impossible for us to set forth all that was covered. But as we sat there, in awe of what was on display, we were able to capture several key ideas from their talk that were worth sharing.

Human dignity at the center

Probably the key theme of the evening was the concept of human dignity. Despite all of their differences, both West and George share an abiding commitment to the Christian faith. At several points during the evening, each man talked about the Christian doctrine of the imago Dei, and the fact that every person has intrinsic dignity because he or she was created in the image and likeness of God. 

For both men, human dignity is a starting point when it comes to social issues, whether something as basic as friendship or civil discourse or as complicated as public policy. Recognizing the value of other people, and seeing every person as worthy of respect and dignity, changes the way you talk to and about others. 

And for Christians, recognizing every person as a fellow image-bearer requires us to love them. Speaking of the political polarization present in the United States, West remarked, “love is in no way reducible to politics.” 

Truth as a common bond

The men also spoke of their “fundamental commonalities.” As they pointed out themselves, perhaps the greatest thing the two men hold in common is their mutual desire to seek the truth. Though they often disagree, coming to severely disparate conclusions about questions of great consequence, each man recognizes and respects the other’s desire to seek and discover truth. 

One of the most interesting things stemming from this discussion about truth was the idea of humility. Each agreed that an essential component of truth seeking is the willingness to listen and the humility to consider that he could be wrong, even about an issue he cares about deeply. George at one point commented, “every one of us has some false beliefs in our heads.” And in order to more accurately perceive what is true, George argued that the only way to divest ourselves of false beliefs is to listen to informed people make arguments that run counter to our beliefs, not so that we might simply accept their assertions but we might test them to determine their validity.

Spiritual concerns as central, not peripheral

Throughout the evening the conversation kept returning to the theme of spiritual and moral concerns. As West argued toward the end of the event, “religion and morality can be divisive, but they’re critical; they can’t be marginalized.” On its face, this claim contradicts what is typically envisioned by our public square: a neutral space where common sense arguments are brought to bear on issues of common cause. However, we cannot dismiss the moral and spiritual from the public square. 

For the Christian (or anyone of faith), every action should be suffused with our moral presuppositions. Now, this does not mean that they will always be persuasive to others, but that is no reason to act as if we do not approach fundamental questions from a place of neutrality. As people of faith, we believe that we have a moral obligation to seek justice, do mercy, and walk humbly before our God (Micah 6:8) and to let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). Our faith guides our actions. As George said repeatedly, you cannot escape making decisions about moral issues. The only question is whether you will acknowledge your presuppositions or pretend as though they do not exist. 

For the Christian, all of life flows out of our identity in Christ and the reality of his Kingdom. This is a spiritual and moral reality, which guides our life in the present. Thus, the Christian life has a moral center. So as we enter the public square, we enter with commitments, presuppositions, and beliefs about reality. We may not always address every question in the public square with explicitly Christian language, but we always approach such questions through the moral framework of our faith. Our commitment to pluralism in a democracy does not mean that we commit ourselves to relativism. It means that we foreground our spiritual concerns and bring them to bear on all that is in the public square.

A model to follow

Watching that conversation unfold between two people with incredibly different beliefs but true and deep affection for one another was powerful and deeply moving. Together, they practiced the very thing that they asked of us, intentional listening. At several points, they disagreed with one another. But the disagreement was characterized by the desire to win the other to their position and learn what they could. 

In today’s age of hot-takes and soundbites, the model they propose is countercultural. But West and George are not interested in offering lessons on how to win arguments or “own” one’s opponents. Instead, they’re interested in teaching us how to see the value in other people—how to listen, how to show kindness, how to show respect, how to be a friend, and ultimately, how to live. As they tell their students in the seminar they co-teach on the subject of friendship: “You come to [this class] to learn how to die, so that you can learn how to live . . . [and] we are learning how to die together, even as we disagree.” 

Amid all of the rancor and increasingly poor state of public discourse, many people may wonder if it is still possible to have honest conversations with our ideological opponents. Today we think of political enemies as an existential threat, and many would prefer their children marry someone of another religion before marrying someone from a different political party. How are Christians to supposed to confront such polarization? As West said, when thinking of those who oppose us, we must remember: “He’s a human being. There is something there to work with.” 

No one, even our political rivals or ideological opponents, is beyond the reach of the gospel. And as we engage with those with whom we lack commonality, we should be mindful of their humanity and our own need for humility. Doing so may just turn an opponent into a friend. 

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as the research associate and project manager for the ERLC’s research initiatives. He manages long term research projects for the organization under the leadership of the director of research. Alex is currently pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Mississippi studying evangelical political activity in … Read More

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24