Attacking the Image? Human Dignity in a Secular Age

June 2, 2016

Sorting out a revolution is a tricky business. When the prevailing cultural sentiment is “you do you,” what does an appropriate response to moral chaos even look like?

As evangelicals, we are increasingly in need of thoughtful answers to the difficult questions arising from the still-evolving sexual revolution. Beyond the multi-faceted LGBT movement and the controversy of gender and bathrooms, we are now being confronted with an innovation that is different in kind; an emerging subculture that consists of adult men “who dress and behave like dogs.”

(Warning: Images and subject matter may be disturbing)

As Nell Frizell writes for The Guardian, “It’s easy to laugh at a grown man in a rubber dog suit chewing on a squeaky toy.” And she is correct. Even in our ever-progressive age, it seems that the subject hardly merits any serious consideration at all. But before dismissing it altogether, recognize this practice is directly tied to significant issues that Christians must be prepared to address.

Pay attention to this statement from Frizell’s article quoting someone on the inside of the movement, “It feels like you can be gay, straight, bisexual, trans and be accepted…All I want is for the pup community to be accepted in the same way. We’re not trying to cause grief to the public, or cause grief to relationships. We’re just the same as any other person on the high street.”

Those words are chilling because they invoke the legerdemain that brought us the sexual revolution; a plea for acceptance. Our age is defined by tolerance and acceptance. Our culture has declared war on any notions of absolutes and anything that smacks of tradition or institution. Yet, at least for the moment, the majority of people in the United States would likely regard this practice—of dawning leather costumes, eating from dog bowls, and participating in all manner of canine imitation and illicit sexual activity—as socially unacceptable. But for how long? And with what instrument might we determine such a boundary?

It is apparent that as a society, we lack the moral basis or credibility to pass such judgments with integrity. Given this reality, it is likely that pup play and related vicissitudes will gradually gain acceptance in the broader culture. And while this is a problem for society at large, there are particular considerations for the church. Christians have been fighting and losing a culture war for decades. Embattled and exhausted, we have endured a torrent of cultural change and watched our best methods and messengers fail to stem the tide. So, as evangelicals engage the issue of pup play and the myriad innovations that are sure to follow, we must seek a better way forward. We must retain a prophetic voice and gospel witness even if the moral foundations of American culture continue to erode.

Diagnosing the problem is not difficult. Christians embrace a biblical model of personhood and sexuality. We believe that every human being bears the imago Dei. And from these beliefs we arrive at several conclusions which fly in the face of the sexual revolution. We affirm the binary nature of gender. We affirm a compatible, complementary, and monogamous view of marriage. We affirm the innate patterns and dignity of personhood. And for this, our beliefs are deemed offensive and we are maligned as bigots. Thus, we find ourselves in direct conflict with the modern zeitgeist. Not only does our conception of these things defy innovation, we audaciously claim that accepting our understanding of them is best for society.

Pup play distorts what we know is true about humanity, namely that personhood is unique and valuable. It is dangerous because it further threatens our culture’s fragile understanding of personhood. Participants seek solace and shelter from life’s burdens in escapism. But the practice of imitating animals represents a strange form of reductionism that denies our dignity and complexity. But most importantly, it is a direct attack upon the image of God borne by every human being. The answer to human struggles is not to pretend to be something other than human. As evangelicals, we contend that the answer to our burdens and brokenness is found in a restored identity that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. As a culture, we should recognize that the special dignity of human life is fundamental to our society and our laws. We can ill afford to forfeit this belief.

So how might Christians respond to pup play and the like? In John 3:17, the Scripture declares that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Christians are called to be messengers of light in a world filled with darkness. Perhaps our biblical ethics will never again dominate the social mores of American culture, but we must neither fear or be dismayed. We are not called to win the culture war; we are called to bear witness to the light.

In the opening of her article, Frizell chides our willingness to dismiss or denigrate the behavior associated with the pup community. She is correct there as well. It is tempting to mock that which we find strange or novel. In recent years, Christians have gained much practice in showing love to those with whom we have deep disagreements. It appears that the future will hold the same. We must respond to cultural change by continuing our efforts to advocate and model the biblical patterns of personhood and sexuality. We will be less concerned with dominance than faithfulness. We will see more victories in our neighborhoods than in Washington. But in dealing with pup play, the sexual revolution, and an ever evolving culture, we will follow the example of our Lord. We will neither be scandalized by the sin we witness or cower to demands that we accept it. With God’s help, we will faithfully bear witness to the light.

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