Changing the Cult in Culture

January 28, 2015

Back in 2002, I traveled to Freiburg, Germany with my wife and then six month old child to visit family members who were about to have a baby of their own. We were all together in a very small and cold walk-up apartment. I spent a lot of time during the days walking the streets of Freiburg just to deal with my claustrophobic feelings. It was winter and the downtown area was beautiful. The central section of the town was a large circle. Little shops ringed the circle. In the middle of the circle was an enormous cathedral several centuries old. It was a marvel. With the snow falling I could imagine standing in the same spot centuries ago around the time of Christmas. In my mind’s eye I could see crowds of people walking into the area on its cobblestone streets to worship on Christmas Eve. This was the church as the center of a culture.

In the time of European Christendom, the Christian religion served as the religion of the people and nations. Christian churches provided the official structure of worship and values in a community. For a period of centuries, the Christian faith operated in tandem with religion in the Durkheimian sense. The pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim viewed religion as something like society worshipping itself. At various points, devout Christians rebelled at the compromises required of being tied to the community cult and thus you had a Francis, a Tyndale, a Luther, or a Great Awakening. One might argue that we have been unraveling the interwoven fabric of Christianity and the community cult since that time, but faster in the last half century.

In America today, the antithesis between church and culture has become fairly clear. Christianity does not provide the “cult” in the culture. The American Durkheimian religion can be found in the earnest professions of movie stars, media personalities, ambitious politicians, and corporate executives. The new American religion, while shaped by Christian ideas about the dignity of human beings and Christian benevolence, is increasingly intolerant of Christian orthodoxy. We have seen a major corporation fire one of its founders who was the CEO for having donated to a traditional marriage referendum in California. The mere act of his previously unpublicized donation was enough to establish his unsuitability, his out-of-stepness with the new American faith. He had become, in fact, a type of heretic. Just this month, we have seen the mayor of Atlanta terminate his fire chief because of his expression of traditional Christian sexual morality in a book written for his Sunday school class. There is a sense in which holding ordinary Christian beliefs is now a form of heresy marking one as unfit for a position of authority.

Whether the issue is the HHS mandate regarding the provision of contraceptive products or new attitudes regarding same-sex romance and marriage, the group representing the theology of this new Durkheimian cult has demonstrated a willingness to push those who disagree into conforming.  The Christian florist or baker with objections to working on a gay wedding must be brought to heel.  There is forgiveness offered by the new faith. One may hope for a chance to attend sensitivity training so as to avoid a ruinous fine.  When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a narrow decision in favor of Hobby Lobby despite its heretical view of biological ethics, the members of the new community cult howled as though some peasant had failed to remove his hat in the presence of the king. The dangerous Christian sect had been granted a stay.

The situation forces us to be honest about where we are as the church. Fortunately, we have antecedents to guide us. If you look at the history of the church in the west, it has really operated on two models: the comprehensive church and the regenerate church. If you think about the picture I painted of the church at the center of the city in Freiburg and my thoughts about what it might have been like at the height of European Christendom, then you have a sense of the comprehensive church. The comprehensive church was tightly interwoven with the political and legal structures. To be born into the community was effectively to be baptized as well. We still see little vestiges of the comprehensive church in Europe, but the lesson seems to be that legal establishment ultimately saps the church and leaves it subsidized and conforming.

In the United States, we had formal disestablishment early on in our history, but we continued on with an informal establishment for more than a hundred years after that. Even if we look back to the Eisenhower years of the 1950’s, you could find strong encouragement generally to “attend the church of your choice,” which really amounted to a strong nod in favor of the Judeo-Christian mix of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. President Eisenhower laid the cornerstone of the National Council of Churches building (sometimes called “the Godbox”) in New York City.

The Christian church of America today is not comprehensive in either the formal or informal senses. We, as evangelicals, have played a part in that development. We have made it clear that we desire no weak, watered-down, pink lemonade for blood sort of cultural religion. In this age, there is virtually no chance that we will again be Christians in the comprehensive mode. We will instead be like the early Christians in the sense that will be the regenerate church rather than the comprehensive church. The regenerate church has a membership based on conviction as opposed to one centered on assumed beliefs, geography, citizenship, and social power.

There will be many who will say, “Hallejujah! May it ever be so. The worst thing that ever happened for the church was Constantine’s conversion!” And I understand that sentiment, although I give it two cheers rather than three. My reservation has to do with the fact that Constantine’s conversion was a spectacular deliverance for the church of the time and arguably set the stage for the Christianization of Europe and the west.

The regenerate church has a sincerity and a spiritual power often lacking in the comprehensive version. But the regenerate church stands more at odds with the communities in which it exists. When the regenerate church criticizes “the world” and “worldliness,” there are many who recognize themselves in the critique and do not care to hear it. The result is that the church moves from the center of things to more of an outside, challenging kind of position. That is no cause for panic. A Bible reading people should not be rattled by it. We have some expectation of being on the outside if we are faithful.

Note: This essay was adapted from a talk given at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is the dean of arts and sciences and professor of political science at Union University. He is the author of three books (The End of Secularism, Political Thought: A Student's Guide, and The System Has a Soul). He is also a research fellow of the Ethics … Read More

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