Why Christians shouldn’t abandon universities

November 19, 2018

I didn’t expect applause when the student presenter said, “I’m the resident heretic for the Divinity School.” To say I was hesitant was an understatement.

This was my introduction to graduate studies in religion as I was touring prospective programs. As a committed and theologically conservative evangelical, I was a bit unsure. However, I would eventually join this self-professed heretic and study with those who chose the program for its decidedly liberal perspective on matters of faith and religion. Over my two years in this program, I discovered important things about the need for Christians in educational spaces and the ability to dialogue with one another across theological lines

Depending on who asks, I get two responses when I tell them where I went to school. The conservative Christians I know always ask follow-up questions to ensure that I am still one of them. Those on the opposite side of the theological spectrum see it as a marker that I have at least learned from those different from me. I may not agree with them, but I at least understand why they think as they do. The degree grants me a position of influence and a hearing that I would lack if I had chosen another school.

What our influence looks like

So what does influence look like for a prophetic minority in culture?

It looks like the student who is an evangelical explaining to his liberal friend why he believes in the inerrancy of Scripture while they study for a Hebrew Bible final exam. It is the conversation between the Christian and their co-worker at their campus job. It’s the kind of influence that comes from friendship, proximity, and care for the other person. It is not quick, and it is not easy, but relationship discipleship rarely is.

It’s remembering that those who disagree with us are not our enemy. In this era of outrage and polarization, it is easy to write off the other side as the enemy or evil. But the people I encountered weren’t evil. We disagreed, but we also found places of communion. They didn’t believe in a literal resurrection, but they were committed to ending racial injustice. They didn’t agree with my views on marriage, but we both agreed that the church should care about the poor and marginalized.

Even the angriest of my classmates were not without cause. I could not fault them for being angry at an evangelicalism that met their skepticism with rejection, not love. As Christians, we should acknowledge that just as often as people reject the message of the gospel, they are also rejecting the messengers who they believe don’t care about them.

In Matthew 5:13, Jesus tells his disciples that they are the “salt of the earth.” He then follows it with a warning that if the salt loses its flavor, it’s not good for anything. At the same time, salt is no good if it is left in its container. If it is never used, then it is just as problematic. Salt that isn’t salty, and salt that is never used have the same effect: nothing.

In the same way, Christians should not be isolationists and withdraw from culture. We do not practice a form of monasticism in which we purposely avoid the world. Christ did not pray that we would be taken out of the world, but that we would be protected as we were sent into it (John 17:15-19). The church is the place where we withdraw so that we might be renewed and prepared; but we withdraw so that we might go out.

How we engage the university

Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian and statesman, said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'” This includes universities and colleges. Christians must not absent themselves and cede their influence and vision in the realm of education. While Christians should not think of this influence as based on a model from the years of the Moral Majority or the Religious Right,  these groups did correctly understand that to absent yourself from the conversation is to give up a say in the outcome.

So we should help Christians, especially those making decisions about education, to look for the ways that their influence can be leveraged for the kingdom. While there is merit to seeking an explicitly Christian education, they might prayerfully consider how the same degree could be leveraged at a state or private institution that does not share the same commitments. Their time at college could be a time of engaging those around them who might never listen otherwise, and who they might never be around in such a concentrated number.

It could also be a time when they learn something they did not expect. My time with high church students gave me a deeper love for the liturgy of church history. Also, issues such as race, justice, and poverty were emphasized in ways that I had not heard. I did not always agree, but I came away with a new layer of how the gospel affects all of creation.

Christian parents, you should be thinking even now about how to prepare your children for their future education and vocation. It is important that we not simply fall into the trap of choosing a good college because of the name or prestige. At the same time, those colleges carry social capital and can give students access to a mission field that is untouched. So, you should be training the young Christians in your household to see every sphere of influence as one in which they can work for the advancing of the kingdom.

Christians of the past have always recognized the importance of education. The Jesuits would found schools as a means of evangelism when they entered a new region. The early European universities were begun to train clergy. Christians should not be afraid of the world of academia. We should not abandon it. It is not the realm of the world, but that of a God who calls us to love him with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind (Lk. 10:27). For in every classroom, Christ’s declaration of “Mine!” still rings true.

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

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