Book Review

Learning from the past in Jacobs’s book “The Year of Our Lord 1943”

February 25, 2019

Often those who write about the past have trouble showing why looking back is of value for present and future living. Yet, the authors who write well know how to illuminate the past simply by showing how bygone ages contrast with our own. In the contrast, illumination shines and reflection ensues. Alan Jacobs excels at this in his latest book, The Year of Our Lord 1943.

What causes one to marvel when reading this book is a quick awareness of how different is the Western world 75 years removed. Since we maintain a strong connection to the World War II-era in literature and films, one can think he knows the era well, or even think that era is not that different from our own. Jacobs, however, quickly shows the contrast. For, he says, the 1940s was a decade “when prominent Christian thinkers in the West believed that they had a responsibility to set a direction not just for churches but for the whole of society. And, stranger still, in that time, many of their fellow citizens were willing to grant them that authority—or at least listen when they asserted it” (xi). Indeed, we’ve come along way since then.

Jacobs weaves those figures that acted on their beliefs into a beautiful narrative that follows, uniquely, an Orson Welles directorial technique. Jacobs focuses first on an individual and then shifts to another at the point where their ideas connect, which leads him to a third, only to welcome the return of the first. Jacobs’s “camera” follows their ideas and themes rather than their conversations. In this, Jacobs too, is a director, and as good directors are wont to do, he captures the light of his subject for the illumination of his readers. The result is the likes of Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil enter and exit this book to provide a commentary for the present.

Jacobs’s first two chapters provide an assessment of why these authors felt the need to act in an era of world war. First, they sought to provide answers for a populace beleaguered and dismayed by the war and the effects of war. Second, regardless of the outcome, they wanted to bolster a new generation to know and to have answers to ultimate questions. How did they do this? This book is Jacobs’s portrait of these “wartime Christian thinkers” and their presentation of a Christian humanism that included, but also went beyond, theological and philosophical presentations. In particular, they sought to infuse literature and the arts with their Christianity to recapture Western Civilization. And, as Jacobs shows and argues, herein lies the example for the present for, he says, “through these practices, which I believe are best called ‘humanistic,’ that the renewal—or if necessary the revolutionary upheaval—of Western civilization will be achieved” (50).

Jacobs task of illuminating “humane learning as a force for social renewal” tracks Lewis’s sermon at Oxford’s University Church, “Learning in War-Time.” He notes that Lewis’s “academic training as a medievalist is not, in his mind, an irrelevance, still less an impediment, but a qualification for social commentary” (62). In our own “everyone is an expert” era, Jacobs’s portrait of these scholars in this way is one of the brightest areas of contrast. These who have read and thought and prepared are the ones qualified to give social commentary. This is neither a plea for elitism nor a critique of egalitarianism, but rather recognition that the culture often needs instruction from experts to direct them away from making the mistakes of those who have failed to heed such advice. As Lewis trumps, “the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age” (62).

Jacobs also presents Simone Weil’s defense of the value of the study of the past for the present. In her reflections on the Iliad—again don’t miss the value here of a thinker offering thoughts for the present developed from reading and thinking through great works of the past—Weil asks,

Why dwell upon the past, instead of directing one’s thoughts to the future? If people are turning, for the first time in hundreds of years, to contemplate the past is this because we are weary and close to despair? Indeed we are so (94). Then Director Jacobs guides the reader to see that “we must turn to the past, not because it is necessarily better than our own world, but because it is different” (95).

The Year of Our Lord 1943 continues to explore the implications of these thoughts for the culture then and for the culture now. Jacobs shows that the project of these wartime Christian thinkers was and is an aid, actually, to the development of democracy. Rather than seeing Christianity and Democracy at odds, these thinkers saw Christianity sustaining and protecting democracy by serving as its conscience (188).

These thoughts are needed in our day, perhaps now more than ever. There is a reason why The Wall Street Journal listed Jacobs’s book as one of their best books on politics in 2018. For Jacobs’s narrative of the contributions of past Christian thinkers also serves well as an example of a contemporary contribution of a Christian thinker to whom the current culture should listen. Jacobs, following Lewis, is in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the microphones and platforms of our age. Readers who spend time with this book will find themselves stopping to think, and in the thinking will come illumination.       

Jason Duesing

Jason Duesing serves as the provost, senior vice president for Academic Administration, and professor of Historical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He came to MBTS after serving for more than a decade on the administrative leadership team and faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Duesing … 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