For the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about faith and culture; more specifically, faith and technology. We talked about faith in the virtual world. We talked about faith and artificial intelligence and we talked about faith and and transhumanism. Today, I’d like to share some thoughts based on those discussions.
But first, I’d like to take us back in our discussion of faith to the garden—actually, to two gardens: The garden of Eden and the garden of Gethsemane, where so many of our theological insights arise. As in the Tale of Two Cities, so in the tale of two gardens: It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. In Eden, it was the best of times: God had created mankind in his image and had given him authority over the things of the earth:
Then God said, “Let Us make mankind in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the livestock and over all the earth, and over every crawling thing that crawls on the earth.” So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28)
Man’s domain was to be the earth and earthly things:
Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and tend it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may freely eat; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day that you eat from it you will certainly die.” … And out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the livestock, and to the birds of the sky, and to every animal of the field,… (Genesis 2:15-20)
Here we see God imbuing man with creativity and a scientific mind. Taxonomy, or the naming of science, is the first science and in and of itself a creative act. But in Genesis 3, the serpent—made by God and presumably named by Adam—is introduced as the most crafty beast of the field. He’s crafty because he has some insight about God. There is a tree, he maintains, whose fruit when eaten gives one a vision or an insight about God. The serpent was not lying, it seems, because in fact, this was confirmed by God:
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out with his hand, and take fruit also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.”— (Genesis 3:22)
It is demonstrated in Genesis 3:10-11, because the first insight that man gets by eating the fruit is that his eyes are opened and he develops self awareness into the fact that he is naked. Here, I believe, we see a clue about the nature and the meaning and the definition of faith. Paraphrasing a suggestion made by Jeff earlier and Jason as well, we see that faith is defined as letting God be God. Mankind’s domain is the things of the earth. How things work and what they are named is the prerogative of mankind. But the things of the Spirit, the music of Heaven, is the prerogative of God. And that includes the answers to the essential questions of life: Where have we come from? Why are we here? Why do things happen the way they do? And where are we going?
It turns out that letting God be God is harder than it seems. From Adam and Eve on down, we seek to penetrate the mind of God. We seek to know the ways of God and the prerogatives of God, which we wish to take on ourselves. Faith, it seems, is the condition of letting God be God. Faith is accepting that God has our back and that we don’t need to be in control of everything because God is in control for his own purposes. That statement of faith is is capsulized in scripture as follows:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28)
The story of Babel is another story with insight about faith. Here again, we see the desire of mankind, just as in the garden, to try and use technology to penetrate the space and the abode of God. The desire to be like God, to speak for God, to understand his ways, to invade God’s space, and to harness the power of God is the opposite of faith. We seek to make faith a thing, a commodity, a currency, something that we can use.
When we see faith as a thing, we see it as something that can help us. It can make us stronger, it can make us wiser, it can make us faster, it can make us bigger. In short, it makes us more like God. It can help us get out of a jam, it can help us with our tests in life. It can help to heal our diseases, it can make the path of life smoother. When faith is seen this way, that is as a thing or as a commodity, then technology becomes a substitute for faith.
Like commodity faith, technology also can make us stronger, can make us wiser can make us faster, can make us bigger. In short, technology can make us more like God. It gets us out of jams and helps us with our tests in life. It heals our diseases and makes the path of life more smooth. Technology is in our service, just as we wish to put faith into our service. But God is not in our service—we are in his.
Faith cannot be a thing. Faith can move mountains because faith is not a thing. Faith is letting God be God. And God can move mountains. You just have to rely upon God to move then in his ways, and in his time, and for his purposes. That’s what faith is. But we don’t want to let God be God. We want to control God for our own means:
And they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let’s make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of all the earth.” (Genesis 11:4)
“Let’s make a name for ourselves” is an important phrase, I think. The desire to be like God is to make a name for ourselves, to not be scattered throughout the world. It is precisely the opposite of the will of God. In Genesis 1:28 (above) God gave Adam the instruction to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth—that is, to scatter abroad, not to be consolidated—which was the desire of the people of Babel. The opposite of faith is the desire to be like God ourselves, and to make a name for ourselves.
In the story of the three Hebrew worthies we see faith demonstrated in real time. Recall that there’s been a statue made of king Nebuchadnezzar and the three Hebrew worthies would not bow down to it. Nebuchadnezzar gives them one more chance to bow to it:
“Now if you are ready, at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery and bagpipe, and all kinds of musical instruments, to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, very well. But if you do not worship, you will immediately be thrown into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire; and what god is there who can rescue you from my hands?”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego replied to the king, “Nebuchadnezzar, we are not in need of an answer to give you concerning this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods nor worship the golden statue that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:15-18)
Faith is letting God be God. God could do what we want, but he’s not obligated to do so, and he’s not committed to following our path.
We turn now to the garden of Gethsemane, where it is the worst of times:
And while He was still speaking, behold, Judas, one of the twelve, came accompanied by a large crowd with swords and clubs, who came from the chief priests and elders of the people. Now he who was betraying Him gave them a sign previously, saying, “Whomever I kiss, He is the one; arrest Him.” And immediately Judas went up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed Him. But Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you have come for.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested Him.
And behold, one of those who were with Jesus reached and drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? How then would the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?” (Matthew 26:47-54)
Here we see the complexity of faith, the conflict of faith. We wish for a faith that enables us to call 12 legions (6000) angels to our defense. But alas, true faith demands that we let God be God, that we resist making our move for ourselves, that we submit instead to the will of God. What practical value does this definition of faith hold? Can a faith based on letting God be God and a faith not seeking to make a name for ourselves work as a boundary or as guide rails for the technology that we find ourselves living in today and what we anticipate will be the future?
Must this definition of faith require a complete overhaul in our thinking about faith? Can faith which requires submission to God’s will triumph over calling 6000 angels? Is it possible that we have completely misunderstood the meaning of faith? Jesus, as we’ve noted often, places faith along with justice and mercy as the weightier matters of the law. He said:
“I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8)
What are your thoughts this morning about faith not as a commodity, but as a resistance to the desire to be like God, and its practical application as a boundary to the encroachment of technology on faith?
David: It’s unfortunate that for all these scriptural quotations there are others that run counter to them. For instance, Jesus’s last words to the disciples were to go out and evangelize. He said (if I remember correctly) that converts who believed would survive bites from poisonous snakes, etc.—in other words, they would have superpowers. No lesser authority than Jesus said these things, according to the Bible. I think it’s also true, though, that he enjoined them to live lives of poverty and humility.
It reminds me of the comic-book hero Superman. When he arrived on Earth, Clark Kent lived on a relatively impoverished farm, with struggling human foster parents, yet he had superpowers. So I guess it is humanly possible (since we can imagine it) to have superpowers and yet be humble and serve the people. But the Bible is telling us that if we have faith we will have these superpowers. You can’t blame people for believing that, because that’s what it says, at least as I recall.
Donald: I think the superpowers may refer to the next world, because we know that some people have faith but it doesn’t seem to get them out of their predicaments in this world. Some people believe they’re in heaven now. And some people think that the second coming will be the time when Christ’s promise of their future is fulfilled.
David: I agree, but there’s many a prosperity gospel preacher and megachurch leader who gets rich saying the reward is an earthly one.
Donald: That isn’t Christ’s promise. That’s the preacher’s promise. The preacher is trying to attract people into their church, I think. One of us was willing to say that last week’s conversation made her angry. I think the whole idea of describing ourselves as trying to be godlike is jarring. Certainly, we want to be able to control our destiny, but I don’t know if that means we want to be like God.
Understanding and ideas and thought and creativity are all things that God created human beings to be. So why wouldn’t we want to move forward in those? But where is the limit? We’re very comfortable taking medications to improve ourselves, but once you start taking parts of people and attaching them to other people, then we seem to be going beyond what God planned for us as human beings.
Reinhard: Of course, we cannot be like God in terms of power, might, and glory. Jesus taught us to be like him in surrendering to God. In some situations, I think God wants us to follow the example Jesus showed while he was on earth, and of course follow his messages and commandments through the disciples, because I think God wants us to be like him in some ways, as his creation.
Scientists seek to understand aging and try to extend human longevity by modifying DNA. The goal is to overcome death. But the relevancy of faith remains the same, even though the next generation of people may see such advancements in technology, although because of sin God already limited our life on earth—some Bible verses mention 220 years of age, so I don’t think we can go beyond that.
We should remember Babel’s challenge to God’s authority if ever we get to that point. Will believers challenge God’s power, usurp God’s prerogative? I think people of faith—godly people—will remain faithful no matter what, as long as we stand strong in our fundamental belief and let God be God.
Donald: Is there a limit, or should there be a limit, to research? Should we go as far as technology and science allow us to go? Do we need to put a limit on this? Would we want to put a limit on this? It seems like we never stop striving.
Don: In every era people have been given creative power, inquisitive minds, to push back the boundaries; whether that’s Galileo looking at the stars or somebody splicing the gene. There is always a boundary that can be exceeded and make others uncomfortable. On the other hand, the postulation today is that faith is something completely different from that. This is a question, a quandary. Is it possible that we have confused faith as a thing with something that is not a thing, not a commodity?
To me, technology is a commodity. It is something that can make us more godlike in the sense of smarter, faster, bigger, stronger, more enduring, etc. But faith may be something completely different. So should there be a limit? I don’t think so. I think that God in the garden gives mankind creative power and gives him a scientific mind. And that has persisted and been expanded, often for good, frequently for ill. But it is what it is, and I don’t think it can be contained, nor do I think it should be. Are there boundaries that can be established by the principles, the moral guardrails, of letting God be God and not trying to make a name for ourselves? Taking those two principles, can guardrails be established around technologies that seek to undermine our faith?
Donald: Is what Reinhard said—that our goal is to overcome death—truly what drives us?
Don: I think for sure it does. We want death on our terms, not on capricious or inexplicable terms. The loss of a loved one at an early age makes no sense. It defies logic and reason and leaves one asking “Why?” and wondering about the meaning, because it’s hard to go through such experiences.
Anonymous: Trying to understand or make logic of things is against letting God be God, because he has the prerogative to do whatever he wants, in any way he wants. Our duty is to accept, with faith in his goodness, that he knows what he what he’s doing. The superpower that God bestowed upon us is not something to use at any time or in any way we want. That’s why God is the power inside these clay vessels. We are clay. We have no power at all. But God can demonstrate his power through us, to his purpose. I don’t know how or why or when.
The good thing about faith and science connected to each other is that we grow in scientific knowledge when we open ourselves to God’s revelation to us, and God’s limitless knowledge. So by humbly accepting God’s revelation we can advance in science. We can be the most knowledgeable race if we only humbly take the revelation of God about things we have no idea about. But to seek to know God’s motives, to get credit and glory, is not a good thing in God’s eyes. He would leave us in our blindness to destruction in the end, whereas we think we’re just enhancing our intelligence.
So just by accepting, along the way of life, being alongside God, we’ll find out things. A doctor, during surgery, may stumble across something never known before. The faithful believer would praise God for revealing something not in the books. God is so generous in these instances. In my daily life, I come to see things that I’ve never seen before. And I always, always find out that God lets me know how to do something or think of the right way to do it or give me a solution to something I’ve never thought of. God is willing to show us. If he didn’t, why would he give us such a great mind? Scientists say we only use a fraction of it. So, we have the capacity.
But on his terms, God will show us if we only humble ourselves. There is no limit to the knowledge we can get—much more than AI or making God-like creatures. We are not missing anything. We are not lacking anything. We have God, God, God on our side. He’s the creator. He knows everything. This is the way to get through science, by knowing what God has revealed, not by getting in front of God and trying to create things that he didn’t want us to know or understand.
Carolyn: Close friends of Jesus had faith that Jesus would save the life of their mutual friend Lazarus. But Lazarus died, and I’m sure it shook their faith, because they said, “Why, Lord? Why weren’t you here? We needed you. You do it for other people, why aren’t you doing it for us?” I do not understand why Jesus allowed Lazarus to die, when he told a centurion that if he just had faith his sick child would recover, and it did.
There are so many angles to faith. Mary and Martha were truly devastated because Jesus didn’t come and keep Lazarus alive. And I’m still wondering, with Mary and Martha, why? What was his reason? And yet, he left us with that wonderful miracle, which we treasure, in raising Lazarus from the dead.
Kiran: The story of Babel seems to indicate the limits. If faith is letting God be God, then he knows when to stop a technology, or anything that humans do, that is against him. He came down, saw what was happening in Babel, and then confused the people’s languages. So he’s capable of putting a lid on something that he doesn’t like. It requires trust that God is in control of human life and all technologies and can put a lid on it. For example, everybody was scared that nuclear technology would destroy the Earth. but somehow God is protecting the earth from that destruction. Anthrax and other scares come and go, but somehow God puts a lid on them.
Accepting that God is in control of everything is hard, but it applies here too. Some parents will do anything in their power to heal their sick child. Others will leave the outcome in God’s hands. I don’t know if either one is right, or either one is wrong, or both are human experiences. Whatever we do may look foolish to other people, but it’s not foolishness—it’s love.
Government does put limits on embryonic stem cell research, it signs nuclear treaties to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, and so on. So somehow, things balance out. I really don’t worry about what technology will do. The Internet came, social media came, and things changed, but we are still here. People worried even more about change resulting from the advent of printing, and we seem to have gotten through it somehow, perhaps because God is behind all these things.
Reinhard: With regard to Lazarus, I think the bottom line is that God wants to show his power to resurrect people from death. Jesus came late on purpose. He knew what he was doing, he wanted to spread his message that even death cannot stop God from doing his will.
With regard to the question of the meaning of life, of our predicament, of the shortcomings of human beings: God’s pronouncement that Adam would surely die if he ate the forbidden fruit was not immediately enacted, but the human body was programmed from that time with a time limit. The human cell can only divide about 70 times before it can’t divide anymore and dies. Scripture says:
And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)
Science seeks to prevent disease and prolong life but at any point God may not allow it. Maybe it’s what will precipitate the Second Coming. So to me, as a believer, I think we should just keep God’s word and be not afraid of death. Someday we will have to face death, but if we remain faithful to God we’ll not be afraid of it.
David: I would echo that: The fundamental answer is don’t fear death, and don’t fear life either. Accept them for what they are. Believe that there is a power behind it all that we cannot possibly understand and we never will. So let’s go on doing what we do. Let’s go on trying to discover the origins of the universe. Good luck with that! We got as far back as the Big Bang, then somebody came up with superstring theory positing vibrating strings that pre-existed the Big Bang. But nobody has yet come up with a theory to explain how the vibrating strings were created in the first place. We’re always going to have that question.
God told Job: “Forget about it! You’re not going to get there!” He told Isaiah the same thing. We conflate living forever and being in paradise (a place where magic happens, where you can snap your fingers and an ice cream cone appears)—we conflate the life that science promises and seems to be succeeding in creating with the eternal life in heaven that God promises.
The eternity and paradise promised by science is just not the same as the eternity and paradise promised by God. When God and Jesus talk of eternal life, they’re not talking about eternal mortal life. It’s a different life that we cannot possibly envision until we get there, and we cannot get there as long as we’re here.
Donald: Forty or so years ago, I fell very ill but recovered. I wondered what in the world it was about. Certainly, I’m very grateful to this day that it turned out the way it did. One of the ways I’ve been able to look at that is that we live in a war zone. [Audio missing for several seconds] God plays a miracle role in circumstances in our lives. It’s unfortunate that some people die in this war zone.
The war is actually sin, and sin is destruction. The goals of human being are to get in front of that. It’s probably unlikely that we ever will. We may be able to modify it. But to actually get in front of it probably is not likely. Given God’s decision to intervene in the Tower of Babel, or the Flood, it seems our ability to explore the universe is at risk. But we live in a war we will never win. God being God, God will win. Jesus raised raise Lazarus from the from the dead. He can do that. But we won’t be able to do that.