Monthly Archives: March 2018

On Christian Exclusivism

March 2018 Pulse

It is perhaps common knowledge that Singapore is the most religiously diverse country in the world. According to a 2014 study from Pew Research, 33.9 per cent of its population is Buddhist, 18.2 per cent Christian, 14.3 per cent Muslim, 5.2 per cent Hindu, 2.3 per cent adhering to folk religions, and 9.7 per cent classified in other religious groups. 16.4 per cent of the population claim to have no religious affiliation.

In the wake of the tense security climate in the region – and indeed, worldwide – the Singapore government has repeatedly urged Singaporeans not only to be vigilant, but also to arrest the spread of extremist ideologies and keep in check exclusivist religious views.

However, the pairing of extremism with exclusivism may give the unfortunate impression that they are the ‘evil twins’ that are harmful and detrimental to the delicate social and religious harmony that we must all strive to preserve. Exclusivist views, especially religious ones, are invariably seen as divisive and a catalyst for fostering ill will between the different faith communities.

While the fundamental concerns of the government are very real and therefore should be taken seriously by faith communities in Singapore, some important clarifications are in order if we are to achieve a more nuanced appreciation of religious exclusivism.

These clarifications are important because Christianity makes exclusive claims about God and the world. It declares that the one God who created the universe is revealed in Jesus Christ, who is the way, truth and life (John 14:6) and therefore the only Saviour and Lord of all people at all times.

Of course, Christianity is not the only religion that makes exclusive truth-claims about God, the human condition and the world in which we inhabit. Most religions, especially the monotheistic faiths, present a vision of reality that it holds to be true in some absolutist sense.

In fact, anyone who is really concerned about the truth would have exclusivist convictions in one form or another. Even the religious pluralist, like the famous philosopher of religion John Hick, who argues that all religions point and lead to the one and the same Ultimate Reality is making a claim that has an exclusivist overtone.

Two fundamental reasons are routinely rehearsed for the current rejection of exclusivism that has become so pervasive in Western societies.

The first has to do with the view that exclusivism – especially religious exclusivism – is simply false. Exclusivism, it is argued, is the result of a kind of jaundiced or blinkered view of reality that is fostered by some version of religious authoritarianism.

And the second reason – which may or may not be related to the first – is that exclusivism is bad or even immoral. Exclusivism is arrogant, abrasive and hostile. It breeds intolerance and discrimination. It results in extremism and, in some cases, even violence.

The present relativistic culture that is so easily scandalised by the claims of objective truth, and where the careless rhetoric of inclusivism and pluralism dominates, has supported the attack on exclusivism by appealing to both its alleged falsehood and intolerance.

Christian theologians and apologists have written tomes to demonstrate the rationality and reasonableness of the Christian Faith. But Christians must also take seriously the second issue related to the modern war on exclusivism, namely, that it spawns intolerance, exclusion and violence.

Christians maintain that the truths they have received by divine revelation are not true only for the Christian community. Rather, as the missionary bishop and theologian Leslie Newbigin puts it, Christians are called to proclaim the Gospel because it is public truth.

Of the original communicators of the Gospel Newbigin writes: ‘They affirmed that the message which had been entrusted to them was one which concerned the destiny of the whole human race. The one who had died and risen again was the saviour and judge of the world. The news was of vital concern to every human being’.

While Christians must continue to uphold and proclaim the truths concerning God and the world they have received from Scripture, they must always do so with sensitivity and respect for people who do not share their convictions. Christian witness must always be governed by agape, a love that is both patient and kind towards the religious other.

This is clearly articulated in The Cape Town Commitment (2011), prepared by the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation. While the document states that the ‘[s]poken proclamation of the truth of the gospel remains paramount in our mission’, it is emphatic that this must always be done respectfully.

Furthermore, in a pluralist society Christian witness should always include dialogue. As Newbigin has succinctly articulated it: ‘To affirm the Gospel as public truth is not to assert dominance but to invite dialogue’.

In its paper on inter-faith relations entitled, ‘On Being a Neighbour’ (2002), the National Council of Churches in Singapore maintains that inter-faith dialogue must be seen as ‘an aspect of the larger matrix of social intercourse between persons’. It adds that ‘Christians should not be afraid to dialogue with members of other religions’.

Dialogue should not be seen as the sure road to syncretistic compromise or confused with some form of pluralistic theology where truth-claims are relativised and subjected to negotiations and revisions. Dialogue must be seen as part of Christian witness because Christian witness itself must always be understood relationally (and therefore dialogically).

This means that Christians should reject all forms of coercion and use of force to pressure the religious other to accept their vision of reality or their way of life. Rather, they must always respect the religious rights of others and therefore their inherent dignity by acknowledging their liberty of conscience.

As The Williamsburg Charter (1988), that was penned by Os Guiness and signed by 100 prominent figures in the States, puts it: ‘The right to freedom of conscience is premised not upon science, nor upon social utility, nor upon pride of species. Rather, it is premised upon the inviolable dignity of the human person. It is the foundation of, and is integrally related to, all other rights and freedoms …’

Finally, Christian exclusivism should never be arrogant or abrasive. The Church must see herself as God’s humble witness that is given the special privilege and an awesome responsibility to testify to God’s unimaginable love, grace and mercy that she has herself received (unworthy as she is).

It is out of this deep sense of gratitude and thanksgiving that the Church faces the world as God’s witness. As Newbigin explains, the Church faces the world merely as the ‘arrabon of that salvation – as sign, first fruit, token, witness of that salvation which God purposes for the whole’.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

What is the Gospel?

March 2018 Credo

Our Common Understanding of the Gospel

The key message of the Christian faith is the “gospel” (or good news). This inevitably leads us to the question, “What is this good news about?”

For many Christians in Singapore, our answer is likely to proceed along the following lines: “The gospel is clear and simple. Because of sin, we human beings are guilty in God’s sight and are destined for the punishment of hell. Out of his grace, God has sent his Son Jesus Christ to our world. Jesus died on the cross, where he paid the penalty for our sin and also transferred to us his righteousness. All those who acknowledge Jesus as their Lord and Saviour obtain the salvation won by him at the cross, and our spirits have a place in heaven when we die. At God’s appointed time, Jesus will come again, destroy our evil world and pluck the remaining Christians up with him into heaven.”

Problems with this Understanding

This “clear and simple” understanding of the gospel contains many valid truths. It is, however, also inadequate and problematic. This is so for many reasons; we mention three in this short article.

A. Strong Gnostic Influence

There is, firstly, the strong influence of Gnostic ideas in this account of the gospel. Gnosticism is a system of belief which draws a stark distinction between material existence, which is considered evil, and spiritual existence, which is good.

Gnosticism teaches that it was a good deity who created the spirit component of human beings, while an evil demiurge brought into being material existence, in which our spirits were trapped. Salvation, for the Gnostics, consisted of gaining the correct knowledge to enable our spirits to escape the prison of our material existence and return to the pure spiritual realm of heaven.

Gnostic versions of Christianity presented a major threat to the true Christian faith in the early centuries of the Church. Although they eventually faded away, the influence of Gnosticism on Christianity is still evident.

This is seen in our tendency to “over-spiritualise” the gospel. As in our “clear and simple” account, we often present the gospel as promising salvation only for the “spirit” part of human beings, with everything else in the world (i.e. the material bits) going into oblivion at God’s final judgement.

This fits perfectly with the Gnostic narrative, since the destruction of this material world represents the defeat of the demiurge and his evil schemes. The Christian faith, however, has always affirmed the one true God as the Creator of all that exist, both spiritual and material (which are both good). When we teach the final destruction of creation (save the redeemed human spirits), we unwittingly promote the notion that our God has suffered an ultimate defeat at the hands of evil.

B. Failure to Deal Comprehensively with Sin

The second thing wrong with our “clear and simple” gospel account is that it does not deal comprehensively with the problem of sin. It is standard Christian teaching that sin has two key aspects: It is the wrong we human creatures freely choose to do, leading to our guilt and need for forgiveness. It is also the power over our lives which significantly influences our decisions and behaviour. We are (what the Bible calls) “slaves to sin” and stand in need of redemption.

The gospel account presented above addresses only the first aspect of sin. It tells us how the work of Jesus on the cross leads to us being cleansed of our guilt and receiving God’s forgiveness. But it says almost nothing about the second aspect of sin.

This kind of imbalance in the treatment of sin has led to a version of Christianity in our day which questions why anything matters once we have been forgiven of our sin. Why is there a need continually to confess our sins to God and to one another? Why do we even strive to live in a manner pleasing to God, if all of our sins (past, present and future) have already been forgiven as a result of the cross? These questions arise out of our obsession with the problem of our guilt, with little corresponding attention paid to the predicament of our slavery.

C. Lack of Guidance for the Here and Now

The third shortcoming of our “gospel” summary is related to the first two. Because of its Gnostic overtones and inadequate treatment of sin, it does not give much guidance for our life in the here and now.

Our guilt has been remitted, and our spirits have a place in heaven. All these are well and good, but what (on earth) do we do while we are still here on earth? Are things like Church membership and attendance, participating in the sacraments and prayer, embarking on social action and creation care, understanding and reforming our cultures and societies, undertaking our studies, work and recreation of any relevance to the gospel at all?

If we are true to our “gospel” summary, all we can say is that these commitments might at best be useful, if they help sustain us spiritually until we get to heaven. Otherwise, frankly, they are a total waste of time, as they have little bearing on the ultimate aim of getting our spirits to heaven.

It is no surprise that our common understanding of the gospel has led to an individualistic and consumeristic form of Christianity, where everything is measured according to its usefulness in helping to enrich our “spiritual lives”. It has also resulted in a severely privatised and truncated Christianity, which has nothing meaningful to say to the major concerns of our age, beyond the message to individuals that “your spirit can also get to heaven if you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour”.

What Then is the Gospel?

The summary set out above does contain key truths of the Christian faith: We are guilty of sin, God’s grace has indeed led to a “wondrous exchange” taking place on the cross, we need to embrace Jesus as our personal Lord and Saviour and Jesus will indeed come again to consummate God’s plan of salvation. But truths presented in a partial way, with other key aspects neglected or misrepresented, can sometimes be more dangerous than outright heresy, since the errors of the latter are far more easily detected.

If this common presentation of the gospel is inadequate and problematic, how then should we understand the good news of Christianity? I will end with this tantalising question, in the hope that it will push us to ask, to discuss, to study and to reflect, to the end that we discover (to our never-ending amazement) how deep, wide, rich, all-encompassing, powerful and utterly wonderful the gospel truly is.



Dr Leow Theng Huat teaches theology and Church history at Trinity Theological College. He is a local preacher in the Methodist Church in Singapore, and a member of Wesley Methodist Church. 

Growing Old in Christ

March 2018 Credo

Reader’s Question: How should Christians understand and respond to aging? What resources does the Christian faith have to enable Christians to age well?

In recent years, there has been much discussion in the media here about what has sometimes been anxiously described as the ‘silver tsunami’.

By 2030, it is estimated that one in five people in Singapore will be over 60. And with the third-highest life expectancy in the world (currently at 82.7 years), the government has been pro-active in introducing a slew of initiatives to cater to the diverse needs of our ageing population.

The Bible has much to say about the elderly.

There are passages that make the closest connection between living an upright life and longevity. For example, Proverbs 16:31 clearly depicts longevity as the reward of the righteous when it declares that ‘Grey hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life’. And Psalm 92:12-14 promises that even in old age the righteous will continue to flourish and bear fruit.

But the Bible also captures vividly the anxieties that accompany ageing which even faithful believers experience. Thus, in Psalm 71 the psalmist prays movingly: ‘In you, O Lord, I take refuge … Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent’ (vv1, 9).

Christian reflection on what it means to grow old must surely also be guided by the realism of the Bible and acknowledge the ambiguities that accompany ageing. It must avoid the two opposing and extreme approaches in modern culture to ageing that have brought about untold confusion and frustration.

The first extreme is ‘ageism’, that mindset and perspective that sees ageing only in a negative light, that is, in terms of what it is not: not young, not productively employed, not energetic, not independent, and not fully engaged with the present.

Our therapeutic culture also presents ageing as something that must be strenuously forestalled (if that were possible) or cleverly camouflaged (if postponement fails). This anti-ageing message is spread through various means, not least in commercials that promise to remove the signs of ageing either by cosmetics or laser therapy.

Modern culture also glorifies the young, the powerful and the energetic. This subtly but powerfully conditions society to think of older people in generally negative and distorting ways – as useless, unattractive and burdensome.

The other extreme is the virulent reaction against ageism that seeks to demolish the harmful stereotypes it conjures by ignoring the real limitations that come with ageing. We see this in the portrayals of older people performing heroic and incredible feats that would put to shame people half their age, like doing chin-ups, jet skiing and skydiving.

Such an approach is as distorting and harmful as the myth it seeks to debunk.

As G.D. Bouma and B. R. Dixon have perceptively pointed out, the message that it sends ‘show no more tolerance for the intractable vicissitudes of old age than the older stereotypes; older people are now (or should be) healthy, sexually very active, engaged, productive and self-reliant – in other words, young’.

A Christian theology and spirituality of ageing must avoid the Scylla of ageism and the Charybdis of triumphalism: it must neither deny the limitations and suffering that older people experience nor denigrate the elderly and dismiss the contributions they can make in the community.

Following the delicate balance of Scripture, a Christian perspective to ageing must acknowledge and embrace its inherent ambiguities. As Canon Stephen Ames explains, ‘The ambiguity of ageing is the tension between old age as a time of fruition and decay, and fulfilment and loss’.

Christian writers have pointed out that the elderly have specific spiritual concerns and needs. They include questions relating to the meaning of life, anxieties about being self-sufficient, a sense of being vulnerable and issues pertaining to isolation and death.

To this list, Stanley Hauerwas adds the threat of ‘dementia, deafness, blindness, arthritis, helplessness, even repulsiveness; and worst of all the loneliness of outliving one’s contemporaries’.

The Church must be aware of the needs of her elderly members and offer special ministry and support that would enable them to flourish despite these anxieties.

While old age is often accompanied by suffering, it is important to remember that being old has to do with much more than suffering. The elderly in Christ must continue to acknowledge that the life he possesses is a gift from God, which by God’s grace still holds many surprises and possibilities. It is a life that can and should be lived for the glory of God.

This brings us to the heart of the matter: ageing and discipleship. As Christians grow old, they remain called to follow Christ and to be his witnesses in the Church and in the world.

As theologian M. Theresa Lysaught puts it, the elderly ‘remain called equally to the practices of the corporal and spiritual ministry, to sharing the faith with the young, and to the promotion of social justice’.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, who have traversed far along the road of obedience, the elderly are able to contribute to the life of the Church in ways that both complement and supplement the contributions of younger Christians.

The elderly bring with them their rich historical memories. They bring with them experience and wisdom. And by their exemplary virtue, the godly elderly can be both model and inspiration to many Christians, encouraging them to pursue godliness and spurring them to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24-25).

The elderly who live for the glory of Christ will discover that the vicissitudes of old age – ill health and frailty – can never rob them of the peace and joy that comes from God. They will again and again discover the wonderful truth in the words of the 4th century bishop and theologian, Ambrose: ‘Every age is perfect in Christ. Every age is full of God’.

A Christian theology and spirituality of ageing must explore the depths of Ambrose’s vision. Nancy Baxter is surely right when she writes that ‘The church’s theological task is to understand the gift of life in old age in the light of the whole story, remembered and celebrated through all seasons of Christian living’.

The Church must therefore never see the elderly in a negative light: as passive members, unable to contribute much and are mostly in need of the ministrations of others. Instead the Church must be a community that affirms and celebrates the call and vocation of the elderly, welcoming them and giving thanks to God for their presence, their gifts and their participation.

The Church must recognise that without its elderly members she is incomplete and thus in many ways profoundly impoverished.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

The Urban Church and Creative Urbanism

March 2018 Feature

Can the church help envision the cities of the future?

The 21st Century world will be an urban world. The Asian Development Bank states in 2008 that over one billion people would have moved from the rural villages to the urban settings in Asia by 2030.

In another three decades, over 3 billion people in Asia (two-thirds of Asia) would have become urban dwellers.[1] Will we see an urban world where humans and God’s creation can flourish or one with a degraded environment where we live more like savages in the proverbial urban jungle?

Manuel Ortiz states that urban growth is more than a sociological reality; it is the fulfillment of God’s intentions since the beginning of time.[2]  The cultural mandate given to mankind to populate and steward the earth indicated that God has intended for human settlements to develop not only in the rural villages but also in the cities.

The earliest cities were built by the sons of Adam in the book of Genesis. The Bible traces how the history of mankind started in the garden but will end in the city.

Singapore is a small city, merely the size of a small district in some of these leading world-class cities in the world, but yet we are recognised today as global city. Singapore’s rise from a small fishing village to a world city, from the third world to the first, is well known now. It now aims to be a smart city in the 21st Century.

Conn and Ortiz note that cities seek to create a dynamic environment as an integrating centre of influence and power, as the “symbolic centres that concentrate, intensify and orchestrate culture’s re-creating forces”.[3] Lily Kong notes that the new Singapore cityscape with her iconic architecture of commerce and culture reflects the city-state’s aspiration and claim as a cultural centre, in line with the government’s integrated urban, national and global ambitions.[4]

However, the more important investment will be in shaping and moulding a people who value the spiritual beyond the aesthetics, who value the soul alongside these technocratic capability. Can a global city have humanity and a soul?

To grow as a city with creativity and cultural influence, we need a sense of spiritual transcendence. It is a call to grow our soul, to touch base with our humanity, to have the courage to fulfil our destiny. It will mean valuing the history of not only the city but the historicity of the man in the street, exploring the social dimensions of our city and probing deeper into our own shared consciousness.

Can a city be a place to foster humanity and community?

Urbanism as the distinctive culture of the city is exciting and evolving, and the creative innovators are constantly transforming and transmitting the urban culture in the city. The church can play a part in the emerging urbanism. The urban church as an organic and organised community is a great resource for developing creative and sustainable urbanism.

However the church would need to be strategically aligned and structured for transformational urban ministry with broader vision and to re-invent herself for the opportunities which will call for innovative solutions and daring responses.[5] The urban church has to step out of the comfort zone, to first engage at street level, to be the Church incarnate and present at street level, in order to contribute to the new urbanscape.

The urban church can consider the three spiritual identities and roles in urban missions, viz. as priests, prophets and pilgrims.

Firstly, the urban church can unleash her members as priests to point people to God and His Kingdom. In the city where the masses live lives of stress and desperation, loneliness and despair, there are many who are constantly seeking Transcendence and the meaning of their lives.

The church and her members as priests can mediate the presence of God by pointing people to Transcendence and divine guidance as they work in the city, whether they are in the public, private or people sectors, whether they are formulating policies, enacting legislation or executing them. By modeling faith in God and faithfulness at school or at work, the church affirms the creation or cultural mandate given by God to be productive as we care for and “till the land”.

Secondly, the urban church needs to speak up and speak out prophetically as we voice and envision the cities which are fit for human flourishing and habitation. Currently, there are over 830 million urban poor living in the urban slums in cities around the world. Such urban mismanagement and urban squalor dehumanises people and perpetuates the degradation of the urban environment and contributes to the ecological crisis and climate change in the world.

The urban church cannot be content with merely saving souls for heaven at the expense of caring for God’s creation and creatures on this side of eternity. We need to speak up prophetically as we envision what God’s shalom would look like for the cities in the world.

The urban church can reference the New Urban Agenda which has been adopted by world leaders as part of the United Nations’ new sustainable development goals, which seeks to provide the roadmap for building cities as engines of prosperity, centres of cultural and social well-being while protecting the environment.[6]

The urban church speaks and acts prophetically when it participates in policy inputs and planning at the municipal level, contribute to development of new urban spaces and lead in community building in the local neighbourhood. The urban church participates through mobilising the members and community with the wide range of skills, training and expertise to help shape the new urban landscape and urban culture.

Finally, the urban church can model for the city what God’s pilgrims look like, a community of strangers who have settled in the city and yet awaiting the arrival of the city, not built by human hands, whose architect and builder is God. The pilgrim community is a community of strangers bonded not necessarily by historical, national, ethno-linguistic or cultural ties.

The pilgrim community is created by faith in Christ, faith in a common eschatological future in the Kingdom of God. That is why it is an eschatological community with the responsibility and power to love one another and to serve one another, especially in the historical situations it finds itself including the times of human suffering.

Can the urban church model and translate the kingdom values of love, acceptance and compassion in new urban communities comprising migrants from over a hundred nationalities and ethnicities? Can the urban church help build communities of perseverance and resilience in times of disaster and crisis based on the pilgrim’s vision of serving one another as we journey together to the celestial city?

The church in the city can become an urban church when it develops an eschatological vision for transforming the city with the transcendent values of God’s Kingdom.[7] Just as Singapore as a city-state had announced the lofty aspiration of Singapore to become a global city serving beyond the Southeast Asian hinterland, the church in Singapore can aspire and envision itself to become an urban church, an Antiochan church serving the cities of Asia and beyond.


Notes:

[1] http://www.adb.org/news/op-ed/liveable-clean-green-and-resilient-reshaping-asia-s-booming-cities-takehiko-nakao

[2] Manuel Ortiz, “The Church and the City” in Manuel Ortiz and Susan Baker eds. The Urban Face of Mission, p. 43

[3] Harvey M Conn & Manuel Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City & the People of God, 2001: IVP Academic, p. 222

[4] Lily Kong, “Cultural Icons, Global City and National Identity” in Michael Nai-Chiu Poon, ed., Engaging Society: The Christian in Tomorrow’s Singapore.  2013: Trinity Theological College. Pp 24-40

[5] Lawrence Ko, “The Role of the Asian Church in Missions” in Bambang Budijanto ed., Emerging Missions Movements: Voices of Asia, 2010: Compassion  International and Asia Evangelical Alliance, pp 1-10

[6] http://www.un.org/sustanabledevelopment/blog/2016/10/newurbanagenda

[7] Lawrence Ko, “The Church and the Soul of a Global City: An Eschatological Vision for 21st C Singapore” in Sadiri Joy Tira & Tetsunao Yamamori eds., Scattered and Gathered; A Global Compendium of Diaspora Missiology, Regnum Books International, 2016, pp.360-366.


Lawrence Ko is the National Director of Singapore Centre for Global Missions. He has been a pastor, corporate trainer and missions director over the past 27 years, engaged with projects in human resource development, Christian media and environmentalism.

AI and Religion

March 2018 Pulse

Reader’s Question: How would you envision pastoral ministry in an age of robots with Artificial Intelligence.

I would like to broaden the question by examining some of the ways in which AI could impact religion, and the issues and questions this might raise.

In September 2017, The Guardian reported that Anthony Levandowski, the engineer in Silicon Valley behind Google’s Waymo, has founded a new techno-religious pseudo-cult called ‘Way of the Future’, dedicated to the worship of Artificial Intelligence.

According to some sources, the mission of this ‘church’ is ‘to develop and promote the realisation of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society’. In his apocalyptic vision of AI, the autonomous cars guru does not only envision that AI will bring improvements to human lives but that it will one day demand our worship when it acquires ‘godlike’ qualities (e.g., omniscience).

There is little doubt that AI would become more and more ubiquitous in our world as the Fourth Industrial Revolution – a neologism coined by Klaus Schwab – marches relentlessly on. From mobile supercomputing to intelligent robots to autonomous weapons, AI is set to impact society in many and varied ways.

Scholars maintain that there are two types of AI. What is mostly used today is narrow or weak AI, designed to perform specific tasks such as internet searches or driving a car. But many researchers hope to create general or strong AI that has the capacity to outperform humans in every single cognitive task – although some have questioned if this is in fact possible.

Authors like Russell Bjork have argued that creating machines with strong AI can potentially have an idolatrous outcome as they might usurp the place of God himself. In her article entitled, ‘Creating in Our Own Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Image of God’ Noreen Herzfeld perceptively points out that ‘If we hope to find in AI that other with whom we can share our being and responsibilities, then we will have created a stand-in for God in our own image’.

Thus, we enter into a dangerous and dehumanising bind: we create machines with superior intelligence and then worship them as our new gods, thereby becoming enslaved by the very things we have fashioned in our own image.

Writers like Cody Volkers have compared this desire to develop strong AI with the creation of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). But this attempt, Volker rightly asserts, will only end in failure and judgement.

‘When humanity grasps for God-like status’, Volker writes, ‘it is condemning itself to God’s curse. This applies for all history, including today in the pursuit of AI. In conspiring to create AI that takes on divine attributes, such as omniscience, the only outcome can be failure – and judgement’.

Another side to this debate about the impact on AI on religion has to do with the possibility of creating robots in the future that display such intelligence and humanlike emotions that they are even regarded as sentient entities.

Robots with weak AI are already in high demand. For example, in 2014 a Japanese company created a companion robot called ‘Pepper’, equipped with weak AI. Pepper went on sale in 2015, and it was reported that within one minute, the initial 1,000 units were sold out.

Companion robots and robots that are designed to take care of the elderly have sparked a discussion in some circles about whether one could envision a day when intelligent robots would replace pastors. Some scientists debate the possibility of not just programming a robot with general rules of ethics, but with specific Christian values as well.

Rev Christopher J. Benek, a Presbyterian pastor and one of the founders of the Christian Transhumanist Association believe that a robot with ‘the passion of a Billy Graham and the justice implications of a Martin Luther King and the theological consideration of an Augustine’ would gain a large following.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Benek mooted the idea of robot preachers that could ‘use the inflection and verbal prowess of a Billy Graham or a Martin Luther King and the compassion of Mother Teresa’. ‘That would allow people’s needs to be met because a lot of times we pastors can’t do that’, he adds.

This discussion brings us to the question of what constitutes personhood. Can a robot with super intelligence and that is able to display humanlike emotions be said to be a person? Or, to put the same question differently, can we say that such robots have souls?

Philosophers who argue that personhood may be said to be present when a set of qualities or capabilities – e.g., reason and emotion – are evident would be inclined to believe that machines displaying them can be said to be persons or possessing personhood.

This view, however, is mistaken. In the first place, intelligent autonomous robots that display human traits are in essence only machines that are programmed in this way.

It would therefore be a mistake to conclude that such a robot could be the bearer of the image of God. Only human beings are created by God to be the kind of creatures that by divine grace can reflect their Creator. Only human beings are created with the capacity to be in fellowship with their Creator and with each other.

Thus, a robot with super intelligence that displays human emotions can utter the words of the Lord’s Prayer (perhaps in 50 languages!), but it cannot pray.

In similar vein, the robot that appears to be able to provide sensitive ‘pastoral’ counsel is in fact unable to establish a real relationship with his counselee, since social robots do not experience emotions (the ‘emotions’ it displays are merely simulacrum of human emotions, not the real thing). And according to John Redstone, the empathy that people have with social robots is nothing but a perceptual illusion.

Put differently, the relationship between a human being and a super-intelligent and autonomous robot will always be an I-It relationship. It can never be an I-Thou relationship.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.