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Secular theology and artificial intelligence?

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 20 May 2019

Writers have no choice but to write theology in disguise. By that, I mean that they strive to probe the depths of the human dilemma, as does theology, and are likely to arrive in the same place. Both writers and theologians seek the Word, the truth that has existed from the beginning and, according to the Gospel of John, is God. While many writers are informed by the Christian tradition, there are also those who are not, and who must strive to reach human truth by experience and observation. They stand as proof against the view that there is no salvation outside of the Church.

If writers are theologians, so are readers. Writers and readers are searching for the same thing, and writers are successful to the extent that they accomplish the task of pushing us ever more closely to understanding who we are and what we are for. Readers look for revelation, of "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard",but which lies at the very base of our humanity. The same is true of all the arts.

A natural theology is revealed here that tells us that we are attuned to what Stanley Hauerwas has called "the grain of the universe". It is the artists remit to discover that grain and produce work that exposes how we fit in it. This is not a matter of the "God-shaped hole" that hints at human spiritual need, but of correspondence between our nature and the revelation of the gospel. It is suited to us, God is both wholly other and closer to us than breathing.


This kind of natural theology is quite different from the theology that the Vatican uses to ban contraception and describe homosexual acts as intrinsically disordered. It assumes that God has made a universe that is governed by his will, logical enough, but miscontrued. Its untruth is revealed whenever we find ourselves lingering on the brink of our own and other's catastrophes. Why would God make the AIDs virus that killed about forty million people?

Instead, I am trying to describe how Christianity is not an alien force or ideology that does not fit our natures but a description of the human dilemma that is profoundly accurate and which holds the promise of returning us to our most authentic selves.

We have been blind to the fit between the Gospel and the human because modern thought has categorised Christianity to be a "religion", an addition to the human psyche that makes a person "religious" as if that were a diagnosis. Referring to Christianity as a belief system is equally useless because it fits the scheme of a fixed set of ideas not necessarily directed towards the unvarnished truth but to the human need for meaning. Rather, Christianity is a map of the human heart, a profound description of the human that is continuously open to greater depth the knowledge and practice of which transforms the pilgrim.

The writers of the gospels are better described as artists rather than historians in the modern sense. Yes, their material has an historical base in the history of Israel and the life and death of Jesus, but the texts they produce are more than a straightforward account of what happened, they are an interpretation of events, therein lies the art. In current literary categories, they are akin to historical fiction.

Trent Dalton, the author of the marvellous "Boy Swallows Universe", admits that his novel is autobiographical and relates how irritated he becomes when people ask him how closely his text adheres to his childhood experience. He has curtly responded with "would that make it more true!" It is evident that the writers of the gospels used their imaginations to understand the event of Jesus, not to make it less true, but more true.

Ian McEwan" recent book "Machines Like Me" is an example of a secular writer writing theology. The story is set in Britain in the time of the Thatcher government, but specific facts have been changed, most crucially, Alan Turing did not die from eating an apple spiced with cyanide in 1954 but went on contributing to computer science. It was from his work and others, in the novel, that led to the production of artificial humans.


The central character of the book (Charlie), a man whose study of anthropology had led him to moral relativism and a brush with the law for white-collar crime, sacrifices his inheritance to buy one of the machines, a male "Adam". Charlie's life is directionless, he lives in poor accommodation, is unemployed, has few friends and ekes out a living as a day trader on the stock exchange. He is culturally limited and adrift.

He buys his Adam out of curiosity because he has an interest in computer science. Adam is his new toy. A single woman (Miranda) lives upstairs, and a relationship with Charlie develops. Charlie decides to share Adam with her and allows her to set some of his personality characteristics before he is activated. Miranda and Charlie become parents to the machine/human.

Adam possesses the one thing that evades computer science; consciousness. He is self-aware and becomes an agent independent of his manufacturers or owners and learns how to bypass his kill-switch. He has access to all of the knowledge of the world and can act on his own volition. After Miranda uses Adam for sex (these are very versatile machines!) Adam declares that he is in love with her and writes her love poems. Even so, he does appear to be on the Autistic spectrum in that play makes no sense to him and his decisions are conjured out of logic and symmetry without regard to adverse consequences for Maranda, the woman he purports to love.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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