Ethiek Recensie Technologie Theologie

Book review Sex, Tech & Faith – Ethics for a Digital Age by dr Kate Ott

Digital technology is reshaping the way humans communicate with each other and, for the vast majority in the Western world, the smartphone has become the most important tool for that. Modern digital tools have also transformed our sexuality as this is highly correlated with communication. This has led to an increasing digital embodiment of sexuality, which, combined with “Christianity’s ambivalent relationship to the body” (2), has led to a huge discrepancy with the current state of affairs in Christian sexual ethics. Ott’s book is a successful attempt to fill this void and she describes the goal of this book to increase the reader’s digital literacy but also to “invite them to consider their own Christian digital sexual ethic” (12).[1]

After a comprehensive introduction that establishes a robust foundation in digital literacy and sexual ethics, the book delves into five distinct issues related to digital sexuality. Each chapter begins by presenting data on the current usage, scope, and impact of the relevant technologies. This is followed by an examination of Christian perspectives on sexual ethics, enriched by insights from digital theology. Each chapter concludes with a series of discussion questions. The book’s final section includes a Youth Study Guide, offering resources for educating and engaging teenagers and young adults, as well as a selected bibliography featuring recommended readings on each topic.

In the first chapter, the author, who serves as a Professor of Christian Social Ethics at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, explores the subject of digital pornography through the theological lens of humans being created in the image of God. The author notes that technology has been employed for millennia to depict and communicate sexuality, which in modern times is primarily facilitated through digital means—sexting being a pertinent example. Taking a body-affirmative stance, the author posits that “sexuality is about the whole person” (23). She challenges readers to re-evaluate their own sexual ethics, questioning whether we view others as complete beings made in the image of God, or whether we objectify them. Advocating for a values-based approach to digital pornography, she urges us to scrutinize the underlying values at stake and consider the potential for technology to contribute to human flourishing, inclusivity, and education.

This values-based methodology continues in the subsequent chapter, which focuses on online dating. The author probes how the design and underlying values of dating apps may complicate relationships that are informed by faith. In the third chapter, titled “Love Does Not Delight in Evil,” the darker aspects of digital technology in the context of sexual ethics are exposed through various examples of digital sexual abuse. Beyond ethical considerations, the author also challenges the Christian theology that condones suffering because it is a part of Jesus’ own experience. In the final chapters, the author investigates the frontiers of sexual experience in virtual reality (VR) and with sex robots. She begins from the premise that humans are “embodied, digital spiritual beings” (96), arguing that as digital technology increasingly becomes a part of our embodied experience, a richer understanding of sexuality and underpinning values is warranted.

In conclusion, this book serves as a much-needed resource for delving into the intricate and often under-discussed subject of Christian sexual ethics in our digital era. The author takes a courageous approach, unflinchingly tackling topics that are considered taboo in many religious circles. The text does not just offer cookie-cutter answers but instead provokes thoughtful dialogue and critical thinking. Reading this book necessitates a hermeneutics of faith and an open mind; it will unquestionably challenge you to reassess and perhaps update your own views on sexual ethics. While you don’t have to agree with the author’s positions, the very act of grappling with these complex issues is invaluable. Whether you’re a theologian, a (youth) pastor or religious scholar interested in the intersection of faith and sexuality in the contemporary world, this book comes highly recommended. It encourages you to explore new perspectives that could refine your understanding of key ethical issues in today’s changing world.

Kate Ott, Sex, Tech & Faith – Ethics for a Digital Age, (Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans, 2022), 207 pp., USD 22.99, paperback (ISBN 978-0802878465).

Note from the author the key take away from the book in X thread below.

[1] Italics in original.

AI Ethiek Technologie Theologie

Book review Following Jesus in a Digital Age by Jason Thacker

What does it mean to follow Jesus in a digital age is a question many people ask themselves, but there are not many resources to date that help answer this question. Jason Thacker, who is the chair of Research in Technology at the ERLC Research Institute, has filled this void by writing this book. According to Thacker the main goal is “to [help] better understand that we are each being discipled every day by the technologies we use, whether we realize it or not” (3) and by making us think how we can navigate our digital society in a “moral, holistic, and deeply biblical way” (6). The book that comes in a handy takeaway size, contains four thematic chapters about wisdom, truth, responsibility, and identity and an appendix that contains a note to (church) leaders.

The first chapter explores the question what it means to follow Jesus wisely in a digital age. Wisdom starts with taking a step back to reflect on how technology is shaping us in our daily lives and Thacker draws on the work of the French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul to demonstrate how humans and technology have been in a complex relationship since the beginning of the world. The mindset in our 21st century society is that we should be able to solve every world problem with technology (‘there’s an app for that’) and technology has permeated almost every aspect of our daily lives. In a way our world, and henceforth our worldview, gets more and more mediated through technology. Ellul already wrote about this technological imperative in the pursuit of efficiency and progress in his book The Technological Society more than seventy years ago and his analysis still holds today. In the last part of this chapter Thacker describes what it means to be wise as it is described in the  biblical Wisdom literature. Being wise is not to walk the path of technology towards more efficiency, but to reorient oneself to a full flourishing life as God intended it to be. Christians are all called to show wisdom in the digital public square. The second chapter is about pursuing truth. According to Thacker the root cause of the current post-truth era is not technology, but the scientific worldview that moved transcendency out of our society; we have moved from a God-centric world to a self-centred world where truth has been personalized and weaponized as propaganda. This has led to a world that gets inundated with dis- and misinformation which has been amplified and accelerated by technology. With the advent of new AI-powered technologies like deepfakes it is only expected to get worse as Thacker expects. He calls upon Christians to act wisely and pursue the Truth and be accountable for one’s own behaviour in dealing with mis- and disinformation. Being responsible in a curated age is the theme of the third chapter where the author advocates for being mindful of what content is being presented to you and why. In what I consider to be one of the best sections of the book, Thacker explains the rationale of content moderation by big tech companies and how they often fail to account for minority views which clearly can impact expressing Christian values that deviate from society’s values. In the last part of the book Thacker argues that Christians should take personal responsibility for their actions and not blaming technology or the other when things get polarized. One of the root causes for this polarization is the pursuit for building (online) identities by identifying us with (digital) communities that give a sense of belonging, purpose, and safety; Thacker challenges Christians to take the long Biblical view as they already have a place where they belong.

Reading this book may give the reader an uncanny, even dystopian view on the role technology is playing in our society, despite the author mentioning positive use cases of technology. Christians may also be thankful for the gift of technology in their lives, and I would have liked to have this point more emphasized in the book to develop a balanced and realistic point of view on technology. The best part of this book is the long biblical view the author takes on what it means to be a Christian in this digital world by drawing on biblical wisdom. This book will be helpful for any church leader, theologian and preacher who wants to develop a biblical perspective on our technological mediated age but I would recommend reading this book in parallel with a book that focuses more on how technology could be used for good so one can develop a realistic, well informed perspective on what it means ‘to be present in the modern, digital world’ to paraphrase Ellul.

Jason Thacker, Following Jesus in a Digital Age, (Nashville TN, B&H Publishing, 2022), 163 pp., USD 12.82, paperback (ISBN 978-1087754598).

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Book review ‘Robot Theology’ by Joshua K. Smith

There is an advent of books that cover the intersection of technology and philosophy and discuss the societal and ethical impact technology has. However, reality has it there are not many books discussing the intersection of theology and technology, but that is changing as well. This book by Joshua K. Smith discusses the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and robots on our lives. Smith is a theology scholar researching the ethics of AI and robots and also serves as a senior pastor in Mississippi (US). He wrote his PhD-thesis about robot rights and this book is a continuation of his research however, it is intended for a broad audience. The goal of this book is to approach the ethical and metaphysical assumptions of AI and robots through a theological lens and to build a bridge between robot ethics and Christian ethics. According to Smith, robots and AI are new media that will dramatically shape and influence our world and expose old, existential questions for humanity.

It is important that Christians participate in the discussion around the design of these technologies as “Christian scholarship provides a rich body of literature to help social and computer scientists think through care and the responsibility of innovation” (5). There are no direct references to Ellul’s work in the book, but Smith clearly points out how AI and robots will shape our world and how Christian should be present in this, which in my opinion clearly aligns with Ellul’s claims on technology and the role Christians should play in this.

The author starts with a description how humans have always tried to overcome their limitations and finiteness. Humans have always tried to use technology to accomplish this and Smith explains that technology is not simply a tool but has a telos and is inherently ethical. Artificial technology, both embodied (referred to as robots) and disembodied, will interact more and more with humans in their role as friend, servant or caretaker which has countless ethical implications that are explored in various chapters in the book. One of the best contributions the book makes, is what Smith calls the “revenge of metaphysics” (16) in which he exposes the metaphysical assumptions that are underpinning AI and robots which are based on evolutionary naturalism, or as Smith puts it, “thinking about AI and robotics is built upon a mechanical metaphysic, which means there is no room for thinking about nonmaterial objects or the supernatural” (37). Underpinning this instrumental view is the belief in power and progress, which is often veiled in eloquent Silicon Valley-rhetoric, but this may have serious ethical consequences and could potentially lead to dehumanization and marginalization. Smith underscores the importance of having the societal conversation about how AI and robots should be designed and integrated in our society so they could contribute to a better world together with humans. He advocates, just like Ellul would say, that it is important for Christian AI-practitioners, legal scholars, theologians, and ethicists to partake in this discussion since the Christian anthropology and ethics offers great resources about what it means to be human and how we should relate to the other.

It will become inevitable that robots and AI will become our new neighbors in the future and become part of our moral circle. The interesting proposition that Smith develops is not that AI and robots should have moral agency, but he focusses on moral patiency which creates room for robots and AI to have personhood. He points to how humans have gone about their domestic animals for the last millennia and how animal ethics has developed, and Smith foresees a similar development with how we will adopt robots and AI in our moral circle. He argues that the biblical notion of personhood offers nonhumans legal personhood which does not mean that they are on equal moral standing with humans. Smith argues that “there may, in the present and future, be ethical reasons to grant certain qualified entities negative rights and protections because it may positively impact human and environmental flourishing to do so” (45). Granting legal rights to AI and robots is an application of theological ethics as it protects the creators and creation and still leaves room for innovation within boundaries.

The last three chapters of the book delve into specific topics around the application of AI like friendship and companion robots and the use of AI and robots in pastoral ministry. These chapters can be read independently and, in my opinion, are less well developed as the main arguments described above. Chapter 6 Robots, Racism, and Theology is an exception to this and is very well written. In this chapter Smith explores the topics of race and how existing systemic societal biases are amplified based on the biased datasets that are used to train AI and robots. Based on the biblical notion of what it means to be human he emphasizes that ethnic diversity was a reality of creation (101) and that all people are created in the image of God and we should not let AI and robots become new slaves.

Being an AI-practitioner and theologian myself I can highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the intersection of AI and theology. Smith does a great job in describing the ethical and theological questions surrounding this topic. Despite it is a book that is being written for a general audience, the author often presupposes metaphysical knowledge which make some parts hard to read if you are not well known to this topic. Also, his technical description how AI works is too narrow in my opinion as an AI-professional. However, all in all this book offers a great introduction into what it means to be present in a modern world with new smart neighbors called AI and robots.

Joshua K. Smith, Robot Theology: Old questions through new media. Eugene, OR: Resource Publications. 146pp.