An excerpt from Wallace B. Henley’s latest book, Who Will Rule the Coming ‘Gods’?
I look at my grandchildren and great-grandchildren and wonder what kind of future they will inhabit. Perhaps you do the same. One thing for certain: our offspring are coming into an age of crisis regarding transcendence.
Humanity’s endless preoccupation with the self has reached critical mass. The sense of God’s transcendence has been eclipsed by the fascinations on the immanent scale. Humanity is so enthralled by the horizontal that it forgets to look up to the vertical, “the Lord high and lifted up,” in Isaiah’s words. (Isaiah 6:1-6)
The dangers for us, our families, and our civilization are immense. The existential crisis is that in the very age when the recognition of and reverence for the transcendence of God is being eclipsed, technology is on the verge of dramatic breakthroughs in robotics. In the rush to make artificial intelligence machines to better serve us humans, the wizards of the cyberworld are making machines that many predict will master us. Some are already worshiping at the feet of the great god AI just as the ancient Philistines once bowed before Dagon idols.
Stephen Hawking warned of an age when AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us...“We stand on a threshold of a brave new world,” one needing “effective management in all areas of its development.”
In Who Will Rule the Coming ‘Gods’we warn of the lure into the “danger of ultimate and absolute power” for the human mind that does not recognize and respect the boundaries of transcendent values.
Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, told a 2017 conference of computer builders that the future “is going to be defined by the choices that you as developers make and the impact of those choices on the world.”
Former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski predicts that at some point an artificial intelligence machine will be able to process so much data that people will call it “god.” Levandowski believes this so passionately he has formed an AI “church” called “The Way of the Future.” Its mission “is about creating a peaceful and respectful transition of who is in charge of the planet from people to people + machines” (sic.)
The AI church’s founder has no doubt about the inevitability of artificial intelligence being “in charge.”
There is an ominous element in Levandowski’s thought. “We believe it may be important for machines to see who is friendly to their cause and who is not,” he says. This will necessitate an Orwellian monitoring system. Levandowski’s plan includes “keeping track of who has done what (and for how long) to help the peaceful and respectful transition” from human dominion to AI being “in charge.”
There are really no ways to keep this from happening, says Levandowski, so we need to give up trying. In fact, “this feeling of we must stop this is rooted in twenty-first century anthropomorphism.”
“Anthropomorphism” means “in the form of a man—or human.” This idea stands in contrast to the nature of God, described in the word that will have central focus in this book—transcendence.
We can think of the transcendent as that which lifts us into a higher quality of existence that comes from something “other” than us, and of an infinitely higher being. Transcendence tugs us upward into the full dimension of love, expressed in the Bible as agape, love without the primacy of self-interest, as well as ethics and morality that reflects the holiness of God.
A major crisis of our time is that increasingly we are beguiled by virtualism and are having a hard time distinguishing the imaginary from the actual. Many cyber-dazzled people are “Clark Kents”, searching for a telephone booth from which they can emerge in a cape and blue leotards to stop rushing locomotives.
What do we call this new age?
I suggest The Age of Virtualism.
We have virtual identities in the form of avatars, or even “appropriated” ethnicity. We have virtual church, caused by the pandemic. People are discovering they can “attend” church online, not having to bother with all the messy relationships in a gathered congregation of real humans.
On a larger social scale in the Age of Virtualism, many have virtual friends in virtual neighborhoods in virtual communities. We have virtual history by which we re-form the facts of the past in light of our experience of the present, producing a new narrative more suited to our existential tastes. We have virtual politics through which we assume people beautiful, rich, and famous are automatically qualified to govern.
Mark Sayers, the author of The Road Trip that Changed the World, believes Christianity provides “the perfect balance between transcendence and immanence.” In previous generations there was an imbalance toward transcendence, to the extreme of deism, Sayers thinks. Thus, in the nineteen-eighties and nineties “there was a kickback, a rediscovery of God’s immanence.” Now, however,
... there is a whole new generation of young adults coming of age who have grown up in the immanence revolution of the eighties and nineties who see God not as distant and deistic, who see God as something akin to a permissive parent, who have grown up with ‘cool’ Christianity, who live in a secular culture which represses any idea of transcendence. Thus, we have a generation who is hungering for the transcendent, yet we have a generation of leaders still reeling from the overly transcendent view of God (as distant and deistic) that they grew up with. Getting the balance is the key.
The profusion of media-enhanced micronarratives means that more and more people are living in their own virtual worlds.
The Virtual Age is “sensate”. Feelings are the measure of reality and the good within it. In his study of historic cultures, Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin found a cycle in which the sensate follows the mystical and metaphysical, then gets swept off its feet by idealism. Thus, if Postmodernism sought the spiritual, the Age of Virtualism and the passion for progressivism were sure to follow.
The Virtualist pulpit focuses on making congregations feel good about themselves. It encourages denying the negatives in life—from bad health to financial crisis—no matter how real they are. The hard truth of sin and judgment lies back there in the dust and ash heaps of old age long dead.
In the real world, sinners need redemption. Jesus Christ comes into that gritty, bloody dimension, and through suffering that was anything but fantasy, wins the victory for us. Our holiness in Him is not virtual, but an imperishable fact that will withstand the Judgment.
The development of artificial intelligence promises either a brilliant future or a threat to the very survival of humans. Much will depend on the ethical values and moral codes programmed into the machines.
“If AI transcends into Big Brother in a way that appears to be the best thing for society, I’m worried the masses will buy it without vetting,” writes Lindsay Bell, a specialist in content marketing.
Considering such possibilities and portents many questions arise, like these:
- Who will rule over the new gods? (Which is another way of asking: What will artificial intelligence regard as having transcendent authority over it?)
- Who decides the values and ethical boundaries that will govern the machines that might have godlike status in the future?
- Who will be the equivalent in the future of Orwell’s ‘Party’ that controls the god-like machines?”
To borrow words from C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man: Are people “without chests” building artificial intelligence robots “without chests”? Can we really expect such devices to “honor” and serve us, or is it inevitable we will awaken to the terrifying reality that we have “traitors in our midst” of our own making?
God has written His laws on the human heart, says the Bible. (Romans 2:15) But who is constructing the algorithms of ethical and moral criteria that will determine good and bad in the operating system of an AI machine?
Thus, the most troubling question of all: Who indeed will rule the coming “gods”?
 “Stephen Hawking predicted a race of superhumans will take over the world,” by Nick Whigham, news.com.au, October 15, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.news.com.au/technology/science/human-body/stephen-hawking-predicted-a-race-of-superhumans-will-take-over-the-world/news-story/b7c3e16159aab6fae53abaaa326e61c2, December 5, 2018.
 “Microsoft CEO: tech sector needs to prevent ‘1984 future,’ May 11, 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.news.com.au/technology/home-entertainment/computers/microsoft-ceo-tech-sector-needs-to-prevent-1984-future/news-story/eb533f55d35a8bf6d0ea4243f96b05e3, August 3, 2018.(Italics added)
 From an interview with J.R. Woodward. Retrieved from http://jrwoodward.net/2012/05/interview-with-mark-sayers-author-of-the-road-trip-that-changed-the-world-part-3/, December 13, 2018.
 “Artificial Intelligence: The Good, the Bad, and the Orwellian,” by Lindsay Bell. Retrieved from https://v3b/2016/03/artificial-intelligence-good-bad-orwellian/amp.
Wallace B. Henley’s fifty-year career has spanned newspaper journalism, government in both White House and Congress, the church, and academia. He is author or co-author of more than 20 books. He is a teaching pastor at Grace Church, the Woodlands, Texas.
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