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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Dr. James Emery White

Dr. James Emery White's weblog

I’m often asked what cutting-edge issues are on the horizon that need serious consideration; the coming trends that will challenge the Christian faith and the church.

These days, my answer is immediate: artificial intelligence, followed closely by breakthroughs in what we are able to do to genetically modify the human stock.

Let’s bracket genetics off for a moment for a future post. For now, let’s talk AI. And specifically, what we need to start thinking about. There are two principle areas to think about.

First, we need to think about our definition of life itself. Yes, as Christians, we feel like we have a good bead on this. What we don’t have is the ability to talk about our definition of life with how AI calls all definitions into question. 

In his book Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, M.I.T. professor Max Tegmark classifies life forms into three levels of sophistication: Life 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. Using the terms “hardware” to refer to matter and “software” to refer to information, he deems that Life 1.0 is “life where both the hardware and software are evolved rather than designed.” Human beings are Life 2.0, “life whose hardware is evolved, but whose software is largely designed.”

Life 3.0 is life that “can design not only its software but also its hardware. In other words, Life 3.0 is the master of its own destiny, finally free from its evolutionary shackles.” So if something like bacteria is Life 1.0 and humans are Life 2.0, what is Life 3.0? 

Artificial intelligence. Or, more specifically, “artificial general intelligence” (AGI). Rudimentary forms of AI are already with us in everything from the facial recognition software in Apple’s iPhone X to our digital assistants Siri, Alexa and Cortana. The holy grail is AGI, which is AI reaching human-level intelligence and beyond, being able to accomplish virtually any goal including learning. 

So in short, Life 1.0 is biological, Life 2.0 is cultural and Life 3.0 is technological. How does the view of man being made in the image of God interact with this? How will we define life in view of AGI? These will be the questions technology will force us to grapple with.

The second major area for reflection is the goal of AI. Almost all agree that the goal should not be undirected intelligence, but beneficial intelligence. The main concern isn’t with robots, but with intelligence itself—intelligence whose goals are destructive. As Tegmark notes, “we might build technology powerful enough to permanently end [social] scourges – or to end humanity itself. We might create societies that flourish like never before, on Earth and perhaps beyond, or a Kafkaesque global surveillance state so powerful that it could never be toppled.”

Inherent within this is outsourced morality. Here’s a simple example: a self-driving car faces a life-and-death situation. Swerve away from hitting a pedestrian, or save the life of the occupants of the car. It can and will decide, but on what basis? As we grow in our dependence on AI, we will increasingly allow it to make our decisions for us, and that includes ethical ones. And the more AI is able to think independently, the more we will have to face where we limit its autonomy.

If we are even able to.

The progression is frightening:

Step 1: Build human-level AGI.
Step 2: Use this AGI to create superintelligence.
Step 3: Use or unleash this superintelligence to take over the world.

Again, Tegmark: “Since we humans have managed to dominate Earth’s other life forms by outsmarting them, it’s plausible that we could be similarly outsmarted and dominated by superintelligence.” 

Tesla and SpaceZ CEO Elon Musk told the National Governors Association last fall that his exposure to AI technology suggests it poses “a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.” Cosmologist Stephen Hawking agreed, saying that AI could prove “the worst event in the history of civilization.” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, however, calls such talk “irresponsible.”

No wonder it has been called the most important conversation of our time. Whether it proves to be or not, it is certainly a conversation that needs Christian minds that are informed and engaged.

And thinking.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Max Tegmark, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (Knopf, 2017)

Marco della Cava, “Elon Musk Says AI Could Doom Human Civilization. Zuckerberg disagrees. Who’s right?”, USA Today, January 2, 2018, read online


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Once again the most viral verse in the U.S. is:

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9, NIV)

The most popular Bible app is called YouVersion, and at the end of every year it releases a report on the millions of users who engaged the Bible. And, as it has in the past, Joshua 1:9 came out on top as the most bookmarked, highlighted and shared verse.

At first glance, it’s not hard to see why it is so popular. There are so many times we need an encouraging word to just hang in there.

If you’re in a tough stretch of your marriage,
… if you’re in the high octane years of child-rearing,
… if you just got laid off,
… if you’re fighting an illness or disease,
… if you’re faced with a tough, potentially life-changing decision,
… if you’re starting a new job, going to a new school, moving to a new city,
… if you just broke up with someone or are going through a divorce.

How many times do we need to be strong? To have courage? To not be scared? To not give in to discouragement? If you want a verse that can speak to almost every challenge we face in life, it’s Joshua 1:9. It tells us we can be strong and courageous, unafraid and encouraged, because God will be with us wherever we go and come through for us in whatever way we need.

Or does it?

The actual context of the verse is about a specific mission given by God, to a specific man named Joshua. Throughout the wider passage, three times God says, “be strong and courageous.” And God was very specific about where that strength and courage should be applied. Joshua was to be strong and courageous as he led the people. He was to be strong and courageous in obeying God’s word. And finally, in Joshua 1:9, he was to be strong and courageous in terms of endurance.

If Joshua would exhibit these three areas of strength and courage, then God promised success in every aspect of the mission he had been given.

So is Joshua 1:9 a verse that applies to you and your situation? Your job, your school, your business, your goals? Is it meant to be applied in the ways it is often tweeted, hashtagged and bookmarked?

Be careful.

You can’t just read yourself and your situation into every passage, every story, every byline. This is about God’s call to Joshua to take the Promised Land. 

You’re not Joshua. Neither am I.

And you can’t call just anything your “promised land” and then start taking those verses as if they apply to you.

Be strong and courageous with your new start-up company because that's your “promised land” and God will show up and make it a success.

Be strong and courageous with your new real estate license because that's your “promised land” and God will show up and help you sell homes.

No.

The personal application to your life and mine is that we can always be strong and courageous that God will be with us when we pursue His mission, obey His word and remain steadfast in our calling.

And, specifically, with the call given us in the New Testament that mirrored the one given to Joshua.

What God said to Joshua was very specific to Joshua and the Promised Land. But Jesus repeated almost the exact same call – and the exact same promise – to everyone who would follow Him in regard to a new mission and a new promised land:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20, NIV)

Do you see how that mirrors what God said to Joshua? A clear mission was given by Jesus: a call to stay true to living by the Scriptures along with the promise that He will be with us as we do it. In fact, this is the fulfillment of Joshua. You can’t read Joshua 1:9 apart from Matthew 28:18-20.

What started with one man getting a mission central to the expanding Kingdom of God and being promised the power and presence of God, led to all of us receiving the mission and being promised the presence and power of God.

What started with one man leading a people into being a community of God has resulted in all of us being giving the privilege and responsibility of leading people into community with God.

As God told Joshua to go and enter the land and take it, so we are told by Christ to go into the world and take it with the message of Christ. And when we do, just as God told Joshua that He would be with him, Christ tells us that He will be with us.

And that’s an understanding of Joshua 1:9 worth bookmarking.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “‘Do Not Be Discouraged’: YouVersion Bible App Tops 300 Million Downloads,” Christianity Today, January 3, 2018, read online.

Listen to the series, “Viral Verses,” given by James Emery White at Mecklenburg Community Church.


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

I usually have several movies on my watch list. But one that I did not have on there, though I really liked many of the actors, was The Greatest Showman.

Not sure why it was low on my list. Maybe because The Last Jedi came out around the same time and I’m not a “go to a new movie every week” kind of guy. Maybe because it didn’t seem to have a hook that “hooked” me. Yes, P.T. Barnum was a fascinating historical figure, but it didn’t seem like a movie that was going to really detail his life. And while I really like Hugh Jackman, this wasn’t exactly Wolverine.

Then I got a text from my youngest daughter, Rachel. She RAVED about the movie. So much so that when she came in town on her birthday, she wanted to see it again with her brothers.

And THEY raved about it.

Okay, that’s a young mom with three kids loving it as well as two guy’s guys who would diss the Hallmark Channel for a re-run of Braveheart any day of the week.

Then, more than a few of our staff said: “Have you seen this movie? It’s great. You should see it.” 

More raving.

Which led my wife to ask, “Honey, will you take me to see The Greatest Showman?”

So I did.

And it was a good movie. I’m glad I saw it. It was moving, inspiring… just good.

And then I thought to myself, “Why did I see it?”

Only one reason:

Word.Of.Mouth.

And not just any word of mouth, but the word of mouth of those I liked, knew and trusted. Family, friends, people I work with, people who live nearby. And because it came from so many, I bought the ticket.

It reminded me – again – of the power of this for the church.

Michael Green wrote a treatise on the explosion of the early Christian church in the first century. Let me save you a few hundred pages of reading. His conclusion can be summarized in a single sentence: They shared the gospel like it was gossip over the backyard fence.

For more than 25 years, Mecklenburg Community Church has tracked why first-time guests come. Every first-time guest who lets us know they came are asked four questions in a follow-up survey:

  1. What did you notice first?
  2. What did you like best?
  3. How could we have improved?
  4. How did you hear about the church?

The #1 reason – for a quarter-of-a-century – has never changed. And there’s never even been a close #2. 

The #1 reason has always been: “Invited by a friend.”

So start talking about your church like a good movie. 

It’s the main way they will eventually buy a ticket.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church.


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.