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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Dr. James Emery White

Dr. James Emery White's weblog

What kind of responses would you get if you set up a web page allowing people to anonymously submit questions they’ve always wanted to ask about Jesus, and then made it known to an audience consisting of a large number of people who are exploring Christianity for their life?

That is exactly what we recently did at Mecklenburg Community Church and we were blown away by both the volume of the response as well as the insightful, informed nature of the questions. Spiritual and biblical illiteracy in a post-Christian world does not mean they don’t hear enough of a Christian echo to know what their questions are. 

It’s the answers that elude them.

After sifting through the questions, it became clear they could be grouped around three poles: 1) the personal life of Jesus; 2) the actions of Jesus; and 3) the saving work of Jesus.

Here are the top five questions in each category (And, granted, some of the nomenclature is ours – e.g., not many knew anything about Calvinism; however, they intuitively asked Calvinism/Arminianism types of questions.):

The Personal Life of Jesus

  1. What did He look like?
  2. What was His childhood like?
  3. Did He have any siblings?
  4. When did He know He was God?
  5. Was He ever married?

The Actions of Jesus

  1. Why did He pray to God if He was God?
  2. Why did He meet with the devil?
  3. Why did He overturn the tables in the temple?
  4. Why did He choose Judas knowing he would betray Him?
  5. Why did He say, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

The Saving Work of Jesus

  1. What about people before Jesus—how were they saved?
  2. What about those who have never heard about Jesus or can’t understand?
  3. What about those who believed in Jesus and then turned away?
  4. What about predestination—was Jesus a Calvinist?
  5. What about Jesus and deathbed conversions?

For three weeks, I tackled one set of questions per week and ploughed my way through each and every one. If you are interested, you can get the series HERE.

This was nowhere close to a formal survey of the exploring population, so let’s not call it normative. But let’s do call it informative. Let the questions soak in. And then, once they do, make sure you know how to answer them.

It’s what many people want to know about Jesus the most.

James Emery White 

 

Sources

The three installments of the series, “Everything You Wanted to Know About Jesus, but Were Afraid to Ask,” can be found on the Message Downloads page at ChurchAndCulture.org in both .mp3 and .pdf formats.


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.

Since 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project has been working on behalf of two chimpanzees, Kiko and Tommy, to have them declared eligible for basic rights—the same as if they were a “person.” After all, chimpanzees can recognize themselves in a mirror, communicate through sign language, pursue goals creatively and form long-lasting relationships.

(Currently, the two animals are privately owned. The goal is to have them released to live with other chimpanzees.)

Under current United States law, one is either a “person” or a “thing.” There is no third category. In response, the Nonhuman Rights Project argues that if every being must be either a person or a thing, then Kiko and Tommy are persons, not things. In February of this year, a group of philosophers submitted an amicus curiae brief to the New York Court of Appeals in support of legal personhood for Kiko and Tommy. The court is considering whether to allow the case to proceed.

The philosophers admit that the idea of “nonhuman personhood” seems confusing, as we tend to use the two terms synonymously and interchangeably. But, they argue, they are not equivalent. “Human” is best understood “as a biological concept that refers… to a particular species, Homo sapiens. In contrast, ‘person’ is best understood as a moral and legal concept that refers to an individual who can hold moral and legal rights.” There is, they add, “nothing special about species in and of themselves. They are morally arbitrary taxonomic categories.”

Since humanity is nothing more than “features of our lives such as conscious experience, emotionality, a sense of self and bonds of care and interdependence,” then the line between our “species” and animals is virtually non-existent except on a biological level. If an animal is conscious, emotional, intelligent and social – which is what it means to be a human/person – then it is clearly not a “thing” but a “person.”

Let’s bracket off the obvious questions, such as how far this understanding should extend throughout the animal kingdom: To chickens? Cows? Pigs? Ants?

And what about its application outside of the biological sphere, such as to an advanced artificial intelligence program?

Instead, let’s wade in theologically because there is so much a Christian worldview can offer to those involved. 

First, current United States law is theologically lacking. When you ask a Christian the ontological question, “What is?”, the answer is the Creator and the created. And what has been created? Four things: 1) angels; 2) human beings; 3) animals; and, 4) “stuff” (rocks, plants, stars, etc.). So there is more than just “people” and “things,” and it would be ridiculous to equate a golden retriever with a rock.

Second, there is something very distinct about human beings beyond our biological designation as a species. What makes us “human” is not our emotions, our brain, or a path of inner self-development. We are human because we alone have been made in the image of God (the “imago dei”). To carry the image of God means we alone have the ability to respond to, and relate to, the living God. In other words, we alone have a soul, and that soul is what allows us to do what only humans can, which is to be in a relationship with God. 

This is what gives all human beings their innate value and worth, and this is the basis for all efforts to preserve and protect human dignity. Human life alone is sacred. So we don’t have to go down the slippery slope of ending up calling anything and everything a “person,” making the term itself irrelevant. There is as strong and as clear of a dividing line between a human being and a chimpanzee as there is between a human being and a snail. It is the fact that we were uniquely made in the image of God.

Which, I might add, is why it is horrifying that the elevation of animals to personhood also seems to be coming at the diminution of humanity itself. Nicholas Kristof recently chronicled how one study found that research subjects were more upset by stories of a dog beaten by a baseball bat than of an adult similarly beaten. Other researchers found that, if forced to choose, 40% of people would save their pet dog over a foreign tourist. Kristof recalls visiting a rain forest camp where a couple dozen young Americans and Europeans were volunteering in difficult conditions to assist gorillas as part of a conservation program. It was impressively altruistic, but they were oblivious to Pygmy villagers nearby dying of malaria for want of $5 mosquito bed nets.

Third, the responsibility of humans to animals – and all of the “stuff” of the created order – is to be good and responsible stewards. To honor all of God’s creation. Yes, animals were given for our benefit, but nowhere would stewardship involve wanton cruelty or mistreatment for its own sake. One does not need to designate Kiko or Tommy as “persons” to warrant proper care and treatment. As Kristof rightly notes, human compassion should extend to animals, and the expression of animal compassion should bolster our empathy toward fellow humans.

The human race is currently in the throes of a massive identity crisis. We do not know what it means to be human. The tendency is to broaden the definition out, perhaps indefinitely. And, of course, if everything is human, then nothing is human. In truth, humans are distinct among all of God’s creation. 

We just need to remember why.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Jeff Sebo, “Should Chimpanzees Be Considered ‘Persons’?” The New York Times, April 7, 2018, read online.

Nicholas Kristof, “Choosing Animals Over People?” The New York Times, April 7, 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.

Tech is benign, right?

Wrong.

As an article from The New York Times put it: “The medical profession has an ethic: First, do no harm. Silicon Valley has an ethos: Build it first and ask for forgiveness later.

As a result, Harvard University and M.I.T. are offering a new course on the ethics and regulation of artificial intelligence (AI).

It’s about time.

As I wrote in an earlier blog this year, when it comes to 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 Max Tegmark, author of Life 3.0: Being Human in an Age of Artificial Intelligence 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 in 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. 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 (artificial general intelligence).
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 SpaceX 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 to be “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 has Christian minds informed and engaged.

And thinking.

Let’s welcome Harvard and M.I.T. to the party.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Natasha Singer, “Tech’s Ethical ‘Dark Side’: Harvard, Stanford and Others Want to Address It,” The New York Times, February 12, 2018, read online.

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.

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