Michael Burdett on Theology and Technology

What does God have to do with technology?

The ceasefire scene from Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men

Technology seemed increasingly intertwined with religion in 2017: Silicon Valley software developers founded religions, bishops blogged about artificial intelligence, and ex-Bible school students looked for meaning in transhumanism.

Dr Michael Burdett, Research Fellow in Religion, Science and Technology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and author of Eschatology and the Technological Future kindly agreed to be interviewed in November 2017 about technology and religion.

This interview covers the theology-technology relationship, Christian responses to transhumanism in particular and technological progress in general, and whether theologians should have a role in public discussions about technology.

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Theologians and Technology

Q Could you briefly introduce yourself and outline the main themes of your work on religion and technology?

Hi, I’m Michael Burdett. I’m currently a researcher at the University of Oxford where I help lead several grants on religion, science and technology. I used to be an engineer that worked in the aerospace industry in Los Angeles and did some research in robotics for a number of years before becoming an academic theologian.
It might seem that my background obviously lends itself to doing work on a theology of technology but it took a number of years for me to realise it. In the first place, it’s a really new area that is taking off in theological ethics and science and religion. When I first started about a decade ago there were just a handful of likeminded people who saw that technology was impacting many domains of our existence: gene editing tools were promising designer babies, people were beginning to spend their lives mediated more by information media than ever before and the internet and sophisticated ideologies like transhumanism were growing rapidly. This technological growth and its impact on our lives, I’m sure we all understand, is only getting more sophisticated and intimate. I noticed then that there was a decided lack of thoughtful theological reflection on these technological changes and I figured I ought to do what I could to fill the gap since I’ve both created this technology and I’m trained as a theologian.
Since then my theological work has engaged with eschatology and the technological future, the ethics of human enhancement, issues of personhood and creation in a world increasingly dominated by AI and even how we might live and flourish as Christians in a technological society.

Q At first glance, technology doesn’t seem like a natural area for theologians (given most of today’s religions had their formative time when technological development was very gradual). Is developing a theology of technology an area in which there is much activity?

It is certainly a growing area in theology and I tell people that it seems to have reached a critical mass in the public consciousness and theological sub-disciplines the last four to five years. When I first attended theological conferences that had sessions on technology over a decade ago you might get 15–20 people in the audience on a good day. I was just told that the transhumanism and religion section of the American Academy of Religion had between 100–150 people in attendance. Funding bodies want to do more projects in the area and I constantly get requests from individuals wanting to do graduate work in the area. I think we are really at the dawn of increased activity.

Q In Eschatology and the Technological Future (E&TF) you introduce several historical theologians (or Christian philosophers) of technology — Bacon, Fedorov, Teilhard, Ellul etc. Is there a particular theologian (one of these or someone else) who has particularly influenced your own thinking?

This is a difficult question. In a way because I’ve written about them each has influenced my judgements on theology and technology. At the very least I think they are all important to understanding a theology of technology. Without Bacon we wouldn’t understand our contemporary utopian impulse that technology brings to society a kind of panacea that will cure all ills. Without Fedorov we wouldn’t have contemporary, explicitly religious transhumanism.
But, from this list, I imagine both Teilhard and Ellul have influenced my own theological thinking on technology—not least because I think they are more sophisticated in their assessments and theological proposals. I am enamoured with Teilhard’s thoroughly material account of divine providence and presence in creation. It’s so clear from his writings that God’s action in the world is very deep and is visible even in the empirical developments of evolutionary change and cultural development. The theological upshot is that God is active in the world and cares about it—even in places we might overlook. He has a deeply sacramental view of reality (see Hymn of the Universe and Le Milieu Divin). I might disagree with how closely and often naively he weds God’s action in the world and biological, cultural and technological development (he has a very poor theodicy), but I gain from him that God surely works in history, even technological history. Ellul counterbalances Teilhard, not least because I think he understands more the real sociological and personal effects of technology—after all he was one of the first and most respected sociologists of technology when he was writing in the 1950s and 1960s—well ahead of his time! Practically, Ellul coaches us to question and challenge the tacitly held belief that technology, when applied to every domain of human life, will mean good things for us and the world. It is much more complex.
However, if I am to move beyond this list I would say George Pattison and Brent Waters have influenced my thinking more than anyone else. George’s book Thinking About God in an Age of Technology and his doctoral supervision have obviously had a profound effect—not least the way he taught me that ‘technology’ is a philosophical, theological and cultural condition. Brent Waters is doing some of the most sophisticated analysis of technological culture and providing really robust theological responses. His two books are critical to anyone wanting to learn more about how Christians ought to live in technological societies.

Transhumanism and Christianity

Q E&TF is a response to transhumanism, and you argue that Christians and society at large should seriously listen to the transhumanism narrative — apart from within academia, can you point to any part of the global church which you think is engaging effectively with transhumanism?

I think the book is, in part, a response to transhumanism but not because I think the movement itself requires a lot of attention on its own. Rather, I think transhumanism provides an explicit account of tacit beliefs that underlie much of technological culture that aren’t quite so superlative but are still operative. The explicit belief that reality is informational and human beings are nothing but information (and hence can be manipulated by our desires) is often explicitly held by transhumanists but not necessarily by the wider populace to such an extreme degree. However, our increasing virtual interactions and concern about our digital footprint as critical to who we are (think of the rise of identity theft) reveals that we are increasingly seeing ourselves in terms of information: we are informational beings. Transhumanist beliefs help us to uncover and more starkly throw into relief what we might already think about ourselves and our world as impacted by technology. So, specifically in E&TF I was interested in how transhumanism manifested a much larger and diffuse belief in how we construct and think of the future in terms of futurum rather than adventus and how this might square with the Christian faith.
To answer your question directly, I don’t know where the global church is engaging well with transhumanism. The Christian Transhumanist Association is attempting to bridge the divide and is making significant strides but whereas they seem happy to take an ‘integrationist approach’ already I think we need a lot more time in ‘dialogue’. Frankly, I don’t know how their ‘affirmations’ can be classified as transhumanist. It seems a category error. What is more, there are a number of transhumanist beliefs and practices that are rather harmful and very anti-Christian: the denigration of bodily existence, self-aggrandisation and solipsistic transcendence, poor understanding of relationships with others and particularly with the vulnerable, and a reductionist account of personal and social sin/ills.

Q In your conclusion to E&TF you seem open to the idea that God might work through human enhancement technologies to build his kingdom, but urge Christians to be cautious and not allow the transhumanism narrative to replace that of God’s salvation. Would you say that Christians who promote a ‘Christian Transhumanism’ approach share this view?

This is a very insightful question and one that I’m still working out the details myself. In fact I have an entire grant with 10–15 top theologians who are working on whether human enhancement technologies could ever be the means of God’s work building the kingdom. A couple of special issues of theological journals will be coming out in the next year or two that will address it more fully. It seems to me that talking about technology in terms of salvation and redemption is poorly motivated. But, I am open to the possibility that human enhancements might have implications for things like sanctification and to a lesser extent deification since, in the Christian tradition, they have had real bodily and physical associations. Clearly our conformity to Christ through spiritual disciplines indicates we aren’t completely passive to the work of God—rather our action is in correspondence to the external grace that utterly transforms us. My sense is the answer will depend on the specific circumstances and concrete enhancement applications; the kind of work begun by Harris Wiseman on moral enhancements.

Understanding Futurum and Adventus

Q Again in E&TF, you describe secular transhumanism as a narrative of futurum, and contrast this with adventus — thinking about a future in which unforeseen interventions from a personal God are possible — how would you describe the adventus approach to an interested layperson?

I think that would depend on whether they were a person of faith or not. If they were a person of faith I’d probably point them to the countless events in the bible where the people of God seem to be at their wits end: all their power, strength and ability to effect real change in a situation is just completely impossible. In Exodus 14, the Israelites have been chased down by pharaoh’s army after countless years of slavery and are on the banks of the Red Sea about to be caught, punished and likely enslaved again. What power did they have of themselves in that moment to really prevent this future of torture and oppression they had experienced for so long? Or consider the plight of Daniel in the lion’s den (Daniel 6) where, I’m sure animal experts would explain, Daniel had a slim chance of survival. In each of these circumstances and countless others like them we see how the very power of God is relied upon to provide a future that just seems impossible given the present circumstances without God. Adventus describes how God breaks into our present revealing that He is the God of the past, present and indeed the future. Adventus is the claim that all futures are God’s future and that he holds the power to direct His creation and its history in ways He sees fit, no matter what might seem probable to us at the time.

See Michael’s answer to the last question for his description of adventus to a non-religious person.

Q You cover the role of sci-fi in E&TF — is there any fictional writing which illustrates an adventus approach?

Of course, in one sense the adventus approach to the future is just a kind of apocalypticism: history gets ‘interrupted’ by something that is either internal or external to nature, creation, society, history etc. So any narrative that represents an interruption of the narrative, environment or conditions of the story bears an incredible likeness to adventus.
Take for example one of my favourite films, Children of Men (and the original book by P.D. James). In the film humanity has lost its ability to procreate and, hence, the current generation will only last a further fifty years. The film and book explore what a society devoid of a real future of continued existence might look like: an increasing totalitarian state seeking to bring order to a ‘hopeless’ people that have descended into chaos, tribalism and despair. Here, humanity has no hope because it has no future. Teetering on the brink of absolute despair and seeking to maintain a radical hope amidst a seeming impossibility, a child is born to the most unlikely woman from a caste that enjoys no privilege or prestige. At the pinnacle of the film war ceases miraculously for just a moment as the child is carried amidst soldiers and displaced outcasts who recognise the gravity of the situation: they can hope again but it is tenuous. What seemed impossible has become possible. It is difficult not to see this particular moment in the context of sacred scenes found within Christianity. It certainly brings new meaning to Christ being the ‘Son of Man’ that carries the hope of life to humanity.
Many other examples could be cited that explore precisely the existential and personal dimensions of apocalypse and hoping for something that is beyond all possibilities. It is precisely in those moments that we want to hope in something despite all odds, we would like to trust that some power outside the situation will bring justice and continuity. This is a staple of science fiction and, in some ways, is a kind of pre-theological preparation for adventus, it recognises the desire for something other than the world on its own can satiate.

Q It’s fair to say the futurum approach is endemic in the way that society thinks about the future, especially when developing technologies (e.g. funded by governments or businesses to solve grand challenges or satisfy consumer demand). Could you outline what an adventus approach might look like in practice? If we thought about our role as God’s co-creators more deeply, what would we want to do with technology, and how might we go about it?

It would certainly change the way Christians make technology. One of the first steps towards an adventus approach to technological development would be getting the makers of technology to realise their vocations have ‘kingdom relevance’. Indeed, one of the reasons I wanted to do civil engineering many years ago was because I thought it could help people by building quality infrastructure: water purification systems, bridges and buildings that could withstand seismic activity. Christians are called to aid the whole person: spiritual, physical, personal and social. It’s easy to see how the development of hydraulic structures to prevent flooding and, hence, injury and death has kingdom relevance: you can’t expect to address spiritual needs while those same people are impoverished. So, getting Christians in these industries to think about the purposes of their craft and what these technologies are deployed for is a good first step to developing how adventus might impact the production of technology. Second, getting them to think about the very practice of ‘making’ as consonant with the development of creation—seeing technology as an element of divine creation—is a further step towards seeing God’s grace transfuse areas that we think have no relation to divine initiative or meaning.

Public Theology on Technology

Q Many people are increasingly concerned about technology, whether it’s the internet’s effect on democracy, job losses due to machine learning, or just a sense of general unease about the speed of change and unforeseen side-effects. In response, more commentators are promoting the view that we can control technology and can set our own vision for it. Should theologians be doing more ‘public theology’ on a vision for technology?

Absolutely! In one sense there is a cleaving happening in academic theology now between those that are seeking to reclaim a distinctly theological voice for the health of the discipline, ‘theological theology’, and those that say the future of academic theology in the academy will need to be more interdisciplinary in nature. I would be the first to say both are needed and those interested in applied theology, ethics and public theology need to be focusing much more on technology. If we aren’t at the table how can we serve our communities and impact genuine change in these areas?

Q Do theological approaches to technology have anything to say to non-religious people (perhaps to those who self-describe as ‘spiritual but not religious’)? The adventus narrative may not appeal to strict naturalists, but might the relational approach which comes out in your work (e.g. you describe Bacon’s interest in using technology to repair relationships between humanity and the natural world) help inform secular thinking on technology?

I think it can contribute. This radically unforeseen future is a feature of our everyday existence. We constantly meet situations that are new and unexpected. We are predisposed to have experiences of a sublime nature which evade all processing and expectation. Inasmuch as real planning of the futurum kind can have tremendous benefits and value, radical dreaming and radical hoping have its role as well. The scientific and technological endeavours depend upon radical dreaming and openness to a future for its creativity and continued research. Science fiction is a particularly able location for expanding the horizons of our science and technology. Our imagination allows us to envision this radically new future. The non-Christian should be open to this type of future precisely because it is both a feature of our experience and because it contributes to our pursuits today.

Many thanks, Michael.

Michael’s book, Eschatology and the Technological Future, is an extremely helpful review of technological progress (with a focus on transhumanism) from a Christian theological perspective and is available from Routledge.

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