„Belief in technology represents a kind of modern eschatology – the belief that technology saves man and with it the world,“ says František Štěch from the Evangelical Theological Faculty of Charles University.
Mgr. František Štěch, Th.D., studied theology at the University of South Bohemia, where he taught until 2016. He gained experience at a number of foreign universities: in the Netherlands, Germany and the USA. It deals with fundamental theology, theological interpretation of the landscape and focuses on the study of the relationship between theology and new technologies. At the ETF CU, he leads an international research group dealing with the relationship between theology and contemporary culture and teaches at the Ecumenical Institute.
You address the impact of technology on humans in your project Christianity after Christianity: Exploring the Human Deal in the Digital Age. What is it?
We are talking about a holistic approach to the topic of human experience in the information society. The central hypothesis is that advanced information systems not only transform the human experience of the world or the construction of human identity, but also shape entire social and political structures. We believe that in this situation, theology represents a valuable point of view in trying to understand the changes in the contemporary world, including phenomena such as digitization or datafication of everything.
Try to explain to me how a theological view can be actually useful.
At least in two ways. First, theology can be useful in analyzing and criticizing technology as well as the technological way of thinking, and second, it reminds us again of the theme of freedom. Theology is not a simple critique of technology, but a rediscovery of man’s free relationship to technology. And thus, it asks the question again: “Who is man in the face of new technologies?” Even technologically advanced civilizations are not free of religious structures and concepts. These are often inconspicuously hidden in them, but they always somehow come to the surface. Belief in technology represents a kind of modern, secularized eschatology – the belief that technology saves man and with it the world. Some even create new religious movements and call for a so-called technological singularity – a turning point when the capabilities of machines surpass the capabilities of humans. I can mention a sect called Way of the Future, founded by former Google developer Anthony Levandowski. Its members believe in the divinity of artificial intelligence. But even futurologist Ray Kurzweil believes that thanks to the development of technology, one can attain immortality.
What else is interesting about this topic for theologists?
Another topic is creation. A person who exercises their freedom in a creative way creates new technologies to make their life easier, more pleasant, and thus becomes a creator, if you want a creator of technologies. Of course, they want to have control over their creation. But is it possible to fully control everything we create? The ability to predict human behavior was attributed to God (Leibniz) or angels (Thomas Aquinas). Today, algorithms of technological giants, such as Google, Amazon or Facebook, compete with them.
Religion meets technology. How is Christianity and its theology changing?
I do not know if it is possible to say exactly how Christianity and its theology change depending on new technologies. But I’m convinced that it’s changing. Perhaps we could illustrate this with the example of the encounter of religion with a key technical medium such as the Internet. In the recent past, the American sociologist Christopher Helland distinguished between religion online and online religion. The former could be described as the static presence of religion or religious content on the Internet. It is a website of parishes or church congregations and such. This, of course, persists, but gradually improving technology has made it possible for “online religion” to emerge in the last two decades or so. In response to the covid-19 pandemic, many church activities have moved to a virtual environment. While the online transmission of services used to be an exception, this year it is a common practice for everyone.
Are you interested in any specific manifestations of this trend?
One Roman Catholic clergyman from Maryland responded creatively to the current situation and offered his believers a drive-thru sacrament of reconciliation, a confession. That is, “service” delivered to the car, so that it is possible to maintain the prescribed distances for social contact. There is also a lot of talk in this context about the possibility of the sacrament of reconciliation online or by telephone. And related to this is the topic of using robots to perform a spiritual profession. In a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan, there is already a spiritual robot known as Mindar, who blesses the believers and can even have a spiritual conversation with them! In 2017, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Germany, a BlessU-2 robot was programmed to bless the faithful. In five languages.
Isn’t just the thought of a clergymen being represented by a robot, somewhat heretical?
It may seem that way to some, but I am thinking of St. Paul here when he writes in 1 Thessalonians (5:21), “Examine all things, hold fast to the good.” And this comes to me as an important challenge. Personally, I can imagine that in the future, artificial intelligence can help clergy in Christian churches to create sermons, or it can completely replace them in this activity. It is also possible to program a robot to perform – and very accurately – some ritual action. It may not sound so heretical as amusing, but it raises serious questions: What is the nature and purpose of church preaching? How to understand the role of the clergy at present? What is important for it? What is the essence of the priesthood? And so on.
Then, cannot the faith that takes place between God and man become faith between God, the computer and man?
Christian theology defends the idea of creation. It continues the older Jewish tradition and claims that man was created in the image of God. The fact that man is imago Dei is proved by man’s creative abilities, which in this view somehow reflect the work of God. People are like God. Can it not be that, in an effort to be like God, we create artificial intelligence for our image? To be a computer (or computer-controlled robot) as a human? The development of artificial intelligence is becoming a very interesting topic for Christian churches. And not just in terms of ethics. Questions related to the development of artificial intelligence can help us rethink not only the essence of humanity, but also the essence of religious faith.
Jiří Novák, photo: Martin Pinkas