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Book Review

Ilia Delio’s “Re-enchanting the Earth: why AI needs religion” review

As the title suggests, this is not your average book on AI. It belongs to the very narrow group of authors engaging with technology from a religious perspective. Within that group, Dr. Delio’s work is groundbreaking, blazing new pathways of understanding in this emerging field. Her holistic approach helps set the terms for the fruitful conversation that must follow in the years to come.

Her main goal here is to present a concise worldview that integrates science and religion in a generative combination that can address the biggest challenges of our time. Within this larger, and shall I say ambitious project, AI is a synecdoche for technology in general. Tangentially, she argues for the need for theological reflection as an antidote to unfettered technological optimism. In other words, her integrative view of religion and science is what she believes can ground technological development toward human flourishing.

The scientist-nun is well-positioned to tackle this topic. Her religious commitment goes beyond intellectual ascent and her thinking is rigorous but untethered from the group think of her religious or academic tribe. As such, Illia speaks with a unique voice challenging both religious leaders and technologists to take a fresh look at how AI is impacting society.

What is the book about?

As a good academic, Dr. Delio does not leave us guessing as to what is the main argument of the book. A few pages in, she states it succinctly:

“My position is that AI shows the critical need to reconstruct religion for a world of evolution and complexity. The thesis of this book is that religion is the linchpin of the future of AI – AI-mediated cosmic intelligent life and that an AI world, oriented by new religious sensibilities, can bring about an ecological re-enchantment of the earth.”

Let’s distill these rich sentences to unpack their meaning. Her initial premise is scandalous in some religious circles. Dr. Delio is telling us that the emergence of AI is the latest sign that religion in general (and Christianity) is way overdue for an upgrade. Not a cosmetic realignment filled with half-hazard touch-ups but a wholesale reinvention. To use a car analogy, religions have been running on an internal combustion engine, it is now time to go electric.

Advocating for change is not new, yet how she does it is unique. She does not claim tradition as the foundation but the present emergence of technology1. That should raise some eyebrows in the more conservative rooms of the Vatican and other branches of Christianity. The world has evolved, and religion in turn must adapt.

Next, she defines what AI is, and this is a critical point worth explaining. The reader will notice that she does not limit herself to a technical definition. Instead, she places it in the context of nature. For Dr. Delio, AI is a part and a continuation of nature, albeit mediated by humanity. There is no separation between artificial and natural. To her, it is all part and parcel of intelligent life.

That in itself would be enough to write a book about. Yet, she continues to say that a religious-sensitive AI can usher in her integrative perspective of science and religion. That is, science and technology without the grounding of religion are bound to fail in fostering human flourishing. Or, even worse, it will be engulfed by the technocratic machine seeking optimization at all costs. In her view, this upgraded religion is what will bring things together, and re-integrate what modernity and tribalism have separated.

Illia builds her case by starting with nature and human evolution. That is, she places human history into cosmic history. In doing so, she dislodges modernity’s myopic focus on humans to see us in the larger context of creation. That is where she introduces the concept of wholeness that undergirds her argument throughout. This wholeness, what she calls Holism, is the expansive idea that we are the universe reflecting on itself.

Starting from a cosmic and holistic view, Ilia approaches AI as a phenomenon that emerged within a historical context and ideology of technology. The narrative builds up into a tour de force that is expansive integrating science, history, feminism, and spirituality to bolster her argument. In short, she sees humanity moving into a posthuman future, one that she differentiates from the transhuman one. This posthuman world also calls for a new type of religion which is where she ends this work. She believes we need a new religion (spirituality) that will foster connection for the posthuman in cyberspace.

Why is this book important?

Being in this space for over 7 years, I have noticed the tendency for faith arguments dealing with AI to start by following a strict separation between nature and technology.

An even more insidious side effect of this separation is how it inhibits the recognition of divine action in technology. The argument goes like this: God created humanity, and humans created technology. God is perfect, humans are sinful. Humans are nature, technology is artificial. Technology will never be humanity and therefore never come close to God’s creation. In an attempt to elevate God, we ended up elevating humanity and nature at the expense of technology.

The second reason why this book is so crucial to the dialogue between AI and faith is that it accurately recognizes the need for theological re-vamping within the Christian faith. That Christianity in the West is in crisis is not new nor she is the first one to point out. What is unique is how she sees the development of AI as an opportunity to foster this theological re-vamping.

The current Classical Christian theological apparatus is woefully inadequate to meaningfully and productively engage with the challenge AI presents to humanity. In other words, AI needs religion but it ain’t your grandmother’s religion (no offense to grandma intended). That is, Christian theology must first go through a wholesale re-thinking, something that she addresses more in-depth in her last two books.

This is not to say that Christianity does not have anything to contribute to the debate over AI. It just means that most of the paths through tend to lead to dead-ends that do not further vigorous dialogue but instead forces AI to fit into general “good” or “bad” categories. Oftentimes, AI gets framed as one of the favorite problems that Christian thinking wants to solve (i.e.: AI is the result of sinful greed which Christ’s redemption offers a fitting solution for)

I am aware that many will take issue with this point. Several voices in this dialogue would argue that all we need is already embedded into the vast Christian tradition. For those advocating that, the task is not to re-imagine theology but instead to use classical theology as a lens to examine AI. In other words, theology is fine, it is AI that needs the grounding that theology can provide.

Even if you fall within this camp, I would still encourage you to engage with Dr. Delio’s work. Even if it is to find holes in her argument, her compelling and controversial thesis cannot be ignored.

Where it falls short

Make no mistake, AI is not at the center but only one piece to help set up Dr. Delio’s larger framework for a new way of doing theology. Her interdisciplinary and ambitious project is worth following in its own right. I certainly plan to continue reading her books. Yet, for our purpose here at AI and Faith, her contribution is more foundational.

For one looking for a framework on how the address the larger question of AI as an existential crisis, Dr. Delio offers a good starting point. Reminding us of the connection with nature and the interconnectedness among us all helps us ground this discussion on what matters. Furthermore, her cosmic view can integrate science and faith in a generative way, opening the way for a robust evaluation of technology that is both spiritual but also grounded in the reality of life.

However, if one wants to get into the weeds of discerning how the many uses of AI technologies enhance or hinder the flourishing of life, the work has little to offer. In short, Dr Delio points us in a promising direction but the grassroots work is left to the 150+ experts of this network along with many others working to bend the development of AI away from destruction and aligning with Earth flourishing.

The promising starting point is that for us to engage in AI fruitfully we must first re-visit our view of humanity, God, and the earth. Toward the end she leaves us with this call to action:

“Our most urgent task is to realize that the earth is holy, sacred, and lovable because it is porous, permeable, and open to the endless depth and horizon of life we call God.”

Dr. Delio writes a book about technology as a way to bring us back to the dust of the earth and re-discover that God was there all along.


Elias Kruger

Is a Quantitative Analytics Manager and VP at Wells Fargo Bank in Atlanta, and the Founder of AI and Theology which seeks to apply a thoughtful Christian lens to the promise and peril of Artificial Intelligence. Elias holds a Masters of Theology degree from Fuller Seminary, and an MBA from Regent University.

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