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The Apocalyptic Imagination: AI in Human Flourishing

A Conversation in Faith with Michael Paulus

“Artificial intelligence has become one of the most powerful and pervasive technologies in our lives,” writes Michael Paulus in his just-published AI, Faith and the Future, a book he co-edited and co-authored with colleagues from Seattle Pacific University.

There are three ways we can respond.

First, we can reject the technology. At the micro level, we can say, “I’m not going to participate on this social media platform because I can see its negative impacts on my life, the lives of others, and society in general.”

Second, we can accept the technology, but only reluctantly. We can say, “I don’t like this platform, but I use it because I value the connections I’m able to make on it.”

Third, at a more macro level, we can adopt a stance of “proactive design.” We can say, “I recognize AI’s downsides,  but I also see ways to advance human flourishing and I’m going to work toward them.”

It’s an upbeat message that aims to encourage not merely conversation, but action.

“We’re trying to clear a space for Christians and others to think about how technology can be good and make the world a better place. Our larger vision is to shift to a discussion about moral imagination and to think more holistically about what is a human being and what is a human being for? What is life for?”

“If we can cultivate a greater moral imagination and think more holistically about values — what matters to us and our families and communities — we’ll be better able to discern the appropriate response,” he says.


A Message of Hope in Apocalyptic Literature

A good way to expand our moral imagination is to read apocalyptic literature, says Michael, an area he began to explore 20 years ago while working on the Dead Sea Scrolls Project and working toward his masters in divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary.

From there, he earned a master’s in library and information science and then a doctorate in technology and theology. That explains how in 2011 he joined Seattle Pacific University, a Christian research university founded in 1891 by Free Methodists, where he serves as Assistant Provost for Educational Technologies and Dean of the Library.

While the “transhumanist” label doesn’t resonate with Michael,  he’s bullish on AI’s potential benefits for humankind.

“Apocalyptic literature can help us see a greater hope that’s both realistic and radical. It’s a unique way of looking at the world that emerged out of oppressed Jewish communities who said, ‘This is not the way the world is supposed to be. This is not the world that God promises. Where is God in this world?'”

“The apocalyptic imagination was a way of seeing a deeper reality at work. Whether you’re looking at Daniel in the Hebrew Bible or the Apocalypse in the New Testament, it’s a way of saying there’s more going on behind the scenes. There’s a greater power than these empires. There’s another kingdom that’s greater than this one and that is the kingdom of God. And we can participate in it.”

Take for example John’s narrative of the New Jerusalem in Revelation. It’s the great vision of God’s promised future, “the telos of the biblical narrative,” says Michael. The image is of a great and dynamic city:

“Measuring some 1,500 miles on each side—twelve hundred times larger than the ancient city of Babylon, as it was measured by Herodotus—the city is made of and adorned with precious earthly materials. The city has no temple nor natural or artificial light, for God’s presence fills the whole city and Christ enlightens it.”

Does AI have role in realizing God’s vision for the future? This is the question Michael explores in his contribution to AI, Faith and the Future and in his next book project, Artificial Intelligence and the Apocalyptic Imagination: The Ends of Artificial Agency.”AI captures our imagination in ways that center fundamental questions about our identity, agency, and destiny as a species,” Michael says. “These are primordial questions, and faith traditions have curated ancient wisdom that can help us reflect on how we may shape the future with AI.”


Reimagining What’s Possible

In AI, Faith and the Future, Michael and six other faculty at Seattle Pacific University look at AI from diverse disciplines through the lens of Christian theology with the aim of facilitating further reflections and dialogue about AI to help us reimagine and pursue what is possible and necessary for a better world.

The project originated in David Brenner’s effort to organize a group of people from different faith traditions who are interested in AI and ethics.

“AI and Faith started because there weren’t a lot of people participating in these discussions explicitly from different faith or wisdom traditions. We’ve attempted to draw from the resources of the Christian tradition, as well as wisdom beyond it . Technology precedes our religious traditions, and so we’ve been engaging with technologies and increasingly complex technologies for a very long time.”

There’s a lot of wisdom we can bring into these discussions,” Michael adds. “In exploring faith traditions and ancient wisdom, we’re asking: What kind of world do we want to live in?  What is our vision for a thriving, pluralistic society and a healthy planet?”

“We need to be discussing, imagining, and constructing better narratives about our future. If we can find agreements as a society about where we want to go, we can explore how our technologies can help us live into that.”


Expanding the Conversation

The G20 Interfaith Working Group for Research and Innovation on Science, Technology, and Infrastructure has called for more inclusive voices and specifically religious voices in the AI ethics discussion globally.

The report says:

“Religious communities need to develop a sense of responsibility for the role that AI plays in the world and for their own role in the development of AI. Respecting their specificities, they should further engage in public debate, giving policymakers access to shared ethical injunctions, an inter-religious understanding of cultural differences, and help identify vulnerable social groups in need of protection and uplift.”

In his next book project, Michael says the apocalyptic imagination can contribute in three ways:

  • affirming an “ethical minimum for assessing the impacts of actual and imagined technologies”;
  • pointing to “strategies and structures for resisting and reforming unjust systems and technologies”;
  • imagining a “better world that is not only a future promise but an emerging present actuality.”

“As we begin to imagine new futures…the apocalyptic imagination presented in the Apocalypse of John is a generative resource capable of transforming how we think about and use AI, and it can enable us to discern ways artificial agency may participate in new creation.”

Dan Forbush

Dan Forbush is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Saratoga Springs.

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