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Building a Faithful Case for Artificial Intelligence

February 7, 2024
Tim Dalrymple
Tim Dalrymple

In talking about artificial intelligence and its possible effects on the church, January Series 2024 speaker Timothy Dalrymple suggested a comparison about bricks.

“You can use a brick to build something to give glory to God, or . . . to hit someone over the head and kill them,” said Dalrymple, who is CEO and president of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today.

The bottom line, he added in his presentation at the Calvin University Covenant Fine Arts Center, is that artificial intelligence (AI) is another technological tool, given to us by God, that has an amazing range of possibilities. It can, for example, help the church spread the message of the gospel.

“And this is already happening,” he said. “AI is helping to translate the Bible into many hard-to-translate languages.”

However, as with many other technologies, artificial intelligence can also be used for wrongdoing and harm.

“While we can use this technology in remarkable and redemptive ways to share the love of Christ,” said Dalrymple, “we can also use AI to create a technology in our own image, and what would that lead to? Perhaps it would end up in a second Fall.”

Seeking the formation of an AI that thinks for itself, he said, could conceivably lead to development of a new type of human intelligence that runs amok, generating widespread chaos and collapse.

“Right now,” Dalrymple added, “artificial intelligence is a misnomer. It is a new form of data collection and dissemination, but only that.”

In his talk, titled “What’s Becoming of Us?: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of the Church,” Dalrymple began by connecting the use of technology to the story of Eden in the book of Genesis.

“God planted the Garden of Eden and created man and a helpmate. Essentially, God brought forth humankind to bring fertility, creativity, and order to the world,” he said. “We were created by God to be creators, to create and design tools to help with our own flourishing.”

Dalrymple is a former national champion gymnast who turned to academia following an accident in college in which he broke his neck. He studied at Stanford University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

“Early on in Genesis,” Dalrymple went on, using Scripture to build his case, “there was a proliferation of technologies for agriculture and the preservation of life. We think of the construction of the Tower of Babel, which God stopped, not because of the technology but because the goal was not good for humans.”

Dalrymple defined technology as a tool or technique that increases our power to manipulate our environment.

“We tend to associate technology with ‘high-tech’ devices. . . . The laptops in our backpacks are, indisputably, artifacts of technology. But a backpack too is a kind of technology, developed in its modern form in the 1950s by a man named Dick Kelty.”

In a quick biblical history of technology and its use for the flourishing of humankind and the worship of God, Dalrymple mentioned the construction of the ark of the covenant as well as the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem.

There was also the slingshot David used in slaying Goliath. “This was a new military technology used to neutralize and take someone out from a great distance with extraordinary precision,” he said.

Considering Christ, he said, Jesus grew up as a carpenter who “made things with tools” for the use of his family and friends in Nazareth. Beyond that, Christ used words and stories – themselves a form of technology – “to describe what it means to be created in the image of God.”

Moving along, said Dalrymple, we had the invention of the printing press, which brought the Bible to millions of readers. There was also the building of cathedrals for the worship of God, and the construction of seaworthy ships and then airplanes to carry mission efforts to many places across the world.

Looking at the development of technology in our age, Dalrymple focused on the expanding use of computers, the reach and wonder of the internet, and the development of artificial intelligence.

“So,” he asked, “where does AI fit? To start, it is a technology like any other. It is part of the effort to make our world more ordered and to solve problems that are in front of us.”

To be sure, he added, there are already any number of problems and challenges with AI, especially when this tool is in the hands of people seeking to gain benefit for their own purposes.

“Certainly AI can play on negative emotions . . . to achieve something going viral,” he said. “As with forms of social media today,” it can be used to “pour out anger, contempt, and fear” on people in order to take advantage or to spread harm.

So will we use AI to get people hooked and addicted? he asked. Will we use it to demean people who are different from us? Will we use it to twist and reformulate the realities of the day to meet our own narrow needs and demands?

Or, said Dalrymple, “will we use AI as an engine to gather up creative labor and make it useful in new ways?”

Instead of using AI to build a modern-day Tower of Babel seeking to make ourselves great, he said, perhaps we will use it to better understand the vast and acutely personal workings of our Creator.

“Perhaps we will be able to use AI to find ways to help others, to reduce disease, to make our world and the lives of people more enjoyable and sustainable, and perhaps to make our laws more just and fair.”

Dalrymple wrapped up by saying that God gave us the ability to develop AI – now it is up to us to use it in the faithful ways for which God intends.