A Handbook for Christian Engagement with AI
A Review of
Robot Theology: Old Questions through New Media
Joshua K. Smith
Paperback: Resource Publications, 2022
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Reviewed by Joel Wentz
Several years ago (pre-pandemic), I attended a 2-day “think tank” for ministry leaders in Northern New England. Our goal was to discuss the most pressing cultural issues of our time, specifically in our highly-skeptical, secular context. The reader can likely guess which issues received the most time and energy, but the specific reason I reference this event is because at one point the question was posed regarding how Christians should think about rapidly-advancing robotic technology and the potential for the achievement of AI (or something approximating human intelligence). The reaction in the room was fascinating. The conversation escalated to a fever pitch almost immediately, with a few people asserting that robots simply will never be considered “persons” because that is just “impossible,” while others loudly asserted that “whatever happens, God is still in control.” The interaction was impassioned, but not particularly thoughtful or illuminating, and the whole topic received approximately 10 minutes of attention in a 2-day event. While I had not, at that point, given the topic much thought myself, I was extremely unsatisfied with the lack of depth and nuance the conversation received, and walked away thinking, “Perhaps we Christians are overlooking something important here.”
Joshua Smith’s remarkably wide-ranging, deeply informed (and astonishingly short) Robot Theology mostly confirms my intuition at that event: this is an urgent, extremely complicated topic, towards which it seems Christians have given dreadfully-little thought. Smith’s book walks confidently into the gap, pointing the reader towards the myriad of thorny ethical, philosophical, theological, even ecological, questions that deserve better answers from Christian leaders in our time.
In a mere 130 pages (as mentioned, it truly is astonishingly short), Smith discusses topics like the philosophy and theology of personhood, the morality and ethics of pursuing robotic technology itself, legal theories of “rights” related to personhood, the philosophical understanding of “friendship” and what that brings to bear on the possibilities of meaningful social connection with AI, and even includes a perceptive chapter on the connections between the development of robots with race and racism. Each chapter is replete with footnotes pointing to deeper scholarship, as Smith demonstrates a remarkable fluency in the current literature and research on the topic, and the bibliography is a veritable gold mine of resources for those who wish to pursue a deeper dive on the topic.
Have I mentioned it’s really short? I am simply astounded at how many topics are covered here, and Smith is to be commended for guiding the reader at a consistent introductory-level through so many ideas. At the same time, Robot Theology’s brevity is its greatest shortcoming, especially considering the immense complexity of the topics discussed. Each chapter truly is a “crash course,” and the interested reader who is already well-versed in the subject will likely find more of value in the footnotes and appendices, but it’s hard to imagine someone else providing a better single volume introduction to the subject, particularly from an explicitly-Christian theological framework.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com