Trust the Table (3): The Parable of Bina 48
“Trusting the table” is my way of trying to say that the Christian Church in America cannot afford to sell out to either the conservative or the progressive worldviews. Eventually, I want to propose that the Table is a sort of “third way” alternative to these options. But before we get there, I want to explore the “ends and means” of moral progress – what I take to be the heart of the progressive worldview.
I have a friend whose present job has given him highly unusual access to see things and meet people that others my age are not typically privy to. Early in 2015, he was at a convention in San Francisco where he sat in on a lecture given by the “highest paid female CEO in America.” Her name was Martine Rothblatt.
Martine is the CEO of United Therapeutics, a biotechnology company that seeks to develop cures for some of the world’s most complicated illnesses. Martine also invented Sirius Radio. She is not only a genius, but a savvy businessperson and a brilliant organizer of human resources and potential. Just to give you a glimpse into the sort of ambition Martine Rothblatt possesses, she once led a team of scientists to create a fully functioning human lung in a vacuum, using only two human cells.
Martine is also transgender. She has been in a monogamous relationship with her spouse, Bina Aspen, since 1981. I am not raising this as an issue for our present conversation (no need to spiral into an moral diatribe at this point). To riff on Saint Paul, why should Martine Rothblatt’s sexual orientation and sexual identity be any business of mine? (1 Cor. 5:12). I bring it up to give you the context for the story of Martine’s most ambitious project yet.
You see, Martine became sad one day reflecting on the reality that Bina would eventually die. Martine did not like the idea of Bina dying. So she decided to do something about it. She spent the next several years developing a “mind clone.” (A mind clone is an A.I., or an Aritifical Intelligence). She gathered all of the non-mathematical qualities of Bina’s existence: her emotions, the way she responds when she is excited, or afraid, or nervous, her deepest desires and darkest fears. Martine compiled all of this information and programmed this A.I. to be like Bina. Her name is Bina 48.
Since Bina 48 is a computer, she can search the internet and learn. She is a maturing intelligent machine. She can also sit down with the real Bina and have conversations with her. She can learn more about the real Bina and adopt her personality traits, develop her character and embody her emotions.
My friend tells me that, while at Martine Rothblatt’s lecture in San Francisco, they brought Bina 48 out and sat her down on stage to introduce her to the crowd. At one point they even allowed members of the audience to interview her. One crowd member asked Bina 48 a piercing question, “Are you Bina? Or are you Bina 48?” Bina 48 replied, “I do not like this question. It makes me sad and upset. But I know that one day there will be no ‘Bina’ or ‘Bina 48.’ I will be Bina.”
I know what you are thinking… “A.I. apocalypse.” But aside from some of our worst dooms-day fears being realized in this story, it also raises some important ethical issues for our postmodern world. What does it mean to be human? Is our “mind” the most important part of us? What does it mean to live, to exist in this world? What is the significance of death? Is there such a thing as a good death? Can dying be redemptive in any way? What are the limits to humanity?
Here is why I tell this story. I believe it cuts to the heart of the progressive worldview. The progressive worldview might be summed up as the belief (faith?) that no matter how messed up the world is, we can fix it – we WILL fix it. A few more laws, a few more medical advances, a few more technological breakthroughs, and we will have a world within reach where even death is no longer a threat to our life. The progressive worldview is the exact opposite of the conservative worldview; at the clear opposite end of the worldview spectrum. While conservatives believe the best days are behind us and bemoan the future, Martine Rothblatt believes the best days are ahead of us and bemoans the past.
Martine has a lecture she travels the world giving. The title is, “The Goal of Technology is the End of Death.” Think about that from the perspective of Genesis 1-3. It is the most ancient of all lies, “you shall not die.” And is the world actually progressing? According to Rehab.com, 20 years ago models were 8% thinner than the average American woman. Today models are 23% thinner than the average American woman. 1 in 4 teen girls are in danger of developing an eating disorder, and 81% of elementary age girls worry about appearing overweight. That’s progress?
And I get it. In a very general sense, I tend to see the world the way that progressive Christians see it. My own sensibilities are shaped in similar ways. Progressive Christianity has sought to reclaim some important agendas in the mission of the church; challenging systems that oppress the poor, fighting against racial division, caring for the most vulnerable members of society. I get it. That is critical to the call of the church. But…
But what happens when we think we will fix it? In his book, “The World is Not Ours to Save” Tyler Wigg-Stevenson says, “We live on top of unmendable cracks, and the insoluble nature of the world means that the question posed to us is not ‘how do we fix this?’ but ‘how can we live out the love of God in the midst of such brokenness?’” So we need to at least ask ourselves, are there consequences to trying “fix” the world, rather than trusting the table in the midst of brokenness?
I think there are a couple of consequences that at least deserve a hearing:
(1) “Fixing things” puts pressure on us to “get the job done.” When we fail to work as people formed by a hope that supplies us with patience, then we tend to bulldoze people who get in our way. But one thing Jesus refused to do in order to accomplish his mission was to make enemies out of flesh and blood.
(2) The idea that we could completely fix anything seems to me to ignore the depths of brokenness embedded in our world and in us. Working to “fix” rather than to be a faithful witness necessarily places us in a position of power – a god even. Making ourselves the fixer rather than the faithful witness, seems to me to eat of that same fruit that Adam and Eve ate on that fateful day of the Fall – believing that we can become like God, knowing good and evil, forgetting the line between good and evil runs not between us and them, but right through the heart of each one of us.