Leadership Development in Local Church Revitalization: A Review of the Literature and Suggestions for Further Research

by Bart L. Denny This article identifies a gap in the existing literature concerning leadership development in the context of local church revitalization. The article further suggests how existing leadership and leadership development theories could be applied to church revitalization and proposes further investigation and research areas. Observers and practitioners in the field of church revitalization unequivocally make the case that for a local church to reverse its decline, the pastor must develop a new generation of leaders (Clifton, 2016; Davis, 2017; Henard, 2021; Rainer, 2020; Stetzer & Dodson, 2021). The extant literature links the decline of churches to a lack of leadership and identifies renewed leadership as a vital component of church revitalization. However, little has been written, theoretically or practically, about the process of leadership development as it applies to local church revitalization. Moreover, little empirical verification supports church revitalizat

Pastoral Leadership and an Ethic of Artificial Human Intelligence Enhancement


A paper from a class: Ethics in Christian Ministry Leadership and Education (CLED 815), Liberty University, Rawlings School of Divinity

by Bart L. Denny, Th.M.
December 14, 2020

You might find this a strange article, but I believe pastoral leaders will soon have to deal with the possibilities explored here not as science fiction, but as a medical reality our people are considering.

Cybernetics—the melding of electronic and computer systems with the human nervous system—seems to hold the genuine possibility of healing diseases with a neurological basis.  However, many futurists dream of far more than the restoration of normal functioning; they see a human race on the cusp of forcing its own “evolution,” with the melding of the human mind and artificially intelligent computer systems. The desired result is a cybernetic transhuman, with intelligence far beyond normal human cognition and perhaps even the ability to attain immortality. Such an eventuality smacks of humanity’s desire to be gods unto themselves, not unlike the builders of the Tower of Babel. This paper proposes an ethic of artificial human intelligence enhancement from a Christian perspective—opposing the development of “superhuman” cognitive abilities while allowing for healing disease. The author aims to help pastoral leaders to guide congregants through these thorny issues from a biblical standpoint.

Transhumanism: Science Fiction Fast Becoming Science Fact

The idea of cybernetically enhanced human beings—whose nervous systems communicate with and control electronic devices—has long been the stuff of science fiction. The genre often refers to such people as “cyborgs” or “bionic.” Since the 1940s, however, scientists have imagined a future cybernetic reality (Nayar, 2013). Today, the medical field is beginning to make available prosthetic limbs that respond to the wearer’s thoughts.  Electronic cochlear implants have restored hearing in some deaf people, while there is the near-term possibility of restoring sight to those with neurologically-based blindness using cybernetic implants.

Further advances in cybernetics may allow for greatly enhanced health monitoring and, combined with nanotechnology, might lead to the development of “smart bandages” and “microsurgeries” to help repair injuries and illnesses without the invasiveness of traditional surgical interventions. Indeed, such technology may even repair genetic disorders at the cellular level. Early experiments on rats show that electronic implants to the injured spinal cord and impaired areas of the brain may allow for the cure of paralysis and the restoration of lost motor function (Mehrali et al., 2018). If proven safe and efficacious, such medical technologies appear to hold out hope for thousands of people who suffer from maladies that are, today, uncurable. Companies such as Neuralink, founded by innovator Elon Musk of PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla fame, seek to create brain-implanted devices that not only cure neurological diseases but are also secure, safe, and reliable (Neuralink, 2020).

Nevertheless, many futurists and technologists, including the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), see much more than healing. They envision a mind-machine interface that allows humans to do things far beyond any natural capability. Soldiers enhanced with such interfaces might be able to communicate “telepathically” with thought only. Learning might become as easy as downloading the information from a computer into the human brain. People equipped with such technology might control compatible machinery and equipment “telekinetically” with their thoughts. Communication with computers and networks will no longer require such interfaces as monitors, keyboards, or mice (Kaku, 2014). Kapur (2018) ably demonstrates that rudimentary two-way interfaces between the human mind and computer networks are already possible, albeit in wearable form, not implanted within the brain or any other part of the body.

To people at least minimally informed about computer networks, the ethical problems with such a future begin to appear quickly. It seems probable that such technologies will prove problematic for concerns such as the privacy and security of a human being’s innermost thoughts. Nevertheless, the transhuman philosophy sees far more than such powers as computer-enabled telekinesis and telepathy at play. Transhumanism is “the idea that human beings should take control of their own biologic evolution, freely designing it through technology, in order to reach a post-human stage” (Manzocco, 2019, p. 4).  Transhumanism believes in an ultimate post-human future, where human beings will have transcended the limits of their physical bodies and may choose to have their consciousness reside in some computer “cloud” or a computer-networked body. Human bodies will be replaceable and may consist of a mix of organic, but perhaps mostly, synthetic parts. According to transhumanist thinking, the post-human will be disease-resistant and possess cognitive abilities far beyond mere humanity. Immortality is a stated goal of the post-human future.  In the meantime, bridging the gap between the human and the post-human is the “transhuman.”

Transhumanism seeks the radical, technological reengineering of the human condition (Mitchell & Riley, 2014). A transhuman is a person who, increasingly over time, benefits from such technologies as biomedical devices, genetic engineering, cybernetics, and others, to live what is, ostensibly, a longer, healthier, and happier life (Manzocco, 2019).  Not only does transhumanism reject the inevitability of aging and physical malady or disability, but it also seeks to remove undesired psychological, moral, and emotional traits or disorders (Specker et al., 2014). 

Much to its credit, transhumanism rejects the tenets of the “eugenics” movement that seeks to use forced sterilization, cross-breeding, and elimination of the “unsuitable” to create a Hitlerian “super race” (Manzocco, 2019, p. 34). Indeed, according to the “Transhumanist Declaration” (Vita-More et al., 1998), transhumanism respects the right of all people (and for that matter, sentient computers and intelligent animals) to make “wide personal choice over how they enable their lives.” Nevertheless, even if transhumanism advocates a less coercive means than the eugenics movement, it does seek to create a superior race.

Artificial Intelligence and the Transhuman Future

Among the stated goals of transhumanism are producing vastly more intelligent individuals than the average human being today. Computers are already an indispensable tool in modern life, with their ability to systematically store, recall, and process vast amounts of data in a rapid and efficient matter. Computers use complex programs to execute a wide variety of data processing and analysis that allow for office productivity, archival capability, communications, games, and a whole host of other useful or entertaining functionality. However, computers cannot exercise rational, creative, adaptive, or analytical thought as human beings. They cannot “think” or “learn” in any human sense, nor are they “self-aware” or even emotional. Complex as computer systems are, and as advanced as their programming is, they ultimately require human programmers to give them the instructions necessary to carry out their functions. Human beings possess “general intelligence,” including the capacity to deal with the unpredictable. Most computer systems today possess “narrow intelligence”—a specialization limited by their specific programming. AI seeks to change that, imparting general intelligence on computer systems (Shatzer, 2018).

Artificial Intelligence (AI) seeks ultimately to change this paradigm. AI’s goal is not necessarily for machines to “think” in the same way as humans do, but for them to do what humans do as thinking entities (Walker, 2017). AI seeks to closely mimic human cognition, creativity, adaptivity, and emotion. AI machines will be able to “learn” without additional programming by human beings. AI could empower driverless automobiles and make agriculture and industry more productive. AI might free humans from data-intensive analysis, freeing them for more “big picture” sorts of thinking.

As Anderson and Luchsinger (2018, p. 2) observe, networked digital connectivity is already pervasive in human life. Advanced, networked computers now reside in the pockets of most people in the form of a “Smart Phone,” capable of enhancing personal productivity in ways just being dreamt of just a generation ago. The goal of AI is to improve the human condition, but many experts hold deep concerns. Not only could AI mean further human job loss to automation, but many see a real possibility for the diminution of human agency and free choice. AI programmed for profit seems unlikely to make the best choices for anyone but those who will profit. In short, “The current political and economic climate suggests that existing technology, especially machine learning, will be used to create better decisions for those in power while creating an ever more tedious morass of bureaucracy for the rest.” (Anderson & Luchsinger, p. 17).

Further, AI seems poised to make issues of data security and surveillance even more problematic.  AI-driven weapons systems provide for the nightmare scenario of rebellious, networked, weaponized automatons that rebel against their human masters. Many computer information systems specialists insist that the day when machines rise and replace their human creators is not so far from the pages of science fiction as one might imagine (Walker, 2017).

AI and Transhumanism Merged

Most theorists who envision a world replete with AI machines and systems see a society where human beings and machines exist alongside each other and where, hopefully, humankind remains the master. Transhumanism sees the melding of humans with computer systems, and if those computers are artificially intelligent, then all the better.  AI systems would be a way of storing and processing more data faster than the human brain and would enable some of the desired outcomes of transhumanism.  Supposedly, AI would also enable vastly improved cognitive abilities and suppress “bad” moral choices or psychological conditions while enhancing the “good” emotions or character traits (Lustig, 2008).

When AI combines with other disciplines, such as biomedical engineering, genetic engineering, cloning, and robotics, futurists seriously speculate about a day when those who choose this path become immortal in this present life. People will replace body parts as they wear out or transition their consciousness to a genetically engineered clone not susceptible to the same maladies as the original human. Perhaps the super-intelligent human will have the ability, theorists posit, to upload their consciousness into a more extensive system of intelligence (not unlike the science fiction movie, “The Matrix”), or into a “synthetic” body that looks and feels just like a human. In any case, the transhuman becomes post-human in defeating death.

Artificial Human Intelligence Enhancement Evaluated from a Christian Worldview

No doubt, most thoughtful evangelical Christians will read much of what this paper lays out and will instantly recoil in horror—and with good reason.  Because of the rapid advances in biomedical engineering, materials, genetics, AI, and computer network systems,  Christians can no longer dismiss as fantasy what was once the realm of science fiction. This student may not see the day where he, in his ministry as a pastor, will be faced with counseling a parishioner who is considering—or has a loved one considering—undergoing such technological augmentations as computer-enhanced intelligence. However, he believes he will serve as a mentor to younger pastors who will face just such conversations.

Christians share several common concerns with transhumanists. Both desire that human beings enjoy a good quality of life and seek to end human suffering. Both appreciate that technology has benefits that can accrue to these ends. Indeed, both long for immortality. (Mitchell & Riley, 2014). Generally, Christians have long accepted medical technologies that improve the quality of human life, end human suffering, and—more as a byproduct of the former—increase human lifespan.  Surgical interventions, pharmaceuticals, prosthetics, and countless other modern medical innovations are a normal part of the human experience and fall into most Christians’ embrace.  Ethically-developed cybernetic innovations may hold out hope of treating neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other cognitive disorders, movement disorders such as Parkinson’s, spinal cord injury, and some cases of deafness or blindness. (Del Aguila & Postigo Solana, 2015). 

Likewise, at least a plurality of Christians shudders at the idea of medical technologies designed to end human life. Such medical interventions include abortion, euthanasia, and (for many Christians) such “humane” forms of execution such as lethal injection.  Masses of Christians also feel uneasy about genetic engineering, cloning, certain reproductive technologies, and other technologies that appear as human science playing God. Both secular and Christian ethicists seem particularly concerned about the aims expressed by the transhumanist movement.  Christian ethicists’ concerns with artificial human intelligence enhancement have profound roots in theological anthropology, soteriology, hamartiology, and eschatology.

Artificial Human Intelligence Enhancement and Theological Anthropology

Enhancement technologies that cure disease should find a place in the Christian worldview. However, he says, technologies designed to impart “superhuman” abilities fall outside the healing rubric and tamper with the Imago Dei—God’s image in humankind (Lustig, 2008).  A parallel that seems to hold many similarities with transhumanism is transgenderism. Indeed, one of the most significant theological arguments against transgenderism—especially surgical attempts to “transition” a person from their birth sex into the opposite sex—is that such acts are an attack on the image of God (Grudem, 2018, p. 846).  Genesis 1:27 shows that maleness and femaleness are inherent in being a bearer of God’s image. Genesis 2:24 further implies that male and female, living in community, particularly in a monogamous sexual union, constitutes part of what it means to bear God’s image.  Bible reinforces these notions, through both the Old and New Testaments, with explicit prohibitions against trying to appear as a member of the opposite sex or engaging in homosexual activity.  For its part, the First Council of Nicea (AD 325) rejected voluntary castration outside of medical necessity—because the practice overtly rejected creation as a male—and demanded the dismissal of such clergy as underwent the process (Cherry, 2017). The church has long recognized the good of medically indicated procedures over aimed at satisfying one’s vanity and pride.

However, AI-enhanced human brains would appear to have little to do directly with human sexuality. Moreover, because God is an all-present spirit (John 4:24), orthodox Christian theologians have never argued that the Imago Dei has to do with humans possessing a body that “looks like” God. Thus, Christians do not seem to have argued en masse against such technologies as prosthetic limbs or artificial hearts, or any innovations designed to substitute for ailing or destroyed human functionality. Nevertheless, this writer argues, the artificial enhancement of human intelligence does assault the Imago Dei.

Many theologians believe that the tripartite nature of human beings—body, mind, and spirit—reflects their creation in the image of a triune God (Koosed, 2014, pp. 175-198).  While it might be possible to create a new body, including a new brain, and transfer memories into the new brain, there is no biblical evidence that the spirit could transition into a new body. As for the possibility of “uploading” human consciousness into a new brain or a computer system, many scientists believe the actual person might not survive. Memories may survive. The new brain or computer would have the ability to process information stored in memory and new experiences cognitively.  However, personality and personal identity themselves may not survive the transition (Jung, 2020). The very efforts by which a person seeks to cheat death may kill the person and, thus, the image bearer. God prohibits killing His image-bearers in Genesis 9:6.

Artificial Human Intelligence Enhancement, Soteriology, Hamartiology, and Eschatology

As discussed, the goals of melding the human mind with computers include the technology required to transfer human consciousness from the brain to another brain or computer and to alter undesirable moral traits in the person so enhanced. Humans melded with AI will become not only super-intelligent but immortal and, presumably, sinless. Or so that is the aim.

The idea that humans who undergo “moral enhancement” through the melding of their minds with computers can become sinless reflects the Pelagian heresy at its very core. Pelagius believed men could become sinless by will; cybernetically enhanced humans would seek to become sinless through technology. Moreover, cybernetic immortality is the soteriological goal of transhumanism. It is a secularist eschatology through and through. (Leidenhag, 2020, p. 5). Salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone is replaced by salvation through faith in technology, outside of God.

In this cybernetic humanism, sinless perfection is not something to be attained on the other side of eternity. Sanctification is not a process of continuously living a life conformed to the image of Christ. Instead, unceasing technological upgrades would serve as a pathway from human to transhuman to post-human perfection. The eschatological end state of cybernetic immortality is not an eternity in the presence of God in a perfected (but human) resurrection body. Instead, the cybernetically-enhanced human will live without end in this world, with a body that looks ever less than anything like a human body. Somehow, this digital immortality seems to fall far short of true eternal life.

Trying to Be Like God: The New Tower of Babel

Genesis 11 records the events surrounding the Tower of Babel and God’s confounding of human language. The heart of the people’s sin is this, “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.’” (Genesis 11:4, ESV). God’s ire does not come about because the people might reach Heaven; indeed, God scoffs at the very idea, as he comes down to see the tower. Instead, God’s concern is “man’s misdirected efforts at establishing his self-sufficiency.” (Mathews, 1996). In the Tower of Babel narrative, God aims His judgment at humanity’s desire for autonomy from Him and from the limitations they perceive Him to have placed upon them.

To Manzocco (2019, pp. 32-84), transhumanism—the umbrella under which cybernetic intelligence enhancement falls—is more than a philosophy or an idea. It is a New Tower of Babel, a radical revolt against the God of Heaven. It is the worship of self and defiance of God’s creative order. Informed by Paul Tillich and Reinhold Neibhur, Childs (2015) observes the paradox of human self-transcendence, which seems inherent in bearing God’s image. In other words, human beings can see fulfillment, meaning, and destiny beyond the self. However, this same self-transcendence gives human beings the capacity for idolatry; they divinize such finite things as human logic and reasoning (Childs, 2015, p. 12). Human intelligence, including the quest to expand the human intellectual capacity, has long been an idol.  Particularly in its aim to enhance human intelligence far beyond current, natural limitations, transhumanism is a religion unto itself.  The movement seeks to give humankind “control of its evolutionary destiny” (Shatzer, 2019).

Conclusions and Reflections for Pastoral Ministry

With Karl Barth’s Romans and Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society as his basis, Childs (2015, p. 11) argues that secular and theological liberalism are comfortable with the false premise that society as a collective is capable of the same moral possibilities as individuals. Because of humanity’s impassible sin nature, societies’ collective behavior can never be brought to heel by reason or conscience alone.  In a world where no sin nature existed, all of society would benefit from intelligence-enhancing technologies. Then again, a world untainted by sin would also be untainted by death and illness, nor would idolatry drive humans’ desire to be gods unto themselves. 

If people were all benevolent, both individually and collectively, then many of society’s problems would be non-existent. The idea that, suddenly, the application of artificial intelligence enhancement, or even the eventual immortality it hopes to achieve, would cause people to behave in a benevolent fashion is absurd. Both the historical and biblical witnesses show that people who gain power or advantage will extend their lead over others to the best of their abilities. It is improbable that, if achieved,  artificially-enhanced human intelligence will prove to be anything near the panacea that transhumanist philosophy promises. Super-intelligent humans will not transcend the limits of their sin natures. Instead, they seem likely to ensure that others with competing interests do not gain access to the technology that has given them the upper hand over unaltered humans. That is the reflection of human history.

Outside of such theological concerns, cybernetically-enhanced brains seem to bring with them the possibility for real security issues, including a loss of privacy for those enhanced, or even susceptibility to being controlled by others. Such cyber hacking is a nightmarish prospect. Further, this author believes in the strong possibility that if it becomes possible to transfer memories to a new body and brain, the spirit will not remain with body and mind. The real “person” will die—and face eternal judgment—and what remains will be an imitation of the person who once lived.

Christians should recognize that immortality as found through God’s grace in Christ, with a resurrected, glorified, and perfected body that will live forever with the Lord is the reality promised to them in the Bible. Moreover, eternal life in Christ seems to present with it the real possibility for greatly expanded knowledge and intellect. As the Apostle Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12, ESV).  In the eschaton, the true believer in Christ can look forward to a new heaven and a new earth where God dwells among His people and takes away their sorrow, death, and pain (Rev. 21). It seems quite probable that God would even teach those who live in eschatological immortality anything they might desire to know.

On the other hand, even if possible (and this author is extremely skeptical that it is), the so-called immortality offered by cybernetic intelligence seems nothing but a shadow of the real thing. Should it come to fruition, cybernetically-enhanced intelligence will prove itself an abomination and an assault on God’s image.  Cybernetically-enhanced people will have perverted the gift of intellect God has given them with something unreal, an altered reality, self, experience, relationships with others, and relationship with God (Shatzer, 2019, p. 93).

While this student would counsel congregants to embrace any ethically-developed technology that can restore normal human function, he would strongly argue against Christians taking part in cybernetic intelligence enhancement, should it become a reality. To do so is the height of idolatrous folly and a rejection of the sovereignty of God. Given the ultimate transhumanist goal of an “immortal” post-human, this student would view counsel parishioners that such a thing is an attempt to circumvent God’s saving plan in Jesus Christ. Of course, it is also an attempt doomed to failure. Thus, Christians should reject any attempt to enhance their intelligence by artificial, technological means.


References

Anderson, J., Rainie, L., & Luchsinger, A. (2018, December 10). Artificial intelligence and the future of humans. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2018/12/PI_2018.12.10_future-of-ai_FINAL1.pdf

Cherry, M. J. (2017, December). Created in the image of God: Bioethical implications of the imago Dei. Christian Bioethics, 23(3), 219-233. https://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login? url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLAn4237060&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Childs, J. M. (2015, March). Beyond the boundaries of current human nature: Some theological and ethical reflections on transhumanism. Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 54(1), 8-19. https://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLAn3779982&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Del Aguila, J. W. V., & Postigo Solana, E. (2015, December). Transhumanismo, neuroética y persona humana. Revista Bioét, 23(3), 505-512.

Grudem, W. (2018). Christian ethics: An introduction to biblical moral reasoning. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

Jones, D. G. (2015, April). Bridging the science-theology divide: Challenges posed by biomedical technology for Christian attitudes. Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought & Practice, 22(1), 4-13. https://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=https:// search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asn&AN=108266264&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Jung, K. (2020, February). Brain transplant and personal identity. Christian Bioethics, 26(1), 95–112. doi:10.1093/cb/cbz018

Kaku, M. (2014). The future of the mind: The scientific quest to understand, enhance, and empower the mind. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Kapur, A. (2018). Human-machine cognitive coalescence through an internal duplex interface, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/120883

Koosed, J. L. (Ed.). (2014). Semeia Studies. Vol. 74: The Bible and posthumanism. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature.

Leidenhag, M. (2020, November 2). Saved through technology: Exploring the soteriology and eschatology of transhumanism. Religion Compass, 14(11), 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1111/rec3.12377

Lustig, A. (2008, Spring). Enhancement technologies and the person: Christian perspectives. The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics: A Journal of the American Society of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 36(1), 41-50. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-720X.2008.00235.x

Manzocco, R. (2019). Transhumanism - engineering the human condition: History, philosophy and current status. Chichester, UK: Springer-Praxis.

Mathews, K. A. (1996). Genesis 1-11:26 (Vol. 1A, p. 482). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

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Mitchell, C. B., & Riley, D. J. (2014). Christian bioethics: A guide for pastors, health care professionals, and families (D. R. Heimbach, Ed.). B&H Publishing Group.

Nayar, P. K. (2014). Posthumanism (R. Mengham, Ed.). Themes in 20th and 21st Century Literature. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Neuralink. (2020). Applications. Retrieved November 10, 2020, from Neuralink: https://neuralink.com/applications/.

Shatzer, J. (2019). Transhumanism and the image of God: Today’s technology and the future of Christian discipleship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Specker, J., Focquaert, F., Raus, K., Sterckx, S., & Schermer, M. (2014, September 16). The ethical desirability of moral bioenhancement: A review of reasons. BMC Medical Ethics, 15(67), 1-17. http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6939/15/67

Vita-More, N., et al. (1998). The transhumanist declaration. Retrieved November 5, 2020, from Humanity Plus: https://humanityplus.org/philosophy/transhumanist-declaration/

Walker, R. F. (2017). Artificial intelligence in business: Balancing risk and reward. Cambridge, MA: Pegasystems.


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