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Who Will Raise the Ethical Questions in the Future?

The recall notice advised that we bring our 2016 Honda CRV in as soon as possible. The interesting twist was that the potential problem with the transmission was not mechanical. The appointment would be to update “your vehicle’s software.”

My collection of metric and Imperial sockets and wrenches continue to diminish in value in this rapidly digitizing age!

Those who watch the future indicate that “we ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

Vitaly Golomb writes that “in a few years, you will order tennis shoes online and print them. A few years after that, you will be able to print complete electro-mechanical devices, including the batteries.”

3D printing is but one sign of a new world. Virtual and artificial reality (games) will become more integrated with “real life.”

Keyboard and mouse will soon be gone as will the presence of steering wheels in self-driving vehicles. (Self-driving taxis will be available in Singapore by 2018 and Volkswagen expect the first self-driving cars to be on the market by 2019).

Artificial intelligence provides another key driver of the future. “Gartner predicts one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025.”

Authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, director and associate director, respectively, of the MIT Center for Digital Business, maintain the Second Machine Age has already commenced. Whereas the first Industrial Revolution witnessed the transformation of physical labour through the steam engine, smart machines will midwife this revolution. “All sorts of cognitive tasks” will be augmented, automated and perhaps even supplanted.

How are we to frame this new world?

Ian Goldin and Chris Katana propose that we live during a new Renaissance period; however, they step back from uncritical cheerleading. The subtitle of their book, Age of Discovery, wisely says “Navigating the Risks and the Rewards of Our New Renaissance.”

The technological quake will launch a wave of change with massive economic and social implications.

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If the analysts of the future are correct - and there is little reason to doubt their predictions - imagine the social dislocation caused by the loss of one-third of current jobs in less than ten years.

Analysts like Vitaly Colomb maintain symptoms are already visible - “Trump, Brexit and ISIS are the symptoms, and technology is the problem.”

Moral and spiritual concerns are tethered to the reshaped social and economic landscape.

The ethical questions surrounding what does it mean to be human are daunting and come from a variety of quarters, including rapid advancements in genetics and bio-engineering. This current job description of a biomedical engineer undoubtedly portrays the job accurately. “Biomedical engineers design products such as artificial organs and medical diagnostic equipment.”

But who helps us think about the moral questions underlying the “production” of artificial organs or which genes in the DNA strands should be “switched” on or off?

Traditionally the church and Christians have looked to theological schools and seminaries as a resource. But seminaries and Christian Education centres struggle, often heroically, not only to survive but to respond to the exponentially expanding needs of a church creaking and groaning in transition. Christian ethicists and moral theologians were often among the first to be pruned in the era of budget restraint.

Some have called the justly famous TED talks the New Harvard!

In this time of immense and rapid change will Christians get moral, spiritual and theological guidance from an 18-minute lecture, the blogosphere, artfully framed photos and quotes on social media, or ….?

The question of the sources of moral authority, ethical capacity and theological insight grows more urgent weekly. In a world where I can access millions of voices, to whom shall I attend?

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  1. This comment is from Richard Topping, the principal at the Vancouver School of Theology (VST).

    By and large mainline seminaries are hiring inter-religious specialists and lately Islamic scholars are priority positions. Look at the publication ‘Openings in Theology and Religion’ and there has been for about 10 years a real pattern, with small variations.

    At VST we have a sessional lecturer in ethics, Ashley Moyse, who has a ph.d in theology – from Newcastle, Australia – and bioethics and is teaching the same at the school. He is a very accomplished ethicist with a degree in biology and in theology – he teaches biology at University of the Fraser Valley and his thesis was on Barth and bioethics: you have to have some sense of human fullness (what it is) in order to heal people toward it. I read his thesis and recommended it to the publisher for publication. We had a book release at VST this past week which included his work. His argument is that current bioethics is preoccupied with technique and not with what it means to be human. He did a theologically reframing of issues around biotechnology and cancer research, which is his specialty in biological science.

    Harvard Divinity School, in a very high profile chair – Neibuhr chair – is looking for someone in theological (ethicshttp://philjobs.org/job/show/5226). This is a premier position.

    I think the other point to be made is that traditionally theology (systematic, doctrinal, constructive, emancipationist) always meant teaching ethics in the same class – theology makes a difference to behavior – creed impacts conduct and cult (liturgy and worship); that’s the shape of traditional Christian catechesis. Ethics wasn’t always addressing ‘current issues’ head on, it was more ad hoc, occasional in the process of explicating our understanding of the Christian message/ Theological ethics had to do with the Christian life, the doctrines of sanctification and discipleship, living in and for the world God loves. Systematics was intricately connected with ethics – who is God and how do we comport ourselves with God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Ethics was less, pardon the expression, ‘flavour of the month’ and more Christian formation so that whatever the issue it could be construed theologically in relation to the God of the Gospel. The indicative in Christian ethics precedes the imperative. First, what kind of world do we have in the context of the big story – creation, fall, redemption; and only second, what faithful action is required of those who want to participate in what God is up to in the world.

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