Glen Scorgie: ‘I will not give baptism to a robot’
Glen Scorgie, who has finished his Ph.D. in 1986 at the University of St Andrews (Scotland), visited Ukraine three times. He says: ‘I want to be useful and I try as much as possible to be helpful where I am, in different countries, mostly, in Asia, but this is an exception of the ‘Asian rule’ for me’.
The expert in systematic and historical theology and ethics was invited to teach as a visiting professor by Realis Christian Center For Education And Research (REALIS). ‘Religion in Ukraine’ media outlet spoke with Mr. Scorgie about US views of faith in Ukraine, Christianity in the rising China, and Hollywood’s attitude towards the spiritual sphere.
What does the average American know about faith in Ukraine? Is the press silent on it?
I think that the average American knows very little about Christianity in Ukraine. And they are, unfortunately, relatively indifferent towards it. Probably, a greater awareness about Ukraine per capita may be found in Canada simply because of disproportionate 20st century Ukrainian emigration to this country. The links are here much deeper than they are in the US. Americans are fixated on the old cold war enemy – the Russians. Ukraine is considered just a kind of a negotiating chip in the bigger geo-political order. Or the border land. Yes. Something that has had a kind of ambiguous identity and is encroached upon by stronger powers in the region. A lot of Americans would have difficulties locating Ukraine on a map. They would put it somewhere to the east of Germany.
I would like to talk about family subject. From the Ukrainian perspective, the church in the US has given up in defining what a marriage is. Same-sex marriages are wide-spread, these couples may adopt children. To summarize, what is the Protestants’ answer to this status quo?
America is a very individualistic and libertarian society in its basic philosophy of life, emphasizing individual rights and creating space for people – as we popularly say – ‘to do your own thing’. So, the church in America has made its peace with this kind of culture, that sees it as a moral responsibility to create space for people to exercise their individual freedom. So, the Christian community is actually quite divided between those who want to accommodate this libertarian, radically free value system, and those who feel that there is a clash of values, and the Christian community must be counter-cultural to that. The more conservative Christians in the US are opposed to legitimizing homosexual behavior. The liberal or modernist side of the Christian spectrum are very much in favor of supporting the general trend in the society toward a permissiveness or indifference to this matter. What is important is to see that this issue divides the Christian community. But the liberal way of thinking is obviously can be good understood.
How do the conservatives act?
For Ukraine’s conservative Christians it is of huge interest. Yes. Some people have voted for Donald Trump because of that. Historically, America adopted a rather innovative model at its founding which was not characteristic of any European country at that time – that was a model of separation of church and state. There is a more radical affirmation of freedom that most European countries to that point had considered. So, we have outlined the rules of the political experiment of America – the idea that religion may influence politics and societal structures through example and inspiration and verbal persuasion, but not through legal restriction. Given that heritage, the church in America is not consistent with its historic character, if it tries to legislate morality or restrict the moral options of fellow citizens who do not share their religious convictions. So, I think that most of US Christians understand, that it is sad that the society has begun to adopt values which are so dissonant with classic Christianity. However, within the American model, that means that the accent has to be put on the integrity of the church, on the winsomeness and persuasiveness of its alternative morality rather on a push to control politics and legislation of the nation to align in with Christian values. Sadly, there is a right-wing minority of Christians in the US, who do want to try to make America a theocracy where every American, gay, lesbian has to abide by divine principles of life. The majority of Christians acknowledge that the believers’ primary responsibility is to be the church, which influences society but does not dictate values to it. But not in the case of Mike Pence. Well, my read of this sort of people and the ‘Moral Majority’ is that their actions are not really designed to control the US in a theocratic way. It is a reactive group who are feeling insecure as the erosion of Christian values in the nation makes them feel increasingly belittled, not respected. A lot of this comes out from defensive feeling, rather than an aggressive offensive plan. Though it looks offensive, it is defensive. It all is rooted in a fundamental feeling of insecurity, and in the deep south these traditional values, that people are feeling, they are losing. It is from the southern states of the US that these conservative and right-wing movements rise (UNCLEAR).
There were some scholar papers proving that a child adopted by a same-sex couple adopting does not experience any of long-term negative consequences of that (comparing to life in a ‘normal’ couple). Is that true?
Well, I am not a psychologist. I do not know.
Is there in America any Christian think tank trying to question an LGBTQ-consensus in the country from the scientific point of view?
In my opinion, in the US this battle is largely been lost.
The LGBT-agenda is triumphed in America. So, there is no need to establish any think-tank, correct?
Well, there may be a need to, but it will be for a more historical reflection. I think, that this question is behind us. To turn back the pages of time, the conservative movement in the US would almost have to become Nazi-like, almost a new form of totalitarianism to re-impose that kind of system in America.
China and Russia Ukrainian Christians know little about Christianity in China. Could you be so kind as the expert to tell about that?
Well, it is possible Christianity came to China many centuries ago through Nestorian Christians, from what is now modern-day Iran. For many centuries, there was a struggle to get a significant toe-hold in China for Christianity. Perhaps, one of the most significant gains began with the Protestant missionary movement from the early 1800s onwards. The building of that with the work of China Inland Mission from the mid-19th century was always of Chinese suspicion, because the missionaries that brought Christianity (especially Protestant ones) were aligned with the colonial oppressors, British and French. And, even to this day, the government likes to portray Christianity as a foreign religion. As well as in Russia! So, today Christians in China have to decide whether they will except the privileges of registering with the government, but with restricted freedom because of that registration, or find greater freedom through an independent but technically illegal way of operating. So, the Christianity in China is divided between the registered church, which is called (UNCLREAR) the ‘Three-Self Patriotic Movement’ church, and the house church movement, which is an underground and illegal church. Between the two it is estimated that there could be as many as 80-100 million Christian in China. And they are extremely unequally distributed. In some provinces, there could be as high as 10 per cent are Christians. In many places, the percentage of Christians is negligibly small. There is also a great difference in the degree to which the government restricts the Christians. There are regions where the local government is quite tolerant and indifferent, and the believers may flourish in relative freedom. In other places, which are governed by a rule book, almost every Christian leader end up in jail. Churches are demolished. So, it is very difficult to generalize about Christianity in China. But there is evidence, that the Communist regime essentially enucleated the soul of China: it destroyed Confucianism, Buddhism and, as much it was able to, Christianity. There is a minority of Christians in this very materialistic society, which is reaching out with spiritual hunger. In the 19th century, the Great Britain was a geo-political leader – the British Empire dominated the world. It is interesting that it was the time of evangelical strength in Victorian Britain. The last century was an American one, and the Evangelicals were relatively strong.
Could it be, that the 21st century will be China’s century?
If so, the growth of this Christian minority in this superpower might prove to be a very significant factor in the history of 21st century. Chinese Christians who live all around the world (‘Chinese diaspora’) have this remarkable love for China. One of my Chinese friend says: ‘Obviously, God loves the Chinese. Otherwise, why would He make so many of them?’
Cinema What is the current average attitude of Hollywood toward Christianity? Let’s analyze movies from 2016 to 2017?
Of course, Hollywood is disproportionally populated by people with libertarian and/or left-wing values. There is also a disproportionally high number of non-Christian people there. So, naturally the genius of Hollywood is that the movie reflects the culture, so that the viewer identifies with the movie, and is on the cutting edge of societal change as well, so that the movies do tending to move the culture in a more secular and permissive direction. However, I do not think it is accurate or helpful to make sweeping generalizations about Hollywood as though there is a massive Hollywood conspiracy to change America. I think it is enough diverse, there are Christians as directors, screenwriters, actors. Like any other part of society, the Hollywood is not homogeneous, it is not created to make America decadent, but it is very powerful instrument of cultural change. However, it is a prophetic voice which challenges many Christian prejudices and behavior. In fact, in the ‘Movie Theology’ course, that I teach periodically, I have developed a database of movie thematic clusters. One of them is ‘Perception of Christians’. Thus, it is easy to see how the Hollywood portrays Christians. It is also clear that so much of Hollywood is derivative. When you get a perception of the evangelist, for example, as a hypocrite and a person who is sleeping with the women, preaching the Gospel, that came in the 1930s with Elmer Gantry. In the beginning was a book, which became a movie. It was based on a very negative profiling of a contemporary evangelist at that time by the named Billy Sunday. In addition, I think that some of the Hollywood people who make movies do not do anything else but watch other movies. It is almost like a silo of working material for them. They do not read books, do not converse with ordinary people, they watch movies! Thus, we have a very narrow silo of innovation. And we see a circulation of negative ideas surrounding faith. Yes, it can be cyclical. However, there are sometimes new incremental additional reasons for outrage, like pedophilic priests, so you get a whole bunch of movies about that. Note, that the moral tone of Hollywood (nude scenes etc.) is been challenged from within, rather than through external Christian criticism. People produce movies that reflect what they know. And as church attendance in the US declines, fewer and fewer people who are making movies have had personally exposure to Christians. Increasingly, they talk about people they do not know well. Thus, the (negative) stereotypes seem more plausible to them, because there are fewer actual Christians living in their circles of acquaintances. Some years ago, there have been literally Christian movies like Billy Graham-influenced The Climb (2003) or Fireproof (2008).
Has the process been stopped?
I do not recall any movies lately that have been like that. This strategy does not seem to be one that many of the large Christian organizations are following too much. And I have a feeling, that one of the reasons is that the movie-going public is becoming increasingly sophisticated. And that keeps them out of the mainstream.
At best, Christian films are shown in church basements to the youth groups, but they are not part of the larger culture of attending cinema. One exception would be the ‘Jesus’ film, which has had an international enormous impact. Otherwise, you have to work from within Hollywood, like the film ‘Apostle’ where you have very strong Christian themes. So, the independent Christian film tends not to be sophisticated enough to be credible in the culture generally. There is a huge trend in Hollywood to talk about artificial intelligence (AI). They consider general aspects of what makes a human human. ‘Blade Runner 2049’ movie tells a story of a man meeting a woman from his past, and she is a robot. Are there any hints in the Bible concerning these issues, which could be apprehended by the secular public? It is a recurring sort of issues in some Hollywood movies to think about this matter of what is distinctly human. Fundamentally, we differ from other species. The original ‘Blade Runner’ brought up an idea whether robots can be socialized and educated into feeling every one of the deep emotion that humans feel. It seems to me as though the Hollywood raises the issue without pressing a particular answer. It raises an ambiguity and uncertainty, but throws it back to the audience to answer the questions about human. However, one of the Christianity’s cornerstones is that there is an absolute transcendent dimension to being human, that makes us unique and exceeds all the aspects of causality. And, as we claim that, we enhance and increase human dignity, which affects the ways we treat one another as persons, as opposed to commodities and other objects. This Christian witness is extremely important as robotics, genetic experimentation, eugenics and similar sort of things grow and become mainstream activities.
If a robot bearing AI will ask you to give a baptism, would you say ‘Yes’?
No. It is not human. Baptism is a symbol of being incorporated into Christ, who had incarnated as a human and whose salvation is available for those who share his human nature. By using the adjective ‘artificial’, you have precluded yourself from the claim to be authentically human.
What would you recommend to the Ukrainian Christians to do to remain influential in the country?
To be exemplars of moral integrity, that seems to elude the nation in general. I do believe, that we have a responsibility as Christians both to participate in the evangelistic mandate (to evangelize individuals) and to contribute to the cultural mandate (to be involved to all the dimension of human life in community, that should more closely approximate the Kingdom of God). Christians should be involved in society, but not at the expense of their souls and integrity. It means that, if a society and culture are sufficiently corrupt, the Christians will find it very difficult to gain as much attraction and influence as they would like. In such a context, to really exercise power, might require considerable moral compromise. I am now thinking of Hebrews 11. The chapter says of the old saints, the world was not worthy of them. And I think there are many such places now. But trying to live for God and exercise positive influence in a compromised world is still an important thing to attempt.