Hunger for Wholeness Hosts Ilia Delio and Robert Nicastro interview Ted Peters on "Theology in Cyberspace " Part One.
About Ted Peters
Ted Peters is author of UFOs: God's Chariots? Spirituality, Ancient Aliens, and Religious Yearnings in the Age of Extraterrestrials (Career Press New Page Books, 2014). He is co-editor of two recent books, Astrotheology: Where Science and Theology Meet Extraterrestrial Life (Cascade Books, 2018) as well as Astrobiology: Science, Ethics, and Public Policy (Scrivener 2021). Ted is a systematic theologian who specializes in the interaction between science and religion. He currently teaches theology and ethics in Berkeley, California, at the Graduate Theological Union and serves as co-editor of the journal, Theology and Science. Visit his website, TedsTimelyTake.com, and his blogsite https://www.patheos.com/blogs/publictheology/.
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Robert: Welcome to Hunger for Wholeness. I'm your host, Robert Nicastro. Today, Ilia and I speak with theologian Ted Peters. Before our interview began, Ilia and Ted were discussing the challenges of doing public theology as well as integrating scientific and theological thought into a unified framework.
Ilia: Does theology really make a difference to anyone out there? I love theology and I think we need to keep doing it. It's a fidelity to who God is in this ongoing creation. But I am concerned that people really could care less about the area.
Ted: I really understand where you're coming from on that. I have the same melancholic feelings, and I have two thoughts; one is, the Holy Spirit better get off the stick and do something right now, because this problem is bigger than the theologians and the pastors can handle, I think. The second thought is, and this applies to you to a large extent as it does to me, is the notion of public theology, where we can offer theological insights which are darn good for the wider common good. And this is where the Catholics have a running head start, because the Catholics have such a good thought-through concept of the common good. And so, some of what we do theologically can be offered to the wider culture for the sake of the common good, not necessarily only for the church. But I think that's a feeble gesture on my part compared to the scope of the problem that you're just enunciated. We're not going to get out of this by ourselves without some divine intervention of some sort.
Ilia: So, the age in which we're living is complex. We've complexified our lives and our world. And so I think even that notion of public theology for the common good, I would even want to step back from that a little bit because I think today it's, who's good? Who's common good are we talking about? So, I find to the world of technology that we are more tribalized than ever. You can go to your social mediated group online and find whatever insights you want to reinforce your ideas. And so, it's really hard to get a consensus, to build an understanding that could be unifying rather than opinionated, or there's something that becomes fracturing because "Well, I don't see it your way, and so and so says it this way, and therefore I attend to this." We've lost the ability to know how we know or to think how we think. In other words, bringing together the big picture of cosmology and the little picture of the human person in this ongoing flow of life. And we don't know how these things fit together anymore. I find it really all over the place quite often.
Ted: Well, I would like to reinforce your diagnosis, but also your therapy. I mean, I think about teenagers these days who started at five years old, punching buttons on the cell phone, and every hour they can hear the voices speaking for 30 different worldviews. How in the world can they construct a coherent understanding of the world in themselves? So you're right; when you're confronted with that kind of stress, why do you just go for those people you think you agree with or that you like? And over a period of years, the polarization and pluralism becomes more and more ragged, and that is the problem. But I think that Dr. Ilia Delio actually has the right prescription for therapy. And that is to recognize that deepen our soul, we have a hunger for wholeness, and we have a hunger for relational wholeness. We don't want ourself to get squalled up in a kind of mystical infinity. We want a relational wholeness. And so, I think the therapy is to just remind all of us who have strong opinions over against other people we don't like, that we do have this thirst, and this thirst isn't going to get quenched in partisan acrimony. It's only going to get quenched in healthy relationships. So there you go; I've just given you an assignment now to contact all the teenagers in the world and just remind them of what their true hunger and thirsts is for at any rate.
Ilia: That word wholeness is very appealing to people no matter who they are.
Ted: I think it really is, yeah. And it's not a matter of opinion. I think you're thinking philosophically as I do, this is a profound inter emphasis that we have as human beings. And so, it's not just one opinion among others. I think we can hold it up and say, "I bet you want wholeness."
Ilia: Ted you've done so much work, I was thinking about preparing for today your tremendous work in science and religion over the years at CTNS and with Bob Russel, and Theology and Science spearheading that journal. And so many, I mean, I think a textbook or something came out from Australia, was it this past year, something like a thousand pages long of all your writing.
Ted: I haven't read it all yet.
Ilia: That's fantastic. You've done really remarkable contribution to the field of science and religion. So, I want to ask you, where do you see this area going? I am curious. What are your thoughts at this stage of your life after spending so many years in this area?
Ted: That's a good question. And we're asking that question in Berkeley because really after the last almost half century, we have confronted a number of theological issues that rise out of primarily quantum physics, but also, and you're familiar with this, Big bang, cosmology, evolutionary theory, especially the problem of evil and the odyssey and biological evolution, and then the ethics of gene altering, genetics and genome altering. And more recently, of course, the relationship between the brain and the mind and the soul and all of those kinds of things. And that doesn't mean that we've solved all these problems, but at least we've got a good list of what the challenges are. I think that we've demonstrated to a large number of people that there are good, healthy ways in which Christian theology and natural science can relate. And it's not exclusively Christian. There have been recently some Hindus and Buddhist getting involved, and now we're seeing a wave of real interest amongst the Islamic scholars as well.
And I think the Islamic engagement with natural science is probably going to be where the news is over the next half decade. But I think your question is deeper than just where the news is, it's what really is the issue that gives us traction? And I have to say, I don't think we know what that one is quite yet. I think the bigger problem for the church is the one you enunciated just a few visits ago, and that is with our media so filled with an incoherent barrage of competing perspectives and worse, competing demands, it's hard to put all the pieces of the puzzle together so that it looks like a whole. And I think those of us engaged in religion and science, really would like to contribute to a larger whole, so to speak, in which, where you and I find a meaningful place in the whole cosmos, with one another and with God. And so maybe the answer to your question is that the scholars in religion and science, maybe need to broaden their horizons and now try to integrate that discipline with the other concerns that we have about social harmony. And of course, the ethical issues never going to go away. It's not going to go away in the near future of how to preserve the planet from self-destruction.
Ilia: Right. And I think these things are really all intertwined. Part of the challenge is teasing out where do we begin to really build a more coherent understanding of, as some people call it, a scientifically informed theology, which I don't really like that term at all.
Ted: You say you do or you don't like that term?
Ilia: It is rather that these are two pillars of knowledge, knowing the one world. You have only one lens, you only see part of the world; you always see partially distorted. And so, you need both of these areas to really see a coherent world.
Ilia: An integrated world. So they're mutually complimenting one another in their distinct areas of knowledge. And I think that's the beauty of science and religion. But I do worry, you know, first of all, we continue to do theology as if science - it's very nice, but it doesn't really exist for all practical purposes within theology departments. It's sort of like out there someplace, and as theologians will say, "Well, I don't know anything about science, and I don't have time to read anything." Well, that's problematic from my perspective." How do you do theology today apart from modern science? What is our basis, even philosophically? What is our basis for under thinking about reality? Like, what is the real? So, I don't know. I struggle with this. And then of course, you go to church and homilies are still preached as if, well, we still have farmers in agrarian society and not a big bang cosmos.
Ted: About 20 years ago or so on this question of whether we should have scientifically informed theologians, pastors, priests, et cetera. I directed the Science of Religion course program, and I made an attempt to approach theological seminaries, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and even others, non-Christian delegates, but the Christian, both Catholic and Protestant seminaries, what a barrier. First of all, as you just said, those scripture professors and ethics people and worship professors, they didn't want to study any science. "Oh, yes, it's a good idea to be scientifically informed, so we'll create a position over there and have somebody else do it." But the idea that some of, or other scriptural interpretation or homiletics would be informed by science, that’s rejected.
And not only did they, let me just say they wanted no part of it, and so I'll just have to say after the 20 years, no wonder nobody wants to listen to a theologian or a pastor talk anymore, because they're not informed, is the nicest way I can say it. I talked to a geneticist one time, his name is Lindon Eaves, University of Virginia. You might not know him, but he's a very devout Episcopalian. And I said, "Lindon, when you go to church on Sunday and you sit below the pulpit and you hear the priest speak, what do you want to hear?" And he says, "Well, the priest doesn't have to know science really well, but he shouldn't be a horse's ass." Unfortunately, that's what we've been producing from the seminaries. And I don't want to be too depressing about this, but it is a problem trying to persuade even our own church that this is a good thing to become scientifically informed.
Ilia: No, completely agree. Karl Rahner spoke of bad preachers, as he said sort of like frozen birds falling from the sky in the dead of winter.
Ted: Well, I think that's what we're experiencing these days. And the empty altars and empty pulpits - these empty pews, I guess, is the better way to put it these days. Although I don't want to say that educating all of our passengers and priests in science is going to suddenly bring throngs of people through the door. That's not going to happen. But it's certainly a responsibility on the part of the church to become better informed. And one of the things undoubtedly you've noticed as I have, is that the scientists are now whimpering and whining because there's so much anti-science going on in the society and culture. The scientists used to sit on their intellectual thrones quite comfortably. But all the fake news, especially over ecology and the viruses, and fake news is influencing politics; scientists are having a bad day. And I think at minimum, those of us in the church should support the scientists on the grounds that they do represent a fair amount of intellectual honesty, which our whole society needs. But the larger question, I think is irrationality, and why is it that our society tolerates fake news? That is not just ignorance, it's beep, it's lies. And Play-Doh said, "Well, if you don't tell the truth, you live in mania." So, we've got a social mania these days, and I do think it's a time for natural alliance between the theologians and the scientists and say, "Hey, we want to get this rationally straightened out if we can."
Ilia: I think Ted, my short input here; we built such a complex world so quickly. We've been a very short amount of time, and it's sort of a world that's too big for us. And therefore, I think we're becoming psychically unraveled. And that's why we can't even tell anymore between fake news and real news. And I think it's really what makes one feel comfortable or supported, and people say, "Oh, that's wrong or that's right." It's very emotionally driven. It has nothing to do really with reasonable thought or anything rational. It has to do with, "I feel this is the right way," or "I know God is watching over everything and this is the end times" or whatever they think. I find everything is driven by a superficiality of emotionally-driven experience. And it's like your Facebook social media. We kind of twittle from one experience to the next. And we've flowed across this whole web, like jet skiing, across a whole array of experiences, and so we've lost depth.
Robert: Theology, technology, and cosmology; these subjects are intertwined whether or not we treat them as such. What is cosmology in cyberspace or metaphysics in virtual reality? Next, Ilia turns our conversation toward transhumanism and technology. Then later we ask, what is the human soul in this complex age?
Ilia: The way technology has sort of co-opted us, because it came on the scene in such a subtle way. No one was talking about the computer in 1960, and yet things are being developed from the late fifties on. By 1990s, everyone's got to get a computer, got to have a faster computer. Now we're into Google, now we're into the internet, and it was just like, wow, like a whole new universe was discovered. It's like we landed on a new planet called cyberspace, and we forgot about Earth. And I think ever since that time, since the late 20th Century, we have been on a trajectory with technology that has basically not only reshaped us, but it's rewiring us in some ways. And therefore, everything that we have used to kind of assimilate ourselves to a whole, I think our values need to be rediscovered.
And here's the thing with technology, and I'll definitely want your opinion, and I'm going to ask Robert to put his 2 cents in here, but transhumanism, for better or worse has its allure. And I think one of the things I've said is, cyberspace has become like the new cosmos. We're not interested in the cosmology of space time, but we are very interested in the cosmology of virtual reality, because space time is all bend, and so we can do things very quick. I can explore all my imagination, all my archetypes, everything I thought I'd ever want to be, I can find whatever friends I want. I can be whatever I want on the net. And it's unlimited, unbridled, no one even has to know what chat rooms I'm in. It's an unbelievable power of force that we have unleashed upon ourselves and our world. And I don't even think we have considered to the extent, of which technology will take us into a very strange future if we do not sort of wake up and see what we ourselves have consented to in this development.
Ted: Well said. We are now living like on another planet. We're living in the cosmos of cyberspace, and we did create it, yet it is kind of like a dragon that got loose from its cage now that we can't control it anymore. Now, people such as you and I, were theologians who want to think about deep ideas and broad ideas, we're really concerned about cyberspace, qua cyberspace. I suspect that my grandchildren are not concerned about that. They're concerned about their friends. They're concerned about the questions that they ask and the answers that they get. And cyberspace for them is as normal as walks in the park was for us when we were kids. And so, they don't feel the dramatic change that you and I feel. And I think our concern is, what can do to people's minds and their spirits? We've already indicated that it seems to have cultivated a sense of hostility and rivalry and acrimony, and instead of wholeness, just an increased pluralism that is running out of control.
Well, like you, I feel that we've kind of lost control here, and that's why we're sort of dizzy. The transhumanists whom you mentioned, want to get control, they want to take control. In fact, they have this delusion that they are in control of artificial intelligence, intelligence amplification, and even in control of the future. The transhumanists are promethean and we are going to control the evolution of the future of the human race, and we're going to advance us through the singularity to the posthuman. And getting back to where you started your last monologue on feeling and thinking; the transhumanists have as their highest value, intelligence. They claim that the whole of the history of evolution has been aim towards one thing - intelligence. Who gives rip about how we feel? And so, it is intelligence where the power is, the power to control. And so, the advance to super-intelligence, the next stage in human evolution is something that the transhumanists are going to engineer on our behalf.
And it is a kind of Cartesian escalator that is a say, a movement away from the body, away from the feeling and toward the brain and the mind. And even the image of cybernetic immortality that some of the transhumanists lift up in front of us is to have a mind without a body, and this mind could travel the cosmos. Well, it's a wonderful dream if you're an egghead. But you know, I like to pet my dog, Edge, in the evening, and if I'm in cyberspace, I won't be able to do that. So back to the idea of wholeness, so I think feelings and meditation, if we could integrate them, that would be wonderful.
Robert: Would you say, Ted, that there are some elements of transhumanism that you would want to see successful? Maybe not extracting our consciousness from the body necessarily, but are there aims that could benefit humankind if they are in fact successful?
Ted: I want to say positive things about the whole idea of technological progress. I grew up in a home in Michigan. My dad was an automotive engineer for General Motors. He got up every morning, he went off to his design board, and he would invent something that hitherto had never existed in the history of the world. He thought he was earning a living. But it's amazing the creativity of the human race once we institutionalize it and focus it, and so I grew up thinking that is a beautiful thing. So if the transhumanists want to celebrate advances in artificial intelligence, intelligence amplification, I want to say I want to celebrate that as well. So, that's where ethics kicks in. If computers, which is revolutionizing medical care right now, look at the wonderful things computers do when you go and visit your doctor. Of course, the problem is the doctor doesn't look at your heart with the stethoscope anymore, the doctor looks at a computer; doesn't even know if you're in the room or not.
Be as it may, there's so many wonderful things that technological advance could do for both our material life and even our mental intellectual life. The problem with transhumanism is not in the technology, no. It's the excessive utopianism, as if somehow or other increased electronic intelligence can save us from the human predicament. That's the difficulty. The difficulty we've had with political utopianism in the past, and this is just a technological version of it before. And so the theologian, hopefully the theologian has an accurate intelligible assessment of human nature. So the theologian can say, "Let's be cautious, take the good, but don't ask technology or computer technology to save us from the challenges of what it means to be a human being." That's going to ask for too much. So, that's the problem I have with transhumanism. I certainly hope I keep my transhumanist friends here because they are an exciting group of people.
Ilia: Well, I mean one of the things they have is an incredible imagination and like you said, their creativity. And isn't that really what makes us human - our ability to imagine what does not yet exist
Ted: Very much, yeah.
Ilia: And then that's who we are as a species. And there's something in my view that's deeply aligned and tied with the Christian vision of God; something that's a creative principle of love. So I've always wondered, what if transhumanism could really marry into Christianity? Not just co-op the principles and say Christianity is a failure, or the Judeo-Christian relation is a failure, and we're about to make it successful by saving ourselves and achieving digital inward, but in the way that Marshall Mcluhan kind of envisioned that technology is, indeed it's the next step of our evolution, Teilhard himself realized that with the emergence of the Newton sphere, this new level of mind now emerging. But he thought that we could, with technology become perhaps more unified, but we need other principles. So technology cannot achieve on its own; like you said, it's not self-sufficient to attain that which we fully desire. It does need to be aligned with other disciplines, and one would be theology and ethics.
The other thing I'm concerned about though is, in building the soul, like we don't talk about the soul anymore, but I do think human personhood is really an evolution into that fullness of soul - the core personality, but we have the capacity to become in relation to God. And part of that soul building, does require an interiority. And I did think one of the things transhumanism, and this could account for some of our cherry picking that's going on today that reducing everything to this level of just quick fainting experience. The idea of interiority calls for a type of inwardness, a slow time, a detachment from things, a graciousness of place, a place of solitude of letting go, instead of constantly being pulled into the frenzy of constant information. And I guess that's one of our biggest challenges.
So for me, the building of soul, which is I think, and it's a question for us, do we want to remain - will we remain homo sapiens? I don't think so. I don't know where you are in that question, but it seems we have already made to step into technosapien life or cybersapien life, so we're already in an evolution into a new level of species life. But the question is, what do we really want to become? I think that's the big question, which we've never really asked ourselves. Certainly, we don't ask ourselves within churches or religious institutions or within collectivities; what do we want to become? Because what we want to become is what's going to drive everything else about us. And I do wonder if we really find human personhood precious, then we're not doing really anything to preserve that preciousness… and by human personhood.
I also think here we had the question of ecology. And I think in some ways technology and ecology have been sort of competing strands for our attention, and technology has been like the leaping gazelle, leaping across wild fields of, into, the new future. And ecology is sort of like the old, old thrill that's been around for a long time, slowly making its way across the terrain. And ecology doesn't grab us. It's like, "Yeah, there's a global warming crisis. The air is getting warmer, the weather patterns are changing. Oh yeah, there's a lot of plastics in the ocean, that's really terrible."
Ilia: So there's an urgency with technology, whereas, ecology is like, yeah, that's a shame that it's terrible how some people are suffering from this.
Ted: What you just said about plastic in the ocean, I'm thinking of James Keenan just wrote the history of Catholic theological ethics, and he defines sin as not bothering to love. And so, all that plastic in the ocean, it's terrible, but I think I'd like to go to McDonald's now, not bothering to love. I think of soul making. Our ancestors and the Orthodox tradition pursued theosis in the Roman Catholic tradition. You've got lots of ways of spiritual formation and spiritual formation led to a deep interiority as well as practices of virtue. I'm a Lutheran; we have some of that, but really not to the level of erudition that the Catholics and the Orthodox have developed over the years. So the idea of soul making, soul structuring, is there in our tradition, and if you ask our medieval ancestors, you know what your goal is, of course they knew what it was to become godly, to become holy.
Well, when today we use words such as evolution. Well, in evolution, nobody's in control. We don't have a goal, we don't have spiritual formation; we just kind of let nature take its course. And I think part of the goal setting of soul making that we had in the Christian tradition, maybe it's getting forgot. You're a religious, you probably didn't forget about it, but maybe everybody in your neighborhood forgot about it. One of the good things about the transhumanists is that they have a version of soul making. It's not nearly as sophisticated as the Roman Catholic orders are to be sure, but it is a form of soul making. What I don't think they have is the notion of interiority that you were talking about. If you're going to go into your own interior domain and you and God are going to dwell there in a rich and warm relationship, there isn't anything like that in the transhumanist vision. In fact, there's not even a mandate for charity to love the neighbor in relationship there. So despite the fact that we have a high regard for intelligence and transhumanism, you don't have either the rich interior life, let alone, loving the neighbor as part of the soul making there. I think we're going to have to just rely on our great Christian tradition for that enrichment.
Robert: We pause for now on this cliffhanger from Ted Peters. Next Monday we follow up by asking, is there an interiority to our human device relationship? You can show your support for the show by becoming a Patreon of Hunger for Wholeness, or by donating at christogenesis.org. A special thanks to our partners at the Fetzer Institute. I'm Robert Nicastro. Thanks for listening.