Friday, June 15, 2018

The Prosperity Gospel: Where Culture Trumps Religion in Legitimacy and Politics

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

The belief that God rewards the faithful and punishes the unfaithful is now embedded in American Christianity.  That’s evident in the prosperity gospel which has its roots in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), where Moses taught that those obedient to God’s law would be rewarded and the disobedient punished.  The only difference is that the standards of legitimacy that determine faithfulness in the prosperity gospel are partisan radical-right political ideals.

Jesus refuted the idea that God rewards the faithful with worldly prosperity and power.  In fact, Jesus taught that the prosperous and powerful would have a more difficult time finding salvation than the poor and meek, and that altruistic love for others—even those we would rather ignore—was God’s standard of righteousness.  That standard of love over law is summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

A nation’s moral and legal standards of legitimacy are derived from both religious and secular norms.  Religion shapes cultural norms just as secular cultural norms shape religion. Over 70% of Americans consider themselves to be Christians, and a majority of them are white evangelical Christians who have abandoned the teachings of Jesus to promote the values and politics of a materialistic and hedonistic culture.

For any institutional religion to be successful, it must be popular.  Jesus taught that the way to salvation was a narrow way of sacrificial love and self-denial, not the broad and popular way that leads to worldly prosperity and power.  That message never played well in Europe and America, where religious leaders reshaped Christian standards of legitimacy to conform to more popular materialistic and hedonistic cultural norms, or witnessed the demise of Christianity.

Popular Christianity has long subordinated the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus to exclusivist beliefs in the divinity of Jesus, since such beliefs are a popular source of cheap grace.  But the prosperity gospel goes beyond emphasizing belief in a divine Jesus and ignores his moral teachings. It closely resembles the self-centered objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, and cannot be reconciled with the moral teachings of Jesus found in the four gospel accounts.

Since Emperor Constantine co-opted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, church doctrine has limited salvation to believers in a divine Jesus and condemned unbelievers to eternal damnation.  While the church has always put more emphasis on worshipping Jesus as God than following his teachings as the word of God, the prosperity gospel has made radical right politics the moral standard of Christianity.

The so-called family values and politics of the Republican Party are the moral standards of the prosperity gospel.  Its leader is Donald Trump, a narcissist whose values are antithetical to the altruistic values taught by Jesus. Trump and his Republican minions reflect the materialistic and hedonistic cultural values now prevalent in the U.S.  Those “Christians” who support Trump and his minions should be ashamed. They have sacrificed Jesus on the altar of politics.

Historically the Abrahamic religions have sought to conform immoral worldly standards of legitimacy to God’s will.  Moses, the Hebrew prophets and Muhammad emphasized religious laws as God’s standards of righteousness, while Jesus emphasized love over law, as summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors--including those of other races and religions--as we love ourselves.  It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

God’s will is to reconcile and redeem humanity through the transforming power of God’s love, while the will of Satan is to divide and conquer humanity with the temptations of worldly power and prosperity.  In the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, Satan does a convincing imitation of God, and does some of his best work in the church, mosque, synagogue and in politics. It’s obvious which side of that spiritual battle the prosperity gospel supports.


Notes:

Joel Osteen is one of the most popular (and prosperous) evangelical leaders who preach the prosperity gospel, and according to Eloise Blondiau, “Osteen tells us we have the power to obtain health and wealth if we believe enough, for long enough. “God’s got this!” he exclaims.  Osteen takes the idea that “nothing is impossible for God,” and runs with it. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, it suggests that since nothing is impossible for God, God will give health and wealth to those with the strongest faith in him. This line of thinking constitutes the prosperity gospel.  ...The sense of agency and justice that the prosperity gospel provides—whether offered by wellness advocates or preachers—is deeply attractive; it means that everything is within our control. But the implications of the prosperity gospel are less attractive: If the faithful are rewarded with health, are the terminally ill not faithful enough?”  See https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2018/06/07/who-deserves-be-healthy-prosperity-gospel-according-goop
Rev.Terri Daniel has addressed the question why not all terminally ill faithful are healed by their faith.  She has challenged traditional (and toxic) church doctrines of substitutionary atonement and faith healing, debunked the prosperity gospel and confirmed why church doctrine puts God’s rewards and punishment in the afterlife, not in this life: “Trying to match doctrine and dogma with lived human experience is like trying to put a square peg into a round hole. The square peg is a belief in divine reward and punishment. The round hole is the way life actually works. By the time most of us are young adults we have observed that the good are not necessarily rewarded and the bad are not necessarily punished. Real human experience proves that it just doesn’t work that way. So the only way the emerging church could sell the idea of divine reward or punishment was to locate it in the afterlife, where it could not be verified or validated.” See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/toxic-theology-%E2%80%A8religious-beliefs-that-hurt-instead-of-heal%E2%80%A8/
Edward Simmons has delineated three ethical approaches to salvation in the Judeo-Christian tradition: Salvation Ethics (a fundamentalist/evangelical approach at the foundation of the prosperity gospel), Golden Rule Ethics (a more secular approach based on treating others as you would want them to treat you), and Torah Ethics (based on the greatest commandment that combines the love of God with the love of neighbor).  Simmons argues against the first approach as “coercion in the name of righteousness” that leads to “the most cynical form of ‘political realism’--the end justifies the means.”  Simmons debunks biblical examples in which good and bad fortune were considered to be either God’s rewards or punishment based on obedience or disobedience to Mosaic Law, and points to more practical explanations for those ancient events.  See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/political-salesmanship-and-christian-morality/.

Related Commentary:

(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(3/8/15): Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice
(10/18/15): God, Money and Politics
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(6/4/16): Christianity and Capitalism: Strange Bedfellows in Politics
(7/23/16): Reconciliation and Reality
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/3/16): Righteous Anger in Religion and Politics
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(1/7/17): Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(2/4/17): When Confrontation Trumps Reconciliation in Politics and Religion
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(8/5/17): Does Religion Seek to Reconcile and Redeem or to Divide and Conquer?
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism  
(9/9/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/09/the-evolution-of-american-civil.html.
(9/16/17): The American Civil Religion and the Danger of Riches
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion  
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/10/a-21st-century-reformation-to-restore.html.
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/16/17): Can Democracy Survive the Trump Era?
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/if-democracy-survives-trump-era-can.html.
(1/13/18): Nationalist Politics and Exclusivist Religion: Obstacles to Reconciliation and Peace
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
(2/17/18): Musings of a Maverick on Money, Wall Street, Greed and Politics
(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
(3/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christian Morality as a Standard of Legitimacy http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/03/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on_24.html
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(4/7/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(5/5/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Nostalgia as an Obstacle to Progress
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
(5/19/18): Musings on Morality and Law as Symbiotic but Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy
(5/26/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Mysticism and Morality in Religion and Politics
(6/2/18): Musings on Good Versus Evil and Apocalypse in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics


Friday, June 8, 2018

Musings on AI as an Existential Threat to to Religion, Legitimacy and Politics

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is an existential threat to the existing norms of religion, legitimacy and politics since AI, unlike human intelligence, lacks adequate moral and political parameters of legitimacy.  Henry Kissinger has asked:
           What would be the impact on history of self-learning machines—machines that acquired knowledge by processes particular to themselves, and applied that knowledge to ends for which there may be no category of human understanding? Would these machines learn to communicate with one another? How would choices be made among emerging options? [Is] it possible that human history might go the way of the Incas, faced with a Spanish culture incomprehensible and even awe-inspiring to them? [Are] we at the edge of a new phase of human history?    
In a historical context, Kissinger considers the current Internet Age the successor to the     Age of Reason and Age of Religion, and AI the culmination of the Internet Age:

           Heretofore, the technological advance that most altered the course of modern history was the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, which allowed the search for empirical knowledge to supplant liturgical doctrine, and the Age of Reason to gradually supersede the Age of Religion. Individual insight and scientific knowledge replaced faith as the principal criterion of human consciousness. Information was stored and systematized in expanding libraries. The Age of Reason originated the thoughts and actions that shaped the contemporary world order.
           But that order is now in upheaval amid a new, even more sweeping technological revolution whose consequences we have failed to fully reckon with, and whose culmination may be a world relying on machines powered by data and algorithms and ungoverned by ethical or philosophical norms.
          The internet age in which we already live prefigures some of the questions and issues that AI will only make more acute. The Enlightenment sought to submit traditional verities to a liberated, analytic human reason. The internet’s purpose is to ratify knowledge through the accumulation and manipulation of ever expanding data. Human cognition loses its personal character. Individuals turn into data, and data become regnant.  

Will humankind forfeit control of the future in the new age of AI?  What will be the standards of legitimacy that constrain AI when it relies entirely on data to make its decisions?  Kissinger acknowledges the challenge of AI to philosophical and political norms of legitimacy, and for people of faith, religion rather than philosophy provides their standards of legitimacy.
The spiritual forces of good and evil that permeate religion and motivate human decisions cannot be reduced to data that can be programmed into AI.  The love of God and neighbor in the greatest commandment expresses the ultimate good in Christian morality, and the compassion at the heart of that altruistic love cannot be reduced to data and computerized.

The term AI has rightly been criticized as an oxymoron.  True intelligence is based on more than data that can be programmed into a computer.  It requires wisdom that is unique to humanity, and religion has long been a repository of both wisdom and spiritual truths.  Good decisions must be based on spiritual truths that are beyond human knowledge as well as truths revealed by advances in knowledge that have dispelled ancient truths of religion.

American democracy is a conundrum that pits individual wants and rights against providing for the common good.  The Christian religion has long provided a spiritual context and moral standards of legitimacy to resolve those complex and conflicting issues of competition and cooperation that characterize American culture.  AI lacks the spiritual context to do that.

Robotics and AI can vastly improve the quality of life, but to do so they must have moral parameters derived from religion that defy quantification.  For religion to survive as a primary source of morality in the era of AI, it must recognize the need to apply its moral standards to the stewardship of democracy and a politics of reconciliation--but it has failed to do so.

Without the moral parameters of human wisdom imbued with spirituality, the evolution of AI as a superior form of intelligence creates an existential threat to the moral foundations of religion and politics.  That threat should be a wake-up call for Americans to reexamine and reshape their religion, standards of legitimacy and politics to meet the challenge of AI.


Notes:

On Henry Kissinger’s views on the dilemma of AI and how the Enlightenment ends, see https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/06/henry-kissinger-ai-could-mean-the-end-of-human-history/559124/.
Jake Jenkins has reported on the (holy) ghost in the machine: Catholic thinkers tackle the ethics of artificial intelligence.  Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, questioned whether the phrase “artificial intelligence” is an oxymoron.  Sister Ilia Delio, head of the science and theology focused Omega Center, has said that “Pope Francis is absolutely right in raising the bar of our attention to technology, but first, the church has to adapt its theology to meet the needs of a world in evolution.  The difficulty with the church is that technology, like everything else, runs on the principles of evolution. Evolution runs on the principle of greater complexification, and that’s where the church is resistant.” On the moral quandaries of AI in matters of military legitimacy, such as Google assisting the U.S. military use machine learning to analyze drone footage, Professor Levi Checketts has observed “There’s a very strong moral question about whether (AI-assisted weapon systems) can be used to wage a just war.  Should a machine be making decisions on the battlefield for human beings? Will a machine be able to follow the responsibilities of just-war theory?” Seventy years ago, Catholic theologians had to re-evaluate the just-war concept after nuclear weapons were developed, and Checketts said AI could force a similar re-examination of Catholic principles about violence. Professor David Chiang remains skeptical whether “strong AI” will ever truly rival a living person, saying “As a Catholic I don’t believe that so-called artificial intelligence will ever be intelligent,” although he acknowledged, “It’s really an article of faith for me (rather) than a well-worked-out philosophical position.”  Checketts noted that Aquinas and other classical Christian thinkers have put intelligence at the center of personhood, and asked, “Can AI can be baptized. That really complicates common theology.” As for robot persons, Delio is dubious: “The key issue here is one of freedom,” she said. “And that, I think, only belongs to organic biological human personhood. To be called into a relationship and to respond to that relationship is still … unique to the human person as an image of God.” See https://religionnews.com/2018/05/22/the-holy-ghost-in-the-machine-catholic-thinkers-tackle-the-ethics-of-artificial-intelligence/.

After a speech-making graduation season, Danielle Allen opined on the limits of artificial intelligence: “[It is] transforming our economy, but is light years from being able to guide our culture. It can navigate our cars, but not us. And, of course, only we can choose the destination. For both of these things, I’m still placing my biggest bets on human intelligence.  See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/what-artificial-intelligence-doesnt-understand/2018/06/01/ba9a133c-65a2-11e8-a69c-b944de66d9e7_story.html?utm_term=.b1.

On recent mixed reviews on the commercial future of self-driving cars as the latest development in AI, see Recent crashes have shaken public’s confidence in self-driving cars, at http://money.cnn.com/2018/05/22/technology/self-driving-cars-aaa/index.html?iid=EL; and GM and Softbank are putting $3 billion into self-driving cars; Self-driving cars will change your life more than you can ever imagine. See
See also Wymo’s fleet of self-driving minivans is about to get 100 times bigger at  https://www.theverge.com/2018/5/31/17412908/waymo-chrysler-pacifica-minvan-self-driving-fleet.

For an imaginative and exciting Sci-Fi account of AI in a para-military context, see Patrick Hemstreet, The God Wave, Harper Voyager, 2016.


Related Commentary:

(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(2/15/15): Is Religion Good or Evil?
(3/1/15): Religion as a Source of Good and Evil (Atheism)
(6/7/15): The Future of Religion: In Decline and Growing
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(4/2/16): The Freedom of Religion and Providing for the Common Good
(7/2/16): The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in the Wake of Globalization
(7/23/16): Reconciliation and Reality
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/3/16): Righteous Anger in Religion and Politics
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(1/7/17): Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(2/4/17): When Confrontation Trumps Reconciliation in Politics and Religion
(2/25/17): The Need for a Revolution in Religion and Politics
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(9/9/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/09/the-evolution-of-american-civil.html.
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion  
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/10/a-21st-century-reformation-to-restore.html.
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/16/17): Can Democracy Survive the Trump Era?
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/if-democracy-survives-trump-era-can.html.
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
(3/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christian Morality as a Standard of Legitimacy http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/03/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on_24.html
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(4/7/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
(5/19/18): Musings on Morality and Law as Symbiotic but Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy
(5/26/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Mysticism and Morality in Religion and Politics
(6/2/18): Musings on Good Versus Evil and Apocalypse in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics