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Vulnerable World Hypothesis…How Might Christians Think Differently about the State of Things

In his article entitled “The Vulnerable World Hypothesis” (VWH), Bostrom addresses the issue of technology and its (positive and negative) effects through an analogy involving an urn containing a variety of different colored balls representing (1) technologies created that benefit humankind, (2) technologies that have negative impacts on humankind, and (3) technologies that end up being civilization killers.

Bostrom goes on to suggest that (so far) we’ve only created technologies in categories 1 and 2. He argues that we have yet to pull out a “civilization killer” that will end humankind as we know it. As Bostrom notes, “What we haven’t extracted, so far, is…a technology that invariably or by default destroys the civilization that invents it.”

In the context of Bostrom’s article, he describes “civilizational devastation” as involving “any destructive event that is at least as bad as the death of 15% of the world population or a reduction of global GFP by >50% lasting for more than a decade.” While that certainly seems sufficiently destructive, I wonder if Bostrom has not given sufficient weight to destructive criteria that do not result in (a) the physical loss of life or (b) the massive loss of fiscal resources.

For instance, current research demonstrates a significant increase in depression and suicide amongst the younger generations (see The Coddling of the American Mind for a full discussion). We are surely experiencing some form of individual and collective catastrophe due to the proliferation and availability of pornography (see “The Illusion of Love” in Empire of Illusion and A Billion Wicked Thoughts). Our intellectual lives are being influenced (not always for the better) by skewed and false accounts of “facts” (Beyond News or The Misinformation Age). We are also being pressured to adopt worldviews that are, according to Murray, “dementing” (The Madness of Crowds).

While physical death is not trivial, it seems worth asking whether lives characterized by (increasing?) psychological afflictions, the loss of intimacy, and increasing difficulty in finding reasonable dialogue, or rigorous investigations and presentations of facts, are, in some sense, worse than death. What if our “technologies” (used in Bostrom’s broad sense to refer to “not only machines and physical devices but also other kinds of instrumentally efficacious templates and procedures—including scientific ideas, institutional designs, organizational techniques, ideologies, concepts, and memes”) are creating a life incapable of answering Ravi Zacharias’s inescapable questions: where do we come from (origin), what are we doing here (meaning), how do we differentiate between “good” and “bad” (morality), and where will we end up (destiny)?

Ultimately, Bostrom’s hypothesis is quite interesting…it offers a unique perspective and line of thought. Understood from within a Christian framework, it would seem that the VWH loses some of its teeth. After all, in Christ’s resurrection he conquered sin and death, so that all who believe in Him may have eternal life. On some level the VWH holds no particular concern for Christians because we know this world will give way to a new creation. At the same time, the Bible does not authorize escapism…Christians are to offer faithful Christian testimony in a world that is not as it should be.

The point, however, is not to give into some sort of apocalyptic or eschatological paranoia (you probably won’t see me wearing a sandwich board proclaiming “The end is near” anytime soon). Instead, the point is for us to take seriously the challenges we are facing. Not just that, but we need to consider what we need to do given the seriousness of the challenges we are facing.

Just because we aren’t facing a cataclysmic moment…a civilization killer…that could destroy us physically or financially doesn’t mean that there are no civilization killers out there. My concern is that, as the body of Christ, we are far too quick to suspend thought, to blindly accept, to polarize, to settle on a particular viewpoint.

Given that, it seems to me that there are at least three things the church can do to face the challenges ahead:

  1. Focus on the basics- One of my favorite D.L. Moody quotes is as follows: “There are many of us that are willing to do great things for the Lord, but few of us are willing to do little things.” For Christians to meet the challenges of the world, we have become what I refer to as expert Christians. Think of it like a dancer who has prepared her or his body and mind, learned deeply the appropriate movements, and practiced putting them together so that she or he is able to perform effortlessly when they take the stage. In a similar way, we have to so master what it means to live for Christ that when faced with crisis we respond with a fluid, natural movement in step with the Spirit that bears faithful witness to the God we serve. So, learn prayer, worship, lament, repentance, forgiveness, theology, etc. Don’t neglect the practices that don’t seem to be making a big enough splash…do the little things.
  2. Learn to Engage without Surrendering Our Theology– I read a lot. At the moment, I may be sitting in the most dangerous place for me…a Barnes and Noble (so far, I have only purchased one book). Whether I read Christian or non-Christian authors, books from my own theological tradition (whatever that might be) or from those whose perspectives I might not generally share, I try to read carefully. There is, in my mind, a spectrum of engagement with the thoughts of others (whether in print or otherwise). It spans from dismissive (“this is rubbish and I don’t want anything to do with it!”) to naive acceptance (“I agree with everything this person has said or will ever say…no reservations whatsoever!”). While most of us don’t live at either extreme, it is important to recognize that there are also dangers in-between these two poles. Many (if not most) books are written simply because readers like simplicity. They like to be able to understand what it is that they are reading. The simpler the work, the more likely it is that foundational assumptions will go undiscussed. To make things (like blog posts) readable, they can’t go into the depth of a dissertation (which are almost by design far less readable). As Christian readers, then, we have to ask better questions of all the perspectives we engage (whether in print, video, hologram, or face-to-face). I personally don’t believe that being dismissive of others and their thoughts is warranted as often as some might thing, nor do I find that moments of naive acceptance are particularly helpful (I often don’t agree with myself when I read my past work!). Learning to engage without surrendering our theology will likely mean more than just asking better questions, it will mean that we let the jury “stay out” to deliberate a bit longer. In a fast-paced world, taking time to think isn’t the easiest thing to do.
  3. Don’t Be Obsessed with Fixing the World– As Christians our role is not to fix the world, but to proclaim that the world is so broken that only God can fix it. It isn’t so much that we can’t be involved in activities that will improve the human condition or demonstrate concern for God’s creation. We just have to be careful not to develop a “messiah complex” in which we begin to believe that the world (and God) is lucky to have us around to solve all these problems. Should we be engaged in evangelistic efforts? Absolutely. Care for the downtrodden and marginalized of society? Yep. Thinking theologically in the public square? No doubt. In the end, though, we have to recognize that faithful living does not necessarily end in a world that is more God-fearing than when we started. Again, our job is to live faithfully in a world that is not as it should be. We don’t carry the burden of fixing the world, but of proclaiming that the world is so broken that only God can fix it. We point to God as the One who has acted to redeem a fallen world through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
  • Do we live in a vulnerable world? I think so. We are, in one sense, susceptible to all sorts of dangers and threats. It seems to me, however, that God has secured His people by helping us see Himself and the world through the eyes of faith. We have hope not because we think the world will somehow avoid a “civilization killer,” but because God has provided a way for us to have eternal life beyond this creation. We would do well to remain settled and non-anxious about the world’s problems (even as we work alongside others to address them) focusing instead on testifying to God’s reign in the ways in which we act and speak.
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