2019-04-12

Every science fiction writer in history has been convinced that they know what the future will, or at least could, look like. Almost every time, they have been wrong. In many cases, it is not because they were too outlandish, but because they were not imaginative enough. It is true that humanity has yet to colonize other worlds or create flying cars, but some of the issues that people are already facing on Earth are straight out of science fiction. The bizarre nature of the situation, however, does not excuse people burying their heads in the sand and hoping time will reverse itself so that the world can go back to what it was in the past. That is not how reality works. As such, people need to be ready to face the challenges the future will bring, and Christians are no exception to that rule. Here are some issues straight out of science fiction that Christians must be prepared to handle.

Clones

Cloning is a staple of science fiction, but there is a very good possibility that it will become a fact of reality in the relatively near future. The technology to clone complex mammals has been around for some time. So far, it has not been used on a human being, but the genie has been out of its bottle for years. It is only a matter of time before someone decides to clone a person. The experiment may be done with permission, or like the recent CRISPR baby experiments done by China’s He Jiankui, it may be kept secret until the clone has been born.

For Christians, the issues of cloning run deeper than the massive ethical issues inherent in any form of human experimentation. Clones are, by definition, a copy of a person who already exists. Genetically and physically, they are identical to the original person. What about their soul? When human cloning is done for the first time, Christians will have to grapple with the question of whether or not clones are human beings in the religious sense. Biologically, they are a human being, but they are not unique. Is the same true of them in their soul? Do they have a unique soul? Do they share one with the original person? Do they have a soul at all? Sadly, the church will have to decide eventually how it is going to treat those who are, essentially, artificial humans.

Sentient Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence is another classic science fiction trope, and it is normally associated with utter disaster. Small-scale A.I.s are already in use. The popular Apple Siri and Amazon Alexa are both A.I.s. So far, there is no artificial intelligence in existence that comes even close to approaching human-like thought. That said, constant improvements in the technology with the deliberate aim of making A.I.s more lifelike and better able to think like their human counterparts makes it extremely likely that one day there will be an A.I. that becomes self-aware. When that happens, the ramifications will be enormous. The immediate concerns, of course, are ensuring that this A.I. is not dangerous. There are endless numbers of sci-fi movies warning about the dangers of a machine that can think for itself. That danger, however, means that the church will have to grapple with whether or not this A.I. is to be considered alive. If so, can its creators justify killing it in order to avoid potential catastrophe? Would placing controls or limits on the A.I. constitute slavery? Would this self-aware machine fall under the same rules as the rest of creation, especially the command to “be fruitful and multiply?” Does an artificial intelligence, created by humans, have the same rights as a creation of God? Would the sudden appearance of sentience turn an A.I. from a human creation to one of God? Does an A.I. have a soul? The appearance of sentient machines will force all of humanity, but especially the church, to decide exactly how much the “artificial” part of artificial intelligence matters when it comes to human rights.

Aliens

No discussion of potential future problems would be complete without a mention of aliens. It may seem out-there to consider, but the statistical likelihood of humanity being alone in the universe falls every year. As such, it is likely that Christians will eventually have to grapple with the existence of an entirely separate, intelligent race. What will that mean for Christianity? It will certainly mean there are a lot of questions to answer. The biggest issue, of course, is how aliens fit into God’s plan for salvation. Did Christ’s death save the aliens as well? Were they touched by sin in the first place? Did God become incarnate on their planet as well? Are Christians responsible for baptizing and converting the aliens? This issue is unlikely to really come to a head until either Earthlings or aliens invent faster-than-light travel. Until then, visiting each other would be impossible. The identification of and possible communication with alien life, however, is not as far away as many think. SETI has already identified over two dozen planets in the habitable zone of their solar system, and any one of them might have aliens looking back at Earth and wondering if that little blue rock has life on it, too.

Genetically Modified Children

Designer babies are one of the first objections anyone raises in the debate of genetic modification in humans. It is often brushed aside by those who are eager to see the field of genetics expand and dismissed as wildly unlikely. Geneticists, after all, are still struggling to understand how genetics are related to desirable traits such as height, intelligence, athleticism, weight and aesthetic traits such as hair color. Babies are, however, already being designed. Their appearance so far remains up to the genetic lottery to decide, but children are already being born through combinations of three sets of DNA as well as from the DNA of those who have already died. The so-called CRISPR babies stunned the world as well when it was announced that they had been born with a deliberately edited genome that no one could prove had been done successfully or even correctly. The question of how to handle genetically modified children is not something that can be pushed off into the future. It is here and happening already. They may only form a small portion of the world right now, but that number is likely to only continue to grow. How should the church respond to this? Many denominations frown or forbid mucking around with the human genome, but editing genes to prevent horrific diseases might get a pass. The question, of course, is where to draw the line on gene editing and what to do with those who cross it. Does removing a gene that is likely to cause nearsightedness acceptable? How about preventing Down Syndrome? Should parents who edit their children for frivolous reasons, such as appearance, be shunned by the church? What happens to the children who were edited at or soon after their conception? What about the children of those who had germline modifications, modifications that will be inherited by their own children, done to them? Genetic modification is a slope covered in ice, but since people are already piling on the sled, the church needs to figure out how it is going to handle the inevitable crash at the bottom.

“Hikikomori”

The phenomenon of “hikikomori” is, so far, largely limited to Japan. The term was coined by Tamaki Saito and refers to men and women who become social recluses to the point of refusing to leave their house or room. This bizarre condition affects approximately 1.5 million Japanese people and has no clear trigger. It has been associated with massive stress and pressure particularly among young people who are facing enormous familial and social pressure to succeed in school. The same issue, however, has been documented in older citizens.

The idea of a “hikikomori” may seem off the wall, but it has become a serious issue in Japan. It also has the potential to spread across the world. Western teens spend less and less time with friends and family each year as their relationships and interests migrate to the digital realm. It is also becoming easier and easier to handle daily necessities without ever leaving one’s home. Grocery stores deliver, and the internet can provide just about everything else. Given that many people would prefer to spend their time online anyway, there may soon be a variation of “hikikomori” appearing in the West.

A refusal to engage with society may seem like a minor problem compared to some of the other things likely to be facing Christians in the future, but this one may be a particular challenge. Christianity has always valued the community and the fellowship group settings create. Reaching out and helping people who refuse to leave their rooms will be especially difficult. Christians will need to overhaul their entire approach if they are going to help those who are hiding away.

The future always ends up looking stranger than anyone in the past could have predicted, but that is no excuse to keep from rising to meet new challenges. The issues future Christians will grapple with are unusual, but that has never stopped them. For over two millennia, the Christian faith has met whatever challenges the world has thrown at it. There is no reason to think that will change, even if worship services are eventually held on Martian soil.