Like it or not, self-driving cars are coming.
Google, Apple and Tesla are racing to produce autonomous vehicles for public transportation. Google and Tesla are testing self-driving cars on public roads, and Tesla has already begun to roll out self-driving features in their high-end electric cars. For example, the Tesla Model S can stay in its lane, adjust its speed in traffic, park itself and be summoned by its driver. In the next several years we should see the first fully autonomous car that needs no human participation in the driving process. By the time my future children are grown up, learning to drive a car may be optional.
We all tend to have a default reaction to technological advancements. You may default to excited anticipation. If so, you probably believe new is usually better, assume the world is always improving and value newly acquired knowledge over tradition. You ask, “Does is work?” before, “Is it good?”
On the other hand, you may default to skepticism. If so, you are likely sentimental toward the past, believe the world is getting worse every day and discount most ideas that have risen after the Reformation. You ask, “What would my favorite dead theologian say?”
But what if Christianity is neither progressive nor conservative? What if both technological optimism and pessimism are misguided? GK Chesterton (my favorite old dead theologian) decried both extremes, explaining, “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” Chesterton satirized the idea that Thursday is better than Wednesday simply because it comes later on the calendar. Conversely, it would be silly to be sentimental about Monday because it came before either of them.
If blind progressivism or blind conservatism is insufficient, how should we respond to new technologies like self-driving cars? There is a third way, though it is harder and more complicated: Christians can be influencers.
Autonomous Cars: the Good, the Bad, and the Redeemable
To be influencers, thoughtful Christians must look at new technologies critically through the lens of a Christian worldview. This is not a simple process of labeling something “good” or “bad,” because it is rarely that straightforward. Technologies are tools which can be used well or poorly, for good or evil. As we begin thinking about how we as Christians should respond to culture-shaping new technologies like autonomous cars, a few questions will help us get started:
- How does this new technology reflect God’s good design for the world?
- How could it go wrong in a broken world?
- How can the church be a source of influence in this area?
Let’s start by acknowledging God’s good design. By creating this mind-boggling technology, men and women are reflecting God’s image. Their ability to make a machine aware of its surroundings and capable of safely navigating to a predetermined destination reflects an ordered universe governed by a good Creator (rather than a chaotic universe governed by random chance). Furthermore, autonomous cars have proven to be safer than human drivers even in the early stages of development. There are over 40,000 wrecks in the United States each year that may be prevented by self-driving technology. Christians can certainly celebrate technologies that protect and affirm human life. We should thank God for designing such an amazing world and rejoice when people create new technologies that help us better steward it.
Technologies are tools which can be used well or poorly, for good or evil.
Once we appreciate God’s astonishingly good design, we also have to be realistic about the effects of sin on humans and their creations. There are many ways self-driving cars can go wrong in a fallen world. For instance, about five million truck drivers and taxi drivers could lose their jobs to self-driving technology, and it remains unclear how those jobs would be replaced in the economy. Since autonomous cars are computer- and network-driven, they may be vulnerable to attacks by hackers and terrorists, making security paramount. A citywide pileup caused by terrorist hackers is obviously a frightening prospect. In addition, the expense of the technology could lead to centralized ownership of transportation, forcing individuals to rent from Uber or the government because they cannot afford to purchase their own car (which could be good and bad). Christians must be aware of the dangers of living in a fallen world and work to hold the effects of sin in check where we are able.
The Need for Cultural Influencers
A full view of the issues surrounding autonomous cars highlights the need for the church to be a powerful source of cultural influence by working hard to utilize its people’s chosen vocations and callings. If Christians are going to influence how our culture adopts new technologies, it will require the contribution of believers from all walks of life.
For example, companies are hiring teams of ethicists to make decisions about how to program cars to respond when faced with life and death situations. While human drivers are given some leniency in circumstances where they have no time to think, self-driving cars will not have that luxury. Should a car value the life of its occupants over that of pedestrians and other drivers? Should it veer toward a senior citizen to avoid hitting a child? What about five senior citizens? We need holy ethicists with a biblical worldview to be part of these conversations.
We also need holy engineers and designers who work to make safe, beautiful, and affordable autonomous cars. We need holy politicians who make just laws for governing the cars’ production and use. We need holy voters and consumers to help decide whether this technology is even something we want and when it is safe to make publicly available.
Furthermore, the rise of autonomous cars presents a wonderful opportunity for theological and ethical dialogue, as there are not yet entrenched positions on these issues. Our church members can have helpful gospel conversations by raising questions about the ethical decisions involved in autonomous cars, presenting the beauty of God’s design for the world and observing the damage of sin on the finest advances of technology.
This pressing need for the full body of Christ to be influencers presents a call for pastors to equip every member with the tools to look at the world with an aim to influence for Christ.
Pastors can lead congregations to become culture influencers & work out their callings for God’s glory.
While church leaders cannot specifically address every new technology from the pulpit, they can lead their congregations to become culture influencers and work out their callings for the glory of God. If you are a church leader, here are three practical steps you can take:
- Help church members break down the wall between sacred and secular.
Many Christians in the pews mistakenly believe that only the pastor’s job really matters in God’s economy. Teach your members about the dignity of all vocations and their importance in God’s kingdom. One practical way to do this is to begin scheduling a church-wide commissioning of and prayer for professionals and the work they do.
- Help your people think beyond basic morality and workplace evangelism.
While Christians should pray for their coworkers and refrain from stealing office supplies, there are far more ways to be faithful to God in the workplace. Christians must seek to do their job with excellence and realize that God receives glorify when they do good work.
- Help members think like influencers.
As discussed, most of us default to being either progressives or conservatives regarding cultural change. Leaders can model helpful cultural critique from a biblical worldview to help Christians be thoughtful about current issues and creative in finding ways to solve them.
Imagine a world where Christians take the lead in developing new technologies and influencing how they are used. Picture the church having an impact on the future of autonomous cars based on a Christian worldview. As a pastor or church leader, you have the opportunity to give engineers, politicians, ethicists and plumbers the awesome ability to leverage their professions and conversations for the glory of God and the good of their neighbor.
Autonomous cars are coming. Instead of hitting the panic button, let’s embrace the opportunity to be influencers.
Image Credit: Niels de Wit, Wikimedia Commons