I Am Not A Robot

27 January 2018

“Artificial intelligence and robots will kill many jobs,” was Jack Ma’s Davos World Economic Forum prediction this week. Ma is CEO of the Chinese online sales giant Alibaba. Indeed, artificial intelligence and the use of robots to not only interact with, but also manipulate human beings and even replace them raises all kinds of questions.

“Technology should always give people new opportunities, not remove them,” Ma said. Nevertheless, at the end of November 2017 a new report released by McKinsey & Company indicated that by 2030 as many as 800 million workers worldwide will probably be replaced by robots. In economies like the U.S. and Germany, the study found that up to one-third of the 2030 workforce will need to learn new skills and find new work.

While the impact of robots and automation may be scary to some, Bill Gates, in a Wall Street Journal interview (March 26, 2017) said the issue is nothing to panic about. According to Gates, anyone with skills in science, engineering and economics will always be in demand. This of course raises all kinds of questions about education.

In his Davos presentation, Jack Ma also raised questions about education; and I find myself resonating with him.

I have no doubts that the pace of robotization and the evolution of artificial intelligence will accelerate each year. Human survival Ma stressed, however, will be guaranteed if we shift our educational focus from education as handing on information to education as human development. The same shift in focus, I would emphasize, is needed in the church as well. For years I have stressed that we should not have “religious education” in our parishes and schools but “Christian formation and development programs.”

We need to focus less on doctrines and fidelity to doctrinal prescriptions and more on Christian behavior. Healthy doctrine springs from healthy behavior, as the old saying stresses: “orthopraxy leads to orthodoxy.” Jesus in the New Testament is not a dogmatic theologian. He is a pastoral guide, who stresses a new pattern for living. Examples abound. My favorite is still the story of the Good Samaritan, which could also be called (with a special ring for today) “the parable of the despised foreigner.”

You remember the story: a traveler is stripped of clothing, beaten, and left half dead along the road. First a priest comes by and sees him, ignores him, and moves on. Then a Levite comes by (Levites assisted the priests in Jewish temple worship.); but he too avoids the injured man and moves on. Finally, a Samaritan happens to come along. Samaritans and Jews generally despised each other, but the Samaritan helps the injured man. The point of the story, Jesus says is “who is my neighbor?”

Very concretely, if we shift our educational focus from primarily passing on information to a full program of human formation, what would that entail?

Here I can only point to the main formational elements.

(1) A stress on human sentiments of care, concern, and compassion for others. A focus on the human heart not just the brain. Jesus stressed love of neighbor as oneself. He didn’t say “just think nice thoughts about the other.”

(2) An openness to the deeper dimensions of our human experience. Call this a kind of meditative spirituality. Reality is much richer than many people realize.

(3) A stress on critical reflection and questioning of the information that bombards us day and night. Is everything relative and up for grabs? What does the search for truth mean the day?

(4) A stress on human values like fairness, trustworthiness, and honesty.

(5) A solid formation in music, art, and theatre as the most fundamental forms of human (and humanizing) expression.

We can use robots without becoming robots….and so we must.

Take care.

– Jack


Going, Going, Gone???

20 January 2018

On January 10th, the London-based The Economist published an article on today’s teenagers. In general, the article noted that they are better behaved and less hedonistic than teenagers a few years ago; but they are also lonelier.

Today’s young people, The Economist report stresses, are indeed behaving and thinking differently from previous cohorts at the same age. The shifts can be seen in almost every rich country, from the USA to the Netherlands to South Korea. Some changes have been under way for many years, but have now accelerated.

On the positive side, teenagers are getting drunk less often. In Britain, for example, where a fifth of 16- to 24-year-olds do not drink at all, the number of pubs is closing by about 1,000 a year. Across Europe, teenagers are smoking less and drug use has diminished significantly; and, in the US as well, the decline in teenage opioid use is especially significant.

Teenagers are also having less sex. In 1991, by way of comparison, 54% of US teenagers, ages 14-18, reported they were sexually experienced; and 19% claimed to have had sex with at least four different partners. In 2015, however, those proportions were 41% and 12%. America’s teenage birth rate also dropped by two-thirds over the same period.

Teenagers of course are heavy internet users, thanks especially to smartphones. Teenagers are increasingly using social media as an alternative to face-to-face communication. In doing so, they miss opportunities for developing deep emotional connections with their friends, which are built on non-verbal cues as well as verbal ones.

Parental worries about teenagers texting and playing computer games too much have largely given way to worries about smartphones and social media. Today’s teenagers seem lonelier than in the past. Recent surveys, like the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), show that the share of 15-year-olds who say they make friends easily at school has dropped in almost every country. Some Western countries are beginning to look like Japan and South Korea, which struggle with a more extreme kind of teenage social isolation in which young people become virtual hermits.

The Economist report is one of two articles about teenagers that I read this week. The second is a report, issued on January 17th by St. Mary’s Press and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University (CARA), about teenagers and church membership.

The USA national two-year study offers a look at why young people are leaving the Catholic Church as early as age 13. Seventy-four percent of the former Catholics interviewed said that they decided to leave the Church between the ages of 10 and 20. Most have no religious affiliation. The St. Mary’s Press / CARA report resonates with Pew Research Center findings that the “Nones” are a growing category in the United States. The CARA researchers cite a 2015 Pew study that the number of religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S. increased by 19 million between 2007 and 2014.

The two-year study, titled Going, Going, Gone! The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, is based on a national survey and interviews with 214 former Catholics between the ages of 15 and 25. The study found that church disaffiliation is a process that happens over time for young people. Typically, it is prompted by a series of events or unresolved questions that simply begin to accumulate. Questions and more questions and no answers. Many disaffiliated teenagers believe in God and believe in what Jesus taught. They perceive organized religion, however, as having corrupted Jesus’ teachings. Many had trouble connecting their identity as a baptized member of the church to their concrete life experiences in the real world. They struggled to articulate why being Catholic matters, so they just drifted away from the church. They see many of the church’s dogmas and doctrines as nonsensical; and they believe they can probably live better lives without the baggage of religion.

According to St. Mary’s Press President and CEO, John Vitek: “It’s clear that church leaders will need to open their minds and their hearts in order to view disaffiliation not as a grave threat, but as a new reality in which the church’s evangelizing mission must function in wholly new ways,” Vitek continued: “Most young people still believe in God and want to be connected spiritually….A critical first step for the church is to provide a nonjudgmental place for young people to openly and honestly wrestle with their questions, struggles, and doubts about faith and religion. If we don’t, they will leave and find a place where they can.”

Well, I as I stressed last week, it is necessary and good to have questions and to be a critical thinker. But critical thinkers and questioners need alert and wise listeners. That is our contemporary challenge ……….

— Jack

Personal e-mail: jadleuven@gmail.com

It started with questions….and the questions continue

12 January 2018

(Photo credit: Dave Miers)

Some years ago, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl wrote that life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, nor a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.

I agree with Frankl. The greatest task for any person is to explore the ultimate questions about the meaning of Reality, of our human experiences, and of our personal identities in a changing world.

Shortly after Christmas, a university friend asked me how I became interested in theology. In response I wrote a brief personal-experience article that will be published in a couple months. Today, as Another Voice begins a new year, I would like to share a bit of my story and also about my focus in 2018.

My story: In the late 1950s and early 1960s I was a rather conservative seminarian, studying at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. In September 1965 my bishop, to my great surprise, sent me to study theology at the famous Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. I would spend three years in Louvain (today we more properly use the Flemish name: “Leuven”). Then I left the seminary and continued studying theology at what was then known as the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. I was fascinated by the “Dutch” (he was really Belgian) theologian Edward Schillebeeckx who was a professor of theology in Nijmegen. (Interestingly, he did his early philosophical and theological studies in Louvain.)

For me, a very pious and somewhat fundamentalist young man, the journey from Detroit, Michigan to Leuven, Belgium was much more than a big geographic shift. It was personally very unsettling. My professors made me feel very uncomfortable. As I listened to them, I found myself asking theological questions about everything. Is there a God? Who or what is God? How do I know that my “religious experiences” are really experiences of Divinity? Who really was Jesus and who is he today? Was his birth truly the result of a virginal conception? Did he have brothers and sisters? Was his mother really always a virgin? Was the Resurrection a real event? How much of the New Testament is trustworthy? Is the Catholic Church the one true church? There were personal identity questions as well….a lot of them.

One day after class I confronted the professor, whose lectures were really turning my world upside down. I told him he was making me very uncomfortable, because I was now asking questions about everything from God and Jesus to ordained ministry, love, and celibacy. With a twinkle in his eyes and a warm smile he said: “then I am doing a good job as professor.” He told me he would not abandon me and we could talk any time….and he reminded me of the old saying, attributed to Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Thanks to my old Louvain professor, and many others, I grew up as a person. I grew up theologically. I grew up as a thinking person. I grew out of my Catholic fundamentalism; and I became a truly contemporary believer. A quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer suddenly spoke to me powerfully in a new way: “I’m still discovering, right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.” (I became an avid reader of the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed by the Nazis in April 1945.)

At the Catholic University of Leuven, I consciously confronted change – on many levels – and I was changed. Most important in my world of changes was learning how to be an historical-critical believer: anchored in biblical and theological sources and asking how they resonated with my own contemporary faith and life experiences. My understanding of Christian belief and morality changed as did (necessarily) my understanding of humanity. I came to understand that change and development are essential elements in our human existence, ongoing life, and understanding. I came to understand that asking questions and searching for answers are essential elements in the human journey. I realized it is not wrong to ask questions. I realized yesterday’s answers are not always helpful responses for today’s questions. (Many years later I would (respectfully) tell a group of bishops meeting in Baltimore that they were very good at answering all the questions nobody was really asking anymore.)

This year, in Another Voice, I hope I can address the right questions and propose some thoughtful answers. When I can no longer do that, it will be time for me to unplug my computer.

Looking over the 2017 reader reactions to my blog, people have been generally positive, supportive, and appreciative. (The negative people just ignored me or unfriended me on Facebook.)

It does bother some people when, in their words, I become “less theological and more political.” With the current presidential administration I have done that periodically. I hear the criticism. I understand where it is coming from. Nevertheless, in today’s socio-cultural context I can only refer to the words of Bonhoeffer again:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

My best regards to all. I hope you will travel with me in the coming months.