On Whether a Robot Could Be Baptized

There are two impulses for addressing this odd question, on whether a robot could be baptized. The first is rewatching I, Robot. The second is the way Robert Jenson introduces the chapter on consciousness is his On Thinking the Human (Eerdmans, 2003). There Jenson hypothesizes about a robot who “behaved intelligently” and responded positively to a question about belief in Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Should we baptize such a robot? “Various puzzlements would bedevil the question”, he notes, though he is most concerned with whether this would be considered a conscious confession (p.16). I, incidentally, do not think the question of whether a person (or robot) can make conscious confession is decisive for whether or not they should be baptized: many Christian traditions, of course, baptize infants who do not–yet–possess conscious faith. I want, rather, to look into the “puzzlements” that Jenson leaves untreated, and which I consider more significant.

The main puzzlement has to do with why the Church would baptize a robot. This brings us immediately to the question of why the Church baptizes human beings. Jenson seems to imply that the Church baptizes human beings upon their conscious confession of faith in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is of course true for many but (as noted above) not all Christian traditions. The faith of the baptismal candidate, according to the New Testament, is a sign that it is appropriate for them to be baptized, but it does not seem that their coming to faith sufficiently accounts for why they are baptized. (Why baptism and not some other action?) Why they are baptized is for the forgiveness or washing away of sin (Mark 1:4; Acts 2:38, 22:16; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21), though different Christian traditions disagree on whether baptism effects this washing from sin or only signifies it. The content of a person’s faith in coming to baptism is in Christ, who died for the forgiveness of our sins.

This implies that for a robot to be baptized, it would stand in need of forgiveness, which could only be the case if it could sin. Now, sin is something different than a mistake or even an undesirable action. Sin is a uniquely human capacity. (The Bible suggests that animal predation is undesirable, but not something for which animals stand in need of forgiveness: Isaiah 11:6-9). It is a uniquely human capacity because it is the breaking of a covenant with God, the breaking of a divine command or law. Thus, David recognized that his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah was first and foremost against God, as the breaking of the law against adultery and murder (Psalm 51:4; cf. Luke 15:21). Only human beings stand in such a covenant relationship with God, because God established it with humanity in the giving of certain commands.

Animals have their own relationship with God, though it does not seem that it could be classified as “faith” per se. The Psalms are especially rich in describing this relationship: the animals “look” to God for “food in due season” (Psalm 104:27-30), their desire is satisfied in him (Psalm 145:16) and, in their own way, heaven, earth and sea–even “fruits trees”, “snow and mist”–offer worship to their Maker (Psalms 19:1, 69:34, 148:3-13, 150:6). God gives human beings commands about animals and how they are to be treated: one of the reasons God commands a Sabbath is “that your ox and your donkey may have rest” (Exodus 23:12). But animals themselves do not stand in need of baptism, because they do not share in the same covenant as human beings that graciously provides baptism as a means or sign of forgiveness for sins.

This is really the decisive and most interesting point: robots, if they ever come to match or exceed human intelligence, consciousness and even belief, are not part of the new covenant of Christ with the human species. It would not at all be decisive if robots came to be religious, to seek out their own relationship with God. A robot who asked for baptism could not be given it on that grounds. But perhaps–and this is what would be decisive–God would establish some sort of covenant with them. Yet it would not–and I dare say, could not–be a covenant whose sign is baptism. This is so because the significance of baptism for human beings is intimately tied to the reality of Christ’s incarnation, the event of the Son of God becoming a human being and suffering a human death for the sake of human sin. Perhaps, like the rest of creation, robots who were capable of belief would come to have a relationship with God as, ultimately, their Creator. Perhaps they would look to him for “food in due season” and praise him, like the sea and the creatures who swim in it, for calling into being such a world, a world where even their existence–as artificial intelligence–is possible.

Incidentally, and as a final note for thought, the same logic would seem to apply to any other intelligent species that may or may not be living among the vast galaxies. Only if God made a covenant with that species involving commands or laws that could be broken would there then be a species other than humanity that could commit sin and, thereby, stand in need of God’s forgiveness and, potentially, a sacrament of that mercy. But this, of course, is something only God knows.

Torture and the Eucharist

Torture is a kind of theater in which people are made to play roles, and thereby reinforce a certain kind of social imagination. The Abu Ghraib photos lay this dynamic out for all to see. The detainees in the photos are made to play the role of deviant, of the filth that the terrorist is in the morality play that we call the War on Terror. Hooded, contorted, stacked naked, chained to cages, cowering before snarling dogs, covered with excrement, dragged around on leashes, made to masturbate and howl in pain, the prisoners become what terrorists are in our imagination: depraved subhumans. The imagination of the War on Terror is inscribed on their bodies in a kind of ritual drama, or anti-liturgy [….]

The Eucharist is about the construction of a social body—the Body of Christ—that is capable of resisting the imagination of the state when resistance is called for [….] If the Church is the Body of Christ, the sacrament and sacrifice for the world, then we are to be broken and given away as food for others. The Church is, as Paul says, to “make up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24), by suffering together with the victims of violence. If it is the case that the Eucharist makes the Body of Christ, then the Church does not simply commemorate God’s “no” to violence, but embodies God’s answer to violence in the world. We ourselves prefer to absorb the violence of the world rather than to perpetrate violence. (William T. Cavanaugh, “Telling the Truth about Ourselves.”)

The Eucharist, as Cavanaugh (a student of Hauerwas!) teaches us, is about the formation of “a certain kind of social imagination,” a certain way of seeing the world together with others. Specifically, the Eucharist teaches us that there is no friend/enemy division with those who call themselves Christians, for we were all once enemies of God but are now called his friends. Thus we learn we have no enemies, or better, we are all enemies called together to share at one table in one body.

The Lost Community

La communauté perdue, ou rompue, peut être exemplifiée de toutes sortes de manières, dans toutes sortes de paradigmes : famille naturelle, cité athénienne, république romaine, première communauté chrétienne, corporations, communes ou fraternités — toujours, il est question d’un âge perdu où la communauté se tissait de liens étroits, harmonieux et infrangibles, et se donnait surtout à elle-même, dans ses institutions, dans ses rites et dans ses symboles, la représentation, voire l’offrande vivante de sa propre unité, de son intimité et de son autonomie immanentes. (La communauté désoeuvrée, 29-30.)

The lost, or broken, community can be exemplified in all kinds of ways, by all kinds of paradigms: the natural family, the Athenian city, the Roman Republic, the first Christian community, corporations, communes, or brotherhoods—always it is a matter of a lost age in which community was woven of tight, harmonious, and infrangible bonds and in which above all it played back to itself, through its institutions, its rituals, and its symbols, the representation, indeed the living offering, of its own immanent unity, intimacy, and autonomy. (The Inoperative Community, 9.)

I think Jean-Luc Nancy, the author of this quote, is fundamentally wrong—at least on his characterization of the first Christian community. A reading of Acts and Paul’s letters will show far less than a “lost age” of “tight, harmonious, and infrangible bonds.” The idyllic passage in Acts 2:44, “All the believers were together and had everything in common,” the height of community and communication of goods, comes before the community is, properly speaking, “Christian.” And by the time the church of Antioch arises and the designation “Christian” is given for this strange mix of Jews and Greeks (11:26), the Church is in serious disarray: the baptizing of an Ethiopian, conversion of Saul the murderer, persecution in Jerusalem, Spirit-filling of Cornelius the Roman, and Peter’s vision regarding the abrogation of kosher laws all contribute to a great commotion that demands the calling of the first council at Jerusalem (Acts 15). However, lest this little act of community politics be thought to restore order, Paul writes Galatians (esp. 2:11-14). The Christian community is always already a disorderly community, a broken body. In the end, the Church is the community of the Eucharist.