Volpe on Sin, Hope and Desire for God

However else we may want to describe sin, it signals a failure of hope. (p.233)

This is a beautiful line from toward the end of Medi Ann Volpe’s Rethinking Christian Identity: Doctrine and Discipleship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). In discussing Gregory of Nyssa’s theology of desire for God, she notes that the fundamental nature of sin–‘ontological sin,’ to use the technical term–is desiring created things rather than God (as, too, for Augustine). To desire what God has made over and above God himself is a turning away from God to lesser things; it is, in other words, to give up hope on what is greatest and to settle for ultimately unsatisfying realities. God wills to be had: he gives himself to us in Christ by his Spirit. Yet our sinfulness consists precisely in failing to hope that such infinite goodness could be ours.

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.

The Sinful Desires of this Mortal Body in Romans 6:12

Most manuscript variants–that is, different words appearing in different ancient copies of parts of the Bible–are theologically insignificant. They change some bit of grammar or other, but don’t affect the meaning. When it comes to Romans 6:12, however, this is not the case.

The majority reading of the manuscripts–the one that appears most commonly and in the oldest manuscripts–reads like this: “Do not, therefore, let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires.” The ‘its desires’ part refers here to the body, the body’s desires. (It’s impossible to tell in English, but the Greek pronoun αὐτοῦ–meaning ‘its’–refers to the neuter word ‘body,’ not the female word ‘sin.’) To obey the desires of this ‘mortal body’ is to give into sin and allow it to ‘reign’ over us.

But this verse is worded differently in some manuscripts. Some say, “Do not, therefore, let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey it [the female αὐτῇ, referring to ‘sin’]”: do not let sin reign by obeying it in your body. Others say, “Do not, therefore, let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey it [sin] in its [the body’s] desires”: to obey the body’s desires is to obey sin–meaning, in effect, the same as the majority reading.

The most interesting variant is one that appears in only a single manuscript, a lectionary from the eleventh century. Here Romans 6:12 reads, “Do not, therefore, let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey it [sin] in its [the female αὐτῆς, sin’s] desires.” What is fascinating about this reading is that the body is not the source of sinful desires. Sin can reign in our ‘mortal body’ if we let it, if we ‘obey sin in sin’s desires.’ But it has no power over or connection to our very body’s desires, as in every other manuscript.

Of course, this interesting reading is not the correct reading. There are good textual–it only appears once, in the eleventh century–and theological reasons for rejecting it. Ever since our first parents’ sin, sin, like death, has ‘come into’ humanity (Rom. 5:12). It is no longer an external word tempting us from outside, but a force within us, stirring up desires that bear the ‘fruit’ of ‘death’ (6:21). Even after we have ‘died to sin’ in baptism (6:2), it is still the ‘sin living in me’ (7:17) about which Paul cries out to God, “Who will rescue me from the body of this death?” (7:24). Only after the resurrection will it be true that our bodies themselves will be free of sinful desires.