How do we make choices?
As part of my summer reading I read Isaac Asimov's four classic robot novels. They are science fiction police procedurals. The main characters are a New York detective Elijah Baley and a humaniform robot Daneel Olivaw. They often engage in discussions about the how the programming of the robots affects the actions and decisions they make. As in most artificial intelligence stories, the moral dilemmas are highly intriguing . Asimov's fictional robots adhere to the three laws of robotics 1. A robot may not harm a human being, or through inaction cause one to come harm. 2. A robot shall obey all orders from humans that do not break the first law 3. A robot shall protect itself as long as it does not conflict with the first or second laws. The fun of the books is seeing what happens when the robots are put in situations where there are choices that cause a decision that brings a conflict in the programming. What these in fact are, are ways to discuss how people in the real world come up with the moral choices they make.
While real people may not have something equivalent to the three laws, we are programmed by our biology, environment, experiences, upbringing, culture and education. A great biblical example of this would be the wilderness temptation story found in Matthew and Luke where Satan tries to manipulate the basic human programming to have need for food (turn these stones to bread), power (see these kingdoms, they can be yours), and attention (throw yourself off the cliff and watch daddy come and save you!). In each case Jesus as God’s son shows he is not programmed as Satan would have liked. He demonstrates how the first commandment to fear and love God overrides the baser human instincts for food (man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God), power (worship the Lord and serve only him), and attention (Do not put the Lord your God to the test). The first commandment to love God puts things in proper perspective and allows Jesus to continue on with his ministry.
Discipleship, a life of following Jesus Christ and being in a healthy relationship with Christ is a lot about allowing God to reprogram us or update our programming. Living in a sinful and broken world, our programming is often damaged. Value judgements of the majority are taken in and accepted without question, because it is easier to do so. Negative experiences put us on the defensive. Life conditions may cause us to become self-centered, or others may convince us that we have no self worth or dignity. The problem of race that America is dealing with at this time is essentially one of bad programming. Americans have been programmed with a set of beliefs and actions that are neither grounded in biology or the Word of God, which both clearly state we are single common humanity. So overcoming this dilemma will require each of us to examine how the world has programmed us and work to change those lines of code which draw us away from God and cause conflict with our brothers and sisters.
This can be done; I have seen it. I have seen addicts use faith to help them deal with their illness and change their lives. I have seen people whose first marriages broke apart have wonderful life giving and healthy second ones. I have watched self centered selfish people turn around and start caring for their neighbors because an encounter with God led them there. I have seen hyper self-conscious people afraid to talk with any one come out of their shell and build a healthy and appropriate self esteem. In short, in my ministry I have witnessed countless people who have with the help of God altered their programming. The real joy of ministry is watching lives be changed for the better by the Holy Spirit. Jesus encourages to do exactly this when he says things like this spoken during the Sermon on the Mount “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matthew 6:33 (NRSV).
My favorite book of Asimov’s robot series was the last one “Robots and Empire” where two robots, the aforementioned Daneel Olivaw, and another robot Giskard Reventlov come to the conclusion that the three laws they are programmed with are inadequate. They begin to see that they actually cause moral outrages when strictly adhered to, like when saving one person will kill thousands. Their conclusion is that a fourth law is needed. Called the zeroth law, it becomes a preface to the other three, a robot may not do something that harms humanity as a whole. When the robots incorporate this law they become free and true moral agents. They are liberated when they show concern for the wider world. If you have not guessed by now I will tell you; Isaac Asimov really did not write about robots, he was writing about people.
When people allow God to help reprogram their lives with a concern for something beyond themselves they are set free. Adhering to the great commandments to love God with all your heart, soul, and might, and to love your neighbor as yourself, is not a constriction, it is a liberation. You become free to override all aspects of your cultural programming. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said “only the one who believes is obedient, and only the one who is obedient believes”. What I am arguing is that only the one who is obedient is free, and only the one who is free is obedient. Faithful discipleship is liberation.