NEW ORLEANS (BP) — The 15th annual Defend apologetics conference at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Leavell College, Jan. 2-5, welcomed 465 registrants from colleges and churches from 20 states to hear biblical responses to pressing questions from culture.
Fifteen plenary speakers and more than 100 breakout sessions addressed topics and provided biblical responses to issues in brain science, quantum physics, modern film, counter-Christian belief systems, evidence for the resurrection, transhumanism, sexuality and culture, and other subjects.
Robert Stewart, director and professor of philosophy and theology, pointed to 1 Peter 3:15 in the opening plenary to caution listeners that knowledge and skill in apologetics is good, but not enough.
“The degree to which you are effective in evangelism, missions, apologetics, and in ministry in general will in large part be equal to the degree to which you are committed to Jesus Christ, the degree to which you have submitted to the Lordship of Christ,” Stewart said. He added with urgency, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.”
Plenary speakers included Jamie Dew, NOBTS president; David Calhoun, Gonzaga University; Robert Bowman, Institute for Religious Research; Tim McGrew, Western Michigan University; Craig Hazen, Biola University and former editor of “Philosophia Christi”; Jana Harmon, C.S. Lewis Institute; James Walker, Watchman Fellowship; Shane Pruitt, NAMB’s National Next Gen Director; and others.
With science and artificial intelligence (AI) in the news, several speakers spoke to the intersection of faith and science, and the theological implications of AI.
Science gives evidence for God
Michael Strauss, physics professor, University of Oklahoma, and experimental particle physics researcher at the CERN laboratory, Geneva, Switzerland, said that known science regarding the universe provides “abundant evidence” for a divine creator.
Strauss said three lines of evidence point to a creator: the universe had a beginning, the Big Bang; the universe is finely tuned for life; and the earth is “rare” among all other planets in being habitable by life.
Strauss pointed to past mistakes when believers were slow to embrace scientific discoveries such as a heliocentric universe and urged listeners to remember that “all truth is God’s truth.”
“We as Christians need to be truth-seekers willing to change our minds about things as the evidence shows it because we more than anybody should serve truth,” Strauss said. “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and you don’t ever have to be afraid of finding the truth.”
AI: A coming ‘freight train’
Jamie Dew, NOBTS president, drew from Genesis 1:26-31 to say humankind’s dominion over creation allows for the creative use of modern technology for humanity’s good, but issued a caution regarding AI.
“Our lives depend on [modern technology] … it’s a part of our lives in ways we may not recognize,” Dew said. “But AI is a freight train coming at us.”
Technology is not “completely neutral,” Dew cautioned. While technology has solved many problems, it has caused others including “reality-confusion” where values such as self-esteem are mistakenly driven by “likes” on social media, Dew said.
A correct “theology of technology” means humans must not surrender to technology and AI their God-given dominion over creation, Dew explained.
“[Modern digital technology] is far more subtle, powerful, conforming, and addictive than anything that’s been before,” Dew said. “By its very nature, it has a dominion aspect to it.”
AI cannot fill humankind’s deep need for meaningful relationship, Dew noted, and urged listeners to live out the Gospel through “incarnational living” to a culture desperate for genuine, human relationship.
Imago Dei and AI
Sharon Dirckx, brain imaging scientist and adjunct lecturer for the Oxford Centre for Apologetics, Oxford, England, opened her plenary address with a statement illustrating the difficulty of distinguishing material produced by AI.
“As technology advances at an unprecedented pace, AI is transforming various aspects of our lives raising philosophical, ethical, and existential concerns,” Dirckx said. “In this talk we will delve into the essence of our humanity and reflect upon the implications of AI on our identity, our relationships and the future of our species … ”
Dirckx then explained that she did not write that opening statement but rather AI generated the statement when she put in chatGPT (an AI chatbox) the question, “What does it mean to be human in an age of AI?”
Dirckx reminded listeners that while AI may appear to be conscious, that is not the same as being conscious. The more urgent question to consider, Dirckx explained, is how humans will use or misuse AI.
“The belief that AI will eventually become conscious rests actually more on philosophy and worldview than on technology and biology,” Dirckx said. “And, it originates from the belief that man is a machine.”
Author of the book “Am I Just My Brain?” Dirckx said science can measure brain activity during some experience, but only people can describe what they felt during the experience.
Dirckx noted from Genesis 1 that being made in God’s image means humans: are uniquely able to think and reason; function as God’s ambassadors and therefore are accountable to Him; and are deeply relational.
“No matter how efficient and sophisticated AI technology may become, these [imago Dei characteristics] remain vital and irreplaceable qualities of human life,” Dirckx said. “… Jesus took on human flesh in order to save us … In the age of AI, this tells us all we need to know about human significance.”
At the close of the final plenary, Stewart was recognized for his work in founding and directing the Defend conference. Stewart retires at the end of the academic year.
Chris Shaffer, associate vice president of institutional strategy and chief of staff, spoke on behalf of President Jamie Dew in expressing the seminary’s appreciation for “the very hard work that Dr. Stewart has put into this program and the efforts he has made to ensure that a generation of students have found themselves more and more capable of defending the Christian faith and doing it in a way that honors God, is kind and gracious but firm in conviction. For that, we are eternally grateful for his investment.”
Tawa Anderson, associate professor of philosophy and apologetics, will direct the Defend conference in Stewart’s place.
Stewart told listeners he recognized 10 years ago that Anderson was the person he hoped one day would direct the program.“I thought it then. I thought it when I made the recommendation to our administration and I think it now,” Stewart said. Stewart turned to Anderson and said, “You are a godly and exceptionally gifted man, and I am very happy that you are taking over the program.”