You may have noticed a recent news item reporting that mankind stands on the threshold of a new era, in which his most intimate relations will increasingly be transacted with robots. Pandering to human prurience, the report dwells upon the impressive possibilities for carnal knowledge of automatons, but it does not limit itself to the automation of solitary vice. Apparently one can already purchase a “chatbot” that will simulate interest in whatever maundering drivel one cares to type into one’s keyboard, and it is only a matter of time before these apps that simulate interest in our yakety-yack (or, rather, tapety-tap) receive a voice, a face and a body.
From the viewpoint of traditional sexual morality, I don’t see that there is much to say about this. A “sexbot” is simply a high-tech masturbation aid. It will surpass more primitive aids in cost, complexity and, we may suppose, customer satisfaction, but I cannot see that it opens a new frontier of sin. Murder by drone is identical to murder by cudgel, from a moral point of view; so I doubt changes in the enabling technology will aggravate, or mitigate, Onan’s sin. There is, nevertheless, a theological point to be made of this curious development, which I will get to in a minute.
The news item introduces two “academics” who have “studied” this trend, and who, their brows creased with concern, wring their hands and officiously worry about “what it will do human relationships.” An “academic,” you understand, is empowered to make the arrow of causation point whichever way he (or in this case she) likes. But I think it should be fairly obvious that, when consumers begin to snap up sexbots and chatbots, it will be because something has already been done to human relationships. A man doesn’t leave his friends to spend more time with his dog. He spends more time with his dog because something has gone wrong with his friends.
Now it must be admitted that humans labor under severe disadvantages when they enter into competition with a dog, the dog being more compliant and good-tempered, and perhaps even more fragrant. Raising this homely example to a higher level of abstraction, we might say that, in his relationship with his dog, a man experiences fewer discrepancies between reality and desire. If properly trained, the dog becomes an extension of his will, while even the friendliest and most loving of his fellow humans are instinct with recalcitrance and bounteous in vexation.
In the coming competition with sexbots and chatbots, flesh-and-blood humans are going to be severely disadvantaged by their boundless capacity for recalcitrance and vexation, or what might be described as their gift for driving an iron wedge between reality and what other people want from them. The sexbot, on the other hand, will be a courtesan for the common man: flawless in appearance, gifted in technique, gratifying in demeanor, and as tireless and undemanding as the circular saw in his garage. When I am taciturn, my chatbox will tell me an amusing story; when I am garrulous, it will glow with fascination; when I am dejected, it will incline the sympathetic ear. The irresistible allure of virtual relationships is that they make reality appear to fit desire like a glove.
It is unfortunate, although far from surprising, that sexbots and chatbots have appeared at a time when so many flesh-and-blood humans have become proud of their recalcitrance and principled in their vexation. The infinitely obliging machine has appeared on our doorstep just when many of us have decided that it is degrading to please, and servile to make ourselves comely, or amiable, or even somewhat nice. It is as if an old horse began to bite just when the Model T Ford was first offered for sale, or as if some Pop’s Grill stopped mopping its floors just when an immaculate hamburger franchise opened next door. When an obliging machine enters into completion with a disobliging human being, the outcome is not in doubt.
I fear that contemporary Christianity has done its part to nurture this proud and disobliging spirit by telling us how loveable we are. Not just how loved, but how loveable, the difference being at the very heart of an older Christianity. How often have you heard it said that God sees us as we truly are, and that what he sees is lovely? To the witless world I may appear a mean-spirited mound of flesh, but God penetrates this guise and delights in my beautiful soul.
This is buncombe, and heretical buncombe at that.
God’s gaze does, of course, penetrate every guise. As one seventeenth-century writer put it, “the eye of God is an all-seeing eye, and able to pierce through the very thickness of man’s flesh, how dark and gross soever it be . . .” (1). Writers of that day often represented God’s perspicacious gaze with the symbol of a world of crystal glass. “The world before the Lord . . . ‘tis like to a crystal glass,” one wrote, and “though the world in itself be never so muddy, and never so filthy, yet the Lord sees all . . . he sees into the bottom of men’s hearts . . . there is not anything in any man’s spirit of conversation but it is clear before the Lord, he sees it as through crystal” (2).
But what God discerns beneath that guise is very far from lovely. The old Calvinists painted in dismal and repellant tones, but they have much to teach us about the squalor of our souls. Writing in the voice of a man who has come to see his soul as God sees it, Cotton Mather describes it so: “O my God, my affections are all irregular, all inordinate. My soul is languishing, and perishing under horrible distempers . . . . All over full of wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores: disqualified for a lodging anywhere, but in the place of dragons.” To be raised from this dreadful squalor, the first step was not, as we are now told, to love ourselves, but to feel revulsion, “self-abhorrence,” and an appalling knowledge that our “evil heart” is a “treacherous party within, that lets down the drawbridge, and sets open the gates to [Satan’s] troops of temptations.” In the first stages of the Christian life, to see one’s self through God’s eyes was not to behold loveliness, but to behold “a house that is haunted with evil spirits . . . a cave that abounds with noisome toads and venomous serpents.”
Our vaunted loveliness, alas; how vain and foolish a dream. There are, I think, two ways in which we may wake from this dream. We may pass through the cave that abounds with noisome toads and venomous serpents, and from thence to brighter places. Or we may wake alone in an empty room, abandoned for and reliant on these new, curious, and infinitely obliging machines.
(1) Robert Bruce, The Way to True Peace and Rest (London: Thomas and Jonas Man, 1617), p. 9.
(2) Timothy Armitage, Tryall of Faith, Or the Woman of Canaan (London: Henry Cripps, 1661), p. 443
(3) Cotton Mather, A Brief Essay on a Soul Passing from Death to Life (Boston: S. Gerrish, 1725), p. 14
(4) Christopher Ness, The Crown and Glory of a Christian, Consisting of a Sound Conversion and a Well Ordered Conversation, third edition (Boston: John Griffin, 1684), pp. 1-4.