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5 Minute Jesus: Deus Ex Machina


Deus Ex Machina

Episode 31: Artificial Intelligence

There are two very ancient traditions about how to elevate humanity. The first says that we can lift ourselves up through brute force, human effort, and especially technology. 

Perhaps the most ancient example is the Tower of Babel, people trying to build a tower to the heavens. There are hints of the victorious possibilities of technology in the trojan horse story from Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. Soldiers hide inside a giant mechanical horse and take the city of Troy by stealth. Perhaps the most concrete examples are from the Roman Empire where weaponry rapidly advanced, and military engineering was incredibly complicated and successful. Just google ‘roman battering ram’ and you’ll see what I mean. The Romans were technologically amazing. Then there’s the Roman engineer Vitruvius who even worked out how to pour and dry concrete underwater. He wrote a manual about it and you can visit the ancient Israeli seaport of Caesarea to see a stunning example of how it worked. In all of these examples we catch a glimpse of humanity’s ancient optimism, to lift ourselves up, to be the saviours of our own predicament. 

At the same time there was also the same occasional recognition that we are not able to lift ourselves up by our shoelaces. In Greek and Roman literature we find another curious motif of divinity stepping in to help where human prowess had reached its tragic limits. There are a few examples in Homer’s Iliad with gods deciding on a whim to help out on the battlefield. Or in the famous Roman epic poem the Aeneid by Virgil where deities redirect humans to their safety or success.

In Greek and Roman theater, this is known as apò mēkhanês theós, or in its Latin equivalent, deus ex machina, literally “God from a machine.” It refers to a staging device in ancient plays where a figure representing a god would literally be winched down onto stage, this would be the moment in the story would be turned around. The plays of Euripedes used this regularly in the 400s BC. It became such a cliche in ancient Greece that the slightly later playwright Aristophanes in the 300s BC used it as comedy. The god appeared almost as a joke in the middle of the play. And in one of his plays Aristophanes makes a really good joke by having a figure of the playwright Euripedes himself winched onto stage as the deus ex machina. We now use the expression deus ex machina to refer to any kind of dramatic turn in the plot, it’s the surprise occurrence that no one deserved or expected. 

Both of these ancient traditions tell us something real about the human situation. It’s right that we aim for the stars or “fill the earth and subdue it” as the Bible itself puts it. But it’s also wise to admit our limitations, technologically and morally. However much it might appear as a cliche, humanity does often need a deus ex machina. Failing to acknowledge this is to fall into the trap of backing ourselves too much. Of seeing ourselves as all-knowing gods. And that is just as much an awful cliche as the comedic overuse of needing rescue from God.

The Bible affirms the status of every human being as made in the image of God, called by the creator to rule, explore, and curate this planet. The Bible applauds human attainment. The Bible also echoes the deep human longing for the deus ex machina. The hope that God might come down onto the human stage and lift us up out of the mess we got ourselves into. As the Gospel of John puts it in one of the most quoted passages in scripture: 

For God so loved the world, that he gave His one and only Son. That whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.

By John Dickson

Want to hear the rest of the episode?
Check out episode 31: “Artificial Intelligence”

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