The following is a transcript of Dr. Denison’s keynote address delivered virtually on October 29, 2020, for Digital Media Con, a virtual conference for Christian communicators.
I am delighted and honored to join you for the Digital Media Conference. Your member associations span such a wide spectrum of Christian media. It is impossible to calculate fully your influence in our culture in these exciting and perilous days.
I’m talking with you tonight about navigating the technological opportunities and ethical challenges of our day. To that end, let me begin by explaining why this topic is so important to me and, I believe, so relevant to us all.
The opportunities before us
As of this taping, Johns Hopkins calculates that the coronavirus epidemic has infected more than thirty-one million people and cost nearly a million people their lives. In the midst of this global pandemic, the digital media platforms you utilize are more urgent and more ubiquitous than ever.
According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, nearly nine in ten US consumers report higher media content consumption since the coronavirus outbreak began. Unsurprisingly, the average time spent on digital spiked when consumers began home quarantine. Media subscriptions have increased. Online activity has increased across the board, from news searches to music, movies, shows, and games. And 79 percent say getting more news is a primary way they are passing the time.
Interestingly, consumers say they intend to continue such high media usage post COVID-19, from online videos and music streaming to online press and radio.
Opportunities for ministry via digital resources are expanding as well. In a Pew Research Center study released in August, one-third of regular worshipers said they attended religious services in person, but nearly three-quarters have watched virtually. Among all US adults, only 4 percent have attended services in-person, but 25 percent have watched online or on television. And 91 percent of those who have watched religious services online have been satisfied with what they have seen.
One California church that had eight thousand participants in its online service prior to the pandemic but 1.2 million on Easter Sunday.
The challenges before us
But the ethical challenges posed by these technological advances are enormous as well.
As resident scholar for ethics with Baylor Scott & White Health, the largest nonprofit healthcare system in Texas, I attend closely to the ethics of technological advances in medicine and in our broader culture.
Consider some examples I’m following.
Fifteen years ago, Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near predicted a day of exponential increase in technology related to computers, genetics, robotics, and artificial intelligence. His “law of accelerating returns” claims that technology will always be invented to cross barriers to progress. As a result, humans will transcend biological limits and enhance their natural capacities.
Consider some examples of his prediction in reality:
- Neil Harbisson is color-blind but can detect color through an antenna grafted onto his skull. As a result, he can detect infrared and ultraviolet markings that ordinary people cannot see.
- Thousands of people have RFID devices implanted in their bodies so they can activate doors and computerized locks. A digital contact lens patented by Google aims to measure blood glucose levels from tears, changing the course of diabetes management.
- Exoskeletons enable amputees and paralysis victims to recapture and even exceed their previous physical capacities. (Their military applications are obvious as well.) Earbuds provide real-time translation capacities. Brain-computer interfaces enable physically impaired patients to communicate with the world digitally.
- Bionic lenses are being developed that could restore vision and provide capacities that far exceed normal ocular abilities. Smart contact lenses under development could record video by blinking.
However, just because we can do something does not mean we should.
Paul would be online today
In your work as writers and communicators, you are experiencing an unprecedented advance in technological opportunity. You can reach more people than ever before more efficiently than ever before.
How do you balance the opportunities before you with the ethical challenges they present?
When the Lord created man, he “put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). “Work” translates obdah, which means to cultivate or improve. “Keep” translates somra, which means to guard or preserve. Taken together, obdah and somra call for progress within moral boundaries.
Our twofold calling in the “garden” where we serve is to develop the resources God has given us while protecting his creation. In the context of digital communication, this means to embrace and use every advance that enables us to reach people more effectively and efficiently.
Technology is axiologically neutral, meaning it can be used for good or for evil (e.g., video used for online sermons vs. pornography). We should seek to use the greatest means to reach the greatest number.
Paul employed the technology of his day via Roman roads and transportation, koine Greek, and epistolary communication. I am convinced he would be online today. Missionaries through the centuries have been technological innovators and pioneers, from global transportation to radio, television, and digital platforms.
At the same time, we must balance innovation with missional commitment. We are to “work” and to “keep” our part of the garden. Effective stewardship of the opportunities before us requires both.
Ethical challenges in a digital age
Embracing digital opportunities brings ethical challenges on a variety of levels. Many of these will be familiar to you, but all are even more urgent as technological sophistication escalates.
Among these challenges:
- Avoiding editorial oversight
- Sourcing content and fellow contributors inappropriately (if at all)
- Using anonymous sources
- Choosing speed over accuracy
- Manipulating research data
- Hiding conflicts of interest
- Bias in personal social media posts
- Blogging under an alias
- Failing to distinguish between news and opinion
- Manipulating images
- Duplicating publication
- Recycling text
- Aggregating unverified content
- Refusing to admit and correct mistakes
- Falsifying or fabricating research, sometimes by linking to spurious or unreliable sources
- Violating the privacy of readers (cf. cookies and more invasive means of harvesting their personal information and preferences).
For more, see this article on ethics in online medical publication.
How shall we best respond?
Two schools of ethics are known as deontological and teleological.
Deontological ethics focuses on standards of right and wrong independent of the outcomes of particular behaviors. This approach encourages us to identify our unchanging principles and commitments, then make decisions in their light.
I remember reading about a ship’s captain sailing through a night fog who saw what appeared to be another ship’s lights. To avoid a collision, he signaled the approaching ship: “Change your heading ten degrees west.”
Back through the fog came the reply: “Change your heading ten degrees east.”
The captain replied with clear irritation: “I am an admiral—change your heading ten degrees west.”
The response: “I am a seaman fourth class. Change your heading ten degrees east.”
Furious, the admiral blazed his message: “This is a United States Navy vessel under orders of the US government. Change your heading.”
The reply: “Change your heading. I am a lighthouse.”
Deontological ethics identifies the lighthouse, the unchanging truths we trust, and makes decisions in their light.
I know you remember Jesus’ famous words: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (Matthew 7:24–25).
It is vital that we build our lives and work on the unchanging rock of God’s Son and word.
To this end, each of us should define our personal mission statement and articulate the values by which we will fulfill it. Then we should evaluate the opportunities of our day by these values as they fulfill our missional purpose.
For example, Scripture teaches: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). These values should characterize and motivate our work.
In addition, we should define what we believe Scripture to teach on the moral issues of our day, then write in a way that is consistent with these biblical convictions.
Such values-driven communication is vital for us as individuals and for the organizations with whom we serve. This approach to navigating the challenges and opportunities of our day will help forge a community centered in collective principles and biblical commitments.
By contrast, teleological ethics centers on the morality of specific ends to be achieved by behaviors. This approach encourages us to identify the outcomes we intend for the content we produce and distribute, then evaluate them by their biblical efficacy.
For example, the Great Commandments fulfill the Great Commission. In the Great Commandments, Jesus taught is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30, 31).
We can ask of what we produce:
- How will this lead people to love God more holistically with all their heart?
- More rationally with all their mind?
- More intuitively with all their soul?
- More practically with all their strength?
- How will it equip them to love their neighbors more fully and passionately?
In the Great Commission, Jesus taught us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20).
When we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we are more empowered to love our neighbor as ourselves by leading them to know Jesus and teaching them to make him known.
As a result, we can ask of what we produce, how will this make disciples?
How will it help disciples to make disciples?
Embracing our call to this age
As we face and embrace the challenges of our time, it is good to remember that we are called to our time.
We’re familiar with the theological fact that God calls us to geographical locations as part of his providential plan for us, as when he led Abram to Canaan (Hebrews 11:8–10) and Paul to Macedonia (Acts 16:6–10).
But it’s also part of God’s plan that you are alive when you are.
It is by his providence that I was born in 1958 rather than in 1858. It is by his will that you are alive today and not a century from now (if the Lord tarries). He assigned you not only the place where you live but also the time.
As a result, know this: If God could not use you in these chaotic days, you would not be alive in these chaotic days. He has equipped you with the gifts, abilities, experiences, and resources you need to make a kingdom difference where and when you are.
Now he is calling you to step into the chaotic challenges and opportunities of our day, claiming his promise to Joshua as his assurance to you: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
When we are faithful to his call, we can know that God is faithful to honor his call in our lives. You cannot measure the eternal significance of present faithfulness.
Alfred North Whitehead was right: Great people plant trees they’ll never sit under.
Leo F. Buscaglia observed, “To love is to risk not being loved in return, to live is to risk dying, to hope is to risk despair, to try is to risk failure. But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.”
Here’s my question: What will you risk to love Jesus through your calling today?