4.06.2012

Jesus: The Human Human

Sermon Preached on Good Friday, April 6, 2012


Many Wednesday nights I join a group of creative writers in Evanston.  I take part in the group because creative writing keeps my imagination sharp, providing me with fresh fuel for sermon-writing.  Last week, was no exception as one of the writers in the group, Sarah, told me about a book she’s reading. It is called The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive
and tells the story of its author’s, Brian Christian’s, experience with the Turing Test.  The Turing Test is named for Alan Turing, mathematician and philosopher, who first described the test in 1950 as a way to resolve the question, “can machines think?”[1]  In his paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Turing wrote:

“The new form of the problem can be described in terms of a game which we call the 'imitation game.’ It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. . .
“In order that tones of voice may not help the interrogator the answers should be written, or better still, typewritten. The ideal arrangement is to have a teleprinter communicating between the two rooms. Alternatively the question and answers can be repeated by an intermediary . . .
“We now ask the question, ‘What will happen when a machine takes the part of [the man] in this game?’ Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, ‘Can machines think?’”
It would be another 40 years before computing and the field of artificial intelligence had matured significantly to meaningfully pit human against machine in a contest underwritten by Hugh Loebner and The Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. Dr. Loebner has pledged $100,000 for the first computer whose responses are indistinguishable from a human’s.  Until such a computer wins the prize (in the 21 years that the contest has been held, no computer has been successful), a “runner-up” prize is awarded to the Most Human Computer in that year’s competition.[2]  And, here is where Brian Christian comes back into the picture because a prize is also given for the Most Human Human – the actual human participant who does the best job of convincing the judges that they are, in fact, human.  And it is this honor that Brian Christian set out to win in the 2009 competition and which he writes about in his book The Most Human Human.

While I’ve not yet had a chance to read Christian’s book, I have been following my writing group colleague, Sarah’s, progress through her blog posts.   On March 15th just 50 pages into the book herself, Sarah describes a particularly challenging day of not meeting goals she had set for herself and then concludes,

“So I guess that makes me a human human right?  Stumbling?  I hate that I broke promises to myself and yet I would be a robot if I didn't falter sometimes.”[3]

A day later, presumably further along in the book, Sarah writes:

“What I'm loving about the human human book is the discussion about what it means to be human.  The thinking continues to evolve.  Years past, it was thought the differentiating factor between humans and other sentient beings was our ability to use tools.  Then it was discovered many animals use tools . . . So back to the drawing board – ‘What is it,’ philosophers and scientists pondered, ‘that makes humans human?’” [4]

Sarah’s blog post continues:

“Until recently the conclusion was, our ability to reason, a left brain activity other animals don't possess.  We worship our left brains - makes sense because it's the verbal side of ourselves.  When we talk and refer to ‘I’, it's really just the left brain that's talking.  The right hemisphere, because it's mute, never gets to weigh in.  And because the right brain is mute and mysterious we don't understand it and as a result we are skeptical about its contribution.

“BUT [she continues]...just about everything we do with our left hemisphere can be replicated with a computer! Computers are actually much better than we are at logical reasoning.  Drat...that puts us back to the drawing board again!  It's not reasoning that makes us special.  The answer is, of course, the overlooked functions of the right brain - the poets within us.”[5]

Now, for those of you who are thinking, I should definitely read this book, I need to read an entry four days later:  “So the book, The Most Human Human, it's getting ponderous.  I'm not sure I can recommend it with the same enthusiasm I had last week.”[6]  On the other hand, she mentions it again just a couple of days ago, so I guess she hasn’t abandoned it yet.[7]

So, what does all of this have to do with Good Friday?  When Sarah first mentioned Christian’s book to me, I was already reflecting on the passion story and I began to wonder, was Jesus perhaps the first human human?  So much of our focus on Jesus is on his divinity, what it means that Jesus is the Son of God.  And, when we do consider his humanity, our discussions often get side-tracked, on the one hand, by a well-intentioned quest for the historical Jesus – those aspects of his life that can be historically verified – particularly by sources outside of Scripture or, on the other hand, by an assumption that Jesus was really some sort of uber-human, a God-like human.  This despite our weekly recitation of the Nicene Creed which asserts that Jesus was, in deed, fully human: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man” or as it is perhaps more emphatically stated in the Athanasius Creed, “Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.”  In neither creed are we to understand that Jesus was human-like or that Jesus was a God-like human, but a human – a human being like you and like me.

The Passion Story takes us into the heart of the humanity of Jesus.  We begin in the garden with the arrival of Judas.  To be betrayed by one we have nurtured and loved, is that not perhaps one of the most human of human experiences?  We move outside the courtyard of the high priest and listen as Peter denies knowing Jesus not once, not twice, but three times all while Jesus is being questioned inside.  To be denied by one we have nurtured and loved is that not a most human human experience? Jesus is flogged and mocked by the soldiers.  A human human experience.  An incited crowd screams out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” and Jesus becomes victim to the mob – a human human experience.  Jesus walks from The Stone Pavement to The Place of the Skull, “carrying the cross by himself” – in some accounts, stumbling under the weight of this cruel instrument of torture – a human human experience. 

And what of the crucifixion itself?  Stephen Mansfield, writing for the Huffington Post this week, reminded his readers that “[t]he practice of impaling a man to watch him die hideously is not unique to some distant, barbaric time. It has unfortunately been an onoing part of the grisly, shameful side of human history.”[8] The practice was not an invention of the Roman Empire – though they have become most associated with it, most likely because of the story of Christ’s passion. The practice likely emerged among ancient tribes who were looking for a way to prolong the agony of death. During the Middle Ages, Christians began crucifying Jews and Islam took up the practice as well.  According to Mansfield’s article, “[a] Canadian soldier may have been crucified during World War I and many more died by this method in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein.  Tragically, crucifixions may still be taking place in Sudan. We know they were occurring just a few years ago.”[9] And, so the crucifixion too, an all too human human experience.
Good Friday, the day on which we are left to ponder, not the “perfect God” of the Athanasius Creed, but instead the “perfect man” – the human human Jesus.  It’s not a neat and tidy work. It is, in fact, a task most would choose to ignore or avoid.  Perhaps because it seems to demand too much of us, insisting that we stare into the face of human stumbling:  betrayal, denial, cruelty, pain, suffering, and ultimately, death.    
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In an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, Brian Christian suggested that what makes us most human is our ability to maintain perspective on “the world as it is” – filled with the harsh realities of betrayal, denial, cruelty, pain, suffering, and ultimately, death – alongside a perspective on another’s perspective of the world. [10]    For persons of faith, we are invited to hold our perspective on the present reality alongside the reality that the life, death, and ultimately, the resurrection of Jesus promise.  To use the words from Hebrews, which we heard tonight, our ability in the face of death, to “have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us” through his death and to “approach” with a true heart in full assurance of faith” and to “ hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”[11] This, my brothers and sisters, may be what it means to be human humans – have faith.


[1] Alan M. Turing, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," Mind, vol. 59, pp. 433-460.
[2] Information about the Loebner prize attained online April 4, 2012 from “Home Page of The Loebner Prize in Artificial Intelligence: The First Turing Test,” a website which is so unsophisticated as to leave one wondering whether the irony is intentional.  Incidentally, this year’s contest is scheduled for May 15th.  Also, it should be noted that  a 2008 entry named Elbot came very close to winning. You can “talk” to Elbot at this site.
[3] Sarah Britton, “Human, Human / Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater,” Living Well, March 15, 2012 accessed April 4, 2012. 
[4] Britton, “Monsanto Mischief/Outsource Your Left Brain,” Living Well, March 16, 2012 accessed on April 4, 2012.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Britton, “Treasured Possessions/Score One For The Humans!” Living Well, March 19, 2012 accessed on April 5, 2012.
[7] Britton, “Words with Friends/Swimming Upstream,” Living Well, April 2, 2012 accessed on April 5, 2012.
[8] Stephen Mansfield, “Truly Understanding the Agony of Crucifixion,”  The Blog of The Huffington Post, April 2, 2012 accessed on April 5, 2012.
[9] Ibid.
[10] “Brian Christian,” The Daily Show, March 12, 2011 accessed on April 5, 2012.

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