Fear, Glory, and Unfair Advantages

I was a little nervous to ask. We used to have a very good, casual work relationship within my research group, so such conversations would normally be very comfortable.

But just over a year ago, I became the formal head, not just of this group, but also of its host organization, the ZHAW Centre for Artificial Intelligence. 

Speaking about personal convictions is different now that I am perceived as “the boss.” Words are no longer just my words that one can weigh and accept or ignore; they now come with institutional authority. This is true for strong opinions in meetings about technical matters, and no different when talking about political issues—or faith. 

So here I sat at a reception with the larger part of my employees, holding beers and snacks, and I struggled to work up the guts to ask how they liked the talk last Friday. 

“The talk” was the Templeton Lecture by Stanford neuroscientist William Newsome on the topic of “Did my neurons make me do it?” The local student prayer group had approached me months before and asked if I would host the talk at the Centre to give it a disciplinary framing. I was happy to. 

But organization was complicated by COVID, and I couldn’t attend the talk myself because of other obligations. Furthermore, due to a communication problem, my team was only invited on short notice to “a talk on the intersections of science and spirituality.” Without a further chance for me to frame the event properly, larger parts of my team had enthusiastically signed up to hear the famous researcher—and now was my first opportunity to ask how they had perceived it.

I have seen my share of Christian outreach events—the glorious and the awkward. So, I was considerably nervous about how this event had turned out, and also aware that universities offer little grace for those who abuse their platforms. My mouth was a little dry when I finally mumbled, “By the way, how did you like Professor Newsome’s talk?”

To my surprise, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. My team found the talk interesting. The discussion afterward with the speaker had been a pleasure. 

How did they perceive the connection between science and spirituality? “Fine, something different, no, not awkward at all; we should have more of these ‘out of the box’ events,” my non-Christian research team replied.

I often feel that as Christian researchers, we have an unfair advantage in knowing how the universe works: through faith, we have access to more information, even on our research topics. If we frame that in the language of science—as Bill Newsome did in the event above—we can bring our colleagues into the light as well. 

Thilo Stadelmann
Artificial Intelligence
Zurich University of Applied Science