© 2012 John Casimir O'Keefe

Jesus in the Uncanny Valley

The uncanny valley

In the worlds of robotics and 3D computer animation there is this amazing concept called The Uncanny Valley. The evolution of this concept started back in 1906 with Ernst Jentsch’s  “On the Psychology of the Uncanny” and was added to with Freud’s concept of Das Unheimliche (the opposite of what is familiar) in 1919. The concept started as a way to explain how something (anything) can seen as both familiar and yet foreign, all at the same time. The concept says that when we see something (anything) that is uncanny the resulting feelings are in a kind of conflict, both uncomfortably strange and at the same time uncomfortably familiar. This feeling of being familiar and strange, at the same time, brings about a real cognitive disconnect because of the paradoxical nature of being both attracted to the something and repulsed by the something at the same time. It has been said that this cognitive disconnect of being attracted and repulsed at the same time leads one to reject the object because it is easier to reject the something than to rationalize the something; we can reject what we do not like about the something, but to do so we need to reject the whole something.

While Jentsch and Freud developed the concept of the uncanny, the term the uncanny valley was coined by Robotics Professor Masahiro Mori in the 1970s. The hypothesis behind the uncanny valley is that when creating a “human” (either a robot or in animation) there is a point one reaches that causes revulsion among real humans. It is a hard point to find, but it can be found anywhere between 95% human and 97% human. It seems that when people who are confronted with a robot or animated human that falls under the 95% we do not see that animated human as human, we see it for what it is, an animated human. We see some human qualities, but we still view that animated human as simply a cartoon. When the percentage of human qualities goes above 97% we also see that animated human as a human with minor limitations, and develop empathy for that animated human. They are viewed as human, but a human with “disabilities.” But when the percentage falls between the 95% and the 97% we see the animated human as something very different, something we are repulsed by. Our repulsive response settles somewhere between seeing something as “barely human” and “fully human.” Once we are in that place, we have entered the uncanny valley.

Interestingly, as the appearance pasts the 97% there is a human connection that develops and we start to see the object as more human and we develop a positive reaction to the object; one can say we even develop an empathic connection with the object. The question now becomes, how does this have anything to do with Jesus?


Jesus in the uncanny valley

As a faith, we proclaim Jesus as both fully human and fully divine. While the divine part is not the issue, the human part does become a major issue for a great many people. In my view, most if the time when we express Jesus in human terms we quickly move to the uncanny valley.

We are comfortable with Jesus being just human enough (below the 95% mark) for many to see that Jesus as some kind of cartoon character, and never fully human (and not in the uncanny valley). This view of Jesus allows us to say things like he understands what it mean to be human, but not too human where he had the same issues we face.

This idea came to me as people were, and still are, discussing the issue that Jesus was married. While I am not going to discuss the issue if Jesus was or was not married, I do want to say that I see this event as moving Jesus to the uncanny valley for a great many followers of Christ, and when that happens, they are repulsed by the idea of “that jesus.”

You see, for many in the church they were comfortable with a Jesus who fell into the 95%, or below, human, and the idea that Jesus could be married, pushed them into expressing Jesus as a “96% human” and for many, this idea caused great concern. Many were repulsed at a Jesus who was 96% human, there was just enough strange and familiar qualities in this Jesus that it moved him into the uncanny valley and caused many to not desire to speak about it, so we reject that Jesus and refuse to rationalize the possibilities.

For me, the idea is not to push Jesus back to the 95% of humanity, but to see him as 100% human, with all the desires, faults, issues and concerns that face each and every one of us. If not, we place our understanding on a Savior that does not know us, does not understand what it means to be human, and does not connect with us as humans. We express a Jesus that falls into the uncanny valley, and yes, can even be seen as repulsive by many.

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