Facial Recognition and the Face of God

Seeing God is one thing. Seeing God’s face is something entirely different.

This is how Scripture talks about beholding God. The topic of seeing God — and specifically seeing the face of God — is prevalent in the Bible.

Jacob wrestled with God and said, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered” (Gen. 32:30). But when Moses asked to see God’s face, God said, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex. 33:20); instead, God allowed Moses to see a glimpse of His glory in passing. Likewise, the Psalms make frequent reference to God’s face (Psalm 10, 13, 24, 27, 80).

Elsewhere, Scripture states that God and the face of God cannot be seen. The Gospel of John says that no one has ever seen God; rather, seeing Jesus is seeing God (John 1:18). Paul, in 1 Timothy 6:15–16, describes how no one has seen or can see the “only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light.”

It can be difficult to hold these truths together. Scripture enigmatically describes both seeing God face to face and the impossibility of seeing God face to face. How is this possible?

Sometimes the Bible speaks of the face of God in a symbolic way that describes the glory and presence of God; this is especially true in the Psalms. When the Old Testament speaks of people seeing God, this can be an appearance of Jesus before the Incarnation. Furthermore, since Jesus is God, the Bible recounts how plenty of people have seen God’s face by seeing Jesus’ face.

Either way, Scripture makes it absolutely clear: Faces matter. To see a face, whether God’s face or a human face, is an intimate experience. (This concept is foreign to us in a digital age when we are inundated with images of faces on social media and television). While it is possible to know someone in other ways, seeing a person’s face brings a new level of personal knowledge.

Brave New World

The human mind has recognized faces for thousands of years. Facial recognition, however, is no longer limited to biological organs. Modern technology now recognizes faces faster and better than the human eye. A brave new world of facial recognition is here.

The emerging field of biometric authentication uses unique bodily characteristics to identify a specific individual. While the practice of identifying individuals by their unique bodily features goes back to the ancient world, modern technologies have radically changed how this happens.

Many computers and smartphones are equipped with biometric authentication such as fingerprint access or retinal scans. Another form of this biometric authentication is facial recognition.

Facial recognition works by taking precise measurements of a person’s face and calculating its unique facial geometry. Every person possesses a unique set of facial features including bone structure, measurements of the eyes and nose, skin tone, facial hair and so forth. Computers with facial recognition technology quickly take a person’s facial measurements, compare them against a database of photos and determine possible matches between the input face and the photos in the database.

Facial recognition relies heavily on artificial intelligence or machine learning. Computer programmers teach a computer to identify a human face. Once the computer learns how to recognize a single human face, it then begins to learn more and more different faces. It creates algorithms that isolate various parts of the face such as lips, cheek bones, noses, chins, eyes and mouths. These become what are known as “nodal points,” or clusters of related information.

When a photo is analyzed by this facial recognition system, it is rapidly compared against every other photo in the system’s database. After comparing the input photo against all the other photos in the database, the system offers possible matching photos along with a similarity score indicating the likelihood it is the same person. 

How do these facial recognition systems get the database photos? There is not a single answer to this question. Some facial recognition systems use mugshots of known criminals for the database. Other systems use driver’s license photos. And other, newer facial recognition systems have been trained on photos from the internet and social media.

This last data set should be particularly alarming. If facial recognition systems can use the assets of social media platforms as part of their database, then this will have wide-reaching implications on the future of privacy.

Depending on what happens with laws and regulations, in the near future someone could use facial recognition technology to take a picture of you in public and almost immediately pull up all of your digital information from Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Imagine walking through a public space and having someone take your picture and then use this picture to find out where you live, how many children you have, and where you went on your last vacation. Presently, there is some degree of privacy in public because someone needs to know your full name and some other details in order to search you online. Facial recognition would make it so that you could not go anywhere in public without being totally searchable.

This erosion of privacy is more than just possible or plausible. It is probable.

Possibilities and Problems

Facial recognition technology certainly offers many benefits. Along with keeping your smartphone and computer secure, it helps Facebook users tag people in photos. In fact, Facebook’s facial recognition software processes more than 350 million faces every day.

Facial recognition systems can also be used to help find missing persons in human trafficking cases, and police use it to identify criminals and dissociative amnesiacs, people who are unable to identify themselves. Biologists have used this same technology to track vulnerable and endangered animals in the wild.

Perhaps the greatest possible benefits of facial recognition technology have to do with law enforcement. Rather than searching physical catalogs of known criminals, detectives can save tremendous amounts of time by using computer systems to aid their efforts.

The downsides of this technology, however, are concerning. It is certainly alarming to think that anyone could use your picture to pull up your digital history and personal information. Facial recognition technologies enable mass surveillance and the subsequent total loss of privacy.

Facial recognition systems can also fail to see people of color depending on the datasets that they are trained on. These racial biases demonstrate how designers and engineers can unintentionally map their prejudices onto the technologies that they create. It appears that modern technology is not entirely amoral.

Lurking beneath all of this is the even deeper issue of personal identity: What makes a person unique? What constitutes your identity? Who are you?

Facial recognition would say that you are a composite of specific and unique measurements. You are a thumbprint. You are a retina. You are your facial geometry.

Marshall McLuhan, a media scholar and philosopher, argued that technology has the power to rearrange the humans who have made it: “As an extension and expediter of the sense life, any medium at once affects the entire field of the senses … Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology is perpetually modified by it” (McLuhan, Understanding Media, 45, 46). Technology, according to McLuhan, reorders human thinking, sensing and seeing. These new technologies are “put out long before they are thought out” (49).

How might our identities suffer in a world of facial recognition technology? Are we merely arrangements of eyes, lips, ears, skin, teeth and hair? Is there a better way for us to be known and identified?

Identifying with Jesus

In Christ Jesus, our identity is not based on our face or features, name or address, digital history or internet profiles, bodily geometry or biometric data. Our identity is first and foremost found in Him: “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:13–15).

Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the waters of Baptism, God has given us a new identity in Christ Jesus. His life is our life. His death is our death. His new life is our new life. His gifts are our gifts. He is ours, and we are His.

This is a wholly different sort of identification. Rather than being known by our outward appearances, we are known according to God’s promises as His baptized children. Instead of dividing people into discrete categories based on skin color and facial features, God’s gift of Baptism unites us together with Him and one another: “There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4–6).

In the kingdom of God, we are not known by the bridge of our nose, the shape of our eyes or the shade of our skin. Rather, we are known by the grace of God that is ours through faith in Christ Jesus. Identifying as baptized children of God, we joyfully proclaim, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness” (Psalm 17:15).

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