April 26, 2023
The conversation on AI continues. I’m like a dog with a bone, I just can’t stop with this thing.
About a month ago, I wrote a reflection for our Maundy Thursday service. The reflection was a 500 (or so) word monologue about the last supper from the perspective of one of the disciples. Unfortunately, perhaps ironically, my technology skills failed me that night and we don’t have a recording of it. You’ll have to take my word for it that it was a transcendent piece of writing that exposed spiritual truths that were heretofore unfathomable.
But I was curious.
After I had written my piece, I prompted ChatGPT, “write a monologue of around 500 words from the perspective of an unnamed disciple that was present at the events from John 13:1-17, 31b-35”. Essentially just farming out the task to a computer. Please note, this was AFTER I had written it. I promise.
Beyond the most obvious question (is this really the best use of my time during Holy Week?), I found myself asking a lot of questions about what this means for us all.
Here’s the first few paragraphs of what ChatGPT generated:
I can still feel the water trickling down my feet as I try to process everything that just happened. The Master washed my feet. The feet of a lowly disciple, not worthy of such an act of humility. And yet, he did it. He knelt before me and washed away the dust and grime of the day.
I've been following him for a while now, but I don't think I truly understood his teachings until tonight. He said something about serving one another, just as he had served us. And he talked about love. Love for one another, even when it's difficult.
I remember thinking to myself, "But how can we love one another when we're all so different? When we all have our own opinions and ways of doing things?" But then he said something that stuck with me. He said that our love for one another would be how others would know that we are his disciples. That's a lot of pressure, isn't it? To be an example of his love to others.
Is it the best thing I’ve read? No. Is it evocative prose? Your mileage may vary, but I think it certainly sets a mood. Is the theology sound? It’s not pushing any boundaries, but it has a solid message in there.
The fact that I could have it write me a sermon that I could preach is one of those risks that AI poses. If I feed it enough of my sermons, it could not only write one that reflects my theology but also mimics my authorial voice. Yikes!
But the biggest question I’m asking myself is this: Can we (should we) find theological meaning in AI generated text?
The monologue it generated was theologically sound, dramatically compelling, and provided a moral lesson. It was also generated through an algorithm that could not care less about my personal experience. To say that it is either sincere or insincere would be wrong. It is incapable of even operating on that binary because all it does is absorb trillions of words and puts them together in a way that makes probabilistic sense to respond to a prompt. It doesn’t believe what it is saying, because it cannot believe. It is saying what it thinks I want it to say. Even that is wrong, because it cannot actually think. We’re going to need new language pretty soon if we don’t want to completely anthropomorphize these things.
Here's the thing. The foundations of our shared ministry, how we seek and serve God, what God’s love and grace mean to us, are fundamental existential questions. They sit at the core of our humanity and shape who we are and how we see our world. Is it possible for us to find answers to these existential realities from something that only exists in an impersonal digital space?
What matters: the message or the messenger?
The sermons I preach, the testimonies you share, the books we read, the Bible studies we engage in, the casual conversations we have, all come from people who are earnestly seeking to find meaning in their faith community. When I preach a sermon, whether it is good or not, it comes from a genuine place of me trying to find meaning that we can share as a community. I don’t preach with the goal of saying what I want others to hear, but rather with the goal of figuring out where God may be speaking and trying to put it into words. Am I always right? No. Am I often right? Eh, probably not. Does a blind squirrel find a nut? Sometimes, yeah. But at least I’m coming from a place of real concern.
Does that matter?
Could we earnestly say that a theologically rich and engaging sermon from an AI is worse than a middle of the road sermon from a place of genuine care (or even a theologically offensive and deathly boring sermon) that I would write? I don’t know.
And what if AI consistently shows itself to be more nuanced and fulfilling than me? Is it possible for a computer program to function as a leader of a faith community? We know it has the capacity to excel at administrative tasks. Am I replaceable as a pastor by a machine? Don’t answer that question (maybe, though?). If we make an AI bot the pope, how will it wear the hat?
I would like to make an argument that AI will never be able to replace the intangible benefit of a human hand. I think that argument is valid. But as I was preparing for my sermon this Sunday, I came across this passage from The Second Helvetic Confession in the Book of Confessions. Bear in mind, this was written in 1561, and is likely not in reference to algorithmically generated sermons:
Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.
If “the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches,” then why does it matter if the preacher is saint, sinner, evil, or artificial?
I’m convinced that my humanity matters, but I’m deeply unsettled by the growing evidence that I could be wrong.
Twelve Corners Presbyterian Church is located at 1200 S. Winton Road in Brighton, NY. We welcome you to join us for worship on Sunday mornings at 10:00 a.m. in the sanctuary (and via YouTube). If you have any questions, please contact us by calling 585-244-8585 or sending an email through our secure contact page.