A Seed from that Fateful Apple

First of all, I know very little about Artificial Intelligence, or AI. I do know that I have bishop colleagues in other synods who have picked a random selection of lectionary assigned texts—let’s say the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, year A—and asked the AI program to write a sermon to a Lutheran congregation for that day. These bishops say they have to admit that on a content level, the AI-generated sermon was theologically and exegetically probably better than they might hear in at least half of their congregations on a given Sunday. And to think, back in the 60s we thought the Dick Tracy telephone watch and the Jetsons’ robo vacuum were technological impossibilities!

One problem with Artificial Intelligence, in general, is that the gathering, storing, and sharing of information becomes a sort of object of worship in itself. Where, for instance, and by whose compass, is the moral aspect of such intelligence inserted to temper the pure information? Ultra intelligence or intellectual advantage without a conscience is a frightening prospect that could be and certainly has been easily weaponized. Think mad scientist, totalitarian demagogue, etc.

Interestingly, this is not a new dilemma, this “rule the world with intelligence but with no conscience and with no humility” pursuit. Theology and ethics, those disciplines that help inform and guide our moral deliberation, have always seriously lagged behind technology and trends. It seems in my short 63 years on this planet, the technological possibilities are racing forward at light speed while ethical and theological core principles for centuries are being replaced with the subjectivity of “my truth.”

What that diminishes, of course, is “our truth,” that by which we live together in community with common expectations. Granted, often the “our truth” veiled as moral conscience in our past was merely a smokescreen to preserve privilege and advantage, but certain core assumptions of any hopeful culture seem to resonate across the centuries, across the globe, and across religion and philosophy. Things like truth, protecting the vulnerable, not stealing, etc. The 10 Commandments, for instance.

While knowledge is a blessed and necessary pursuit, theology and ethics remind us that it is not ultimate. The Hebrew scriptures underline this early on in Genesis. Remember the garden? And the forbidden tree? That tree had a name: the tree of knowledge of all good and evil. Which is, I believe, the ancient scripture’s way of warning us not to make knowledge our God without the clear safeguard of moral deliberation, a pivotal component of our “image of God”-ness. The serpent knew that would be an enticing temptation. “Did God say you would die? No! You won’t die if you eat of that tree. God knows if you eat that fruit you’ll be just like God because you’ll know everything!” It was the serpent’s lie that planted the seed of unchecked knowledge as the ultimate essence of God and thus our own pursuit.

How do we know that the people who control Artificial Intelligence have our best interests at heart? Does our being able to do something mean we ought to do that something? Who will ask, who will care about questions like “Is it kind? Is it true? Is it helpful?” But let’s not forget the very first commandment of the God revealed not in the accumulation or dissemination of knowledge and control so much as in deliverance for the captive and oppressed: “I am the Lord your God who led you out of the land of Egypt. You shall have no other gods before me.” Not self, not knowledge. Nothing. So let’s rejoice in the good AI will do. But let’s not allow it to go unchallenged and unchecked. Even though the disagreements and deliberations of conscience and faith lag way behind, we must never surrender them, lest we lose what we understand to be the essence of humanity created by God and redeemed in Christ.

Walking with you,

NC Synod Bishop

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