Artificial intelligence and our faith


By prof. Kobus Kok

As great as the difference between the Middle Ages and the modern world, so great is the quantum artificial intelligence (AI) revolution currently happening beneath our feet.

Around November-December in 2022, the world was buzzing about ChatGPT and started to play with AI and by this time it was being integrated into our everyday way of working. Feel free to try it here. You can ask ChatGPT almost any question. Even to develop a diet program or an exercise program for you. Ideas for a meal. For dessert. Even a Bible study in which some authors’ insights have been processed.

The other day I saw a report from a pastor in Germany who held the first worship service in which he used ChatGPT to help him write the material for his worship service. His church was packed to see what was happening. And people were quite positive about this experience. I started working with it myself and found that it has a surprising ability to write poems, create narratives and even integrate and explain difficult concepts.

Sometimes it still makes terrible mistakes. If one points out the mistakes, it is equally apologetic. The more advanced paid versions are even better and constantly learn new things. So it gets smarter by the day.

Non-human intelligence

This past weekend I presented a congregation retreat in Belgium at the request of an Evangelical Reformed congregation for them about the challenges that 2023 and artificial intelligence pose to the church.

Among other things, in Kyoto in Japan, an AI priest was created from aluminum and silicone with the name “Mindar” (see here). This AI priest is coded with the specific religion’s texts and thinking, and it is noteworthy to see how well the “priest” can answer and we realize that it will become more sophisticated in the future. Especially if one is prof. Taking Michio Kaku’s insights into account.

Kaku refers to the near future and what may lie ahead for us when we “quantum computing” go to work. In a recent speech he gave at Google, he pointed to the huge implication when AI overtakes humans and computers as we know them (see here). The world-renowned philosopher Yuval Harari believes in a recent interview with The Economist between him and one of the inventors of AI (see here) that one should no longer speak of artificial intelligence, but of non-human intelligence. The power with which AI is advancing now means that it is becoming nothing but extra-human or non-human, so “alien”, intelligence.

AI pastors

This is how we talk about how we feel about AI priests this past weekend in Belgium during our parish retreat. Would we want an AI minister?

The mere thought of the possible reality of a chatbot mediator is like a mirror for us that helps us to reflect on our inherent values ​​and our boundaries. Through the bank, the answer came in the majority that something important is missing when it comes to the thought of, or choice between, an AI entity, and a real person.

Broken man prefers man

People rather prefer a pastor, with his own problems and personal cracks, even over an AI entity that may have superhuman knowledge. People believe that it is precisely the brokenness and cracks of man that is the space where God’s power becomes visible. People firmly believe that AI entities will not be able to authentically interact with grace and mercy. Even if it is artificially programmed with it.

With all that Covey in his book “The Speed ​​of Trust” mention. For us, brokenness is an important dimension in which we believe that something extra nos – outside of us – must break through. Believers believe that mankind’s instruments, however clever, even smarter than a human being, cannot be the sum total of revelation. Our biblical worldview makes us believe that God breaks into our existence from the spiritual or divine reality. That God is the Entire Other. Always more. That the Spirit’s power cannot be captured in language algorithms. That people, in their brokenness, are precisely the place where God’s Spirit works.

We believe that AI can help us a lot with information. Even excellent new information and perspectives, but that ultimately it happens for us as humans deeply in the dialogue with Others and in the space of prayer that we hear God’s voice. That true human resonance happens in and through our vulnerability.

In this respect, Dr. Brené Brown’s insights on the necessity of vulnerability us a lot (see here). People feel that the AI ​​revolution is not going to take us further away from the need to experience God’s voice in community with believers and our personal relationship with God, but is actually going to make us move back to wonder. Human, broken authenticity. And openness to God’s great acts of Mercy.

A shape of a person

It is actually with even more wonder that we think of Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 and of Jesus who incarnated in the form of a human being. A person who came to pitch his tent among us and came to live among us (John 1:12).

This is not, as many people believe, the end of Christianity with its old worldview. On the contrary, it is in a way a new beginning. A re-appreciation for the fragility of our human existence. And the expression of people’s words about God in the Bible. And God’s words in human language in the Bible.

Marvel at the reality of the complexity of God’s creation. For the truths that Leonard Cohen expresses so beautifully when he sings about the cracks of broken hallelujahs that are the place where the Light enters. Why Christian Grace is so intrinsically precious. How beautiful Jesus’ story in Luke 15:11-32 is about God who is like a Father who searches for the day when we as lost children return to the right place. Putting rings on our dirty and broken fingers.

How important Henri Nouwen’s insights are that we “wounded healers” can be in God’s hand. People feel that the better AI is going to get, the more they are going to ask what is through a real person created. This applies to art, music, literature and deeply struggled faith experiences. That is why we are excited about the new AI revolution and all that it will open up for humanity, but also about how it will open up ours again and help us to experience the brokenness of our human cracks in the presence of a Living God.

And precisely to develop a new appreciation for imperfect human institutions with their mistakes. For understanding and compassion. Looking for forensic clues that will show us that a real person was busy with something.

Words of a dying man

On this same weekend I received a donation from the author dr. Hans Werkman from the Netherlands who gave me all his signed books from his friend Totius. He is in his eighties and is emptying his bookshelf in the last chapter of his own life. He hopes that for another half a century, if one day I am as old as he is, it will still live on a living shelf of a living person. And not somewhere unused in an archive’s dust.

One day we had a beautiful meeting in the archives at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, which I also mentioned RNews wrote (see here). One of those moments where we met, and where we both realized something Bigger was happening between us. Where the coincidences were just too great that one could not see it as only human work.

Tonight I open volume 10 of Totius’s collected works on page 343, and his poem “Woorde van o sterwende”, almost as one sometimes opens the Bible in one place. I realize that only a fragile person could really write and understand it deeply.

I am only quoting the first two paragraphs which were able to chisel out the depth of this experience in our own fragile, struggling Totius, in authentic human words from the deepest chambers of his soul:

Now my spirit becomes

which no longer burns

quickly extinguished;

thought what

can’t think anymore

going to rest now too.

And concern,

the piston of

my life blood

left me

It feels quiet now

in my mind