AI and the questions facing Christians

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Can Alexa help grow your faith? Can robots write sermons? In Elim’s Digital Debate series, Malcolm Duncan (pictured above) spoke to Jason Ham to shed light on some fascinating questions around AI.

“I’m already dealing with one pastor in another denomination who hasn’t written a sermon for three months. He simply goes to an AI provider,” says Malcolm.

“Interestingly, when I chatted to him about it I said, ‘Do you recognise that this is an issue?’ He said, ‘It’s no different to downloading a sermon from the internet or using an outline.’”

While robots might be able to write well-structured text, there are many problems with AI sermons, says Malcolm.

One is speakers delegating writing to robots and passing it off as their own work. Yes, it’s OK to draw on the wisdom of previous leaders, preachers and theologians as long as you attribute it. But it’s not OK to copy someone’s work or claim it as your own, even if the creator is a robot.

Another is the lack of human experience behind them.

“If your church or life is anything like mine, it’s not perfect and it’s in the brokenness, uncertainty and cracks of our lives that God can meet with us,” says Malcolm.

“It’s also in the vulnerability of preaching which admits failure and fault and trying to work things out that we can encounter God in a very powerful way, so I’d have concerns about AI in that regard.”

Can Siri tell us the meaning of life?

Can we rely on robots to give us answers to the big questions of life? Who decides what can and can’t be answered by AI? Who decides the responses to questions on gender, ethics or euthanasia?

Areas like these are where AI can get concerning, says Malcolm.

“Without me sounding all the wrong alarm bells, I do think there’s a biblical injunction to be careful about this,” he says, referring to books like Thessalonians and Revelation.

“We need to be alert and aware of what Scripture says to us about what it means to be people who have dignity and are made in the image of God.”

At the heart of Christian theology is the conviction that God and the universe are finite, he continues, whereas atheistic thinking believes the universe is infinite and God doesn’t exist.

When it comes to AI, who decides what are the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers?

“I wonder if we are in danger of allowing AI to become a place that is taking on a new religiosity or spirituality?” warns Malcolm.

Can Alexa build our faith?

As the Church of England reports that people have prayed the salvation prayer via its app on Alexa, the question is begged: can we lean on robots to help us in our spiritual lives and increase our understanding of God?

To a certain extent, yes, says Malcolm. “We do that already. We use websites and you could argue that books do that too … Unless we’re going to revert to the idea that all knowledge passed on to us from something else is wrong then we have to accept that some level of artificial intelligence actually makes our world a better place.”

Sources that are designed to bring people closer to God like the Lectio 365 app, Bible Gateway and Logos Bible software are examples of electronically driven engagement that can help build faith.

The problem comes, says Malcom, when we allow AI or any other source to replace the Bible or God as our main place for growing faith.

“What is the difference between someone going to Alexa and saying ‘Give me a grace for today’ and someone who only reads their Bible on Sunday morning in the service and listens to the preacher?

“The only difference is whether it’s a human being speaking or a computer.”

When people go to any source of information to escape having to think for themselves and figure out what God is doing in their lives, there is an issue.

Can we be in the digital world but not of the digital world?

Whatever the dangers of AI, we can’t afford to be on the outside of it, warns Malcolm. “You can be in the digital world, but not
of it,” he says.

“If there is a digital world and we’re not in it, then who is? Who’s dominating that space and who’s going to bring a narrative of hope, grace, life and trust to it?

“The art is being in it and actively engaging, but not being owned or driven by it or afraid of it.”

To do that, we need to be able to critique AI, to warn people off giving away their freedoms and inform them about the choices AI could make for them.

We also have to avoid solely listening to our own echo chambers.

“You’ve got to be very intentional about listening to different voices. Evangelical Christians are some of the worst for this. We only talk or listen to people we agree with. As a result, our lines get narrower and narrower.”

Meanwhile, if we are worried about the power and dominance of AI and alternative world views, Christianity is robust enough to stand its ground, he concludes.

“Put it into that conversation about race, economics, violence, control, authority and the digital space and Christianity will defend itself,” he says.

From Direction Magazine

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