By Amanda Alexander
Just after Easter, CNN published an article about religious leaders using ChatGTP to write their sermons. ChatGTP, for those who haven’t heard about it yet, is an artificial intelligence (AI) tool that generates written text in response to a prompt. ChatGTP has “learned” how to respond to human questions and prompts by being trained on human-written text found on the Internet, in books, and in other resources. Imagine reading the entire internet. And the Library of Congress. And more. That seems to be about the scale of the “knowledge” ChatGTP has.
Because ChatGTP has basically read everything ever published (and that may be only a slight exaggeration), it can seemingly answer any question. The CNN article, “Chat GTP can write sermons. Religious leaders don’t know how to feel about it,” describes Rabbi Joshua Franklin’s experiment with ChatGTP in December 2022. He used the AI tool to write a sermon on the Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 - 47:27). The sermon was met with applause by Franklin’s congregation. Reflecting on the experience, Franklin noted that while the sermon contained mistakes that a seasoned scholar would have caught, his congregation’s approving reaction filled him with awe and trepidation.
The consensus of religious leaders interviewed for the CNN article and others like it is that ChatGTP can generate intelligible text that makes the one preaching sound clever. However, because what is generated does not pass through human experience, it lacks the human touch; it lacks empathy. Given that empathy can be mimicked, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until even that criticism is addressed.
My own reaction to ChatGTP, as you can probably tell, has tended toward the apocalyptic. I cannot begin to imagine the challenge it poses to teachers from elementary to graduate school. It makes me wonder whether anything I am reading on the Internet was actually written by a human being. It has me daydreaming about recovering the lost arts of penmanship, timed essays and oral examinations. It has me worried that I will inadvertently be fed “artificial” spiritual advice through homilies or Catholic websites.
More recently, however, and more positively, the reality of ChatGTP has helped me to reflect on what it means for words to be sacred. When confronted by something that challenges our core beliefs about how the world ought to work, we don’t have to react defensively. Instead, we can use the opportunity to reflect more deeply on what those beliefs are and to clarify for ourselves what we have perhaps always just taken for granted.
In this case, the reality of ChatGTP has made me realize that I believe there is something fundamentally sacred about our words. After all, it was God’s Word that, when spoken, created the world. It was God’s Word that became flesh and redeemed us. It is the Word of God that we hear proclaimed at Mass. Our own words are related, through our created nature, to God’s Word, to the Divine logos. And while I haven’t had a chance to untangle any of this theologically, it seems that relationship must be the foundation of the possibility for the Holy Spirit to work in and through our written and spoken words.
In other words, the reality of ChatGTP has made me realize that I take it for granted that the Holy Spirit works through words: through words that I hear shared or proclaimed and through words that I read in Scripture, great works of literature, and even great works of theology (yes, even Aquinas’s Summa Theologica).
Even though I take it for granted that the Holy Spirit works in and through words, I do not always practice the kind of attentiveness to the action of the Spirit that follows from this belief. The recent synodal process has shown me that this is not merely a personal challenge, but a challenge for the entire People of God. Spiritual attentiveness and discernment require that we move beyond intellectual titillation or emotional reaction. We have to pay intention instead to what the Church Fathers spoke of as the “spiritual senses.”
Unfortunately, we can’t learn how to use our spiritual senses by reading about them. Knowing “that” and knowing “how” are very different types of knowledge. We learn how to use our spiritual senses through practice: through spiritual conversations, through holy reading and through prayerful reflection. Over the course of a lifetime, we can gradually cultivate an attentiveness to the Spirit that helps us discern the Word of God at work among us. In the end, we may discover that this capacity to discern the Word, not to generate words, is what makes us genuinely human.
Until then, know that this article was written by a real human who has prayed for everybody reading these words.
Amanda Alexander is currently the Director of the Department of Ministry Formation Institute for the Diocese and a parishioner of St. Adelaide in Highland. She has a Ph.D. in systematic theology and has taught at numerous Catholic universities.