Harrowing Of Hell
May 7, 2023

AI Sermon Series #1: AI and the Human Identity–The Royal Priesthood

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Click here to watch the sermon

Good morning, today we step into the realm of artificial intelligence, as the first sermon in our series about who we are because of who our God is.

Artificial intelligence is big, and it is something we are hearing a lot about, not because it’s a fad, but because we have just realized that we’ve tripped over a precipice that will fundamentally change the world.

Some of you may already be tired of all the hype around AI, but I think it’s important that we think through what it means for us as a community and how it fits into the constellation Christianity.

What’s became utterly clear to me as I began to write this sermon is that AI is the underlying algorithm (if you will) influencing all things that I had intended to talk about in this sermon series, whether it be nihilism and fundamentalism, or climate change, or the state of our democracy.

And so, I’m going to spend more time on AI in the month of May than I had anticipated, so, we can more cogently talk about these other topics in the near future. Understanding artificial intelligence and Christian engagement with it is critically important for understanding our role as a neighborhood church over the next 50 years. The question we will be confronted with, continuously, is this: “What does it mean to be human?” In the age of artificial intelligence, that is one core question: “What does it mean to be human?”

At least that was a key question on the mind of James Manyika, Senior VP of Technology and Society at Google who at the end of an interview I recently heard opined: What do we value? What are we good at? How do we relate to one another? Who are we? These are the questions being asked by the Senior VP of Technology and Society at Google. These are not questions technology companies are designed to answer.

They are designed to make money, make no mistake about it. And yet, the human beings in these companies are asking these questions, because of what they’re seeing from the machines they are making.

“The Godfather of AI,” Geoffrey Hinton, another Vice President at Google involved in artificial intelligence, resigned last week so he could speak out against the dangers of AI. Hinton is known as “The Godfather of AI” because he was a key person in the development of the math and technology to build the neural-networks systems needed for artificial intelligence to exist. 

Hinton resigned, and I quote, “because he felt compelled to speak publicly about  the profound risks AI poses to society and humanity.” He said: “We won’t know what’s true anymore.” He said: “This stuff could actually be smarter than people.” He said: “The big companies are locked in an escalation they can’t stop.” Hinton said that he used to think like Robert Oppenheimer, that” chasing down the technology for the sake of it was a sweet thing to do.” He doesn’t believe that anymore.

Others agree with him. Elon Musk, and 1100 other signatories signed an Open Letter asking for a 6-month moratorium on AI development. These scientists and titans of industry are actually calling for the government to do something! They are calling for regulations! The people who are making this stuff, and funding this stuff, are afraid of this stuff, and yet they can’t stop developing this stuff…out of greed, for fear of missing out on making money.     

Which is why a few days after signing this letter, Musk announced the founding of X.AI, his new AI development company. Even a chat-bot expressed concern when asked by a journalist from The Economist “What would be a good concluding thought for this film” (a short on AI put out by the Economist), the chat bot responded:  “As chat bots become more prevalent, we must grapple with the complex implications of their impact on society balancing their potential benefit with the need to preserve our humanity.” 

Christianity is an institution designed to facilitate the flourishing of the human spirit.  We are about the preservation of humanity.  The very reality of AI, and what it is doing and is capable of doing, becomes a forcing function that requires us to get serious about the question: What does it mean to be human?

Peter, in his second letter we hear today, facilitates this conversation by introducing us to The Royal Priesthood. The Royal Priesthood might be a good title for humans in the age of AI because it speaks to our complex nature, as well as, our providential responsibility. For we are temporal and eternal; mortal and immortal; physical and spiritual…simultaneously fully and completely, indivisibly as singular, unique, human beings.

The title represents our two responsibilities: Kings and Queens who care for creation and for one another. That is our royal obligation. And Priests to connect and commune with God. That is our sacred duty. These responsibilities are as applicable today, as they were 1000 years ago, or 10,000 years ago, and as they will be in 2070.

I’ll say a lot more about this as we go forward with our discussion about AI and what it means to be human, over the next three weeks, but it is enough to know today that the Royal Priesthood is our identity symbolized by the cross: with the vertical stroke representing our connection to God: The Priesthood. And the horizontal stroke representing our connection to one another and the world: Our Royalty. The Royal Priesthood . This is who we are. I’ll say more about this in a few weeks, as well.

Because first we must get on the same page regarding truth. In the age of AI our understanding of truth is going to change. It must. I recently heard a story of parents who received a call from their daughter who had been kidnapped, with demands for ransom. It turns out the daughter’s voice had been replicated by bad actors using AI technology. It mimicked her so perfectly that it fooled her parents into paying ransom when she hadn’t really be kidnapped.

We already can’t trust what we see on the Internet, given the prevalence of deepfakes. Now we can’t trust our ears either. The first casualty of this AI capability is that bad actors are using it to pervert the truth, to gain power and profit.  I shudder to think what the 2024 Presidential campaign will be like.

+ This will be our sign. and it will symbolize the truth. I know, that gives you the willies to hear me say that… that we know the truth by the sign of the cross… yikes.                                                 

But in a world where truth will soon be completely undiscernible, we will have to think of other ways through which to know truth. And I might suggest that in the realm of the Royal Priesthood truth will be known incarnationally, personally, face to face.     

We will be compelled to hold informational truth more loosely, subjugating it to the higher good of relational truth, human truth, person to person to person truth. The Trinity will be our north star, which is why the symbol of truth becomes the cross, after all, our God is a relational God; Father and Son and Holy Spirit.

And places like Epiphany are going to be more important than ever, serving as a gathering place where we can turn and touch someone, looking them in the eye, holding their hand, and saying: “Peace be with you.”

Our truth will be grounded incarnationally, founded in the ancient patterns of spirituality, that connect us soul to soul to soul. As Priestly Sovereigns our truth will only be as good as the trustworthiness of our word. And that will be determined by the quality of our character. Character will be the signet upon the heart of the Royal Priesthood. Character will be the distinguishing trait for what it means to be human. It will be what makes us noble or ignoble, just or unjust, honest or liars. It is our character that will give truth meaning, and us the capacity to look each other in the eye as equal members in the caste of the Royal Priesthood.

The church’s role is as a gathering place and a training ground for Priestly Sovereigns, where we practice being human.  And toward that ends, it is important to recognize the ground upon which we stand. For us, it is within the balanced cadence of our Anglican tradition. We have historical precedence developed over the last 500 years for walking with equanimity on a line that runs through the complexity. It is why we are known as the people of the middle way, or to use a theological term: the via media-which is the theology of balance and moderation and equanimity. Think Queen Elizabeth(God rest her soul).

As Anglicans, we meet the latest headlines with a calm cadence, well aware that this new world of AI will reveal both good news and bad news. And so, when we read an article like the one I read the other day about a University of California San Diego School of Medicine study that found that 75% of the time patients reported that a chat bot’s response was superior in quality and empathy to human doctors…pause, don’t panic.

Remember the via media, that we are people of the middle way. And there will be good news: new medical treatments, and scientific breakthroughs, new efficiencies in manufacturing, and better worldwide food distribution. And there will be troubling news: Job losses, and theft, and fraud, and an Internet polluted with lies. Strikes will be more common, as we see with the Writers’ strike going on in Hollywood right now.

And amidst it all, we walk the middle way, understanding and practicing the true primacy of relationship, relationship with one another, with creation, and with God. + The cross is our sign because of who our God is, a relational God, Trinitarian, Father and Son and Holy Ghost . We are the Royal Priesthood, trained like Jedi as people who walk the earth; well balanced, with equanimity whether the world is run by AI or not.