Harrowing Of Hell
May 14, 2023

AI Sermon Series #2: The Ontological Nature of a Person

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Click here to watch the sermon

Last Sunday we learned from Peter that we have a title: the Royal Priesthood. It is the title of humanity, shared by all humanity, universally. In the age of generative artificial intelligence being human is becoming our common denominator, our core connection, and hopefully, our top priority. That may seem self-evident, but it is not. I know it’s not because we have wars. I know it’s not because we have poverty. I know it’s not because we have people who are starving.  

We do not make other people the priority in the world today. We make economic decisions the priority. We make national policy the priority. And maybe we can argue that’s been OK up until now. Maybe that is what happens naturally at the top of the evolutionary pyramid. Maybe.

But how we got here is not something that I am interested in litigating as the ground moves under our feet. The seismic shift brought about by the new artificial neural networks has felt as sudden as if Martians landed on earth…or as if we were suddenly thrust into one of those movies where an asteroid is going to hit earth, and all of a sudden everyone decides that saving the world was more important than fighting over library books, or whatever idea we were fighting over in that moment.  

This is a moment we must meet with a paradigm shift where the big things that makes us human takes precedence over the small things that differentiate us as individuals. This is a moment to shift our thinking toward our common humanity.          That has not been the case up until now…misogyny, slavery, genocide, and battles over where one can go to the bathroom. That is what we have been doing with our time as human beings.

And now, to quote a physicist friend of mine, we have artificial neural networks and no one really understands how they work, or, I might add, what they’re capable of doing. As one memo writer at Google noted: “We have no moat.” Maybe it sounds dramatic. Maybe there is a note of hysteria here. But suppose I am wrong; suppose so many of those concerned scientists are wrong; suppose AI and robots are only things of science fiction and never meet the hype they have right now. I’ve been wrong before; and I’d be happy to be wrong again, if the forcing function of false thinking about artificial intelligence still pushes us to a paradigm shift from human division, and fear, the kind of fear that causes an old man to shoot a kid who comes to the wrong door; to a world where an old man invites the kid in for a cup of tea because of their common humanity.

There was a time when the world was like that; when kindness, generosity, and hospitality were a reflection of the quality of a person’s character. This is part of our story modeled by our patriarchs, Abraham and Sarah, at the Oaks of Mamre when they showed hospitality to strangers who passed by their camp. There was a day when the stranger was welcomed because they were made in the image and likeness of God. They were not feared, but embraced simply because of their common humanity.

If the false-flag of artificial intelligence pushes us to be better neighbors to one another, then I am all for the delusion. Though in truth I would not be standing up here talking about this issue if I didn’t think it was going to change everything.

There is before us a well-studied prediction, playing out in real time, that the neural networks built within the mind of machines will displace humans, us, in some categories of evolutionary supremacy played out practically: like driving a bus, or doing surgery; or writing a brief. And some of us don’t want to believe this, and some of us can’t let ourselves believe this, and some of us are fully freaked out by this, and some of us think I have gone mad.

And yet, as I said before, if this is a false-flag I will follow it, because we must shift the paradigm to prioritize humanity. Artificial intelligence seems a good forcing function that requires us to ask: “What it means to be a human being?” and, “How can I be a better one?”

We have solid answers to these questions. We’ve had them for 2000 years. Jesus gave them to us, as we hear in the Gospel today. Here Jesus defines our job description as the Royal Priesthood this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your strength, with all your soul, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27-28). This is our mission statement. It outlines who we are, and because of who we are, how we are to act in the world.

It defines our ontological nature. I love that word, ontological; it means our completeness or our fullness as a person. It includes our physical and metaphysical selves; with our physical selves encompassed by our bodies, and our emotions and our intellect; and our metaphysical selves summed up in our hearts and our souls. And it is the metaphysical attributes of our human nature, our heart and our soul  that will enable us to be rulers over artificial intelligence and the machines it runs.

If we do not own our metaphysical nature, then our physical nature, our emotions, and intellect, and bodies will be managed and manipulated, I fear, by generative AI. Its superiority over us will create dependencies in ways that diminish our humanity; exacerbating our sense of scarcity, and magnifying the small things that differentiate us; dividing and maybe even conquering.

It is funny, up until now, I think many of us thought of humans as machines that we could tweak and tune; but now that we have machines better at doing things than we are, we are once again wondering about our metaphysical nature. I heard it come up the other day in a radio spot about generative AI art. The artist being interviewed kept saying: “AI art doesn’t have any soul, it doesn’t have any soul…” and I wondered if he knew he was talking about God.

Christianity in the age of AI is more relevant than it has been in 200 years. We understand the heart and we understand the soul. We understand our metaphysic al nature, and this understanding will be critical for retaining our sovereignty over all non-sentient beings from this day forth and forevermore.

So now, let me get very granular with you regarding the heart and the soul, and what they mean to a being human. We will start with our single defining characteristic: the presence of a soul. A soul is what qualifies one to be included in the cast of the Royal Priesthood. If there is breath, there is soul. The soul is a mystery which belongs fully to God, and furthermore, the soul cannot be formed or transformed by human effort. The soul has no agency, which is why the soul is what establishes parity amongst all people. (I’ll say more about that in two weeks.)

And so, it is the soul that gives us our common denominator and our core connection. We are soul sensates, and it is this reality that necessitates the paradigm shift from the petty divisions of our idiosyncratic diversity, to the beauty of our human inclusivity.

If a human being is no more than a random tangled mass of neuro-synapses that regulate or dysregulate dopamine and oxytocin, then by 2070 we will be selfish, frustrated creatures dependent on our machines and at odds with one another. If we deny the presence of the soul, we will be trapped in our bodies, scampering for what we perceive to be scarce resources, and at odds with one another, as we are drawn fretfully toward the oblivion of death.

Being human means so much more than this, which brings me to the heart. As Christians, our primary focus is on the heart. The heart is the home of human freedom and human creativity. The spiritual exercises of Christianity are designed for character formation, and that is more important than ever in a world where the quality of character will be the foundation upon which truth is known (as I preached about last Sunday).

The heart, as I’m talking about it, sits outside our physiology. It is a metaphysical reality, not a pumping muscle that moves blood, or a bundle of nerve endings encased in bone. It is the job of the heart to decide. The heart chooses what we think about what we think. The heart reigns over our mind. The heart chooses how to response to emotions that wash over us. The heart reigns over our feelings. The heart chooses how to manage the urges that bubble up within us. The heart reigns over our body.

The point of practicing the spiritual exercises is to train the heart to habitually choose ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that care for our sibling soul sensates. The goal of this spiritual exercise is to love our neighbors, even when we are not thinking about loving our neighbors. Heart formation is about the development of human character, so, by practicing Christianity we become the kind of people who are habitually clear thinking, physically comported, and emotionally well-regulated. That is what we seek as Christians, and it is the seeking that makes us worthy of the title: the Royal Priesthood.

Heart and soul determine our sovereignty as human beings made in the image and likeness of God. We are who we are because of who this God is. This is our symbol +. If we do not understand our nature; if we deny the metaphysical, believing simply in our organic composition, then we will not have the capacity to understand how the machines managed by AI are meant to serve us, all of us, all of humanity, equally.

It is understanding the character of the heart, and the connection of the soul that is the mandate of Christianity in the age of artificial intelligence. It is our mission, to be carried out for the full benefit of all people. That must be our top priority as the ground shifts…to pick up the mantle of our faith and do our work to: Love the Lord our God with all our heart with all our mind, with all our strength, with all our soul, and our neighbor as ourself.

That is who we are and how we are called to act in the world.It is the mandate of the Royal Priesthood.