Harrowing Of Hell
May 21, 2023

AI Sermon Series #3: The Formation of the Human Heart

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Click here to watch the sermon


As we return to the topic of artificial intelligence today, part 3 in a 4-part series, we continue thinking about what it means to be human, and how we can be a better at being human, based on who our God is…

I want to share a poem today by William Blake. It is about courage, and it gets to the heart of what it means to be human. It jumps to mind because I saw it lived out recently by an Epiphany parishioner.

It goes like this:

Man was made for joy and woe
And when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go
Joy and woe are woven fine
A clothing for the soul divine.”

(William Blake)

On Tuesday this parishioner was telling me about her Monday. It had been hot, and she had just returned to town after being away for a while. Her house had been closed-up and was stuffy and stifling, and nothing seemed right. Her husband was away. She called him to complain. 

So, she decided to go visit a neighbor. On her way home she remembered there was nothing in the refrigerator, so, she dropped in at Safeway to get some milk. She knew she’d want milk in her coffee the next morning. It was about 9:00 o’clock in the evening, and as she walked into Safeway, she passed a man loitering outside. Pretty typical. He asked for money. Pretty typical. He said he was hungry. Pretty typical.

Yet, unexpectedly, out of her mouth came: “What would you like to eat?” “Chicken,” he replied. So, she crossed the threshold and headed to the deli, only to find it closed. There was a person cleaning in the back. She called out, and asked if there was any chicken and mentioned, with a shrug, that she had told the guy outside she’d bring him some chicken.

So, the woman scrounged around and found some chicken strips, heated them up, and put them in a carry out container. My friend bought her milk, and then decided to pick up a couple of other provisions she thought might compliment the chicken. She put them in a separate bag, went outside and handed the bag of chicken to the man.

“Here’s your chicken,” she announced. He started to cry. That is when her day flashed before her eyes…all her complaining because of the “suffering” she experienced, because of the “inconveniences” she encountered melted into joy because of that bag of chicken. Joy and woe are woven fine. She asked him his name… “Larry,” he replied.  He told her he was having a rough day. She gave him a hug.

It was the human thing to do because Larry, like her, is a soul divine, and her sibling in the caste of the Royal Priesthood. The Royal, in this human title, represents the heart, and it is exercised by our actions. The Priesthood represents our soul, and is oriented, at all times, towards God.

The heart and the soul are metaphysical elements of our ontological nature, as I preached about last Sunday. The heart is the home of human freedom. Other words for the “heart” include the “will” and the “spirit” with a small “s.” These are often interchangeable words used in Holy Scripture to represent the place where our character resides; it is the place from which we make decisions about how to act in the world. It was a heart choice to get some chicken for Larry.

The heart and the soul, it is important to note, are not the same thing, they are opposite things. They sit at the opposite end of our human nature, with the soul completely owned by God, and the heart completely managed by us.

Knowing the nature of heart and soul as metaphysical elements of ourselves is what, I believe, will enable us to remain the masters of the generative artificial intelligence we humans have developed. Why do I make that claim? Because when we know ourselves, as equal with all others within the caste of the Royal Priesthood, we then understand our obligation to develop this new technology  for the benefit of all people.

If we do not, however, know ourselves, heart and soul; if we confine our thinking to our physiology, as materialists do, then we might believe the soul is made of neurons that work like tiny “robots,” switchboards, if you will, that turn on and off to give one a sense of the “heart” and to give one a sense of the “soul.”

And if that is true, what happens when a better switchboard is developed? One that answers all our questions, and tweaks our emotions, and satiates our bodies with things that are pleasurable. That is a real possibility if we are nothing more than switchboards.

I dare say we are much more. Life is so much more than right answers, pleasant emotions, and pampered bodies. “We were made, after all, for joy and woe And when this we rightly know Through the world we safely go…”

Joy and suffering are distinctly human attributes that reveal our metaphysical selves; and the part of our personhood we learn to value through the practice of Christianity. The church is our training facility, where we build habits of the heart that reflect the quality of our character. And as I said two Sundays ago, in the age of AI, it is the quality of character, in a world awash with disinformation, that will serve as the foundation for truth.

1st Peter continues to give us insight. The pericope today seems prescient, if not prophetic. He writes: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal taking place to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” It goes on: “but rejoice in sharing Christ’s suffering, be glad and shout for joy.”

Suffering and joy. Maybe this is where William Blake found his inspiration. Quite likely. When suffering is acknowledged, and then owned by the human heart, the soul divine is revealed, and joy emerges. Suffering and joy go together as integrators of heart and soul.

When we are tested by something strange… as we are now being tested by something strange; the noble goal of our sovereign reign as the Royal Priesthood is to have a heart attuned to suffering, supple and open, gentle and humble, vulnerable enough to uncork the joy that bubbles up from the soul divine.

Jesus sets the standard with the words he shares with us today from the Gospel of Matthew: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:28).

A humble heart is a necessary qualifier for finding rest for our souls. A humble heart is incarnationally grounded in the world. The word itself makes the claim, as humble finds its origin in the root word “humus” which means earthy and grounded.

We were made to walk, well-grounded upon the earth, not as overlords who rule with an iron fist, but as servants who care for the guy standing outside Safeway. This is our sovereign duty. This is the role of royalty as ordained by God.

But it takes practice. So, we train and train to be masters of our heart and people of unimpeachable character. It takes courage. This is a moment in history when we must be courageous. We must meet this moment with the necessary paradigm shift, as I said last Sunday, from prioritizing the small things that differentiate us, in favor of the big things that makes us all human. This is the moment to prioritize our common humanity…before the moment passes us by.

And it takes courage. Courage is a heart word. The word itself makes the claim, as courage finds its origin in the root word “cor” which means heart. It is important to realize that the tone of the word courage matches the tone of the word humble. Courage is not about being a hero, or a warrior, or exceptionally brave, it is about being a whole, full, and complete human being.

And when we are whole, full and complete, we have the natural capacity, even the habitual tendency, to be comfortably in the midst of agony and pain and uncertainty. That is what it means to be courageous. That is courage, and sometimes it looks like hugging a homeless man outside of Safeway at 9:00 pm in the evening.

Joy is revealed when actions of empathy partner with vulnerability which inevitably connects our heart with the soul divine. And when this happens joy bubbles up, and we are at our most human selves.

The church is all about this emergent joy, which is why we are organized as a training ground for the habits of the heart. For a decade and a half now, you have heard me talk about spiritual exercises. You have heard me talk about Epiphany as a spiritual gym. And all of those conversations have pointed us to this moment in time; where now we must be people who habitually prioritize humanity, and our commonality, rather than the small things that divide us. This forcing of function has been put upon us by the presence of generative artificial intelligence; calling us to consider what it means to be human, and why that must be our top priority.

Worship, prayer, fasting and tithing, Sabbath, studying scripture, small groups, retreats and pilgrimage, these are the exercises that form the human heart, and enable us to be people of unimpeachable character even when we are not thinking about how we are acting. These are the activities that embolden us to act out our sovereign duties with gentle and humble hearts.

I have said a lot, and I will say more about the spiritual exercises that form the human heart. But today, I’ll end by saying: if I’m wrong about AI and it either fizzles out, or singularly provides benefit to humanity; in other words if it is all good or goes away, we are still called to be people who seek to form unimpeachable character through habits of the heart.

Or if it turns out that generative artificial intelligence threatens the community of humanity, we are still called to be people who seek to form unimpeachable character through the habits of the heart. Either way, this is who we are because of who our God is. In this very strange time it is time to double down on our common humanity.

This is the time when our Christianity is more relevant than it has been in any of our lifetimes; the practice of our faith enables us to be courageous, as we humbly walk in this brave new world. We are people of courage because we have Jesus. And as Peter reminds us today, we can cast our anxiety upon him because “We have the Spirit of God resting upon us.”

That, more than anything else, is what makes us human, and that is what I’ll talk about more next Sunday.