In a previous article, I explored the relationship between artificial intelligence (AI) and our humanity, as AI serves as an extension of our current humanity. In fact, I argued that AI does not remove our identities as children of God, rather, AI serves as a tool for how humans engage with the world. As AI has become more prominent in different parts of society, and several industries have raised concerns about the destruction of humanity or the removal of humans from careers like acting. 

I want to acknowledge three things. First, AI is new, and whenever new technologies arise, people begin to get scared. That is understandable if you believe that your life or career may be in jeopardy due to technological advances. Second, as AI continues to serve as the center point of conversation, shouldn’t we look to AI to understand more about ourselves, especially as the study of humans becomes more focused. Lastly, does the development of AI and subsequent enhancements impact our use of AI? AI has become integral in our lives, and in some cases, become intertwined with our lives. In fact, one can’t fully live without AI. What does this mean as people of faith in the worship setting? This last question serves as the opening to this paper: has AI become our new golden calf? If so, how might one temper its use and treat AI like a tool as opposed to an object of worship? 

Golden calf

One of the clearest and most prominent examples describing objects of worship is the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32. The story is near the end of the Book of Exodus as the Israelites are camping at the base of Mount Sinai. While Moses speaks with God atop of the mountain, the Israelites beg Aaron to build them a golden calf. After Aaron builds the Golden Calf, he declares that “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:1-4). While the text has depicted the calf as replacing God, the thought during that period is that the image would either attract God’s presence or serve as a pedestal (Jewish Study Bible, 174). The moral of the story is that while the Israelites thought what they were doing was right, they violated the commandments God instituted before them when they created an idol. They placed their trust in something other than God. 

Why an idol?

Martin Luther describes the nature of what is a god in his explanation to the First Commandment: 

A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing God1The original translation uses the masculine pronoun Him.  with the heart. I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust is right, then your god is also true. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you do not have the true God. For these things belong together, faith and God (Hebrews 11:6). Now, I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your God.2Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism: Part 1-The First Commandment, Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, 2ndEdition (St. Louis: Concordia, 2006), 359. 

Luther’s explanation fits perfectly within the context of AI when describing where we, as humans who use AI, become subject to it. Luther provides a roadmap for how Christians are to engage with the culture around us, including technological developments. Jason Thacker provides another helpful explanation when describing exactly how AI could become our golden calf through its overuse and over-reliance. Thacker addresses how problematic humanity has become in turning to anything other than God for a savior, including AI.3Jason Thacker The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), 181.  When our trust has turned to something other than God, then we worship an idol. As leaders of faith communities, one thing that must be on alert are best practices AI impacts our worshipping of God. 

Pastoral implications

Generative AI poses several dangers for pastoral ministry, notwithstanding the golden calf dilemma. There are several implications for pastors to consider. First, there should not be a rush to assume that generative AI will fully replace pastoral ministry, despite current leaders  expressing concern. While AI has been around for the past couple decades, there are new developments within generative AI that merit further consideration and theological reflection. 

Second, generative AI does not fully replace rostered leaders from their duties. For example, AI can produce sermons yet lack the human capacity for empathy when writing those sermons. Generative AI does not fully account for the range of human emotion found within the worship setting. AI can do and say all the right things, yet that falls short because it is a product of a fallen creation. An example of the fallen nature of generative AI is the amplification of implicit bias within jobs and race. Bloomberg News released an article detailing how generative AI has exacerbated the race and gender divide with its images.

Several pastors are turning to ChatGPT for sermons, yet the AI does not fully engage or acknowledge the depth of interpersonal relationships. Lastly, AI misses that human component to pastoral ministry that makes the mission of the gospel move. Since generative AI isn’t human, then it cannot fully grasp the personal nature pastors have with their parishioners. AI can mimic those interactions yet not fully embody those interactions. That is what sets humans and AI apart: humans have the living embodiment of who they are called to be, while AI falls short of grasping that humanity. 

Conclusion

There is some cause for concern with the rapid growth and development of AI, especially as several industries may be threatened. While I don’t think pastors or any care official should worry about being replaced by AI, there ought to be some skepticism regarding the growing technology, especially how it is used. AI could revolutionize the worship spaces yet could also shift the conversations away from relating to the people. AI could diminish the human interactions between pastors and their parishioners. Pastors and other church leaders should continue to monitor the developments and think deeper into the implications that AI poses. 

Thomas Johnston
Thomas Johnston

Thomas Johnston is a fourth-year Master of Divinity student at Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University. Thomas is preparing to depart on internship in the fall in Fort Worth, Texas at Calvary Lutheran Church. He enjoys reading about the integration of science and the Bible, and he also enjoys learning about the history of science and faith in the United States. Thomas is discerning parish ministry and hopes to find avenues of integration of the two disciplines while on internship.

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