You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise up. – Deuteronomy 11:18019 (NRSVUE)
I write this on my way back from a weekend in San Antonio, Texas, at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting. It was a weekend full of panels, book discussions, receptions, networking, book sales, and more. I started the weekend off with presenting a paper on artificial intelligence. It was one of five papers on a panel about the relevance of the thought of mid-20th century theologian Paul Tillich for AI issues. One of the other papers presented was by an ELCA pastor/theologian serving in a congregation in Seattle. His paper asked whether AI robots can replace a pastor. As a spoiler, the answer he gave was “no.” It was, though, a paper raising excellent issues for consideration.
The Lutheran tradition in particular has seen the primary function of a pastor to be proclaiming to people that their sins are forgiven. Tillich, ordained in the Lutheran church in Germany as a chaplain during World War I before moving to the U.S. in the 1930s, rephrased this the message of acceptance. As he explained it, the deep need of people is to hear from another that even though they have failed in various ways in their life nonetheless they are accepted, and because they are accepted they can experience that they are loved. Yet if our deep need is to hear those words of forgiveness or acceptance, is there a need for a human to do that? An AI enabled robot can deliver that message quite easily. It is also quite possible for AI to compose a sermon that delivers that message. In fact, a few years ago at a global conference on religion, a robot was programmed to give blessings. You selected which religion you wanted and it gave you a blessing based on that religion. The robot was created to show the limitations of a non-human blessing, but in fact it proved incredibly popular.
Ultimately it is not the same to get the proclamation of the gospel from a robot, this paper concluded. A robot has not experienced failure in life: the realities of being overwhelmed, the frustration of being unable to be good enough to make happen all that you want to have happen, the grief of loss, the experience of the absence of God, the realization of the times of being in the wrong that require forgiveness. Without those failures, there can be no experience of grace. Being told that you are forgiven and accepted by a robot that has not experienced the faith and emotion required to make that statement life-giving leaves the statement cold. It does not have the power of authentic experience behind it.
Too often, though, I think we do settle for the words. We think of God as an ATM that dispenses forgiveness. We can go, punch in our code, get our forgiveness and be on our way. Those that used the robot blessings treated the blessings in this way. It is true that God’s grace is free, but the power of that statement comes from the difficulties endured trying to make our way to God. The interaction with another human is what makes the message of the gospel powerful. It is more than words, and it takes another person being the conduit of those words to give them the depth of meaning that the words contain.