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Robotic Preaching

It had to come. Artificial Intelligence providing spiritual resources for the church.

Thanks to Madeleine Pennington for her tweet “Should we automate spirituality?”

She mentions a short video on the BBC website: God and robots: Will AI transform religion?

AI is utilised to provide pastoral and liturgical service to the church. It is like the Christian version of Alexa or Siri. There is even a robot that can preach a sermon.

What? This seems like a step too far!

This might well be a greater challenge for a generation that does everything via a smartphone or computer. There have been many studies that reflect on how such exposure to the digital world can have an impact on how our brains work. Technology can develop a technological mindset, something that French theologian Jacques Ellul highlighted so perceptively and prophetically in his 1964 book ‘The Technological Society’:

“Technique requires predictability and, no less, exactness of prediction. It is not necessary, then, that technique prevails over the human being. For technique, this is a matter of life and death. Technique must reduce man to a technical animal, the king of the slaves of technique. Human caprice crumbles before this necessity; there can be no human autonomy in the face of technical autonomy.”

Ellul, using the word ‘technique’ to describe technology, explains how the use of technology can dehumanise us.

The turn to a robot preacher is a disturbing one. This is not because I think that I might be put out of a job, but because I realise that preaching is more than the sum of the parts. Yet if we are not to be replaced, we need to resist the tendency to mechanise our brains and emotions so that they begin to follow predictable paths.

In his book ‘Why Johnny Can’t Preach’ David Gordon writes about how this robotic feature can be part of human preachers:

“Preachers read the Bible as they read everything else … speed read for content with little thought concerning construction … It is almost as though a version of Microsoft Word were built into their brains that causes them to see some of the word in a biblical paragraph in boldface, as the theologically, spiritually, or morally important words stand out in bold from the rest of the paragraph. They read John 3:16 the same way they read Romans 5:8; each is “about” the love of God, but they don’t notice that, and their sermon on God’s love from John 3:16 is probably not different from their sermon on God’s love from Romans 5:8.”

Preachers need to learn how to think differently, to stay in touch with their humanity, to embrace all the unpredictable contours of their God-shaped personality, with all its quirks.

Preaching is not about recycling data that has been downloaded to our brains. We engage with Scripture with our intellect, imaginations, and feelings, and we do so with the help of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus reminds Nicodemus:

“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

No computer can trace the movement of the Spirit in a sermon, but by grace the human preacher can see which way the wind blows, raise a sail and go with the flow.

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