Friday, September 13, 2019

Of Robots and Clay Jars

     For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. 
     But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.    
-2 Corinthians 4:5-7 (NIV)

Our robot overlords are coming.
     At least our robot pastors are. That according to an article at Vox by Sigal Samuel, in which she advises that “AI (artificial intelligence) religion is upon us” and reassures us that “robot priests can bless you, advise you, and even perform your funeral.” The article describes a robotic Buddhist priest in Japan that delivers sermons and interacts with worshippers at a temple in Kyoto. “[The robot] is not AI-powered,” Samuel tells us, and in fact is only programmed to deliver one sermon. Its creators are planning to give it machine-learning abilities that will enable it to “tailor feedback to worshippers’ specific spiritual and ethical problems.” 
     There’s a robot in India that performs a Hindu ritual over and over. (Wonder what the monks who used to take care of that are doing now?) There’s a freaky-looking robot called BlessU-2 (I couldn’t make this up) that gives pre-programmed blessings to worshippers in the Protestant Church of Germany, and a 17-inch robot that looks like a figurine of a saint can recite Bible verses to people who come to it with problems.
     There’s even a Japanese robot named Pepper that performs Buddhist funerals. Pepper has one major advantage over his human counterparts: he works significantly cheaper than the cash offerings usually made to Buddhist priests. Well, there’s that, and also he can live stream the service.  
     While none of these robotic ministers are actually AI-powered, Samuel quotes experts who claim that robotic priests, pastors, and ministers with artificial intelligence are coming, and that these “free-willed beings that we’ve made” will force us to rethink our theology and even ask questions about what it is that makes up a human “soul”.  
     There are some in my church who might prefer artificial intelligence to what I bring to the table. They might also say that the same sermon preached over and over is preferable to what I manage some Sundays. Still, I need answers to a few questions before I can sign off on robotic ministers in Churches of Christ:
  • Can they be made waterproof? We baptize by immersion, you know. It could be bad if RoboPreacher shorted out just as he got a new convert under the water.
  • Would he come with an attachment for filling tiny communion cups? And maybe a grape juice reservoir?
  • Would there be a Non-Aggression Module that would keep him from responding to random criticism with laser fire from his eyes? (I guess I’m just assuming they’d put lasers in these things.)
  • Finally, if RoboPreacher comes with music, would it be a cappella?
     All right, maybe those aren’t really the most pressing questions I can think of. I guess the one that really occurs to me is, “Why?” What values are driving even the notion that robotic ministers, priests, and pastors might be useful or even preferable to human beings?
     One possibility that comes to mind is that a robot can provide the consistency, perfection, and predictability that human beings never can. It’s nice, isn’t it, to imagine clergy that will never make a mistake, never get tired or impatient, never make a wrong decision, never give bad advice or a wrong answer, and never commit a sin? The Lord knows that sometimes ministers try to look like robots instead of the messy, confused, struggling human beings that we know we are. Sometimes we try to make our churches think that’s what we are. Though I suspect most of the time our churches see right through that act. 
     Sometimes, truth be told, we do the work of ministry like robots: performing the actions, going through the motions, but with our hearts not truly in it. When we’re like that I suppose we might as well be robots. 
     But, here’s the thing: God didn’t call perfect people to minister to others on his behalf. He didn’t create a flawlessly consistent clergy who would never struggle or doubt or be hurt or get sick or hurt other people. God has entrusted normal people with ministry from the days he called a shepherd to be King, a vine-dresser to be a prophet, a carpenter’s son to be Messiah, and a group of fishermen, tax collectors, and terrorists to follow him. None of those people — save one — embodied perfection. All of them — save one — messed up, failed, acted selfishly, compromised their integrity, lost hope, struggled with sorrow and doubt, and made enemies. 
     God was surprised by none of that, of course.
     If God didn’t create a perfect race of clergy, then neither should we. We shouldn’t hire other people to do ministry for us, and we should especially not create other beings to do ministry for us — even if they could do it better. It’s in our imperfections that our faith is deepened. Maybe machine learning can teach robots to respond to the questions of believers with nuance and sympathy, looking for what they’re really asking. Maybe robots will one day even be able to come to something like faith on their own. But I doubt artificial intelligence will ever be able to replicate the lessons learned through struggle, failure, and weakness. Faith grows when we’re pulled past the limits of our own capabilities so we can learn to put our trust in God and not ourselves. 
     Faith grows, in short, through messiness.
     That’s Paul’s point about the clay jars. We’ve been given this wonderful treasure of the gospel of Jesus, a treasure that we’re supposed to share with the world in its fullness. And we’re tempted to think that we need to be adequate containers for this treasure. We need to be elegant vases, hand-carved, jewel-encrusted chests, ornate display cases. We’re painfully aware of what we are, though: clay jars. We’re the Tupperware of the ancient world: functional enough, maybe, but not much else. Certainly not worthy of containing such a treasure. Wouldn’t it be better to build a robot that would better represent the value of that treasure?
     Paul points out, though, that God’s power is most clearly shown when it comes through unremarkable, uninspiring, imperfect vessels like us. Robots, to use Paul’s terms, don’t have the capabilities to feel crushed, to despair, to feel abandoned, or to fear destruction. We human beings can. But that doesn’t make us inferior for God’s purposes; in fact, it makes us superior. By faith, we can choose not to be crushed. By faith, we can look into the pit of our own darkness and not despair. By faith, we can experience persecution and yet know that God hasn’t abandoned us, and even when we’re struck down and looking our own destruction in the face, we can instead look to God’s face. And our world can see the treasure of the gospel shining out of the cracked, worn, chipped, broken clay jars that we are.    
     God doesn’t need robot ministers. He just needs us. He just needs you, clay jar though you are.

     Run that through your processor, Pepper.

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