Mar 10, 2023 - Technology

Religious leaders experiment with ChatGPT sermons

Illustration of binary code in a stained glass window

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Religious leaders are dabbling in ChatGPT for sermon writing, and largely reaching the same conclusion: It's great for plucking Bible verses and concocting nice-sounding sentiments but lacks the human warmth that congregants crave.

Why it matters: As scarily good generative artificial intelligence tools start to disrupt all manner of professions, men and women of the cloth are pondering how eerily close it can come to projecting a human — or divine — soul.

Driving the news: Curious leaders of all faiths have been plugging in prompts to ChatGPT — for example, "Preach to me about the raising of Lazarus in John 11" — and writing about the plusses and minuses of the results.

  • Early sermon-writing experiments have shown that ChatGPT can pull together cogent and relevant thoughts from religious texts and eminent theologians, plus turns-of-phrase that seem stirring and poignant.
  • A consensus seems to be emerging that ChatGPT can alleviate some of the religious leaders' more routine or repetitive tasks — such as explaining particular holidays — while freeing them for more meaningful spiritual counseling.

What they're saying: "It's really impressive — it's kind of amazing," Ken Sundet Jones, a Lutheran pastor and theology professor in Des Moines who posed the Lazarus question, told Axios.

  • Yes, but: While "Pastor ChatGPT" can do "an adequate job of assembling a string of facts and propositions about a topic," it's a "bit of a didactic bore" and "no real preacher," Jones wrote.
  • Plus "it can't do visitation, like meat-and-potatoes pastors do," he tells Axios.

Case study: Rabbi Joshua Franklin, of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in East Hampton, New York, delivered what he warned his flock was a "plagiarized" sermon about the theme of vulnerability in a story from Genesis — and was shocked when congregants guessed that it had been written by his father or a famous rabbi rather than AI.

  • "The more I was able to prompt [ChatGPT] and tell it what I was looking for and describe the style of how I wanted it to write, the better it got," Franklin said.
  • One notable missing piece: the rabbi's own perspective and anecdotes. Had he written the sermon himself, "I would have told a story — something about me that modeled my own vulnerability and showed how it was a strength," he said.

Reality check: While the technology "is extraordinarily intelligent," it's "missing the ability to show empathy," Franklin tells Axios.

  • Its flaws as a spiritual guide? "It can't actually feel emotion," Franklin says. "It can't show genuine love. It can't show compassion."

Todd Brewer, managing editor of a religious publication called Mockingbird, had a similar take after asking ChatGPT to write a Christmas sermon "based upon Luke’s birth narrative, with quotations from Karl Barth, Martin Luther, Irenaeus of Lyon, and Barack Obama."

  • "The AI sermon is better than several Christmas sermons I've heard over the years," Brewer wrote in an essay.
  • "Devoid of any obvious heresy, the AI even seems to understand what makes the birth of Jesus genuinely good news."
  • And yet: "As good as the AI sermon might be, the message would fly like a lead balloon on Sunday morning. Its content is mostly ok, though it lacks any human warmth."

The bottom line: ChatGPT "can tell you thoughts about the anthropology of divinity, but it can't articulate its own thoughts on God because it doesn't have a consciousness," Franklin said.

  • "I think it's going to force me to evolve as a rabbi, but I don't think that it's going to put me out of business."
  • Jones puts it in starker terms: ChatGPT "could be divine, but it might not be," he said. "Often, you can’t tell the difference between God and the devil."

Prominent prediction: In a recent Wall Street Journal essay, Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher wrote that "the arrival of an unknowable and apparently omniscient instrument, capable of altering reality, may trigger a resurgence in mystic religiosity."

Go deeper: Pope Francis prays for good AI

What's next: With AI programmers responsible for imbuing ChatGPT with ethics and morality, the roles of religious leaders could soon include offering guidance and moral suasion to the tech industry.

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