This is the first article of a three-part series exploring the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the Church.
It seems like every time we turn on the news, we hear someone talking about Artificial Intelligence (AI). It’s a global phenomenon—one that includes the church. Christian bloggers are exploring it, churches are playing with it and pastors are using it in ministry.
Early on in my ministry, many people in my congregation were interested in learning about and practicing spiritual disciplines. But the response was always mixed—some loved this idea while others opposed it. For those in opposition, since they did not know this new thing, it was wrong. It was perceived as evil or sinful. I heard numerous people describe this trend as dangerous. Over time, we’ve embraced the notion that our faith needs to be more than cognitive; we have acknowledged that the spiritual practices used throughout history have value.
The initial challenge for the church was that it lacked the language or theology to address the issue at the time. Since then, people have wrestled through theology and language to assess what is Biblical and potentially harmful to our spiritual development. This maturing of theology in the church has resulted in spiritual growth, wisdom and discernment.
When it comes to technology in the church, we are in a very similar space: we are not practiced in discussing or reflecting theologically on technology. The biggest challenge is that technology is a tool used in ministry and is not the primary focus as spiritual practices were. As a church, we have taken technology for granted rather than evaluating and reflecting on the implications of technology and its impact on ministry. We often see technology as amoral and in the background. That is changing as the church begins to respond to the recent development of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Before we reflect on AI, we need to understand what scripture says about technology—why we have it, what its role is and whether it is good or bad. To do that, we need to return to the very beginning: Genesis 1-11. We also need to define technology in the most basic terms to apply it historically, in the present and in the future. For our purposes, technology is any tool we create to accomplish an objective or task. Most of us when we hear the word “technology,” we think of computers and the internet. In the past, technology could be a telephone or a telegram. Looking back even further in history, technology can be any simple tool, from a hammer to a shovel or a sewing needle. At one point or another, these were all revolutionary advances in technology and transformed the world. In 100 years, today’s technology will seem archaic.
With such a basic definition of technology, we can find in Genesis 1-11 the foundation for a theology of technology that will help us reflect on AI and how it shapes our culture and ministry.
Our theology begins with who God is and how he creates. God creates the world over six days, and in that, we are shown several things: God exists, God is intentional, God is creative, and God does not need any tools for creation. He simply speaks. As silly as it sounds, it identifies that God doesn’t need technology. This is essential to our understanding of our need for technology.
Once God comes to create humanity, we are told we are created in his image. At this point in scripture, what has been revealed to us about God is that he exists, he is intentional and he is creative. So God creating us in his image means we are also made to be creative.
We see this reflected in the first task God assigns us as stewards of creation—to name all the animals. We are called to be creative within God’s creation. God spoke creation into existence, and in turn, we reflect that in a much less magnanimous act of creativity by speaking the names of animals into existence. Still no technology is needed. The image of the Garden of Eden is one where we have no need, are in an intimate relationship with God, and are equipped to be stewards of the fruit of God’s creativity. We can live out our identity as God’s image-bearers to our fullest potential.
Then the event we all know occurs—Adam and Eve sin, and in their shame, they find themselves naked and decide to make clothing. It is at this moment that we see technology first enter the picture. Some sort of tool is needed to assemble the clothing. Perhaps a primitive knife and a poor attempt to create a needle are used. We can be confident that Adam and Eve applied their God-given creativity to use some sort of tool or technology to create their feeble clothing. God notices their clothing, and a difficult conversation ensues.
Interestingly enough, God created better clothing for Adam and Eve. Despite God’s most profound disappointment in his creation, he provides Adam and Eve with clothing he creates—he gives them a starting point of how to make better clothing. Something they will be able to replicate using the tools they develop.
So, in our sinfulness, we see God has provided us with our creativity and encourages us to create and use technology through the way he models it to us. To be creative in our world without using technology is extremely difficult. The closest example I can imagine is remembering how my daughter used to play outside as a baby. Even as an infant, she was being creative. She would inevitably be a mess from the dirt, sand and mud that she used for her creative exploits. Yet once she was done playing—we would bring her into the house (that is built and heated), clean her up in the bath (indoor plumbing) and dress her in fresh and dry clothing (plumbing again, plus electricity)— technology was still used. Since the fall, creativity and technology go hand-in-hand on some level: technology supports our creativity or is a tool that we directly use while we create.
So the question becomes: what do we do with the technology we have?
We have two contrasting stories in Genesis 1-11 that are valuable to our discussion of technology. The first is Noah building the ark, and the second is the narrative of the tower of Babel. In a concise summary, we see Noah honouring God’s wishes and using his creativity and the tools necessary to honour and obey God. The fruit of this obedience was his and his family’s survival of the flood. We can use technology and creativity to honour and obey God in our world.
The second story is the Tower of Babel. Here we find the people of the world united in their purpose to build a tower so they could make a name for themselves. This usage of tools and creativity was not to honour God but to honour themselves. At the heart of this story is elevating ourselves over honouring God. We see this elsewhere in scripture where idolatry occurs. Idolatry is elevating our creativity to replace God as the deity in our lives. It is essentially elevating ourselves—where God created us, we, in turn, wish to be the creator of a god. The challenge is that we merely reflect God’s creativity, and our sin taints our creativity. We do not have the same ability for creation that God does.
When it comes to technology, we have a clear choice in how we use it. In these two stories, the starting point is the same: building something significant. But the goal and outcome are vastly different—one honours God while the other honours humanity and diminishes God.
When we reflect theologically on technology, we need to consider how we use technology and what its purpose is. We must also think about how using technology honours the creative image of God, in contrast with how it distorts his image. Our reflection begins internally with our heart and mind, and then progresses to the technology itself. This is the basis on which we can now approach reflecting theologically on Artificial Intelligence and its role in our society, the church and our individual ministries.