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Jim McDermottFebruary 22, 2023
Photo by Zac Wolff on Unsplash

On Ash Wednesday I read an extraordinary homily. It was exceedingly short, just 340 words. And it had a take on Lent that was decidedly unexpected. “As we enter this time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving,” the writer began, “it can be easy to focus on the somberness that often accompanies the solemnity of Lent. But as Christians preparing for the joyous celebration of Easter Sunday, I invite you all to look at this time with a spirit of joy.”

Lent, the writer suggested, is a time to focus “not just on what is being given up, but also what is being gained: a closer relationship with God through prayer, an increased awareness of our needs as individuals and as members of the Church community, and a greater appreciation for all that we have been blessed with by Him.” Fasting and repentance were proposed as a sort of stripping away of spiritual clutter, and Lent seen as a time that releases us to truly appreciate the gifts of our lives. “Keep joy close at heart,” the writer encouraged at the end, and it would give us fresh perspective and new strength.

And who was this spiritual sage? Not a priest, a preacher or a person at all. It was the A.I. text generator OpenAI Playground.

We’ve been hearing a lot about artificial intelligence lately, its capacity to generate fascinating images or graduate-level essays with uncanny alacrity. (This homily, which came in response to the prompt, “Write a 5-7 minute homily for a Catholic Ash Wednesday Mass about joy,” was generated in less than a minute.) But we haven’t heard yet much about its capacity to preach.

This week, I gave Playground, a more customizable version of ChatGPT, a series of prompts for Ash Wednesday homilies. And the results were pretty astonishing. 

So this week, I gave Playground, a more customizable version of ChatGPT, a series of prompts for Ash Wednesday homilies. And the results were pretty astonishing. “Today marks the beginning of our Lenten journey—a time for reflection and repentance,” one homily began, naming not only two of the key themes of Lent but one of its most useful metaphors, that of a journey. “Let us be mindful of how our actions can truly make a difference in the world around us,” another concluded. “May our Lenten season be filled with moments of grace and peace so that when Easter comes, we will have grown closer to God through humility and love.”

The A.I. frequently quoted the Scriptures for Ash Wednesday, regardless of whether those were mentioned in the prompt, and did so in ways that were almost spooky. Referencing a line from the second reading, one homily reflected, “We have been given a great gift by Jesus—His death on the cross was a sacrifice for all mankind; one which offers us redemption from our sins. Let us turn away from evil and embrace the grace of God.” There is something just plain weird about having a computer program include itself under the category of “mankind” and imagine itself being offered redemption from sin.

Occasionally, there were elements in the homilies that I thought could have been better. Today, many Catholic homilists would say the more inclusive “humanity” rather than “mankind.” Likewise, every Catholic homily ended with a reiteration of what had been said, as though the A.I. was ending a five-paragraph essay rather than breaking open the word of God. But if I’m being honest, I have ended my fair share of homilies the same way (if unhappily), and I think most priests have.

The A.I. frequently quoted the Scriptures for Ash Wednesday, regardless of whether those were mentioned in the prompt, and did so in ways that were almost spooky.

Some of Playground’s reflections also leaned a little too heavily into telling people what they “should” do, which gave the homilies a certain severity. “We should not seek recognition or praise for acts of charity,” the A.I. wrote in one homily. “Our prayers and fasting should come from an authentic place within us,” we hear in another. But notably even when it did offer edicts, it used the first person plural, making it clear that it included itself (whatever that means) in the group that needed to take on the requirements of Lent in a serious way.

Having noted the program’s definitive tone, as well as what seemed like a certain overemphasis on repentance in the first homilies I generated, I thought I would see what happened if I leaned into the idea of judgment. “Write a 5-7 minute homily for a Catholic Ash Wednesday Mass on Hell,” I prompted the A.I. At first, I got exactly what I expected: “In this solemn season of prayer and reflection that culminates with Easter Sunday,” the A.I. wrote, “it is important for us to reflect on the reality of Hell—both what it means for us as individuals, and how our faith can guide us away from its embrace.” Heck yeah, artificial intelligence. Show me your crazy.

But then it went on: “Let’s begin by discussing what Hell is not. It is not a place where God sends people because He wants them to suffer or be punished.” And what followed, in just 340 words, was unexpectedly thoughtful reflections on why a loving God would allow Hell to exist, combined with an insistence that we “remember that God desires all people to be saved.” The homily concludes, “Hell is real—but so too is God’s incredible love and grace.”

An experiment like this raises many questions: What does it mean for a computer program to pray? Or to describe Jesus as “our” savior?

When prompted, Playground likewise generated some nice reflections on the meaning of ashes, weaving together notions of mortality, contrition and repentance. “Today we will receive ashes on our foreheads as a reminder that life is fleeting and fragile,” the A.I. writes. The practice has roots “in ancient times when people would put on sackcloth or cover themselves with dirt or dust to express their sorrow over sins committed against God or another person.”

When I asked the A.I. to do a sermon for a Baptist Ash Wednesday service, I noted some interesting differences: Where most of the Catholic homilies began by talking about repentance or other activity we are called to do during the season, the Baptist sermon began by emphasizing God’s grace to save us.

More interesting was the change in style. The A.I. spoke in the first person singular; it gave its congregation a question to think about—something none of the Catholic homilies did. And it was the only homily to directly address God in prayer. “Heavenly Father, thank You for Your mercy and forgiveness,” the sermon ended. “Help us during this time of repentance so that we can come ever nearer to You in spirit and truth. We ask these things in Jesus' Name; Amen!”

Certainly I’ve heard many Catholic homilies that had these same qualities, so maybe the fact that the A.I. associates that warmth and informality explicitly with the Baptist community is a function of its own algorithms. But I wonder if it also might be mirroring back to us more general qualities of and gaps in Catholic preaching, a certain reliance on abstract ideas.

An experiment like this raises many questions: What does it mean for a computer program to pray? Or to describe Jesus as “our” savior? More important, what does it mean to find that its reflections and prayers actually resonate—in some ways better than anything I might have heard or said? Can a meaningful sense of spirituality really be artificially generated? Or is a capacity to pray itself indicative of some kind of intelligent life?

I don’t have answers to any of this. But I can’t help but think that somewhere Stanley Kubrick is chuckling maniacally.

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