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Ritual Repels the Robots: One Human Response to AI

By Matthew S.C. Olver

I’ll admit, I was a bit late to the AI party, or at least to the awareness that AI might be throwing a party to which I’m not invited. A recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show was incredibly sobering on this front (via The New York Times and Apple Podcasts). He interviewed Kelsey Piper, a reporter who’s been writing about AI and Silicon Valley for quite some time, as has Klein. When the first version of OpenAI’s ChatGPT was released, I saw a lot in my Facebook feed (back when I was reading it) from two circles in which I fit and that sometimes overlap: teachers and priests. Professors were wondering what this means for course assignments and papers, and priests were exploring what sort of sermons could be composed by these soulless creatures.

I admit that I have no idea what to do in the face of this strange new challenge. But I am unnerved. The 2022 Expert Survey on Progress in AI consulted machine learning researchers in June-August 2022. Maybe the most unsettling (and oft-referenced) result of the survey was the following (taken from this detailed summary):

The median respondent believes the probability that the long-run effect of advanced AI on humanity will be “extremely bad (e.g., human extinction)” is 5%. This is the same as it was in 2016 (though Zhang et al 2022 found 2% in a similar but non-identical question). Many respondents were substantially more concerned: 48% of respondents gave at least 10% chance of an extremely bad outcome. But some much less concerned: 25% put it at 0%.

Let that sink in: 48 percent of the people working on AI think that the probability of an “extremely bad outcome” for the whole human race is 10 percent. What if the people working at NASA thought the same thing about their work? I’m still pondering this.

All this has got me thinking about what sort of things AI cannot do.

Ritual has started to receive more attention lately. Ritual and liturgy are sometimes conflated, but I think it’s safe to say that liturgy is one broad expression of the larger category of ritual. How to even define ritual is a complicated and debated endeavor. Protestants, who tend to have less prescribed liturgies, also tend to be a bit fuzzy in defining ritual. The late Mark Searle noted that some anthropologists have similar problems.

Formal definitions that focus on repetitive behavior are often so broad as to leave us with a useless definition. Searle says that such approaches are “so broad as to encompass everything from the nesting habits of the weaver bird to the coronation of the emperor of Japan.” I’ve read pieces on ritual that could not distinguish between brushing one’s teeth and the Eucharist.

If we turn to any of the classic texts about ritual and religion, such as Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return, we see claims that religious rituals enact a real participation in the past action of the gods, “an imitation of the celestial archetype.” Note that this is completely and formally distinct from a typically evangelical approach to ritual and liturgy, which tends to categorize ritual as basically functional. This struck me when I read an author remark on how the consistency of Muslims’ public piety shocked him when compared with Christians, particularly Protestants. The author noted, “Protestants are suspicious of the power of ritual to effect internal change.” But (to generalize wildly), I think it is safe to say that traditional religions — including premodern Christianity — did not see their religious ritual first as a means to effect internal change, to teach or communicate something, or really even to catechize at all.

Rather, religious rituals were something to which human creatures are compelled as human creatures who live in this universe. They do it because “it is meet and right, our bounden duty and service.” They do it because humans are ritual creatures and sacrifice is the primordial human ritual action to the divine. Everything propels us to this. Why? Because if God is as defined along the traditional lines — not a thing in the universe but the source and ground of all that is; impassible; omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent — sacrifice is the inevitable response.

I’m on sabbatical this year and have had the chance to travel. One of the things that struck me was the extent of countries to preserve any remnants of older civilizations that they possessed. One of the places I visited was Ravenna to see in the flesh the fifth-century mosaics that are preserved there and to photograph some of them for a book I just finished. As I wandered about the churches and other buildings, I tried to imagine all of the people — hundreds, thousands, almost certainly — who had acted with the express intention of preserving this building, this art. But then I reminded myself that even to speak in this way indicates the distance between me and the people who constructed these edifices. They were not constructing “church buildings” and making “art.” They were building temples where religious rituals take place.

One of the most wonderful gifts of the day in Ravenna was my providential encounter with an art historian and artist who was partway through his Ph.D. at the University of Bologna, the world’s oldest university in continuous existence. He told me so many amazing things. One of them was that in Ravenna around the fifth century, there would have been around 375 churches with mosaics like the ones preserved in San Vitale and Sant’Appolinare in Classe. Consider this for a moment. Think how many people would have had to agree on this remarkable insight: the best (and maybe even the most obvious thing) we should do, given that we are Christians, is to dedicate this degree of resources and time and people to build these temples.

Ravenna was the capital of the empire for a time, so there were other factors going on as well, as the mosaic images of the emperor and the priest-king Melchizedek on both sides of the high altar in Sant’Appolinare in Classe make clear. Nonetheless, if this is true, then these Italian Christians were not some weird aberration or exception, whether among Christians or among the history of our species. Instead, you do not have to look hard to see countless examples of people who thought that obviously the best thing to do is find particular stones in Wales and transport them hundreds of miles to a plain near Salisbury and erect and arrange them in a complex system related to the movement of the celestial bodies. Or to build pyramids in what is now the Yucatan Peninsula, or somewhat different pyramids in the deserts of northwestern Africa.

Human beings, Alexander Schmemann argued, are first homo adorans. Our nature is a ritual nature, to engage the world, not primarily with German logic but with ritualized symbolic expressions. The more real and the more meaningful and true something is, the more it must be mediated, accessed from a slant. The creature cannot stand face to face with the Creator. This is why God’s eternal Logos became flesh and dwelt among us: so that we could have a mediated glimpse of the Father’s glory.

If this is correct, it poses an interesting challenge for how to think about “spiritual but not religious” individuals. They seem, by definition, to eschew the “formal trappings of religion.” They eschew what all religions in history see as essential: rituals and sacred spaces (i.e., temples). They try to attain a kind of religiosity that is as denuded and wilted as the sort of religiosity that an AI expresses. Which is to say, they want something that the religions practiced by humans throughout history could not recognize.

The difference, however, is that a “spiritual but not religious” person remains a person, whose nature carries within it intimations of immortality. That means it cannot cease to be religious, because every human being was made by a Maker. We are but pale shadows of this Maker, walking shadows, poor mimics who strut and fret their hour upon the stage, and then are heard no more. The very fact of our existence does not preserve and maintain any other thing or creature that is, was, or shall be. But this is not so for our Maker.

ChatGPT can easily compose a liturgy, maybe even a rather good one. But one of the things of which it is entirely incapable is to recognize that its existence is not just entirely contingent, but a gift, a gift that is always threatening to return to chaos. It is incapable of such a recognition, nor of The Turn to its Maker to offer sacrifice with reverence and awe before that which was, and is, and is to come: the Consuming Fire, the Fear of Israel, the Alpha and Omega.

Regardless of whether we recognize and acknowledge it, every time a Christian community gathers to celebrate and offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice, we stand against un-humanity, against nonbeing, as we enact the most human of all actions. The same is true every time a couple is joined and a child is conceived, a ritual reflection of the mystery of the cosmos. I don’t know what the policy answers should be to the rapid evolution of AI. But I do know that we need people who, having had the Eternal Logos placed on their palm, to turn to this question and ask what it could mean to engage this serious challenge in light of so great a mystery, who, for us and for salvation, came down from heaven that we might share the Divine Life.

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