Last week, David O’Hara published a piece titled, “How Robot Priests Will Change Human Spirituality.” He explores the interesting question of what to do when someone makes a machine that is actually intended to play the role of a preacher or function in a ministerial role. Some preachers joke that they help people “hatch, match, and dispatch,” by celebrating births, weddings, and funerals. They joke, but even if we aren’t religious, we do tend to trust professionals to guide us through those serious moments.
However, we’re being given more and more opportunities to trust machines to act in the roles of ministry. The company SoftBank Robotics created Pepper the robot to chant at Buddhist funerals in Japan, and a church in Germany programmed a machine to pronounce traditional blessings. Very recently in Dubai, the government’s cultural and Islamic affairs agency IACAD launched the first-ever “Virtual Ifta” that uses A.I. to issue fatwas. Other groups have experimented with machines that can hear confessions, offer prayers, or even offer sacraments.
A machine that resembles a human could chat all night with a lonely person, and might make a very good counselor. It could offer comforting words at the bedside of someone who suffers from dementia, or who needs a listening ear. It could read stories or sing songs. Why not automate the singing of hymns, the reciting of scripture, the chanting of prayer, the pronouncement of blessings? All of those things are desirable, at least to some people.
But are there kinds of work, like caring for Christians, that we should not automate? Tools amplify our efforts, but they cannot share our experience as an empathetic companion. As a preacher, I’ve lived through decades of people feeling awkward around me, not relating to me, and even refusing to talk to me — because of what I am. But the answer doesn’t like in changing the nature of human relationships that God ordained. Over and over again, the New Testament encourages us in our work to “one another,” and that shouldn’t be handed off.