With its stacks of books and its wood-paneled walls, my professor’s office was as intimidating as it was clichéd. As a young divinity school student years ago, my efforts to schedule time with the professor through email had been a bit of a chore – this was not a pop-in appointment. And as the meeting began, I immediately sensed that my professor was very busy and that we would not be having an extended conversation. I remember feeling a bit disappointed as this realization dawned on me, as I came to understand that I would not be his new star pupil. I had, in my mind, very important intellectual queries to make of my professor, ones that stemmed from my own doubt and struggles regarding the truth of my Christian faith at the time. In the end, I was underwhelmed when the conversation didn’t provide the breathtaking revelations I’d hoped for. I left, instead, with some relatively uninspiring instructions from the professor: Go to church.
I return to this moment whenever I read the various discussions and social media arguments concerning the “de-churching” of America, the dramatic decrease of Christian interest in attending worship and joining faith communities. My professor’s advice cut against the grain of this trend, one that was started accelerating in the 1990s and was certainly a reality in the university town where I was in school.
Now, as an educator, I also think about this moment whenever I consider the places my students today seek answers to their own pressing problems. And there is increasingly no more vexing example of this than the challenge of artificial intelligence (AI). AI programs like Chat GPT have sent higher education into a tizzy over the past year and are forcing dramatic reworkings of syllabi. This concern is usually framed as worry about plagiarism. But such programs also promise users (especially students) easy answers to challenging questions. This is an intensification of democratized internet trends, one that threatens to further upend confidence in less accessible intellectual authorities—whether books, courses, teachers, and yes, even sometimes the church.
I wonder now what my experience would have been like as a doubting student with AI programs like Chat GPT at my disposal. I was asking the kinds of questions that many students ask, about God, human existence, and truth, and I was considering radical changes to (even abandonment of) my old beliefs. Students today still ask these kinds of questions, though they increasingly have new options as to where to go to find answers. Indeed, there are now even AI programs designed precisely for Christians like myself who had hard questions about faith, programs that let users conveniently “text with Jesus.”
De-churching and AI seem to me to be related phenomena. Both are modern attempts to exceed frustrating limits. For one, church can be a burden. This can be true of time (we have to get ahead at work, our kids have to do travel soccer), amusement (church is often boring), and doctrine (Christians believe wild stuff, it turns out, and those beliefs can motivate some to do awful things). Similarly, AI tools promise to broaden our knowledge and democratize it for everyone, not just those who can afford a degree or take the time to wade through a complex text. Breaking away from these various constraints promises a freer life.
Especially when compared to my professor’s advice, AI tools like Chat GPT would seem to have a leg up in every way in dealing with deconstructive doubts. These tools operate at breathtaking speed and cut through jargon. Unlike my busy professor, AI is ready to talk with you anytime, about anything, including all the questions you could possibly ask about religious faith. (And Chat GPT’s responses aren’t altogether bad. Believe me, I’ve tried.) It certainly would have been much easier for me as a doubting Christian to endlessly input my various queries into a laptop on my dark nights of the soul, rather than sit down with a face-to-face meeting with my teacher. AI and its democratized technological parallels offer so much, and in that, perhaps, it shows how obsolete traditional forms of inquiry have become. This is especially true given that, in my case, the advice I was offered was to do little more than to return to my religious community, a place of mundane familiarity.
And yet, the 20 minutes in the confines of that wood-paneled room were as close to life changing as anything I had ever experienced. I had told the professor that I wasn’t sure I believed in God or could be a Christian anymore, and I sputtered through my various reasons. The professor answered, not by giving me any new information or offering an airtight, comprehensive explanation. Instead, he asked me where I felt closest to God in recent years. I said that occasionally I had felt close to God at my church, and sometimes at the prison ministry where I volunteered. Both were places where I was surrounded by people (many, though not all, Christians) who gave me strength or inspiration. But, that wasn’t of much use, I thought to myself, because I knew that collective illusions were likely influencing my understanding of reality. What I wanted, so I thought, was accessible and certain knowledge. I sought a comprehensive system for making sense of the world that would eliminate (or at least dramatically reduce) doubt and give me the intellectual stability I craved. And I wanted it to deal with problems as they came up, as I kept finding new objections to faith. AI chat tools didn’t exist then, but what they currently promise was, in effect, exactly the kind of solution I was seeking.
By contrast, my professor’s recommendation was for me to simply keep going to the places where I felt like maybe I was experiencing God, or at least where I had in the past, to be persistent there, and to trust that eventually all would be well. My professor knew, I think, that truth is something that is lived out, not simply obtained through visual perception and mental assent. And he knew that truthful living ultimately meant encounters with others, both fellow creatures and the Creator we attempt to speak about and connect to together. So, I went back to church. And, because of my professor’s advice, and because of the people who met me at church and in prison, I’m still here, somehow doubting and believing all at once.
The point I want to make here is not so much about faith amidst doubt (important though that may be), but about the alternatives set before us as people living in a moment where religious belonging matters less and technologies like AI promise more. The forsaking of church and the embrace of AI both indicate we want to exceed limits. By comparison, the professorial advice I obtained was limited in every way. My professor didn’t try to give me a giant stack of books, and he didn’t try to handle every possible question I might have had. Indeed, he didn’t tell me to doanything differently. Instead, he told me to return to a space where I was already sensing something true, some slight taste of the good life. But in that conversation, with all of its limits, and in the church I returned to, seeds were being planted that could grow in unpredictable ways.
Just as church can be endlessly disappointing, technologies like AI can be quite satisfying—but superficially so. It’s important to remember that this is not the satisfaction of knowledge gained through a life well lived. It also is not the sense of the possibility of divine presence in collective worship, or the transformative knowledge of a tradition or community that only comes through personal, persistent encounters. AI offers information but provides no relational or affective context for helping a person understand and experience why such acquisition of such data might be part of a larger process of transformation, growth, and wonder. It offers information, but not formation.
Being rightly formed in Christian community is hard. The people in our churches are broken; their doctrines are confusing and strange; and at their worst these places risk exacerbating all kinds of harmful habits and assumptions. And yet, in those spaces of gathering, with those pursuing God together, I think we somehow can find hope for truthful lives well lived.
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