Advent and AI
December 20, 2023
For the Collins English Dictionary, “AI” is the 2023 word of the year. The Cambridge Dictionary followed suit by choosing “hallucinate” as its word of the year, referring to the uncanny phenomenon by which the large language models (LLM) that made a splash this year can sometimes appear to make stuff up, representing as factual that which has never existed. At a Super Bowl party earlier in the year, a clergy colleague prompted a new LLM to write a sermon comparing Rihanna and Jesus, and we chuckled at the clunky conclusion about how both excel at bringing inspiration to millions. Beyond that I have yet to find much use for this new form of AI, but what I am struck by so far is this: we as a culture seem so excited and fascinated by something that, in the end, takes as its field of reality that which is on the internet, and from that field makes imperfect copies of what it can find there, puts these copies together into a collage, and reflects this back to us as if it were reality. When we anthropomorphize this way of processing and presenting information and think about it from the perspective of embodied, incarnate, general human intelligence, “hallucinate” does capture something of the severed-from-reality feeling that we can get when we look at this way of representing or framing things.
This year, the spiritual invitation of Advent and Christmas strikes me as precisely the opposite of “hallucinate.” Rather than the fanciful and the spectral, this season is all about paying attention, waiting, watching, listening. It is about bringing our fully embodied, fully incarnate sensory selves to be as present and intimate and awake as possible with the ever-astounding mystery and glory of being itself. It’s about looking out at the real world with our real eyes, feeling the real wind on our real face, listening to the real birds sing their real songs, and about letting the need-not-have-been miraculousness of it all move us from merely being alive to fully feeling alive. It’s about being a stargazer who knows the constellations so well as to be shocked enough at the appearance of a new star to set off on a journey looking-watching-listening for the birthing of God. In this sense, the Webb telescope and the galactic and cosmic images it has been generating and relaying to us here on Earth strikes me as a much more theologically exciting and inspiring technology of our times. If we were to give these images the attention we give internet-based AI, I’d imagine a new set of word of the year contenders: “awe,” “amazement,” “wonder,” “dazzling,” “love.”
This year, thinking about the technology and spirituality of this season, I’m reminding myself about how at the heart of the Advent/Christmas holiday season, there is a real astronomical event taking place: the winter solstice on December 21-22. Given our planet’s 23.5-degree tilt, the winter solstice marks the point on our planet’s journey around the sun when the Northern Hemisphere is angled most dramatically away from the sun. From our perspective, the sun makes its lowest and shortest journey through the sky. This is the season of shortest days and longest nights, the season of the low sun casting long shadows.
The spiritual invitation of Advent and Christmas strikes me as precisely the opposite of “AI” or “hallucinate,” two words of the year for 2023. This season is all about paying attention, waiting, watching, listening. It is about bringing our fully embodied, fully incarnate sensory selves to be as present and intimate and awake as possible with the ever-astounding mystery and glory of being itself.
We can imagine our human ancestors watching the sun on its daily jaunt sinking lower and lower towards the horizon. What if it kept moving forever in that direction? It would render earth a cold, dark, lifeless place. And so on those days when the sun appeared to halt on its trajectory (solstice meaning “sun standing still”), we gathered and lit fires and prayed and chanted, encouraging the sun to reverse its course. And the sun did. And so the next year we lit fires, and prayed, and encouraged the sun again—early forms of spiritual technology. And over the years we made monumental stone calendars to mark this day, incredibly impressive technological ways of framing and making sense of reality. And we felt the power of this day to bring us into direct encounter with the mysteries of the universe—of life and death and rebirth—such that we told and still tell the story of God’s birth during these shortest, darkest days. And we sing it with our lungs, and we hold it as a candle in our hands, and we coalesce as community to encourage one another in kindness and generosity, to encourage life itself in its onward journeying.
After hearing about the AI-based words of the year, I’ve finally started trying out this technology, and, I have to say, I’m beginning to appreciate how it too can be a helpful and powerful way of framing and seeing things. For example, in preparation for hosting a Wild Church winter solstice gathering, I asked ChatGPT to “write a prayer of gratitude for the sun.” Given that AI is the word of the year, I’ll let it have the last word here, with the first paragraph of a thankfully non-hallucinatory, very 2023 winter solstice prayer:
Gracious and radiant source of light,
In the vast expanse of the cosmos, your brilliance shines,
A celestial dance that warms the Earth,
A beacon of life and sustenance, the giver of birth.
Rev. Daniel Cooperrider is a writer, teacher, and pastor in the United Church of Christ (UCC). He was Pastor of the Weybridge Congregational Church (VT) and has served as Pastoral Resident at the Wellesley Village Church (MA). Daniel is the author of Speak with the Earth and It Will Teach You, and a study on the book of Job. Daniel lives on the edge of the driftless region in Madison, WI on ancestral Ho-Chunk land.