Updated: 2 days ago
The sociologist Emile Durkheim argues that religion is defined by the concept of sacred spaces. A sacred space is one that is inherently distinct from the ordinary aspects of life. This differentiation clarifies why churches have sanctuaries, why worship involves liturgy, and why traditions are centered around canons of holy texts.
While I'm not an expert on Durkheim's work, it appears that this demarcation primarily pertains to rituals: Christianity, for instance, maintains spaces for church rites that are set apart from daily life. However, in my personal experience, it seems that questions and conversations can also hold significant power in designating a space as sacred, even without the presence of rite or ritual.
Three sacred spaces have shaped my faith, my theology, and my outlook on life.
One is the sanctuary at my home congregation, a community that gathers each week to ask what it means to Welcome, Forgive, and Serve. Another is the campfire ring at Rock Island State Park, where I gather with good friends each summer to ask the big questions of life over beer, steak, and s'mores. The other is the pastor's office at Lutheran Campus Ministry, where I had so many meaningful conversations about the Lutheran tradition and vocation with my late mentor.
In my experience, these spaces were sacred not just because of rituals --- but because of the depth of conversations that occurred there. Each space facilitated the asking of the biggest questions of this life - in a way that wouldn't have been possible amidst the frenetic pace of our culture.
The digital age has already erased two of the boundaries that religious communities once held between the sacred and the profane.
Online worship has erased the boundaries used to mark worship spaces by making worship available in our living rooms. And apps that support spiritual practices like prayer and meditation have made these traditional aspects of religion more widely available. But by integrating these practices into daily life, these technologies have also erased the distinctions that once made these traditions sacred.
Now, AI systems like Chat GPT provide us with the means to ask the questions that were once the domain of sacred spaces. ChatGPT can help you make sense of the death of a loved one. It can advise on you on how your vocation is meaningful. It can give you language to explain the mysteries of faith to a small child.
AI generates answers to these great questions in mere seconds. And while it doesn't cite sources, I found ChatGPT's suggestions on vocational meaning to be compelling. I found its commentary on death to be thought provoking, if not hopeful. I found its guidance for teaching faith to small children to be clear, useful, and within the bounds of my own faith tradition.
What happens to faith when a chat bot so easily answers the big questions we once asked in sacred spaces? What happens to the spaces we thought of as sacred when AI becomes a spiritual director? Can we still find sacred spaces in a post-ChatGPT culture? To answer these questions, the church might look at two commitments for ministry in a digital age:
The church must facilitate the practice of asking questions in community. ChatGPT can provide a quick answer to a big, spiritual question. The church cannot rival the speed with which AI answers these questions. Nor, in many cases, can the church come up with answers that sound as confident. Still, the way that AI responds these questions is somewhat isolating. To answer a big question with out the involvement of a trusted interlocutor is to present a viewpoint that is incomplete and fragmentary. Conversations on being are richer as dialogues, not monologues. So while big questions may begin as monologues in a world of AI, our sacred spaces must convert them into shared conversation. If we develop the trust and the psychological safety to convene these conversations, then the sacred spaces of the church will be all the more important in a digital age.
Then, faith leaders must teach their communities to critically reflect and scrutinize texts. AI-generated content seems authoritative. It is well organized and easy to comprehend, even to the point where it could be considered "doctrinal." Yet the web is full of examples where AI fabricated answers or presented outright falsehoods. Inaccuracies are rampant. Its answers seem confident but they are hardly authoritative. This invites a return to the practice of textual scrutiny - or to use the technical term, hermeneutics.
We must equip our communities with the ability to wrestle with texts - not just the scriptures, but the confident-sounding outputs of computer technologies. More than all others, this might be the lifeskill that the church is best positioned to teach in a digital age. Regrettably, American Christianity seems less willing today to train its communities on hermeneutical scrutiny. Rather than teach interpretive skills, too many ministries and preachers seem content to offer the "Biblical view" or the "Christian answer." Too many of us see the church not as a place where texts are wrestled with, but as a vendor for inscrutable answers. If we develop the capacity to teach critical and reflective thought processes, if we are effective at teaching context, culture, and history to our communities, then the spaces that set apart our churches will be free to grapple with all sorts of texts - both those from the scriptures, and those from the chatbots.
If we fail to make these commitments and develop these habits, our sacred spaces may be decimated by ChatGPT. Who needs a pastor to give you vocational advice when OpenAI is available to you in all times and places?
But if we become skilled facilitators of life's biggest questions, we might just find that AI becomes something of a sidekick.
Rather than supplant the church as the location for these conversations, ChatGPT may spark curiosity and inspire confidence. AI may initiate conversations that then develop and come to fulfillment in Christian community. AI, then, becomes the doorway to the sacred spaces that define religion. It becomes a portal to conversations that are meaningful, life-giving, and set apart.
@ryanpanzer is the author of two books on church in a digital age.