A reflection on the readings for May 27, 2023 – Pentecost Sunday.
Twice a month, I host a discernment dinner for young men, college-age and older, who are considering a vocation to the priesthood. The men in the group are relatively comfortable with one another, so conversations range from spirituality to ministry, theology, and pop culture. This past week I was discussing the process in the Diocese of Scranton by which a permanent deacon receives the faculty to preach—a series of homiletics practica followed by an evaluation by a lay review board—when one of the men boldly claimed that ChatGPT could pass a homiletics practicum and receive faculties.
In case you’re unfamiliar with this hot new tech topic, ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence chatbot—let’s call it a more advanced version of Alexa or Siri—that works through some combination of technology and magic. So, we tried it. In front of the group, I typed “Write me a Catholic Pentecost homily,” and waited.
The text produced by ChatGPT looked like what a homily is supposed to look like. Sort of.
For starters, there were many instances of “brothers and sisters,” as any good homilist would include. It provided surprisingly orthodox theology, and it hit all the necessary points about the Holy Spirit. Honestly, ChatGPT’s homily might have passed the review board.
But I couldn’t help but think it was missing something. First of all, it was boring. I know what you’re thinking, “Father, computers do not have a monopoly on boring preaching,” which is fair. Still, it was missing something even compared to the weakest, most thrown-together human homily. There was no fire, no vitality, no creativity, no…spirit. Reading it, I realized that as advanced as artificial intelligence becomes, it can never be truly creative. It can never do more than survey, compile, summarize, and re-present what already exists. Now it has the capacity to canvass a massive amount of information it can find on the Internet, but it will never give you something new. It will never create.
We typically and appropriately associate the act of creation with the first Person of the Trinity, but the Holy Spirit is also operative in the creative act from the beginning:
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the Earth—and the Earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters— (Genesis 1:1-2)
That “mighty wind” is the “Ruach Elohim,” the breath of God. The breath, wind, or Spirit of God brings new life where there was once a formless void.
This theme continues throughout the Old Testament, where the implicit presence of the Holy Spirit is operative when God’s creative power breathes new life. The prophets of the Old Testament, inspired by the same Spirit, awaken Israel from its slumber. When priestly sacrifice is not enough to overcome the stale spiritual life of God’s people, the Spirit creates something new through prophetic figures. In the wisdom tradition, ancient authors are inspired by the Spirit to explore new theological territory and challenge conventional thinking, creating new ways of interpreting God’s action in the world.
This pattern continues into the New Testament. When the disciples receive the Spirit at Pentecost, they are compelled to do something that had never been done before: unite all creation in worshiping the one God. Through them, the Holy Spirit creates the Church of Christ. In the Creed, we reference the Holy Spirit as “the giver of life,” and all the symbols we use to refer to the third Person of the Trinity evoke movement, change, and creative energy: fire, wind, breath, and even the image of a bird. Wherever the Spirit is present throughout Scripture and Tradition, a new font of life is created.
The most compelling image for me is also the most relevant to this discussion and the most controversial example I offer you. Before Noah’s threefold sending out of a dove, he first releases a raven to survey the waters.
At the end of forty days, Noah opened the hatch of the ark that he had made,
and he released a raven. It flew back and forth until the waters dried off from the Earth. (Genesis 8:6-7)
It has been suggested that the hovering over the waters by the raven, flying back and forth, is an allusion to the Ruach Elohim sweeping over the abyss in Genesis 1. Of course, the raven is not responsible for the receding of the flood, but in this instance, the raven is a stand-in for God’s creation which is now invited to participate in His act of creation as he begins the world anew. We are invited to join in God’s creative work.
In common parlance, the word creativity often means little more than “this person is good at art,” but its meaning is far more profound in this context. To be creative is to participate in God’s act of creation. This invitation has been offered to humanity many times before but never as decisively and universally as at Pentecost. At Pentecost, we are given the gift of creativity. The mighty wind of God descends upon us and entrusts us with the responsibility and privilege of breathing new life into the world with the breath of God himself.
For this reason, it is accurate but utterly insufficient to view the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the Church or the individual believer as merely a guarantor of fidelity. Artificial intelligence, or a machine—perhaps even Chat GPT—would be sufficient to simply repeat information accurately. The Holy Spirit, by contrast, brings us a power that is kinetic, exciting, and often frightening. The invitation to take part in the Spirit’s act of creation means we will often be led into brand-new territory and asked to understand God’s work in unexpected ways. Listening to the Holy Spirit in our Church and our lives isn’t always easy, but it should never be boring.
Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.
You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.