Holy Trinity Church

Anglican worship in Geneva


HOMILY at the MASSES for the EPIPHANY of the LORD (B) 2018

Today we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord – Christ’s manifestation to the world as it is described in our Prayer Book. And over the coming weeks up to the Feast of Christ’s Presentation in the Temple, or Candlemas, we shall consider together a number of significant moments of that manifestation. Though this year, given the way that the calendar falls, we shall not have the Sunday of Christ’s Baptism as that Feast will take place tomorrow, Monday.

The focus in our worship today is upon the visit of the Magi with their gifts. They had been led by an extraordinary light in the night sky and there have been over the years various explanations given of this astronomical phenomenon. From what we now know of events around that time, perhaps the most likely is not a comet but a super nova, a flare up of an evolving star or in this case perhaps several stars.

Perhaps more important is the fact that the Magi were observers of heavenly events. If, as again seems most likely, they were Zoroastrian priests, they were seekers after truth who valued wisdom highly and saw its pursuit as leading to human fulfilment and blessing. They sought this wisdom in different ways, but amongst those ways included wise observation of all that is. Or, in other words, science.

So were the Magi with their gifts most rare ancient scientists? They might not have seen themselves in such light, though up until the time of Cyrus, King of Persia, the Zoroastrian priests were very influential in court circles. Cyrus was concerned that they had too much power and tried to reduce it, but just as in our time, knowledge is power, and the priests continued to influence matters of state. Perhaps this provides another reason why these visitors appeared on the scene, and why their first port of call was to the palace of Herod.

But Herod’s response must have alerted them – there was something wrong here. And maybe by the time they left the Holy Family, the Magi were already aware of a gathering cloud of darkness which was to lead to a wholesale slaughter of innocents – something which their ancient faith could not countenance.

Well, whoever they were and however they got to Bethlehem, they were certainly endowed with wisdom. Which is perhaps why they continue to be quite as important to us today in our understanding of this moment of manifestation.

How is it that Christ continues to be made manifest in our world? How many seekers after truth come to bend the knee before the Bethlehem manger now? We see Christ manifest in truth – but to discover truth we need to exercise wisdom.

And if wisdom is a theme of this feast day, then another important theme is worship. Not least because it represents the means by which knowledge becomes true wisdom.

And as we move into 2018, this is an area which will occupy us ethically as scientists continue to explore AI – artificial intelligence. Most of us who use a computer probably don’t see AI as particularly threatening or problematic. After all, there is a fairly straightforward way of dealing with our computers. It’s called the off switch. If the thing starts misbehaving, we can always switch it off.

But there are computers out there which have passed beyond the usual constraints, that may even be able to write their own futures. That may even possess something that we describe as imagination. And if this is the case, then where might all of this be heading?

Work has been continuing at the University of Cambridge’s Science and Human Dimension Project along with other researchers in the field of AI to explore some of these potential consequences. How, for example, do we define imagination? Is it something which is distinctively human and creative, or is it just a function of massive computing power, the ability to jiggle a whole lot of potential outcomes all at once and chose the most appealing? The successes of AI in the field of complex game play – such as the ancient Chinese game Go – might seem to suggest that AI is getting increasingly imaginative. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Interestingly enough, traditional Rabbinic thought has some enlightenment to bring here. The Hebrew for imagination, yetser, has the same root as the words for good creation and bad creation. And that the original sin of Adam in eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was in fact his acquisition of imagination. Something that enabled our forefathers to call to mind the past, and to conceive different futures. Good or bad.

So might we be giving this ambivalent gift of imagination into the ‘hands’ (if that is not too anthropomorphic an expression for a computer!) of AI? And what might be the consequences for humanity of such a move?

There’s no doubt that some of the results of endowing computers with increasing levels of competence are good for humanity. The exploration of large numbers of possible solutions can now be carried out in nanoseconds, whereas an unaided human operator would take maybe years. This has tremendous possibility for – amongst other things – medical research projects. But the downside, the bad side of AI is when we allow it power over us as humans. Some scientists are very concerned about the effects for human employment, but that’s only one aspect, and they are concerned about potential catastrophe if self-replicating machines were to turn against us. Already they have considerable power over us – you were probably controlled by a computer on your way to church this morning, even if it was only through obeying the traffic signals. And if computers ever enjoyed the creative imagination that we humans believe is our unique privilege, then we might indeed be heading for trouble. Especially if imagination is – as the Rabbis taught – very much two edged, containing the possibility of absolutely good or absolutely bad outcomes.

In fact, AI is as yet a very long way from developing an imaginative capacity, except by its ability to compare a huge number of potential outcomes. Whether that is the same thing as a creative imagination is a matter for conjecture. Certainly creative imagination is something that involves such a comparison. But personally I believe that imagination is rather more than a mathematical computation. A great poet’s work cannot easily be reduced to the selection of the right words out of an infinity of possibilities.

Back then to the Magi. They used their intelligence wisely – ultimately by offering it in worship, symbolised by the gifts that they brought with them to Bethlehem. They were seekers after truth – something which inspired the necessary detachment from their comfort and homes to travel uncertainly, following the light of a bright star, seeking advice from a despotic ruler, and risking life and limb on the way home after their visit, since Herod’s wrath would have undoubtedly seen their demise too. These foreigners from the East were truly wise because they came in worship.

And the two always go together. If imagination is indeed a dangerous thing – capable all too obviously of producing good and bad outcomes – then the only way to use it well is in a life which is offered to God in worship. As we discover time and again, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of true wisdom.

Imagination used in the service of God and of God’s purposes brings blessing. Without that framework in which it may operate fully and freely, it may bring untold disaster upon humanity. And has done so in the distant and more recent pasts all too frequently in humanity’s history. One only has to think of nuclear energy to see imagination’s two-edged abilities.

Which is good reason enough to beware of what we do with our intelligence and imagination as humans. And what we share that two-edged gift with, and how we regulate such activity.

The Magi were ancient seekers after truth. They found it in the new born Christ, and their sacrificial offerings expressed their findings – a God, a King, a Sacrifice. Here is the ultimate truth of God and of humanity. As we worship him, we discover a true perspective. One that prevents us from forgetting the first claims of God and equally those of our fellow humans. Something that machines just cannot do. But something that sets our imaginative creativity in the right direction.