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Artificial Intelligence Meets Desert Wisdom: An Encounter with Antony of Egypt

Introduction

Digital technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, and Social Media today predominate the non-physical online realm, transcending time and space and allowing for instantaneous communication and connectivity from any location globally. With this unprecedented technological proliferation, the notion of remoteness is quickly becoming obsolete, as even in the deserts, one can be completely engaged in and connected to a world of communication and information. Despite the overbearing inescapability of this modern immersive condition, the desert still lends her wisdom, for there can be found until today the richest Christian men and women following in the footsteps of those who have sought for centuries to fulfill through monasticism the high calling of Christianity.


The founder of this monastic movement, Antony of Egypt, himself retreated to the desert in a quest to live out the Christian Faith in complete devotion, being convinced that the message of Christianity must be internalized and transfigured within himself so that he might fulfill the Lord’s command to be perfect.[1] Equipped with this conviction, Antony forsook all his possessions and began his long journey into the inner desert — a journey to perfect virtue and true Christlikeness — ultimately becoming the lamp of monasticism (as he is called in the Coptic Orthodox Tradition) and an example for all Christians. Antony recognized that Christianity properly lived requires unwavering personal devotion and complete integration into one’s life — the Christian is required to “put on Christ” (Romans 13:14) and not be “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2).


As online technological advancements continue to gain prevalence in people’s daily lives, imposing upon Christians a new “gospel,” a conscious consideration of the necessary features of the human experience according to the Christian framework is perhaps more necessary today than ever before.[2] Of these advancements, Artificial Intelligence, being by its very nature antithetical to and devoid of any measure of living experience, raises especially alarming concerns, particularly for evangelization and the Christian life. In contrast to several of those concerns, however, stands the life and standard of Antony, which remains until today a grounding example for Christian believers and emphasizes several features of the human experience which they must consciously guard within themselves in the face of the threats posed by these technologies.


Encountering Antony of Egypt

Journeying from his village to the desert, Antony sought to fulfill the calling of Christian discipleship to Christ, creating a balanced environment conducive to Christian formation[3] and not evading any component of the human experience. Athanasius’ description, in The Life of Antony, of Antony's emergence from the Roman fort in response to the demands of the masses depicts this state of balance that Antony achieved:

“…Antony came forth as out of a shrine, as one initiated into sacred mysteries and filled with the spirit of God. It was the first time that he showed himself outside the fort to those who came to him. When they saw him, they were astonished to see that his body had kept its former appearance, that it was neither obese from want of exercise, not emaciated from his fasting and struggles with the demons: he was the same man they had known before his retirement. Again, the state of his soul was pure, for it was neither contracted by grief, nor dissipated by pleasure, not pervaded by jollity or dejection…No, he had himself completely under control — a man guided by reason and stable in his character.”[4]

The balance of personal development with interpersonal communication and communal connection which Antony maintained deserves not only admiration, but also emulation,[5] for he became thereby the model of a complete Christian — “the man of God.”[6]


Antony and the Self

The primary resources pertaining to Antony — The Life of Antony, his sayings, and his letters — depict and emphasize the absolute necessity of sound identity formation in Christian experience, dependent upon scriptural internalization, virtue attainment, and enlightened self-understanding. This formation led Antony to order his life in submission to the Scriptures and thereby to become a conduit for the Lord to permeate the lives of his disciples.


From a young age, Antony knew the Scriptures, contemplated upon them often, and took them personally. Upon hearing the Gospel being read in church shortly after his parents’ death, he submitted to its teaching and allowed it to radically transform his life. It was the Scriptures, after all, that initiated his journey into the wilderness. In his later encounters with demons, his mastery of the Scriptures is especially evident, as he used them as his shield to overcome demonic attacks.[7] His scriptural formation also flows seamlessly into his teaching: when many came to learn from him, he said to them, “The Scriptures are really sufficient for our instruction.”[8] Similarly, when asked what one must do “in order to please God,” he responded “…always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures.”[9] His second letter,[10] moreover, is almost entirely formulated out of scriptural passages woven together. By thus internalizing the Scriptures, and that through memorization rather than relying on any exterior aids to merely read them,[11] Antony succeeded to embody them in his real lived experience.


“[L]ike a wise bee,”[12] Antony built upon his scriptural grounding by cultivating within himself the good qualities he observed in virtuous people: “He observed the graciousness of one, the earnestness at prayer in another; studied the even temper of one and the kindheartedness of another…and in one and all alike he marked especially devotion to Christ and the love they had for one another.”[13] Understanding the necessity of good works,[14] he urgently worked to internalize and assimilate virtuous qualities in himself[15] rather than simply observing and admiring virtuous people. He would later teach his disciples:

“Really, [virtue] is not far from us, nor is its home apart from us; no, the thing is within us, and its accomplishment is easy if we but have the will. Greeks go abroad and cross the sea to study letters; but we have no need to go abroad for the Kingdom of Heaven nor to cross the sea to obtain virtue.”[16]

By pursuing virtue, Antony became a powerful witness to the Lord, so that those whom he imitated[17] identified him as “God’s Friend” even though he strove to surpass them in virtuosity.[18] His virtue thus became a powerful instrument of evangelization and exhortation, attracting many to the desert to encounter and imitate him.[19]


Having learned the Scriptures and become virtuous, Antony recognized and frequently emphasized the importance of knowing oneself. Echoing the advice of Paul the Apostle to Timothy (1 Timothy 4:16), he advised his disciples to know themselves — at least six times in his first seven Letters — for “he who knows himself knows God and his dispensations for his creatures.”[20] He consequently identified any doctrinal or behavioral deviance from the Faith of the Church as a result of improper self-understanding and a failure to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit in oneself: “As for Arius…that man has begun a great task, an unsealable wound. If he had known himself, his tongue would not have spoken about what he did not know. It is, however, manifest, that he did not know himself.”[21] In knowing himself, moreover, Antony recognized his natural dependence upon his brethren in the Faith, and was for this reason deeply concerned with his neighbors in the world as they struggled against general laxity in spiritual life[22] and consequent heresy. He therefore takes up the medium of writing in order to exhort them to take personally and submit to the true Christian Faith: “I beseech you, my beloved in the Lord, who are joint heirs with the saints, to raise up your minds in the fear of God.”[23]


Antony and Community

Believing that “…he who loves his neighbor loves God, and he who loves God loves his own soul,”[24] Antony sought his salvation not only in the context of solitude, but also in that of interaction and communication with others. Upon commencing his monastic commitment, Antony first discipled himself to an elder, and sought to maintain this discipleship when he desired to venture deeper into the desert: “He met the old man referred to above[25] and begged him to live with him in the desert.”[26] Later, he would become a father and teacher to monks,[27] caring not only for their spiritual wellbeing, but also for their physical nourishment: “…seeing that people were coming to him again, he began to raise a few vegetables too, that the visitor might have a little something to restore him after the weariness of that hard road.”[28] Later, when he was ninety years old, Antony sought out Paul of Thebes, who had undertaken monasticism prior to him, and traveled to visit and converse with him.[29] Interestingly, the first question Paul asked Antony was “how fares the human race?”[30] While Antony and Paul retreated to the desert, seeking in its stillness to discern the voice of God, they nevertheless remained deeply connected to the city and community of believers, understanding, in Antony’s own words, that “our life and our death is with our neighbour.”[31]


Evidently, Antony did not leave for the desert to escape from human interaction, but rather out of his longing for a deeply contemplative atmosphere, away from the distractions of the city, in order to live in complete relation with God,[32] recognizing that “silence is necessary for prayer and for effective communication.”[33] He therefore remained connected to and interested in the affairs of the city, saying to those who came to him, for example: “Be you, therefore, like children and bring to your father what you know and tell it, while I, being your senior, share with you my knowledge and my experience.”[34] Having heard of the spread of Arianism, Antony traveled to Alexandria to encourage the faithful in their defense of the orthodox Faith: “The entire city ran together to see Antony. Pagans, too, and even their so-called priests came to the church saying: ‘We would like to see the man of God’ — for so they all called him…and, indeed, as many became Christians in those few days as one would have seen in a year.”[35] At the time of the persecution under Maximin, Antony went again to the city, longing to suffer martyrdom, and “ministered to the confessors in the mines and in the prisons.”[36] His care for the edification and salvation of all is evident even in his interaction with Emperor Constantine, who had written to him. Although he “did not like to accept letters, saying that he did not know what to answer to such things,” he decided to write back to Emperor Constantine simply so that he could exhort him “not to think highly of the things of this world, but rather to bear in mind the judgment to come; and to know that Christ alone is the true and eternal King. He begged them to show themselves humane and to have a regard for justice and for the poor.”[37] The importance of interpersonal communication and community to Antony is therefore easily perceptible. Along with offering his guidance to the monastic community that was forming around him, seeking in the process to balance his social interaction with personal reflection, Antony communicated with Christian believers generally through visits and letters.


In a word, having actively and intentionally submitted to and identified with the Christian message, Antony permitted it to mold him into an icon of the Lord Jesus, becoming in the process the image of what it means to be a truly living human, “the glory of God.”[38] His witness and life therefore became the inspiration for the monastic movement until today, converting and leading countless people into a deeper love of and life with Christ.


Artificial Intelligence and the Human Experience

Contrary to the immersive, incarnate, and deeply personal experience of Christianity as expressed and lived in the person of Antony of Egypt, modern technologies discarnate the human experience, being deeply formative and developmental, even at the neurological level.[39] Moreover, as Neil Postman points out: “Technology…carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore require scrutiny, criticism, and control.”[40] It is necessary, then, to examine the place of digital technologies in the human experience, especially as humanity furthers its dependence on such mediums. Indeed, “a discarnate world, like the one we now live in, is a tremendous menace to an incarnate Church.”[41]


Artificial Intelligence and the Self

Artificial Intelligence, more than the digital technologies that preceded it, is a deeply non-human technology, facilitating creation without human involvement and depriving products of the human element that was previously inherent to their production. Romano Guardini, in observing the rise of machine reliance, makes an important distinction: in times past, “people did, of course, use tools and aids in great numbers and with great delicacy. But these were only supports, extending the range of activity of natural human organs…and a limit was always set to make possible direct and living execution.”[42] With the availability of Artificial Intelligence, however, a human can simply command technology to produce a desired product, and within moments, that product is packaged together irrespective of that person’s knowledge, skillset, or experience, and without their contribution. Walter Ong comments:

“Knowledge is hard to come by and precious, and society regards highly those wise old men and women who specialize in conserving it, who know and can tell the stories of the days of old. By storing knowledge outside the mind, writing and, even more, print downgrade the figures of the wise old man and the wise old woman, repeaters of the past, in favor of younger discoverers of something new.”[43]

Because the need to internalize information is minimized by Artificial Intelligence, its user is made perpetually dependent upon it, rendering it the arbiter of truth, knowledge, and goodness: “The manner in which one asks a search engine, the algorithms of an artificial intelligence, or a computer for answers to questions that concern private life reveals that one relates to the device and its response with a fideistic attitude.”[44] Such technology therefore divests the human of humanity, substituting knowledge and firsthand experience with emptiness and reliance on exterior aids for information and fulfillment.


Artificial Intelligence and Community

Artificial Intelligence’s divestment of humanity’s humanity also carries communal consequences. As a powerful analytical tool, Artificial Intelligence introduces a novel way of thinking:

“This knowledge does not inspect; it analyzes. It does not construct a picture of the world, but a formula. Its desire is to achieve power so as to bring force to bear on things, a law that can be formulated rationally. Here we have the basis and character of its dominion: compulsion, arbitrary compulsion devoid of all respect.”[45]

Establishing a new primary residence for humanity within the virtual world and introducing a new role for humanity as spectator rather than creator, Artificial Intelligence threatens humanity’s very nature: “What takes place here is not human, at least if we measure the human by the human beings who lived before us. It is not natural if we measure the natural by nature as it once was.”[46] Having identified such trends in the early stages of the technological age, Guardini remarks: “A system of machines is engulfing life. It defends itself. It seeks free air and a secure basis. Can life retain its living character in this system?”[47] Only in the ecclesial community, “the place where the experience of God creates communion and the sharing of life,”[48] in the real, physical world, can life retain its living character.[49]


Christianity, as experienced by Antony, is wholly concerned with reality, and is inherently meant for life — personal and communal experience. Through primarily physical means of encounter and perception, one most effectively “tastes” (Psalm 34:8) the Christian message and becomes transformed by it, allowing it to permeate his encounters with others. It was in this way that Antony succeeded to inspire others to venture deeper into the Faith. His effort in evangelization and exhortation flourished without the aid of any sophisticated technologies because it was purely and wholly incarnate. Michelle Borras identified that “since the Gospel is a message of the incarnate Love that alone saves, it can only be proclaimed adequately in an incarnate way…The Gospel must always have a ‘face.’”[50] Because Antony internalized the Christian message and lived through it, thereby allowing it to reflect the love of Christ to others, the Gospel in him indeed had a face — the face of Christ.


Conclusion

The monastic movement was inaugurated by Antony as Christian men and women imitated him by flocking to the desert to embody and live out the Christian message of discipleship to Christ. Understanding that the Faith must be taken personally, Antony and all who imitated him left the world for the desert in order to focus on fulfilling the divine commandments. Thus, in writing The Life of Antony, Athanasius exhorts his readers “to model [their] lives after his zeal”[51] and advises that his biography be read even to pagans.[52] Artificial Intelligence, being by nature an external and non-human tool of creation, is in contrast an obstacle to venturing into a personal and intimate relationship with God, developing within the human an authenticity-limiting exterior dependency in creativity, communication, and informational retention. Artificial Intelligence’s inability to capture or express human life and spirit is evident in a simple yet revealing exercise: when tasked with writing a doxology for Antony, ChatGPT produced a biographical, impersonal, and detached composition[53] in comparison to the personal and exhortatory doxology for Antony authored by Coptic Orthodox believers for liturgical prayer.[54] If we “hope for the word of God to dwell in us richly in the digital age,”[55] Artificial Intelligence and similar technologies must be thoroughly examined in light of the ethos of Christianity, with those among these technologies that do not comport with the Christian “spirit and life”[56] being actively guarded against, lest by becoming tools of evangelization and mediums for Faith delivery and formation, they compromise rather than uphold the message and spirit of Christianity.


[1] He reached this understanding through hearing the words of the Scriptures being read during the liturgical service: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow Me” (Matthew 19:21); “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34). Antony understood these divinely-inspired words as being “directed especially to him” (See Athanasius, The Life of Antony 2-3, in Robert T. Meyer, Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, Volume 10: St. Athanasius: The Life of Saint Antony, 19-21).

[2] Daniella Zsupan-Jerome notes: “After [the Word], communication of his good news becomes the Spirit-led task of the Church. This age-old mission to communicate is at the heart of the Church. From this perspective, the digital media are but the latest chapter in the long story of how the Church has gone about expressing this identity and mission to communicate” (Connected Toward Communion: The Church and Social Communication in the Digital Age, 2).

[3] Daniella Zsupan-Jerome offers a definition to Christian formation as being “part of the language of articulating the task of catechesis, the process by which believers are nurtured toward conversion of mind and heart to Jesus Christ” (Ibid., 10-11).

[4] Athanasius, The Life of Antony 14 (Meyer, 32)

[5] See Ibid., Prologue (Meyer, 17)

[6] See Ibid., 93 (Meyer, 96)

[7] See e.g., Ibid., 6-7, (Meyer, 23-26)

[8] Ibid., 16 (Meyer, 33) Antony sought to understand the Scriptures even through personal encounters with the saints. When he found difficulty with a passage of Scripture, for example, he did not first seek to discover its meaning in books, but rather “went out into the desert…a long way off and stood there praying, crying in a loud voice, ‘God, send Moses, to make me understand this saying.’ Then there came a voice speaking with him” (Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 7 (Anthony the Great, Saying 26)).

[9] Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 2 (Anthony the Great, Saying 3)

[10] See Samuel Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony: Monasticism and the Making of a Saint, 203-205

[11] “Again, he was so attentive at the reading of the Scripture lessons that nothing escaped him: he retained everything and so his memory served him in place of books” (Athanasius, The Life of Antony 3 (Meyer, 21)). In response to those who sought to discredit him for not receiving any schooling, Antony also said: “…one who has a sound mind has no need of letters” (Ibid., 73 (Meyer, 80)).

[12] Athanasius, The Life of Antony 3 (Meyer, 20)

[13] Ibid., 4 (Meyer, 21)

[14] See e.g., Matthew 5:16; James 2:14-26; Titus 2

[15] See Athanasius, The Life of Antony 4 (Meyer, 21-22)

[16] Ibid., 20 (Meyer, 37)

[17] See 1 Corinthians 11:1

[18] Athanasius, The Life of Antony 4 (Meyer, 21)

[19] See e.g., Ibid., 46 (Meyer, 59-60)

[20] See e.g., Rubenson, 208

[21] Ibid., 211

[22] “The Peace of Constantine, which brought about mass conversions, had the paradoxical effect of diminishing the lay contribution to the activity and holiness of the Church. Monasticism is a witness to this fact; for the monk is not a layman, and his status is to be explained as a reaction against the growth of mediocrity in the ranks of the simple faithful. The fervent part took its stand deliberately, and as an institution, over against the majority of the flock. This is no matter for surprise; the ideal conditions for a full Christian life do not coincide with taking things easy” (Henri de Riedmatten, “The Part of the Laity in the History of the Church” in Blackfriars, November 1958, Vol. 39, No. 464, p. 458).

[23] Rubenson, 230

[24] Ibid., 222

[25] See Athanasius, The Life of Antony 3 (Meyer, 20)

[26] Ibid., 11 (Meyer, 29)

[27] Ibid., 14 (Meyer, 32-33)

[28] Ibid., 50 (Meyer, 63)

[29] See Jerome, The Life of Paulus the First Hermit

[30] Ibid., 10

[31] Ward, 3 (Anthony the Great, Saying 9)

[32] “This making a City of the Wilderness was no mere flight, nor a rejection of matter as evil…It was rooted in a stark realism of faith in God and acceptance of the battle which is not against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual things of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Derwas Chitty, The Desert A City, xvi).

[33] Fr. Jonah Lynch, FSCB and Michelle K. Borras, Technology and the New Evangelization: Criteria for Discernment, 30

[34] Athanasius, The Life of Antony 16 (Meyer, 33-34)

[35] Ibid., 70 (Meyer, 79)

[36] Ibid., 46 (Meyer, 59)

[37] Ibid., 81 (Meyer, 87)

[38] See Irenaeus, Against Heresies IV.XX.VII

[39] “Gutenberg attaches itself to the left hemisphere [of the brain]; the oral, the acoustic and consequently the electric, to the right hemisphere” (Marshall McLuhan, The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, 52).

[40] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, 185

[41] McLuhan, 50

[42] Romano Guardini, Letters from Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race, 66

[43] Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 41

[44] Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, Directory for Catechesis 366

[45] Guardini, 44

[46] Ibid., 73

[47] Ibid., 49

[48] Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, Directory for Catechesis 372

[49] Timothy O’Malley, emphasizing the importance of liturgical participation to evangelization efforts, writes: “Liturgical prayer is essential to the new evangelization. Precisely, because in every liturgical rite, we human beings return to our vocation as those made in the image and likeness of God. We are capacitated for the kind of self-gift, which comes to transfigure society. Those who return to our sacramental life should encounter there a beautiful and humanizing liturgy, one that elevates the desires of the human heart, allowing them to become an offering of love to the Father. We are immersed in a cosmos in which the primary narrative is not one of grasping, seizing, but the prodigal logic of self-gift. Lay communities, connected to parishes, may incarnate this liturgical life in concrete ways in cities and rural areas as we seek to manifest to the world that wisdom of a Catholic life, given over to the sacramental logic of the triune God” (Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love, 132).

[50] Lynch and Borras, 27-28

[51] Athanasius, The Life of Antony Prologue (Meyer, 17)

[52] See Ibid., 94 (Meyer, 98)

[53] The ChatGPT-produced doxology reads: “Praise be to Antony, the desert’s sage, whose wisdom guided countless souls on pilgrimage. In solitude he found divine embrace, a beacon of light for all seeking grace. With fervent heart and humble ways, he taught love, compassion, and righteous praise. In Egypt’s sands, his spirit soared high, a timeless legacy that will never die. Amen.”

[54] “Remove from your hearts the thoughts of evil and the pretentious images that darken the mind. Contemplate with understanding the great miracles of our blessed father, my great lord Abba Antony — this is he who became our guide and harbor for salvation; he invited us with joy to the eternal life. The fragrance of his virtues delighted our souls, like the blossomed aroma in the Paradise. Let us truly be confirmed in the upright faith of the great Antony, proclaiming and saying: ‘I sought and I found; I asked and I was given; I knocked and I believed that it will be opened for me’ (see Matthew 7:7-8; Jerome, The Life of Paulus the First Hermit 9). Hail to our father Antony, the lamp of monasticism; hail to our father Abba Paul, the beloved of Christ. Pray to the Lord on our behalf, O my masters and fathers who love their children, Abba Antony and Abba Paul, that He may forgive us our sins” (Coptic Doxology for St. Antony).

[55] See Zsupan-Jerome, xv

[56] See John 6:63


This paper is an adaptation of course work submitted for “Evangelization, Media, & Technology,” offered by Dr. Brett Robinson in Summer 2023 at the University of Notre Dame. I express my gratitude to Dr. Robinson for his helpful guidance and encouragement, and wish to acknowledge his efforts in the preparation and delivery of this course, which provided the framework of this paper and many resources used throughout.



Cover Art: Gowdat Gabra, The Treasures of Coptic Art, 94 (Coptic Icon depicting the visit of St. Antony (left) to St. Paul of Thebes (Old Cairo, Monastery of St. Mercurius)).

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