Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future – AI Art Edition

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Two things that I have been hearing a fair amount about recently are Fr. Seraphim Rose and AI art – the DALL-E 2 text to image generator, in particular, seems to be getting some attention. In short, these programs take text that is entered in and look for images on the internet that are tagged or described as such, then use the artificial intelligence to try to create an image that matches the cue of the entered text. The images are often pretty impressive.

Therefore, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to see in the Orthodox Christianity reddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/OrthodoxChristianity/) that someone (user: thomaesthetics) had used one of these AI art generators to create Orthodox “inspired” art. He posted six images created by the MidJourney program, and I share the results with you because they are pretty impressive.

“God’s presence at Divine Liturgy”
prompt: “God’s presence at Divine Liturgy”
“Cyberpunk Orthodox Church”
prompt: “Cyberpunk Orthodox Church”
“Holy Eucharist”
prompt: “Holy Eucharist”
“Futuristic Eastern Orthodox Icon”
prompt: “Futuristic Eastern Orthodox Icon”
“Orthodox worshippers at liturgy”
prompt: “Orthodox worshippers at liturgy”
“Holy sacrament of the Orthodox Church”
prompt: “Holy sacrament of the Orthodox Church”

The comments on Reddit range from “rarefied” to “bizarre”, but there are more positive reactions than negative. It seems like one of the themes on the negative comments tends to be the lack of small details – it feels less human, for example, when there is no detail to the faces. I think the other criticism is somewhere along the lines of when one wants to see what happens by entering “sacred” things into a type of technology which certainly often raises a lot of questions, the results may or may not be something like looking for answers from a Ouija board.

Personally, I ind them to be quite impressive. I don’t believe that the machine “found God” – after all, it’s a machine and is not sentient. I certainly don’t think the images are holy – I can only imagine the disaster of AI-generated iconography! However, they are, at the very least, interesting. More than that, though, I think they kind of capture an aggregate spirit… Little details aside, the first one, for instance, certainly seems to visually portray some of what we talk about when we speak of the importance of Church.

I find it interesting, too, that two of these six specifically deal with futuristic themes. Mind you, this is probably a failing on my part, but I have never read Fr. Seraphim Rose’s book Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future. However, as someone who lived in the 20th century, an American, and as someone who seemed to be keenly aware of modern trends (and spoke to this), it seems like he uses the book to help modern Orthodox Christians prepare for defending themselves against the “modern spirituality” – heresy and false teachings, if you will. He uses teachings from the Church Fathers to do so, and in a Church that is steeped in history and tradition, this is the right thing to do,

However, I also believe that by naming the book as such, rather than “Orthodoxy and New Age Religions” or similarly, he also saw Orthodoxy as the true religion of the future. This is important. It is important because as Orthodox Christians, our faith needs to be integral our actions and direct our thoughts. Not only this, but we have to believe that it is relevant to life in the future as well. I don’t suppose that the Divine Liturgy will ever look like the “Steampunk Orthodox Church” but believing that Orthodoxy is still important in a technological age is crucial, and I think that there’s something about this image that touches on that.

When I was looking into the Orthodox Church all those years ago, it was important even then (2001-ish) that there were online resources about Orthodox Christianity, and there were communities forming where one could find other Orthodox Christians to talk to. There’s a lot that is less than ideal with “internet Orthodoxy”, but it’s still critically important to improving the accessibility of the Orthodox Church, especially in places where Orthodox Christians are a tiny minority.

The traditions of the Church are incredibly important, but it is imperative that Orthodoxy is not just lived behind the cloistered walls of a monastery where there is little difference as to what century it is, but also everywhere else, and into the future, so to speak. I would argue that this art represents part of that.

I won’t belabor the point too much, I also posit that it helps stimulate the imagination – I don’t think an icon will ever resemble the AI “futuristic” rendering here, but there is something very intriguing about the picture “Futuristic Eastern Orthodox Icon”. On one hand, I like the borders to the picture – I really like the (real) “storytelling” icons that do that. On the other, even though it’s not an icon, the image reminds me a little bit of Gustav Dore’s illustration in Dante’s Paradiso, seen here:

Orthodoxy needs to belong to the imagination, as much as it does to history and today’s reality.

Anyway, I figured I would share these images with you. I also found out that AI-created images cannot be copyrighted in the United States, as they lack “human authorship“. What do you think?

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