The headlines these days are splashed with scary stories of AI and the end of reality. Soon, the experts warn, no one will be able to tell what images or videos are real and what is generated by an all-knowing machine.
The AI threat is merely the latest, most intense form of unreality to wash over us. Technology has been steadily moving us away from real, physical things, and into a world of meta. We’ve tried half-measures, like keeping track of our screen time. But the specter of an AI world seems to push beyond our technology coping systems. This one could thrust us into the world of simulated virtual reality made infamous by “The Matrix.”
Right now we are all thinking, How can I know what’s real? That question is actually very old. It’s the question faith and spirituality has sought to answer for thousands of years. Prophets and sages have always taught that the standard-issue version of life we are given at birth turns out to be unreal. Unless you are born again, as Jesus put it, you’ll live all your days in a shadow sphere. The Bible cautions over and over: “love not the world” (1 John 2:15), meaning, “the world-system”—the invisible familial, social and cultural forces that will automatically create an ersatz life for you, unless you specifically and forcefully opt out.
The wise souls, from Moses to Merton, have shown us how to live an authentic life in a made-up world. They remind us to trust our senses, trust the inner Light within. They assure us: We are already surrounded by—steeped in—the real, beautiful bewildering world. All we have to do is let go of the false version of life and the real will appear.
How do we do that? Every day it’s the same simple task, to pay attention to right here and right now. Get to know your own breath. Take off your shoes and walk in the wet grass. Call that prayer. Face your own shadow with all its fear and angst, and don’t try to change or fix it. Just love it because God loves it. Ask for grace to see the Light in others, especially those you are given to love. Forgive, seventy times seven. Breathe. “Be joyful,” as Wendell Berry wrote, “though you have considered all the facts.” Work hard without needing any reward. Laugh. Make bread. Make love.
If we can do even one of those things today we will know what’s real.