Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, July 30, 2011

a theological interlude

Theology is very important to me: it's central to my life and to much of my work, though I don't say much about it on this blog. However, I do have a comment about this quasi-theological conversation between Kevin Kelly and Nick Carr: I think I would want to disagree with KK at an earlier stage in the debate than where Nick picks it up.

I take KK's core assertion to be this: Technology is a (the?) chief means by which God now intervenes in history to help people to realize their full potential. My problem with that assertion starts long before we get to the question of what technology does (or doesn't do) to make our lives better (or worse). KK's planted axiom, as the logicians used to say, is that common beliefs about what counts as "potential" and what counts as "fulfilling" that potential are perfectly adequate, and that God's job in the universe is ancillary, i. e., to help us along a path that we already see pretty clearly.

I don't believe any of that. I don't think that, left to our own devices, people have a very good idea of what human flourishing, eudaimonia, really is; and I don't think of God as a celestial helpmeet, an omnipotent enabler of our desires. My theology starts, more or less, with the message Dietrich Bonhoeffer articulated most succinctly: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." And that means dying to our pre-existing understanding of what our potential is and what realizing it would mean.

Now, I believe that whatever dies in Christ will be reborn in him — but, as T. S. Eliot put it, will "become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern." And from that vantage point everything will look different. As far as I can tell, in KK's theology the life of Francis of Assisi was deficient in potential, in choices, was impoverished in a deep sense — and yet Francis believed that by embracing Lady Poverty, by casting aside his wealth and intentionally limiting his choices, he found riches he could not have found in any other way. This is, I hope, not to romanticize material poverty, or to say that we would all be better off if we lived in the Middle Ages. I disagree strongly with such nostalgia. But I think the example of Francis suggests that we cannot simply equate choices and riches in the material realm with human flourishing. The divine economy is far more complicated than that, and any serious theology of technology has to begin, I think, by acknowledging that point.

4 comments:

  • I read a new book, From the Garden: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology by John Dyer (web guru for Dallas Seminary).

    I think he balances as well as anyone that I have read the fact that God created us with creativity (so we will create technology) with the reality that technology is one of the primary ways we exert our independence from God.

    Technology cannot save us, we can only be saved by Christ. But technology can serve to ease the pain of life so that we can accomplish the work that we were placed here to do. I really recommend it, most Christian books on theology either condem or unreflectingly embrace, Dyer does a good job showing why both are wrong.

  • I'm 100% in with Kelly on this. There will be "bad" technology, just like there is "bad music", but that is a byproduct of human nature as it creates these cultural artifacts. Technology is intimately intertwined with every thought and action we possess as humans.

    And, who draws the line at what technology is and isn't? Is fresh drinking water enabled by LifeStraws technology? Is a piano technology? Talk about the idea of culture defined as "making things of the world"... that's almost the definition of technology.

    The use of technology is a deeply personal one, and the choice to embrace technology is also valid. I believe it's a matter of preference. If your iPod creates a barrier between you and God, by all means, turn it off! If nuclear power plants threaten the future safety of a population, figure out the right thing to do. Personally, I believe God lives in the "bits," as well as the "atoms."

    My biggest fear about technology is not how it might distance us from God, but how its capacity for scale may be used against us. This could represent a physical calamity (e.g. climate change), an intellectual disaster (e.g. a machine induced market crash), or an abuse of data and tracking by governments.

    To Adam who said: "technology is one of the primary ways we exert our independence from God." You need technology to exert your independence from God? I can do that by just ~thinking~! And, heaven forbid I should open my mouth!

  • No you do not need technology to exert independence from God. But from the story of Babel to many modern day tech, we are trying to become like God.

    Tech changes us. I have a cell phone and it allows me to do many good things (like take my nieces to the park during a work day when I need to be on call). But possessing a cell phone changes the way I interact with the people in front of me (so my niece says put down your cell phone and come play with me.) It is not just good and evil tech or good and evil uses of tech, tech has the ability to change the way we act. If we fail to understand how tech changes us then we end up as thinking we are just going in a progression of ever better society.

  • It seems like the key to this discussion is the distinction between special grace and common grace, in the realm of Christian theology.

    That is to say, there are two flavors of grace in God's administration of salvation history, and KK seems to have only one of those flavors in mind, while you seem to be focusing on the other.

    KK is talking about an aspect of common grace; the kind of grace that arises out of God's goodness and humanity's identity as the bearers of God's image. It is non-salvific, benefits everyone, and keeps creation from descending into complete chaos (along with some nice things, as well). If that's what KK has in mind, then it is not completely unfair to suggest that it is - in fact - God's "job" to help us along a path. Of course, "God's job" probably isn't the best way to put things, and I agree with you that we are clearly not very good at discerning what the "path" ought to look like, or where it ought to go. But still, common grace is something that God bestows upon us, and it is in his nature that the granting of this grace is supposed to bring us good - and not just good, but also nice and enjoyable - effects.

    It seems to me as if technology is an expression of common grace, and in that sense, I think I can see what KK is talking about. He's not a theologian, and he's obviously not trying to be particularly careful about what he says, but I think he's in the ballpark, more-or-less.

    Your approach, on the other hand, seems to be built on ideas that have more to do with special grace (Bonhoeffer's "...come and die."), or on the example of explicitly Christian thinkers, who have chosen to do without the benfits of common grace in the area of technology (Francis' embrace of poverty). That is to say, it seems like your theology of technology is aimed at the narrower (but not less important) question of how Christians ought to think about technology as an aspect of Christian experience, and in relation to explicitly Christian ethics. This quite different from the broader (but not more important) set of concerns that KK has in mind.

    So, I think that you and KK are kind of talking past one another, at least if one or both of you insist on thinking of your ideas as a form of disagreement with the other. I don't know if you're really disagreeing, so much as expressing another aspect of the same discussion, without - perhaps - realizing it. As you point out at the end of your post, God's economy is rich and complex. Our theologies of things will have to be, as well.

    Does any of that make sense? Am I missing your point? Anyway, it's an interesting discussion, as far as I can tell. Thanks!

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