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Surprised by Suffering: God’s Megaphone to Technocratic Man

February 17th, 2021 | 13 min read

By James Wood

A year into this pandemic, I think back to my earliest reflections on what God might be doing through it. These were largely sidelined as a result of the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and the chaos surrounding the election. As we approach a second season of Lent during the “Time of the Virus,” it is worth investing more time thinking theologically about it. Here is my attempt.

This plague has posed a unique problem to modern people. We are surprised at its possibility and, to a significant degree, spiritually immobilized. Our primary focus is on getting through this crisis and returning, as quickly as possible, to “normal.” Many of us have been hesitant to make a turn to the theological, instead captured by the myths of technology. Christianity, many think, offers little in this moment and the Church’s vocation is reduced to supporting the decisions of secular authorities.

The Emergence of Technological Society

At the outset of the pandemic, R.J. Snell and others offered important reflections on the ways that modern civilization has become deluded by the successes and promises of science and technology. In these essays these authors echo the analyses of many over the years[1] who have traced the emergence of a “technological society” (Jacques Ellul).[2] These genealogies depict how, in modern societies, man’s orientation to knowledge and the world has been radically altered.[3] Modern science shifts attention from vertical causality to merely horizontal causality such that immanent realities increasingly push transcendent ones out of view — physics displaces metaphysics; earth eclipses heaven.

Scientism is the result of an increasing faith in the scientific method, perceiving the latter as the exclusive source of true knowledge. This knowledge, when combined with impressive technological developments, promises modern man liberation from dependence upon any external forces (e.g., God, tradition, nature, etc.) and the possibility of constructing the world in his image. Knowledge is re-conceived as power (Francis Bacon), and is thus sought not for contemplation or pleasure, but results; intelligence is instrumental — enabling man to dominate the material world. Through this techno-scientistic posture, modern man believes he can explain, control, and manipulate nature for his own ends — to engineer the world he wants through the means of technology.

In the midst of all this, truth is replaced by value which is given to the phenomena of the world by man. Scientific and technological exuberance are thus attended by an “ontological rebellion.”[4] With the successes of science and technology having gone to his head, modern man is no longer guided by anything other than the effort to construct the world according to his wishes. Man in the “modern project” (Rémi Brague) is under a “Dionysian intoxication”[5] — believing he can master the world. He admits no order other than that which is created by human activity, and this requires man to be emancipated from all that presents itself as above man. Thus, homo faber and homo deus go together. The divine order of the cosmos is replaced by a world of denuded nature[6] that is subordinated to the dictates of an “exclusive humanism” (Henri de Lubac), or the “religion of Humanity” (August Comte). The world is conceived as an artifice — an object to be molded by man who now relates to it as engineer, creator, master, and “overman” (Friedrich Nietzsche).

Utopian and Decadent Forms of Technological Society

During the long nineteenth century and into the twentieth, this was expressed in the utopian myth of “progress” and the emergence of various ideologies which provided the humanistic guidelines to construct the kingdom of man on earth. In this kingdom, earth eclipses heaven, and its treasures consist exclusively in the securing of material needs and satisfaction of consumeristic desires. Man believed he could “immanentize the eschaton” (Eric Voegelin) — but this in anthropological terms. This Promethean aspiration is also Pelagian in nature, albeit a “secularized Pelagianism.”[7] Man’s capacities are defended here not in terms of meriting eternal salvation, but in terms of establishing a material paradise on earth.

The utopian exuberance attached to the myth of progress was pummeled by the two World Wars, the Great Depression in-between, and the collapses of Communist regimes. But in the “decadent” West, a form of technocratic humanism perdures. It is less ideological and more pragmatic. It is characterized by the reduction of all activity to means. Having lost a sense of the ends of human effort, the modern technocratic project is like a great machine going nowhere. In this project Christianity and the Church are deemed non-essential since modern man is satisfied with the means. He believes in no deeper or transcendent meaning beyond endless consumption and increasing possession of more and more technical resources with which he can free himself from all that threatens his liberated existence. Such a decadent civilization still believes in progress, but in the reduced form of incremental but inexorable advancement in technology, science, medicine, and the economy.

Expanding on Snell

This brings us to Snell’s take on Yuval Noah Harari’s perspective in Homo Deus. Harari argues, in a way that now seems quite foolish, that modern man has effectively eradicated such things as plagues by virtue of technological advances. Such circumstances are almost unthinkable within advanced modern technological society. This perspective is radically Pelagian for it denies original sin and its universal consequences — it downplays the inevitability of death and denies humanity’s collective culpability in the reality of sin and evil; it assumes humans are good and deserve only well-being, or that they are at least capable of remaking the world to secure their needs and wants.

So how does technocratic man respond to the re-emergence of plague-suffering? Snell highlights the outlet pursued in scapegoating. Since these things should not be, someone must be to blame. Patient zero is conceived as a new first Adam; incompetent and partisan political leaders, malevolent investors, or irresponsible researchers function as substitute devils. There are other options which Snell does not explore. One is the path of political propaganda by which man tries to speak realities out of existence — which was evidenced in the beginning with attempts to deny the severity of the disease or re-open the economy via a deus ex machina fiat. Another option is to place all one’s hopes in science — to anxiously ride this out until vaccines are developed and administered and life can return to an ever-elusive “normal.” Another path — which has been taken by most organizational leaders — is to turn to technological resources to minimize the disruption of this time by adopting virtual substitutes for regular operations.

My concern is how horizontal these paths remain. What seems to be largely missing is a resolve to lean into the opportunity afforded to us in the Time of the Virus to turn toward God in new and profound ways. Modern, technological society is organized in such a way as to prevent adequate attending to God. We are assaulted with news and advertising which confront us in ever-encroaching ways on our devices, distracting us from deeper things. Those same devices, alongside other technology, delude us into thinking that we are not radically dependent on each other or on God; they entice us to believe that we are self-sufficient and in control.

Taking a Theological Turn in the Time of the Virus

Where is God in this plague?

Obviously we must be careful here, for we do not want to become false prophets who speak on behalf of God and his particular purposes in this crisis — especially rushing to pronouncements of judgment for distinct sins. We must also take care in making statements about God’s compassion for our suffering so as to avoid undermining the classical theistic doctrines pertaining to God’s independence from creation and His power over all things. And certainly no one is going to resolve the perennial mystery of the problem of evil.

But is there anything we can say that God has in store for us in this time?

Suffering as Apocalyptic: God’s Megaphone

Suffering can be understood as apocalyptic in the sense of unveiling truths that are easier to ignore or simply harder to perceive in times of relative peace and comfort. C.S. Lewis describes it as God’s “megaphone to a deaf world.” Hardship, pain, and suffering is often clarifying — serving to focus our attention upon deep and essential realities. So what might God be saying?

Many pundits have busied themselves with predicting the new political and social realities that are going to emerge out of this. Any positive developments which emerge will be the result of the apocalyptic disruption that this crisis has produced — unveiling the unsustainable aspects of the pre-COVID-19 “established disorder.” Those discussions are certainly interesting and potentially profitable. But my primary concern is more on the personal level.

Suffering Profitably at the Personal Level

What might it mean to suffer well? Henri de Lubac argues that there is a Christian “art in suffering” which consists in neither seeking it out nor simply fleeing it — but rather consents to the humbling it brings.[8] One must believe that God can perform a transfiguration through the suffering, not just wait it out until a previous “normal” existence returns. All adversity is an opportunity to lean into God, a call to repentance.

Turning to God in the Time of the Virus is opposed to the options pursued by technocratic man mentioned above.

  • We must not turn against another (whether an individual or a group) as a scapegoat, asking, “Who sinned that this world was brought under the plague?” (cf. John 9:2)
  • We must not turn, ultimately, to mankind in its technological powers. Our trust is not in princes (cf. Pss. 118; 146; Isa. 2:22), scientists, international organizations, technological developers, et al. So much of our hope in technocratic man is like beating against the waves amidst the crisis, failing to turn to the Lord in our midst who has the power to silence the storm with a word (cf. Matt. 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25).

What does turning to God during the crisis look like? Certainly it entails, first and foremost, embracing lament. But beyond that:

Sabbath Rest

We must embrace the test of sabbath rest. Ephraim Radner, in one of his important pieces at the outset of the pandemic, was onto something by making connections between the shutdowns and quarantines of this pandemic and the sabbath structures prescribed in the Old Testament. This has been, in a sense, a forced “sabbath” — we are required to stop our normal affairs and stay home, to varying degrees.

The call to cease laboring has always been a call to trust that God will provide, to remember that we are not ultimately in control, to pray for our daily bread (cf. the Lord’s Prayer). It is an opportunity to be humbled, to remember our radically dependent (i.e., graced) nature, to receive again the gift of “Today.

Memento Mori

We must remember that we are going to die — memento mori. It is somewhat providential, it would seem, that this crisis became evident during Lent a year ago — that penitential season during which we foreground the reality of sin and its ongoing consequences. We are feeble and frail, and physical death is inevitable; living appropriately with this in mind is an invitation.

During the Black Plague the Church developed the tradition of ars moriendi — the art of dying well. This is an expression of the Christian’s hope which lies beyond this world; death is not the end. Our lives should bear witness to this fact especially now.

Our Hope is not in Normalcy

We must resist the temptation to fix our hopes onto a return to “normal.” A world has been disrupted. The former order is not the kingdom. Let the dead bury their own dead (cf. Matt. 8:22).

Soul Work

We must not ignore the work which can occur on our soul. In forcing many of us to stay home for longer periods of time and cease from many activities, the Time of the Virus has stripped away many of our distractions. As Blaise Pascal famously quipped: “[Many] of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

This is because in such a setting we are forced to confront ourselves, our deepest thoughts and worries, our sin. Such problems have no technological solution. Right now many of us are forced to sit in various degrees of isolation. We are prohibited from busying ourselves with our common affairs in the world. Let us not miss the opportunity for God to perform serious work on us.

Modern civilization is organized to foreclose our horizons, to make us forget that we were made for God and a world beyond the one we currently inhabit (C.S. Lewis). Our hearts remain “restless” (Augustine) even as we busy ourselves with the technological projects of the modern world. This forced sabbath just might help us return to the source of true rest (cf. Matt. 11:28-30; Heb. 3-4): the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8)

The machine of modern civilization has been halted by the virus; the crisis has seized the wheel of technological society. This shock to the system could serve to make us even more aware of the purpose for which man was made. Homo faber has been reduced; may homo religiosus return. Let us make a more robustly theological turn rather than placing all of our hopes in technological solutions. A second Lent affords a perfect time to focus our attention in such ways.

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  1. E.g., Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, translated by Edith M. Riley, Anne Englund Nash, and Mark Sebanc, seventh edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983); Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay on the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995); Augusto Del Noce, The Crisis of Modernity, edited and translated by Carlo Lancellotti (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014); Rémi Brague, The Kingdom of Man: Genesis and Failure of the Modern Project (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018).
  2. This is developed in Ellul’s most famous work which bears that name: The Technological Society (1967). Shortly after, del Noce also provided analogous penetrating analyses, reproduced in section two of Crisis of Modernity, titled “The Advent of the Technocratic Society.” More recent scholars who have devoted sustained attention to this theme are David L. Schindler, D.C. Schindler, and Michael Hanby.
  3. See the pregnant statement in Dupré, Passage to Modernity, 249: “Modernity is an event that has transformed the relation between the cosmos, its transcendent source, and its human interpreter.”
  4. De Lubac, Drama of Atheist Humanism, 422. This is also a consistent theme in the works of David L. Schindler, which he labels, “ontological Pelagianism,” or, “technological ontology.” See, for example, “America’s Technological Ontology and the Gift of the Given,” Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics, Vol. 1, Number 3 (September 2013): 426-53.
  5. De Lubac, Drama of Atheist Humanism, 421f.
  6. This shift is an organizing theme in Dupré’s work.
  7. See Del Noce, Crisis of Modernity, 294ff.
  8. See de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith, translated by Paule Simon and Sadie Kreilamp (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 172.

James Wood

James R. Wood is an assistant professor of theology and ministry at Redeemer University (Ancaster, ON). He recently defended his dissertation on the political theology of Henri de Lubac at Wycliffe College (Toronto). Previously he worked as an associate editor at First Things, a PCA pastor in Austin, TX, and campus evangelist and team leader with Cru ministries. His writings have appeared in various academic and popular publications, and they focus primarily on matters pertaining to political theology, ecclesiology, and sacramental theology.