Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

On Technique

October 24th, 2011 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

I'm grateful for Jonathan for taking Earthen Vessels in a direction that was lurking in the background, but considerably underdeveloped:  science fiction.

Looking back through Earthen Vessels, though, I realize that I did not develop the role technique would play in my thinking as much as I had wanted.  It is something of a technical term for me, as it is for Jacques Ellul and Oliver O'Donovan (the two thinkers whose use of it I draw from, the former implicitly while the latter out in public).

For Ellul, technique means something like a controlling focus on means rather than ends.  We spend our time wondering how we might build the better mousetrap without bothering to ask why we might do such a thing at all.  Which is why those who resist technique inevitably come off as anti-technological curmudgeons.  The point is not that deliberation about our means is unimportant:  quite the opposite.  A focus on ends opens up a practical rationality that is itself more creative.  By beginning with the question of why, rather than leaving it tacitly assumed, it leaves open the possibility of other ends and directions for human action.

Of course, prioritizing means over ends in terms of reflection is only one dimension of technique.  For O'Donovan (as for C.S. Lewis), technique is an emptying out of the created order that allows us to reshape creation according to our (boundless, similarly unformed) will.  There is no 'being' or 'begetting' anymore.  There is only making, the molding of the circumstances of life to my desires.  As he puts it, "man's will is the law of its being."

In Peace and Certainty, he continues this theme, suggesting that if he forced to pick a phrase he would describe modern reasoning as "unlimited practical transcendence."  Because there is no 'being,' there are no boundaries.  Because there is no reflection about ends, but only about the means that bring us to those ends, it is practical.  And because it is a way of our wills overcoming and dominating the world, it is a form of self-transcendence. We escape our creatureliness through recreating ourselves.

As Jonathan implies, this notion of transcendence sets up a problem of human desire.  Creatureliness means boundaries, limits that shape what we should seek and not seek.  Moral reformation is possible only if there is a moral form, an external order to which we conform ourselves.  The project of technique leaves such questions aside, of course, for it is a project fundamentally grounded not in the reformation of the will but its assertion.  Our lives and the world are reduced to projects, and we busily set out to constructing things as we can.

The alternative on offer is well described by Jonathan.  Vessels are meant to be filled, and temples intended to house (though never contain) a presence.  The first move of the theology of the body is to recognize that the attempt at transcendence is the right impulse headed off in the wrong direction.  We do not pull the infinite into ourselves, making the world and ourselves through the boundless exhaustion of our will.  Rather, our transcendence is achieved for us.  The vessels are filled and the temple restored, and we are given all things by the one who gives himself to us.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.