Even just ten years ago, serious attention to the question of technology in Christian communities was hard to come by. Today, that seems to have changed. Along with the rest of American society, Christians have grown more attentive to the consequences of technology over the last few years. My hope is that they might discover, as I suspect many of you already know, that some of our most trenchant and insightful thinkers on matters technological have been Christian writers and scholars. One thinks, for example, of Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Romano Guardini, Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Wendell Berry, and Albert Borgmann. I often think of my own work as an effort to bring the wisdom of these older voices to bear on our contemporary situation.
There’s a great deal that could be said about the relationship between technology and the Christian life. My aim today will be to offer a broad evaluation of the modern technological project by examining its animating spirit through the lens of the opening chapters of Genesis. My hope is that these reflections will raise important questions regarding technological culture and also offer a useful perspective from which to consider the meaning and significance of technology.
Technology, as I’ll explain at the outset, is a multifaceted, multilayered phenomenon. It touches every arena of human existence. And what I am calling technological culture is deeply entangled with economic and political structures. So there will be much left unsaid and many paths of inquiry left unexplored. Those caveats made, let’s get to it.
I’ve found that one of the chief obstacles we face when we try to talk intelligently about technology is the word technology itself. So let me begin here, by clarifying the critical term that is the subject of this talk and the topic around which this Gathering has been organized.
Technology acquired the rather muddy sense it has today only recently, by which I mean in the last 100 years or so. If you consider the way we usually define similar terms ending in “-ology,” it becomes immediately clear that technology has come to mean something a bit different than what the etymology suggests. For example, we roughly define biology as the study of life, geology as the study of the earth, theology as the study of God. We do not, however, define technology as the study of techne or the arts of human fabrication. On the relatively rare occasion when the term was used in the nineteenth century, this was, in fact, its intended meaning. This was the sense in which it was used when in 1861 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was named. “Technology” referred to a subject of study, not an object. When people wanted to refer to the sorts of things that we today think of as technology they had a wide array of words at their disposal: tools, machines, machinery, instruments, invention, improvements, mechanics, etc. It was during the late 19th and early 20th century that “technology” began to be used in something like the way we use it today, as a catch-all for a dizzying array of artifacts and practices.
Sometimes, if I feel like being provocative, which I confess is rarely the case, I will say that there is no such thing as technology. I don’t necessarily mean to reignite the nominalist/realist debates, but only to show how imprecise the term can be. We use it to name things as different from one another as pencils, smartphones, trains, satellites, nanoparticles, gene editing tools, hammers, written language, wristwatches, refrigerators, saw mills, electrical generators, and indoor plumbing. You get the point. Of course, many people don’t immediately think of older artifacts and tools as technology. Technology for them is synonymous with digital devices. It recalls the old quip that technology is anything that was invented after you were born. Nonetheless, upon reflection, it’s clear that technology should not be characterized by novelty. So then it becomes another way of talking about the expansive reality that historian Thomas Hughes aptly called the human-built world. In other words, you would be forgiven for asking, what exactly isn’t technology? One might instinctively point toward the trees, but only if they have not been the product of modern forestry, because then we are back in the realm of the human-built.
Recognizing the unwieldy semantic range of the concept of technology, the eminent historian Leo Marx concluded that technology is a “hazardous concept.” It mystified what it sought to name and, Marx believed, it granted technology a measure of agency which it did not enjoy. I find that the world can also make it difficult to discuss the relative merits of this or that artifact. As an example of how this might play out, consider how conceiving of technology as one thing invites the conclusion that one must be either for it or against it. Which is why critically appraising a particular instance of technology may elicit charges of Luddism or of being anti-technology. The alternative, of course, is to be discriminating — to recognize that the concept veils an enormous amount of diversity necessitating judgements on a case by case or class by class basis. One must then pay close attention to the specific character of the technology in question, to its design, its affordances, its structure, etc. One can see, though, how it is a lot easier to simply decide that you are for or against technology.
It is also true, however, that within certain epochs or cultures, technologies may reflect a distinct pattern or reveal a pervasive organizing principle. Some of our most astute Christian critics of technological culture, including Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, and Albert Borgmann, have sought to discover just such a prevailing pattern. It is also true that, as Neil Postman among others have pointed out, what is unique about the technological project in modern western societies is that the power relation between the culture and its tools has flipped so that techno-economic imperatives trump cultural norms and traditions.
Given these considerations, I’ve found it helpful to distinguish between technology understood as artifacts and systems on the one hand, and, on the other, as ways of thinking and being in the world. It is important to pay attention to the particular tool or device, and to the systems upon which it may depend. But if all of our attention remains focused on this level of analysis, we may, in fact, miss the most important dimensions of technology, which are not located within any one artifact.
Martin Heidegger famously concluded that the essence of technology is nothing technological, meaning that it is nothing merely material and technical. It is rather a way of inhabiting the world, a mode of experiencing reality. We might even think of it as a spirit animating the development and deployment of technology and, consequently, being reflected in the technologies it inspires. The relation between the human and technology is dialectical. As Marshall McLuhan put it, “We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”
It is technology in this sense, then, as an animating spirit and mode of being-in-the-world that I would like to consider here, and to do so I will turn first to the opening chapters of the Hebrew Bible, where we encounter paradigmatic stories that illuminate for us the nature of the human condition. While the modern technological project is unique in its scope and power, it is, nonetheless, an iteration of a primeval inclination. This realization explains why, for example, C. S. Lewis framed his novelistic critique of the spirit of mid-20th century technology with what amounts to a retelling of the story of the tower of Babel. The title of the third and final book in Lewis’s space trilogy, That Hideous Strength, is borrowed from a reference to the tower of Babel in a sixteenth century English poem. Lewis believed that the spirit animating modern technology was already manifest in the tower builders, and I think it will be worth our time to examine this possibility more closely.
In fact, I think we should pick up the narrative at an even earlier stage and pursue it just a bit further. The question I propose we keep before us is this: How do we live after Eden? Or, to put it otherwise, how do we respond to the fallen human condition?
The critical importance of this question to any theological account of modern technology became apparent to me in stages. First came the general recognition that the early chapters of Genesis had something to say about human artifice, about techne, the arts, technology. There was, of course, the Babel narrative, which has long been read as a cautionary tale about pride or hubris enacted in a primitive and ill-fated technological project. But there was also the emergence of human civilization in the line of Cain. The three sons of Lamech are called the fathers of those who dwell in tents and have livestock, of all those who play the lyre and pipe, and of those who forge all instruments of bronze and iron. Animal husbandry, the arts, and metallurgy — technical endeavors all — take root, according to Genesis, in the family of Cain. And then there was Cain himself, who is said to have built a city and named it after his son. And while these cases appear to cast human artifice in a negative light, there was also, in the midst of it all, the story of Noah, the ark builder. A feat no less technological than the building of the tower.
But these general observations were focused by the curious obstinacy of Cain. Familiarity with the story may obscure the striking nature of Cain’s refusal of his situation. Having murdered his brother, Cain is confronted by God, who passes judgment on Cain: “You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” And immediately Cain proceeds to complain about this condition. There is never, of course, any sign of repentance, either at this point or earlier when God first warned Cain to resist the sin crouching at his door. Cain complains that he is being driven from God’s presence, a detail he appears to add or, perhaps, to extrapolate from what God has said. More precisely, he claims that he will be hidden from the face of God. We’ll come back to this in just a moment. It is clear, too, that Cain is struck by fear above all else. In a statement that has elicited a great deal of creative commentary, he is fearful of unidentified others who might find and kill him.
Then, in a passage that has been made to serve horrendous ends, God graciously attempts to assuage Cain’s fears on this score. The next line, which draws this pericope to a close, can be read almost as an afterthought following the dramatic and violent action of the preceding verses: “Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” Condemned to be a fugitive and a wanderer, Cain refuses. Instead, he settles.
A graduate degree in the field not withstanding, I am not a theologian, so you may take the following lay interpretation with the appropriate grain of salt. It will be momentarily clear that the text is laying before us two paths out of Eden. One is tread by Cain and his descendants and the other by Seth, who takes Abel’s place as it were, and his descendants. As St. Augustine memorably put it, we have here the beginnings of the City of God and the City of Man — two distinct and competing ways of living after Eden in the postlapsarian human condition. Consequently, I am compelled to read Cain’s story if not exactly allegorically, then at least paradigmatically.
Confronted with the dire prospects for life east of Eden, Cain has implicitly refused the way of grace. He is unwilling or unable to turn to God in faith and repentance. Instead, it is clear that he will rely on his own strength and ingenuity in order to survive. Driven by fear and the prospect of insecurity, alienation, insignificance, and mortality, Cain will, and I don’t think it is an overstatement to put it this way … he will seek to overcome the fragility of the human condition through a project of technological mastery.
Let us return for a moment now to Cain’s claim that the face of God would be hidden from him. We have reason to believe, to the contrary, that wherever Cain wanders, he will not be hidden from God’s presence. Perhaps it is best to hear in these words a confused complaint rather than a genuine lament. In any case, part of what I will argue throughout is that the truth of the matter was rather the reverse of Cain’s dubious complaint. We should suppose, I believe, that God would have been with Cain beyond Eden just as he would be with all of those driven beyond Eden’s shadows who call on His name. In fact, what Cain managed to do by choosing the path of technological mastery, by refusing the postlapsarian human condition, was to hide the face of God from Himself. He turns away from the hope of grace to the expectation of human self-determination and ingenuity.
Moving on to the opening of Cain’s genealogy, we read that Cain knew his wife, bore a son, and built a city, which he then named after his son. It is at the end of this imbued with the spirit technological mastery that we read of Lamech and his three sons, to whom the various technical facets of early human civilization are attributed. The story of the tower of Babel, which concludes the account of primeval history in the book of Genesis, makes clear that the spirit of technological mastery was not a genetic pre-disposition, limited to a family line. Rather, it was a perennial temptation, which would be variously manifested throughout human history.
In the Babel narrative, we encounter echoes of Cain’s speech generations earlier. Like Cain, the tower builders were intent on refusing the command of God, which was evident in their decision to settle and build. Notably, the narrator is intent on drawing attention to the shabby and futile character of the building project. A similar note was struck when we were informed by the narrator that Cain has settled in Nod, which a footnote in pretty much any Bible translation will tell you means “wandering.” Build as he may, Cain could not escape what was, perhaps fundamentally, a moral and spiritual condition, a point to which we will return in a moment.
As for the tower builders, they too sought what Cain sought: neither to embrace the path of grace nor to simply submit to the postlapsarian human condition. They sought security, permanence, a sense of purpose, and to achieve this respite from the curse they built. They built a city and a tower. They sought mastery over the precarious and unpredictable conditions of mortal existence, the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” They wanted security and stability.
The Lord then speaks ominously of the possibilities implicit in the work of the tower builders: “… this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” He does so, of course, before confounding the language of the builders and thus bringing the project to a close.
To read this in the cadences of the serpent, it might suggest that God is withholding some good thing, that He is jealously guarding his own divine prerogatives, or that He is genuinely fearful of what humankind might accomplish for itself, discovering that it no longer needs God. Better, of course, to recognize that we are being protected from some great danger: self-destruction and the risk of altogether eclipsing the way of grace.
Before turning toward our present technological milieu, we should make one final observation about the unfolding narrative in Genesis. Genesis 11, where we find the story of the tower of Babel, traditionally marks the outer boundary of the primeval history. With Genesis 12, we transition into the patriarchal narrative. But this transition tends to obscure an important link between the two sections. The link is obscured, too, by the conventional way we refer to the most relevant portion of the patriarchal narrative as the story of Jacob’s ladder. After all, a ladder does not at all suggest any relation to a tower. We might get closer if our translation opts for staircase or stairway. I’ll pass over the details of the case, but I think we’ll find that there is good reason to suppose that what we ought to imagine in both cases is a structure on the model of a Mesopotamian ziggurat, a pyramid-like structure with a staircase running up the middle of one of the sides. These structures served a religious purpose, functioning as a gateway between heaven and earth. It is in this light that we ought to hear the tower builder’s desire to reach into the heavens and the presence of angels ascending and descending on the staircase in Jacob’s dream. The critical difference, of course, is the difference between the way of human mastery and the way of grace.
Having laid this groundwork, allow me to summarize the case I’ve been implicitly putting before us.
The postlapsarian human condition is characterized by suffering, futility, instability, unpredictability, and mortality. One question raised by Genesis 4 and following is this: How do we respond to the post-Edenic reality? It seems that two paths are open to us. One is the path of Cain: to refuse the fallen condition, to seek to overcome it, not by the operations of grace, but by the power of human ingenuity. This is the path of technique, control, power, and domination. It is driven by fear and pride in equal measure. It is marked by hubris. The other path is the path of grace. It is marked by humility and gratitude. It is the path of grace precisely as the etymology of the word grace suggests, it is the way of the gift. It is the way of those who are prepared to be surprised, who have resisted the temptations to plan, manage, and control their circumstances. Those who walk along this path know very well the answer to the question, “What do you have that you have not been given?” Wendell Berry’s “we live the given life, and not the plan” is their motto.
It is important at this point to note that when I speak of the path of grace, I am not thinking in exclusively soteriological terms. I’m suggesting that even those who are prepared to accept that salvation is a work of grace, may nonetheless fail to walk along the path of grace, opting instead for the way of technological mastery. All of us, after all, inhabit the same broken world. Our faith does not exempt us from the postlapsarian human condition. We also fall ill, grow fearful, struggle with futility, and experience loss. So, how do we respond?
I would argue that our response is shaped as much, if not more so, by our involvement in our technological milieu than it is by our expressed beliefs. That the total effect of our technological milieu is to foreclose the path of grace as a way of life. To see why this might be the case, we need to talk about moral formation and the nature of technological milieu. But I’ll do so as briefly as possible.
The first point to grasp, which you might already take for granted, is that our tools, regardless of the particular use to which we put them, are intellectually, emotionally, and morally formative. This principle informs much of what I have to say about technology, and it is underwritten by two prior claims.
First, that we are, as the saying goes, creatures of habit. That is to say that I basically buy into a virtue ethic understanding of how moral formation tends to work. What we do over and over again becomes habit, habit becomes inclination and disposition, which becomes vice or virtue, which constitutes character, from which action and desire spring.
Second, how we interpret the world is a function of how we perceive it, or, to collapse the two together: perception is interpretation. And perception is mediated, very often by what we may broadly think of as technology. How I see the world — myself and others included — is always already a mediated act of interpretation.
In both cases, of habituation and mediation, the formative power is heightened to the degree that the relevant material artifacts fade from conscious attention or become practically invisible. If there is an underlying principle from which these two claims stem, it is this: we are embodied creatures and our embodiment is a central not peripheral element of our humanity.
To put this another way, we daily participate in technologically mediated liturgies, mundane ritual practices that inscribe themselves on our bodies, our senses, and our hearts. We are what we do, and what we do is structured by manifold technologies and systems, which themselves reflect an orientation to the world.
What is the nature of this orientation? Naturally, it is complex, not simple. More recently, for example, it has reflected a techno-economic imperative toward consumption. The beginning of this trend can be variously dated. I’d say that, in the American context, it is apparent by the late-nineteenth century and dramatically accelerated during the post-war years. Today, if we take stock of developments in digital consumer technology, it would be altogether plausible to argue that innovation is driven largely by the desire to generate and facilitate consumerism. In certain circles this observation borders on the banal, but it is worth restating lest even those who acknowledge the dynamic become increasingly subject to it.
Consider the following apt summary of the state of digital surveillance offered by Rob Horning:
Today’s world of ubiquitous data collection, what [one scholar] calls ‘automated surveillance,’ seeks to operate invisibly and universally — ‘the monitoring must be as comprehensive as possible.’ The modes of tracking are not centralized in an imposing tower but embedded in devices and distributed across countless points of contact. The point of this blanket surveillance is not to force you to control yourself — the intention of a ‘disciplinary society,’ in which individuals assume responsibility for adhering to the rules and norms instilled in them by various institutions and social practices — but to enclose your entire life within an environment where all your behavior can be captured and exploited and remolded in real-time in various ways. The point is to anticipate what you will do to make sure someone is there to profit somehow from your doing it — what Zuboff describes in her book about ‘surveillance capitalism.’
When some of us who are old enough to remember the Cold War hear the word “surveillance,” we are likely to miss the point of what Zuboff has called “surveillance capitalism.” The point is not to know what you are doing in order to report it to some government agency if it strikes some bureaucrat as subversive and anti-government. In fact, the data collected about you has very little significance as your individual data. This is why Apple has recently pivoted to privacy and allowed users to block apps from tracking them across the web. Using machine learning and sufficient aggregated data, they believe they are able to effectively predict and shape your consumption.
Consider a new prayer request feature that Facebook is trying out in Canada and Australia. The idea is that this feature allows you to share prayer requests with or solicit prayers from your friends. This seems innocuous, depending, of course, on what your existing view of Facebook happens to be. I can even imagine a person of faith taking a measure of comfort in the development. And, indeed, if all we are taking into consideration is the act of sharing a prayer request through this new functionality, what can possibly be wrong about this? When understood as part of a larger techno-economic ecosystem, however, the new functionality can be rightly interpreted as a new, and perhaps especially powerful, data trap. The point of which, again, is not necessarily to know something about you, but rather to feed the gargantuan data pools that make predictive marketing possible.
In short, the end game in these contexts is always about the structures that will generate a consumer subjectivity. But here again, we should be cautious about assuming that this is just the old pre-digital consumerism, where the goal was to link your subjectivity, through affective advertisement, to a product in order to get you to buy that product. The point rather is to ultimately achieve automated or passive consumption. Consider, as a symptom of this trend, the rise of what cultural observer Anne Helen Petersen has recently called the shopping cure, or the “the compulsion to soothe myself through consumption.” The habit, in other words, of alleviating anxiety or soothing ennui by mindlessly shopping online from the convenience of your bed at 2AM.
These examples and countless others are not in themselves the point. The point is that they illustrate the powerfully formative dimension of how technology structures our experience, and how those structures are embedded with discernible imperatives.
Working our way back toward our main theme, I’d like to suggest that another such pattern embedded in the structures of our technological milieu is the imperative to control and master experience.
This imperative was the subject of a recent book by German sociologist Hartmut Rosa titled The Uncontrollability of the World. “The driving cultural force of that form of life we call ‘modern,’” Rosa writes, “is the idea, the hope and the desire, that we can make the modern world controllable.”
Rosa’s “guiding thesis” is that “for late modern human beings, the world has simply become a point of aggression,” an apt phrase that seemed, sadly, immediately useful as a way of characterizing what it feels like to be alive right now. The world becomes a series of points of aggression when, as Rosa puts it, “everything that appears to us must be known, mastered, conquered, made useful.” If our response to this is a measure of befuddlement — how else would we go about living if not by seeking to know, to master, to conquer, to make useful? — then it would seem that Rosa is probably right to say that this is a bedrock assumption shaping our thinking rather than being a product of it.
Rosa acknowledges that relating to the world primarily by seeking to control or manage it is hardly a new development. This “creeping reorganization of our relationship to the world,” Rosa writes, “stretches far back historically, culturally, economically, and institutionally.” Indeed, the modern project, dating back at least to the 17th century, particularly in its techno-scientific dimensions, can be interpreted as a grand effort to tame nature and bring it under human control. And, of course, as C. S. Lewis observed in The Abolition of Man, the drive to control nature was eventually turned on humanity itself.
But in Rosa’s view, this “creeping reorganization” has, in the 21st century, “become newly radicalized, not least as a result of the technological possibilities unleashed by digitization and by the demands for optimization and growth produced by financial market capitalism and unbridled competition.” For example, Rosa cites the various tools we deploy to measure and optimize our bodies: “We climb onto the scale: we should lose weight. We look into the mirror: we have to get rid of that pimple, those wrinkles. We take our blood pressure: it should be lower. We track our steps: we should walk more.” “We invariably encounter such things,” Rosa notes, “as a challenge to do better.” A bit further on, Rosa adds, “More and more, for the average late modern subject of the ‘developed’ western world, everyday life revolves around and amounts to nothing more than tackling an ever-growing to-do list. The entries on this list constitute the points of aggression that we encounter as the world … all matters to be settled, attended to, mastered, completed, resolved, gotten out of the way.”
Just as it is possible to see the drive to facilitate consumption to the point of automation that animates so much of our digital consumer ecosystem, it is also possible to see digital computation itself, going back to mid-twentieth century cybernetics, as just one powerful movement to make the world legible and thus predictable and controllable. The old modern dream of controlling nature now extends to daily life. Digitization, cheap sensors, and virtually unlimited data storage has made it possible to capture increasingly large swaths of human experience that had never before been subject to measurement and quantification. Think, for example, of the data captured by your FitBit or sleep tracking app. We can now increasingly do for ordinary private life what Frederick Taylor did for factory life, subject it to a regime of measurement and control through scientific management.
But let us get back to where we started. This impulse — to control, predict, manage, and plan — is a manifestation of an ancient spirit and one of the paths that led out of Eden. That it takes different forms, that it is sometimes more and sometimes less effective, should not blind us to the family resemblances. Consider in passing how the great bellwether of early modern sentiments about science and technology, Francis Bacon, explicitly framed the emerging techno-scientific project as an attempt to assuage humanity’s postlapsarian condition, to alleviate the sufferings that resulted from the curse.
In the remarkable closing essay to his best known work, Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich spoke about these two paths, what I have called the path of mastery and the path of grace, in different terms derived from Greek mythology. He spoke of Promethean Man and Epimethean Man. We know Prometheus well. Promethean has become a synonym for technological overreach, for hubristic human aspirations. But Epimetheus is not as well known. He was Prometheus’s brother. Their story involves Pandora’s famous box or jar, from which she allows all the ills of this world to escape. It is a lesser known detail of the story that Pandora shut the lid in time to keep one thing from flying out: hope. Epimetheus, whose name means hindsight and who was thought something of a dullard, accepted his wife Pandora as a gift from the gods despite Prometheus’s urging him against it. Prometheus, of course, is best remembered for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man.
I cannot imagine that the parallels to the biblical account of mankind’s origins were lost on Illich, who was a Roman Catholic priest. In any case, the parallels as I see them are this. The release of Pandora’s ills recalls the introduction of the curse following the fall in Genesis three: it resembles the emergence of the post-Edenic human condition marked by suffering and mortality. Of course, the human moral dimension is altogether absent in the Greek myth. The Promethean spirit is kin to the spirit of the line of Cain and the Tower builders. They will both take matters into their own hands. But there is a profound cost.
“It is the history of the Promethean endeavor to forge institutions in order to corral each of the rampant ills,” Illich observed. “It is the history of fading hope and rising expectations.”
“To understand what this means,” Illich went on to explain, “we must rediscover the distinction between hope and expectation. Hope, in its strong sense, means trusting faith in the goodness of nature, while expectation, as I will use it here, means reliance on results which are planned and controlled by man. Hope centers desire on a person from whom we await a gift. Expectation looks forward to satisfaction from a predictable process which will produce what we have the right to claim. The Promethean ethos has now eclipsed hope.”
Illich here is helping us get very near the heart of the matter. To paraphrase Heidegger, the problem with technology is nothing technological. That’s a bit gnomic, so let me clarify my sense. Yes, of course, as we said at the outset there are specific problems with particular technologies and it is worth exploring what these may be and addressing them if possible. However, the deeper issue might be described as a structural temptation deeply embedded in our current techno-cultural configuration. It is to choose to live our lives along the path of technological mastery as a way of coping with the consequences of the fall even if we have chosen the way of grace in principle as the path of salvation.
There are very dicey issues that flow from this analysis, and I will not pretend to sort them all out. One premise throughout is that, driven by the admittedly noble desire to alleviate suffering, we may, as Illich warned, transform dying and suffering into technical problems that admit of institutional solutions. There is no room under these circumstances to experience suffering as an occasion for spiritual growth or the context within which we might be surprised by the presence of God, who, in fact, has not hidden his face from us at all. If grace is unplanned, unexpected, the antithesis of what can be manufactured and programmed, how do we discern the difference between wisdom and prudence, on the one hand, and over-programming or extreme risk-aversion on the other. I think, for example, how a part of me desires to protect my children from all harm, to shield them from all suffering by vigilantly controlling as much of their environment as possible. I realize, of course, that this impulse, if fully realized, would also rob them of life itself while preserving their biological existence. We could go on and on.
I suspect that such questions will have very different answers, and that we should avoid the temptation to arrive at rules or methods to sort out the uncomfortable uncertainties. Here again Illich can be helpful. He distinguished in his interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan between a rule and a call. The good Samaritan was not following a rule, and we cannot make his experience the basis of a rule without destroying the freedom to answer a call in love that he exhibited. We will need to consider how to answer the call to walk along the path of grace with wisdom and discernment. Illich himself imagined that those who became newly attuned to the spirit of Epimetheus, who embraced the uncertainty of life and clung to hope, would do so in collaboration with the Promethean brothers. They would light the fire and shape the iron together, but they would do so to enhance their ability to tend and care and wait upon the other.
What is needed, I would argue, is not an abandonment of technology, but a reshaping and renewal of our technological milieu, one that will likely take decades and even centuries, so that it is structured by the logic of grace rather than by the spirit of Babel. May God grant us the skill and imagination to lay the groundwork for such a world.
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A wonderful way to spend a couple of hours on Saturday in contemplation for my Sunday service in God’s Church in this era of needless striving. Thank you!
Leon Kass observes that when God made the earth, and vegetation specifically, he commanded, “Let the grass grass.” That is, he told the grass to do what grass does (similar to how we in English might say walk a walk or talk a talk – the noun and verb are the same, and the verb captures the essence of what the noun is in action). But the earth didn’t do this – it merely “brought forth” grass/vegetation.
Kass sees in this a recalcitrance of creation; that the primordial chaos resists (or God allows it to resist). Maybe.
Whether it does or not, it also suggests that there’s work to do in the prelapsarian state of the world. It is incomplete: the grass isn’t grassing, for example. And anyway, what does it mean to work a garden that’s perfect? Although good, it must have been incomplete or at risk of falling into disarray, needing the humans’ work. Similarly, what does it mean to keep a garden that is otherwise perfectly guarded by God? We see from the snake’s invasion that there was going to be a need to guard this garden. We know how that worked out.
All that to say, if we allow ourselves to speculate on what prelapsarian life would have been like had humans not fallen, surely it would have involved technological intervention on the world. Relying on what Sacasas has written here, I’m not sure how that would have looked different from the way we work now. Sacasas alludes to it, but I wonder if he offers the Good Samaritan as an example of appropriate and gracious use of technology – the wine, the bandages, etc. Or what about Paul’s tent-making?
Being a physician, this reminds me of stories that will occasionally rise to the level of the popular press where someone refuses all medical care for their child who is sick with an easily curable infection. They are, instead, relying entirely on God, praying for a cure. Without the intervention of law enforcement, the child dies. This may demonstrate, as Allen Verhey has warned, that prayer is so easily co-opted as a medical technology. If God is really at work in the lives of these families, does it really boil down to some variation of that old story of the drowning man who refused the boat? When he died, he challenged God, “Why didn’t you save me?” But God told him he had sent the boat. Technology would have saved the day after all…