Thursday, November 10, 2011

Christianity and Technology: Four Pillars

For about 15 years I had pursued an interest in Christian perspectives of economics but finding that somewhat frustrating about a decade ago I switched to thinking about Christianity and technology.

When I was telling friends about this interest mostly the reaction was 'is there one?'. Technology is a tool that I choose to use or not. Now the field of the philosophy of technology has long grappled with exactly that issue but for most people outside of some concept of basics ethics deep philosophy has little power of persuasion.

Further, in part I agree with this. Despite the closeness in many areas of philosophy and theology due to their mutual interest in existence, reasoning and moral argument, I don't think this enough for a Christian discission of technology. Writers such as Ellul and Borgmann and others who have written with great insight cannot provide the basis thinking in this area because it leaves out a number dimensions of Christian life and typically closes off dicussion rather than opening up discussion for informed debate.

So here is a first bash, but I think not the last, at outlining the primary dimensions to the debate which I have called here the four pillars.

  1. The Christian tradition of a critical position
  2. Taking a transformative perspective to our lives
  3. Philosophy of technology
  4. Escatology and technology

1. A critical stance.

This is the most general pillar and the one that can be most easily communicated with the general Christian population.

There is a long tradtion within Chritianity of attempting to be in but not of the world. This is mostly clearly visible with the interactions between Christians and science. Although, there has been since Darwin a view of many Christians that science is bad or wrong etc. But authors such as Donald Mackay (1922-1987 see obit ) a notable brain scientist argued that Christians have nothing to fear from the best science because it is motivated by search for knowledge of truth and as we have a God who claims to be the author of truth then the two are not in conflict. However, it is equally true that Christians should and do stand against scientism - where the claims go beyond the ability of science to make claims (for example where science is claimed to rule out the existence of God.

This same critical stance can be applied to the area of technology. From this perspective, it should be presented that while Christians can use and make technology, we should all be wary of idolising it. It will solve some problems only to create new ones. It can be used for good and probably will be used badly. We can never become uncritical of its creation or use.

2. Taking a transformative perspective to our lives

When we read the early chapters of the book of Genesis the fall clearly creates disruptions in a series of relations.

Lets look at the text, I have bolded the relationships.

8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?” 10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” 11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” 13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” 14 So the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust all the days of your life. 15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring[a] and hers; he will crush[b] your head, and you will strike his heel.”
16 To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” 17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”  NIV

We can see here three relationships clearly are broken
  • mankind and God
  • Men and women (personally and generalised as broken society)
  • mankind and creation
 A four brokenness (internal to the person can be implied). A friend of mine has taken this intuitive concept and in thinking through what it means to be a peace builder in a conflict area has developed a model of what it means to be a Christian peace maker in societies. 

 Our goal is to build
A- Harmony with the Creator: .... spiritual transformation
B- Harmony with our Being:    ... psycho-social transformation
C- Harmony with Others:         ... socio-political transformation
D- Harmony with the Creation:... economic-ecological transformation
Personally I think this is a great list and a beautiful way of expressing the essence of 'living for Christ'. Insofar as it is an expression of how we are to live generally it provides a conceptual basis for our relationship with technology. For example our individual relationship with technology should not violate our hunger to develop a personal relationship with God. It also should be destructive of creation. Equally, we cn write our efforts in the postiive. By developing particular technologies we can help the poor or use creation more wisely. 

3. Philosophy of technology

The basis of the philosophy of technology is not to take for granted the superficial appearance of a device. Heidegger wrote The Question Concerning Technology and Albert Borgmann has written on the device paradigm. Now, clearly there are debates to be had whether these philosophical positions are strong or weak - I think it would be ill advised to say good or bad.

On the one hand, I do want to affirm that this tradition is important but on the other the point of this blog is to say I think there are other important pillars on which we need to build a dialogue.

However, and as the bulk of writing on Christianity and technology works from this perspective I will leave this pillar here and return to it in a future blog.

4. Escatology an technology

Escatology (the study of last things) seems particularly important to the question of our relationship with technology. If, one's view is that this world is going to be destroyed, soon, and that in the new creation there is no work to do then we can trash this planet and live with minimal thought to tomorrow then the only care about technology is whether it is 'any good'. Alternatively, changing just one aspect of this worldview - that of when God may call 'time' - how we think of technology will radically change.

As a thought experiment if this epoch lasts another 1000 years what technological change is possible in that time? We had better start a taking this discussion about technology to the next level now.

Reframing the debate

By ignoring the impact of modern technologies and economy on creation Christians lost the potential to lead change back in the 1960s. Instead, as group they were seen as dragging their heels as part of the problem and  and the resulting movement with its pseudo-religious concepts undermined Christian apologetics for decades. The possibility for this happening again is all to real.

Over coming weeks I want to discuss each of these pillars in more detail.