Participating recently in a gathering of Anglican bishops in Africa, a friend related the astonishing scene of episcopal celebrants texting each other during the sermon and the celebration of the Supper. Some churches in North America encourage texting in church, as a way of making the service more “interactive.” The assumption, of course, is that technology is benign—neither good nor evil. Since texting in services is neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture, it’s a matter of Christian liberty. However, increasingly, Christian liberty has come to mean a neutral sphere where there are no better or worse answers. Like legalism, antinomianism only knows two settings: “Don’t” or “Do”; “Wrong” or “Right.” The missing middle term is “wisdom.” It may not be wrong to text during church, but is it wise? Is there any difference between texting on the train ride to work versus texting in church? What is the long-term implication of such an act when the church service is specifically designed by the Triune God to make us recipients? If “faith comes by hearing…the word of Christ,” then are we quenching the Spirit’s work through the means of grace by never being able to be quiet, sit, and receive God’s judgment and justification? Is there no place for receiving? Must we always be active: mastering, critiquing, commenting, pontificating?
Ironically, those who decry “worldliness” are often the most likely to embrace unreflectively aspects of modern (and postmodern) culture whose costs on truth, goodness, and beauty are remarkably high. Christian wisdom provokes us neither to reject any good gift of God’s providence and common grace nor to turn these gifts into idols. Avoiding these perilous extremes is always the tough business of discipleship. One glaring example today is technology.
Technology hasn’t just given us a staggering array of tools to use; the tools have shaped us, as all tools do. History is even divided by technological turning points: for example, the three successive stages of stone, bronze, and iron. New tools changed the way we inhabit the world, organize our societies, and imagine our identity, purpose, and the meaning of history. We don’t just make tools; the tools also make us. This is as true of the nomadic and agricultural eras as it is of the industrial revolution and the information economy. Our tools shape the way we think, live, work, relate, and even envision our identity.
Especially since the industrial revolution, the impression is that our chief end is to manage life in such a way as to maximize happiness and minimize pain. We imagine that we’re still in charge of our tools, but we can’t deny that we are managed (often tyrannically) by the very technology that we trust will make our lives freer, easier, and more productive. Especially in our era, technology becomes more than a means to a more ultimate end; it becomes the end. Which means that even loved ones—indeed, even God—easily becomes a tool for us to use in our effort to master unpredictable and often chaotic nature.
In his 1964 classic, One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse observed that “…science and technology rendered possible the translation of values into technical tasks…From the quantification of secondary qualities, science would proceed to the quantification of values…” In other words, questions like, “Is this true, good, and beautiful?” were banished to the realm of private, subjective opinions. Public truth—the really important questions—were technical: “How to…” Efficiency became not only a criterion of industry and home and in the workplace, but pushed out ultimate questions of truth, goodness, or beauty from our social lives. In religion today, the question of whether a particular teaching is true, but whether it works—as William James put it, “its cash-value in experiential terms.”
It’s not just that our ability to measure, quantify, and manipulate things in time and space grew exponentially, but that we began to think that this was the only way of thinking and that things that could be known (i.e., used) in this way were alone worthy of our time and energy. Marcuse quotes Gilbert Simondon: “Through a raising and enlarging of the technical sphere, [society] must treat as technical problems, questions of finality considered wrongly as ethical and sometimes religious. The incompleteness of technics makes a fetish of problems of finality and enslaves man to ends which he thinks of as absolutes.” Values are translated into needs, leading to a “pacified existence,” a “technological Eros.”
There is a kind of secularized Gnosticism underneath all of this. In a biblical worldview, the Triune Creator alone is Lord and Master of nature—and we human beings belong to nature and stewards of it. In the modern worldview, we are masters, manipulating nature to bend to our calculative reason and unrestricted will. It’s a war between rational humans and the natural world—which means also an inner war between our reason and our bodies. We can’t just be who we are (by nature), but must constantly choose new identities, new lifestyles, new visions of a fulfilling life. Eventually, history (guided by rational technology) will overcome nature. “What is only natural is overcome and recreated by the power of Reason” in an otherwise “helpless and heartless universe,” explains Marcuse. This industrialized logic “also spreads a repressive productivity and ‘false needs.’” Here again, we think we’re in charge. We’re just using tools to fulfill needs that reason identifies, when in actual fact the matrix of the technology we inhabit creates “felt needs” that it alone can meet. Marcuse is worth quoting at length on this point: “It is repressive precisely to the degree to which it promotes the satisfaction of needs which require continuing the rat race of catching up with one’s peers and with planned obsolescence, enjoying freedom from using the brain, working with and for the means of destruction.”
What complicates things, Marcuse notes, is that this sort of productivity generates obvious comforts, efficiency, and wealth. But at what cost? Under these conditions, modernity is willing even to grant freedoms to strenghten the repression. “The degree to which the population is allowed to break the peace wherever there still is peace and silence, to be ugly and to uglify things, to ooze familiarity, to offend against good form is frightening. It is frightening because it expresses the lawful and even organized effort to reject the Other in his own right….In the overdeveloped countries, an ever-larger part of the population becomes one huge captive audience—captured not by a totalitarian regime but by the liberties of the citizens whose media of amusement and elevation compel the Other to partake of their sounds, sights and smells.”
We now live in an era described by Francis Fukayama as “the global cliché culture”—presaged by Marx’s line, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with serenity their real living conditions and their relationship with their peers.” This points up the fact that Marx and his heirs weren’t the real innovators. Like Nietzsche, they were building their own vision of an atheistic utopia on the rubble of a decadent Christendom.
In our time, even salvation has been cast—for quite a while, actually—in terms of spiritual technology. It’s obvious in the average Christian bookstore, with the best-selling titles devoted to the “How To” genre. However, it’s not just how to be a better parent or partner, or godly diet plans and seven steps to having your best life now. Even salvation—the most sacred concern—is profaned. It’s no longer a question of how we relate to the Triune God, but how we can be born again, go to heaven, and manage our personal growth. Even to affirm the new birth, heaven, and sanctification in this scheme is a hollow victory, since the map is no longer really soteriological (about salvation) but technical (about how to manage our lives).
Way back at the turn of the twentieth century, Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield’s Perfectionism explored the prominence of mechanical and technological metaphors in the mystical writings of radical pietism, Methodism, and especially the Higher (Victorious) Life movement. Consistent with synergistic assumptions (i.e., divine-human cooperation), the emphasis is on finding the right steps, tools, techniques for climbing the ladder of grace. The “Higher Life” teachers speak of engaging the Holy Spirit, says Warfield, much as one might engage an electrician. We “plug into” the Holy Spirit, “connect,” “link up,” and so forth. More like a power plant than a person, “the Spirit” becomes something else that we can use (or not use) to gain mastery. There is one set of conditions for “getting saved” and another set of conditions for upgrading from coach to first class (baptism in the Spirit, the victorious life, etc.)
So it’s not surprising that evangelical leaders like George Barna now encourage Christians to find their “spiritual resources” on-line rather than in local churches. Once we swallow the idea that we can ascend the hill of the Lord through our technological efforts, it hardly seems necessary to gather bodily with other sinners, confessing our sins and our common faith, interceding for Martha’s cancer or Bill’s lay-off, giving tangible offerings symbolic of our whole life belonging to the Lord in body as well as in soul. And if water baptism has nothing to do with real (spiritual) baptism, and if the Supper is merely about our active remembering rather than our receiving Christ’s gift of himself—his own body and blood, then we can do all of that spiritual legwork on the net. We can go around all of the troublesome physical stuff. We can go around Christ’s personal body as well as the bodies of the ecclesial body of Christ to “connect” directly with Christ one-on-one, or perhaps in that quintessential oxymoron: virtual communities.
Again, what we need is neither legalism (forbidding technology) nor license (embracing technology), but of thinking wisely as Christians—in the light of the whole biblical teaching relevant to these questions. However, when salvation itself is reduced to spiritual technology, the old words no longer mean the same thing. If we begin to understand salvation as God’s descent to us, through ordinary earthly means—the incarnate flesh of Christ, the creaturely means of grace, and the real community that shapes our discipleship over a lifetime, then we will at least have the most crucial coordinates for wise decision-making about our use of technology. More than that, we will understand the gospel not as good advice, steps, techniques, or procedures for life-management but as the good news that in Christ “salvation is of the LORD” (Jon 2:9).
The July / August 2010 issue of Modern Reformation touched on some of these issues as well. Check out these two articles:
The January / February issue of Modern Reformation was titled “Grace Over Race.” Included in that issue were articles dealing with God’s grace and its trumping every human-built barrior. Enjoy these articles as well: