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Christians and Technology

May 6, 2019

As the old saying goes, Christians are in the world but not of it. Thus, although we live in a fallen, sinful world, we should still seek to be salt and light in it. But we also have citizenship in another country, and we cannot get overly comfortable here.

So we must avoid two unbiblical extremes here: being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good, and being far too cosy and at home in this world. Similar extremes need to be avoided when dealing with things like science and technology. Some believers uncritically accept and relish all new technologies, while others want little or nothing to do with them.

Luddism is not the way to proceed here, but neither is welcoming technology with open arms and no questions asked. The truth is, like everything in a fallen world, technology is a mixed bag. It can offer us great good, but it can also be used for great evil.

I recently had a discussion with one believer on the social media who tended to think that something like the Industrial Revolution was mostly a bad thing from a Christian point of view. I tried to point out that we must avoid historical revisionism here.

The ugliness depicted in novels by Charles Dickens needs to be offset by the very real gains for the masses overall. As I said in one older piece on this: “Paul Johnson says that the Industrial Revolution is ‘often presented as a time of horror for working men. In fact it was the age, above all, in history of matchless opportunities for penniless men with powerful brains and imaginations, and it is astonishing how quickly they came to the fore’.”

Or as another historian noted, “The nineteenth century, for the first time, introduced on a broad scale the state policies of public health and public education. The nineteenth century, by turning out cheaper goods, made possible the amazing climb of real wages in industrialised economies. The nineteenth century, by permitting the transfer of capital in large amounts, opened up the interiors of backwards countries for development and production”.

But see more on this here: billmuehlenberg.com/1998/06/20/in-defence-of-the-industrial-revolution/

As we know, science and technology often outpace ethical reflection about where all this is headed – or should be headed. Too often in the West the emphasis is about if something can be done as opposed to whether it should be done. An obvious case in point is in the area of biotechnology.

Whether speaking about human cloning, stem cell research, or assisted reproductive technologies, we are racing ahead at light speed here, often leaving moral concerns behind in the dust. Often Hollywood films do more to critically examine these things from an ethical point of view than do Christians.

This is not right. We should be at the forefront of offering critical reflection and ethical evaluation of all technologies and all scientific endeavours. To that end my website for example has over 1800 articles on ethics, with 127 of those on bioethics: billmuehlenberg.com/category/ethics/bioethics/

But there is far too much to be said about the Christian view of science and technology than can fit in one small article. So let me simply introduce you to three important authors who have written on these matters: an English Anglican apologist, a French Catholic sociologist, and an American evangelical professor.

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)

The great C. S. Lewis wrote a number of very crucial works on the issue of technology, especially sounding the alarm as to where unbridled technology and amoral science might be taking us. His works were certainly prophetic as he made his warnings about where we were headed.

For example, in his 1946 book That Hideous Strength (the third volume in his space trilogy), he spoke much to the issues of rogue science and unethical technocrats. This work of fiction was a clear warning about coming coercive dystopias. As Francis Schaeffer once said of the book, “I strongly urge Christians to read carefully this prophetic piece of science fiction.”

And in his important 1947 volume, The Abolition of Man he again warned of a ruling class of technocrats and well-meaning experts who in their desire to conquer nature and its ills would end up destroying man. As he wrote: “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”

He continued, “Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”

You can see more on Lewis and his thoughts on technology here: billmuehlenberg.com/2013/11/19/c-s-lewis-science-technology-meaning-and-freedom/

Jacques Ellul (1912-1994)

The famous French thinker warned about the dangers of the dehumanising effects of technology in various works, especially The Technological Society, first published in 1954. This work has become something of a classic, and much of what is spoken about there still repays careful study.

He of course was a mixed bag theologically and politically. He was a universalist, a pacifist and an anarchist, and owed much of his thought to people like Kierkegaard and Marx. So evangelical Christians would of course have to read him carefully and discerningly.

But his constant concerns about the dehumanising and depersonalising effects of technology are worth being aware of. Let me simply offer two of the more famous quotes from this work:

“Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man’s very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created. He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with living things, and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.”

“The world that is being created by the accumulation of technical means is an artificial world and hence radically different from the natural world. It destroys, eliminates, or subordinates the natural world, and does not allow this world to restore itself or even to enter into a symbiotic relation with it. The two worlds obey different imperatives, different directives, and different laws which have nothing in common. Just as hydroelectric installations take waterfalls and lead them into conduits, so the technical milieu absorbs the natural. We are rapidly approaching the time when there will be no longer any natural environment at all. When we succeed in producing artificial aurorae boreales, night will disappear and perpetual day will reign over the planet.”

Craig Gay

In his 1998 book The Way of the (Modern) World, the Regent College professor looked at how modernity was impacting both the world and Christianity. In it he devoted an entire chapter to technology and its impact. He notes – as have others – the debt modern science owes to Christianity.

And in those 50 pages he of course refers to both Lewis and Ellul. As to the latter, and his “lifetime concern with the hegemony of technical rationality” he says this:

Ellul felt that the principal intellectual tragedy of the modern world lay in the fact that our obsession with technology has completely eclipsed our ability to reflect about what we are doing with technology and why. We have become so fascinated by our technical capabilities, Ellul argued, that we have essentially allowed ourselves to be absorbed into the technological apparatus.

Gay is certainly not as critical of technology as Ellul was, but he is circumspect nonetheless:

Even if it is possible to find fault with modern technological society for a number of reasons, we should not gainsay the level of material and technological affluence modern science and technology have generated, and we should not underestimate the control over our environment that we have been able to purchase with this affluence. Most of us would simply not be here were it not for the remarkable achievements of modern science and technology. These material benefits have obviously come at a price, however.

Image of Modern Technology and the Human Future: A Christian Appraisal
Modern Technology and the Human Future: A Christian Appraisal by Craig M. Gay Amazon logo

But last year Gay released a new title, devoted exclusively to this topic. In Modern Technology and the Human Future he carefully looks at these matters in much more detail, and again offers us a balanced and biblical way forward, being neither a technophile nor technophobe.

In his introduction he repeats his deep appreciation of technology: “Not one of us would benefit from the quality of life we enjoy today if not for a series of technological revolutions that began toward the end of the eighteenth century and have continued with increasing frequency into the present.”

But he is also fully aware of the downside: “A large and growing body of evidence suggests that the impact of modern technology—in particular, the impact of automatic machine technology—upon us is not altogether beneficial. The trajectory of modern machine development appears now to be diverging away from and not toward the enrichment of ordinary embodied human being.”

That is what his book seeks to grapple with. And he makes it clear that he is coming from a decidedly biblical perspective: “I believe that the only framework that is up to the task of constructively criticizing the disembodying/dehumanizing thrust of modern technology – indeed the only framework that can defend embodied human existence under modern conditions – is derived from the central tenets of the Christian religion, specifically from the orthodox doctrines of creation, incarnation, and resurrection.”

In some 230 pages he ably seeks to make this case. Along the way he speaks to plenty of the modern technologies, be it robotics, or modern medicine, or computers and the internet, and the modern ideologies, be it scientific optimism, the search for the complete mastery of nature, or transhumanism.

I highly recommend this book to you – along with the other works mentioned here. They help us to think carefully and Christianly about how we should think of and evaluate technology. That is something all believers should be doing, especially as technology looks to be spinning out of control, taking us places that we may well later deeply regret.

(Australians can find most of the books mentioned here at Koorong Books)

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16 Responses to Christians and Technology

  • The issue is not with technology or science. The problem is with man’s heart. The knife can be used to aid healing and defending but it also can be used to inflict pain and killing.
    The internet can help spread the Gospel and it also help spread sin like wildfire.
    This is why Jesus tackled directly at man’s heart.

  • Tay, interestingly enough, I used to hold that view, that technology is just a neutral tool, and the real issue is how you use it (for good or evil). Actually, it’s pretty easy to see that’s not the case. Technology often has hidden characteristics.

    I’m reading Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” that easily shows how the internet and other technologies shape our brain. For example, the more people use the internet, the less their brain can deeply concentrate, because the internet actually adopts an ethos of quick connected information over and against the value of deep knowledge (and our brain is plastic, not fixed).

    Highly readable, but by a non-Christian so you have to do your own working out of how it all fits. For the average person, they’ll want to think about what they spend their time on, and be mindful about whether their brain is being conditioned towards helping their goals, or hindering (ie if you need deep thought, creativity and problem solving in your life, limit your use of the Internet and limit your distractions Eg notifications on phone, environmental).

  • Nathan, you commenting a lot on man choices which is my point. Its how man use technology. Technology don’t just leap out and attack people. At the end of the day its the heart that drive the technology not the technology drive the heart.
    A fishing net can be used to kill people or it can be used to catch fish like the disciples and many people in every part of the world.

  • Ultimately, good old fashioned, and the two became one and multiplied may be more relevant than an iPhone,

    The most technological unadvanced had this to offer-

    As of 2000, over 165,000 Old Order Amish lived in the United States, and about 1,500 lived in Canada.[5] A 2008 study suggested their numbers had increased to 227,000,[6] and in 2010, a study suggested their population had grown by 10 per cent in the past two years to 249,000, with increasing movement to the West.[7] Most of the Amish continue to have six or seven children, while benefitting from the major decrease in infant and maternal mortality in the 20th century. Between 1992 and 2017, the Amish population increased by 149 per cent,[8] while the U.S. population increased by 23 per cent.

    Those with a math brain will realise their numbers are going up exponentially.

    Added to this it doesn’t escape my amusement that my atheistic peers who inform me I am the daughter of 1st-century illiterate goat herders while copying my Science homework BTW, are now telling me the world is coming to an end in 11 years time due to global warming if we don’t give up cars, planes and cows . Telling me this while having to wear a fleece in May as it is so cold (in the UK) (It seems the non-tec Amish are about to get a boost from an unexpected source). As for me, its a bank holiday, so daddy please, please take me to the seaside in the car.

  • Mr Tay Ngo + Mr Nathan Keen,
    It would appear that you both have identified the source of the problem perhaps, Mr N’s, the heart is deceitful beyond all things and MR K’s, brain meltdown due to not experiencing delayed gratification from having to work through problems. I was drawn to your offering Mr K since meltdown occurs if my teachers consider my efforts only warrants a ‘B’ when plainly they are ‘A’ grades. Sadly you both alas only identified the mechanism that identified we had a problem, i.e. the heart and brain. However, I bypassed that stage and went straight to the solution, which was to become Amish, thereby bypassing the iPhone and going straight to manufacturing our own Christians, in batches of 6 to 8 at a time. Plainly doing so will leave you no time for the internet brain microwaving Mr K, and Mr N, the only heart you will have to concern yourself with is the heart of the woman you will have to keep in a perpetual state of pregnancy until each, and every one of her eggs is used up. I think you will both agree that your feeble attempts do not justify a grade above a, ‘D’, as for my grade, ‘A*’, would not flatter my pride hardly at all.

  • Os Guinness The Dust of Death (First Crossway Books edition, 1994 [of a work originally published by IVP in 1974]), pp 142-146 and elsewhere, has a discussion of the work of Jacques Ellul. Guinness’s The Dust of Death also discusses other twentieth-century thinkers who critiqued the role of technology in formation of modern human society.

    IBM, I understand, designed the pre-computer, data management filing system used by the Nazis to facilitate The Holocaust. Data management is now an even more potent tool for the management/control of large populations of humanity by big government and big business around the globe…

    On a lighter note: What is the difference between being hypnotised and being a computer games junkie? Or which is better: Chained to kitchen sink, or obedient slave of the dishwasher?

  • It’s a complex topic, much more than ‘we can use tech for good or evil fullstop’ (although that certainly is also true). Take machines that automate. They can be dehumanising, because like big production lines in car factories they can force people into tiny rather robotic functions that take no creativity, no thought, and offer very little pride for the person as they just do so very little. But if this is your only livelihood can we just choose to not use this? Perhaps our calling will be to redeem technology like this?

    But then, it’s the very automation part of technology that often frees us from the tedious rather robotic-like tasks. Who likes doing washing every day? The washing machine, dryer and dishwasher, are amazing inventions that free us from rather banal tasks.

    And there’s other technology such as our language. That had to be thought up, to map all the different sounds we use to letters into an alphabet – rather than the more primitive and inefficient use of symbols and pictures like Chinese. This enabled the Romans to keep record of key documents – and for the Bible to be written.

    Then when books came in enmasse via the printing press, while it could be used for good – ie printing the Bible – or evil – ie printing pornography – it actually had other questionable unintended effects. It was the beginning of the end for the oral culture where Jewish boys memorised the entire Pentateuch by the age of 12 (why memorise when everyone can have access to a written Bible?). It’s not like you can just choose to go back to an oral culture.

    So there’s personal choices, but also massive cultural change that we can’t just choose anymore. I think today there’s a great deal of technology that we’re called to redeem, not just use differently.

  • Nathan, a few corrections I think.

    Language isn’t technology, it isn’t tangible. As for mapping different sounds to the letters of the alphabet, again false. English isn’t a phonetic language like Korean, and consequently pronunciation of words with similar spelling can differ radically, whilst words with different spelling can be the same – centre v center, and Mary or merry but not marry.

    As for the primitive and inefficient system of the Chinese, is it? Traditional Chinese characters frequently include a component guiding pronunciation, as well as a component pertaining to meaning. Once you know enough symbols you can start guessing pronunciation and meaning – akin to knowing English fragments e.g. geo- pertains to the Earth. And since the language is fixed – it’s changed a lot less over time, it’s easier to read ancient works, whereas even Shakespearean English can be challenging and that’s only 400 years back. True it’s a lot harder to learn IMHO than English but primitive it is not. And you might want to contrast English with Indo-European. Modern English is actually more primitive than what went before with linguistic elements simply disappearing over time.

  • John Wigg, you said:

    “IBM, I understand, designed the pre-computer, data management filing system used by the Nazis to facilitate The Holocaust.”

    John, I don’t think that is a particularly helpful point. All of the world’s accumulated knowledge is available today to people of both high ideals and base motives – even the double entry bookkeeping system used by accountants everywhere. It was invented by a cleric of the ancient church.
    Data management is what we do in our heads or with our diaries and to-do lists. Such “technologies” are pervasive and as Nathan K pointed out in his later post, some things can’t be undone even if we might want to do so.

  • Dear Folks, I am grateful for the wonderful advances of modern technology. The downside of it is that we now trust less in the mercy of God in all manner of things. I once attended a conference of science teachers and heard the claim that ‘science is the answer.’ At the time I didn’t think to ask “to what” and didn’t know enough philosophy to engage in active debate. However, in my older days I have become convinced that modern science has lost its moral compass. It distresses me that people can have elective surgery to change their sex and with the availability of modern drugs can pretend to lead a normal lifestyle. As Bill has regularly pointed out, it doesn’t lead to happy people. The law of unintended consequences is also worthy of note when grieving people want to then reverse the process. Driven by the wonders of modern technology Western society seems to be going haywire with regard to child-raising and the undermining of the Biblical concept of marriage and healthy family life. We surely need revival in Australia and to see the power of God bringing hope to our people and the transformation of communities.

  • John Angelico, I freely admit that data storage and management systems can have positive uses. However, they also present themselves as ideal tools for those who aspire to maximise their power over the rest of us.

    The storage and transmission of vast amounts of knowledge has great potential for the advance of learning. However, if control of the world’s knowledge should fall into the hands of a wealthy and powerful few, the potential for suppressing certain information to the detriment of people not so wealthy and powerful is worrying to say the least.

  • It has been my understanding that Ellul was a Reformed Protestant rather than a Catholic.

  • Thanks Harriet. I confess to not being any kind of authority on Ellul, and he seemed to be a bit eclectic in terms of theological influences. But we have this, according to the International Jacques Ellul Society:

    “He held national office in the Reformed Church of France until 1970 but was never more than on the fringes of Protestant circles.”

    https://ellul.org/life/biography/

    And this from another site:

    “Jacques Ellul began to read theology, both Catholic and Protestant. He admits that he was briefly enthralled with Calvin’s writings. “He beguiled me with his rigor, intransigence and total use of Scripture. It fit my strict personality. But he was deadly boring, extremely ‘closed,’ and too systematized. Pluralism in any form is incompatible with Calvin’s thinking.” Ellul became acquainted with the writings of the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, through his friendship with the French Protestant theologian, Jean Bosc. He appreciated Karl Barth’s dialectic approach, and said, “Once I began reading Karl Barth, I stopped being a Calvinist.” He admitted that he was more influenced by Luther, Kierkegaard and Barth, than by Calvin. (Even thought he was an active member of the Reformed Church of France.)”

    http://www.christinyou.com/pages/ellul.html

  • My dear brother in Christ Mr Frith, you sound a very wise man indeed, but if we may we would like to correct you on one point-

    you said-

    “However, in my older days, I have become convinced that modern science has lost its moral compass”.

    Science has never had a moral compass; you think that perhaps since in these days Science and Christianity are pitched against one another. Science can tell us what killed Jack and it may even point us to Bob being the murderer, but it can’t tell us that Bob did anything morally wrong in killing Jack. Christianity often can’t tell you what killed Jack or even be able to point the finger at Bob, but it may tell us murder is wrong with a level of certainty. we love science, and we love Jesus, Jesus made science, science can’t make a Jesus.

    Those having sex change operations are to be pitied beyond pitied and those performing the procedures are at the same moral level as an abortion doctor, both destroy the beautifully made.

    As regards marriage it’s up to us Christians to hold it in high regard. Molly, Milly and I will be given to our husbands pure and in the presence of God, and our families. Out of Christian marriage; God willing, comes the next generation of Christians who we pass the baton onto. We can’t change the world, but we can make sure we do not change to pander to the world.

    Nice communicating with you sir.

    Molly, Sarah and Milly.

  • Mr Mason, your post has had us in stitches; poor Alice was trying to understand what your post meant. She is grounded so was communicating via face-time with us. The more we try to explain to her what we thought you said the more confused she got. She is a new Christian and has only read the gospels so far. Molly has told her she has to read Revelation next and if she thinks your post is hard to understand, wait until she reads Revelation. lol
    Your post, Mr Mason is very well written indeed, I was going to steal it, but no one would believe I could write like that so there would be no point.

  • I admit to being torn over all this. I’ve no desire to be a Luddite. As an aside, are you aware of how many people don’t even know what a Luddite is? That’s sad because computers have made some so lazy they no longer know even the simplest of things. They think they don’t need to know much because a calculator and a computer can give them the info they need immediately. Many no longer even read! Yikes! I’ve heard it said that the internet is a cesspool. If that’s the case, then isn’t it much like a believer thinking they can go into a bar and evangelize people on that turf? Is the internet the turf of the fallen? If so, does that make it one of the best places to start in conveying the Truth to the lost? Or are we risking our own downfall? (I don’t mean loss of salvation, just succumbing, at least temporarily to the mud of the world)? I’m just trying to figure it all out, hence, all the questions. After all, the internet can be a way of reaching out to the ends of the earth to those who are lost. Since there’s “nothing new under the sun,” there’s an answer out there.

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