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.”
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.
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)