Acton Commentary

The Blessings of Technology


Over the past thirty years, a certain degree of skepticismabout the merits of technology has surfaced in the thoughts and writings ofmany Christians. Doubtless, good Christians have reasons to be concerned aboutthe uses to which technology is often put. When Hannah Ardent coined theexpression, “the banality of evil,” she was not just referring to thebureaucratic mentality that lent itself to the relative efficiency of themurder of European Jewry. She also had in mind the manner in which moderntechnology made the mass killing of human beings seem less frenzied, lessbloodthirsty, even somewhat dispassionate.

More everyday technological events, such as the popularization of e-mail and theInternet, are occasionally portrayed by some Christians as facilitating ade-personalization of human life and relationships. Other Christians appearsuspicious of technology's association with the emergence of modernity: thatis, a period of history in which the claims of Revelation are often perceivedas being challenged by the insights of science.

Karl Marx once argued that technological society facilitates atheism. No doubt,there is a kernel of truth to this. Technological advances have created for usa world surrounded by products that man has made. Many of us live in culturesfilled with mechanical devices by which we reconfigure our lives, and settingsdominated by features constructed on a scale perhaps unparalleled in history.As a result, technology returns to us the image of our works. It is this imageof ourselves that many humans consider, admire, and sometimes worship.

The problem of self-absorption and idolatrous self-worship has, however, bedeviledhuman beings from the very beginning. It happens in all cultures and at alltimes, regardless of their degree of technological development. In the Romanworld, it reached a type of apogee with the Caesars' ascription of divinestatus to themselves.

Is it possible, then, for Christians to think about technology in ways that avoid romanticizingboth the pre-modern and natural worlds, but also the “scientism” that wouldhave us believe that human cognizance of truth is essentially limited toknowledge of the technical?

One point to keep in mind is that evil does not proceed from technology per se.Evil comes from the Fall and the free choices of human beings for evil ratherthan good. The problem therefore is not generally technology itself butrather how it is used. This is hardly a new dilemma.

Leonardo da Vinci, who was after all an engineer, declined to publish the plans of the submarine that hedevised, because he considered it unfair to strike, without forewarning, a foewho cannot see you. Some might suppose that da Vinci's decision was dictated bywhat is often regarded as a quaint code of renaissance chivalry. Da Vinci'sreasoning, however, simply presupposed that technology was subject to anotherorder: the demands of God's moral law, the only order that can give technologyits proper meaning and determine the ends for which it may be used. Thus, weought to consider that submarines need not be employed solely for violentpurposes. They have in fact served to reveal to man many of the previouslyhidden glories of the world created by God beneath the sea.

Indeed, it is difficult to think of anything that gives us a mightier image of God asHe is manifested by means of the world that He created, than those immensesolar spaces that astronomy allows us to glimpse. In other words, technologyhas allowed us insights into the complex, interconnected mystery of theuniverse in ways unimaginable to Galileo or Ptolemy.

And here is the ultimate irony. It is precisely by fulfilling the Genesis mandateto fill the earth and subdue it, that human beings not only participate infurthering God's original Creative Act, but also gain greater insight into thewonder of that original Creative Act. Through technology, more and morescientists have come to see design and order where many of our ancestors sawonly darkness and chaos.

In this sense, technology can help to de-mystify and “de-divinize” the materialworld, while simultaneously awakening us to the majesty of the One who createdit.

The Jesuit patristic scholar, Jean Daniélou, once observed that primitive man identified thesupernatural everywhere, but largely on account of his ignorance. In thissense, Daniélou noted, technology can help to “free religion and man's sense ofthe supernatural, from a whole cumbersome burden of the pseudo-supernatural andthe pseudo-religious.”

All this leads us to recognize that just as there is no need to downgrade BillGates in order to exalt St. Augustine, so too is there no requirement to abasehuman technology in order to magnify God's works. The greater the achievementsof human technology within the moral order created by God, Daniélou wrote, themore that God should seem even greater still to man.

In that sense, we should not be unduly fearful of man's technologicalachievements. Certainly, the Christian must demand that man's use oftechnology, like all our other choices, conforms to God's moral law, a lawknowable through faith and reason. But greater the man and his technologicalachievements, the more the Christian may realize that even greater too must beHe--the God-Man himself, the Alpha and Omega of all time, Jesus Christ--from whomwe derive our own greatness.