Every civilization has had its own ways of getting materials out of the bio-physical environment in order to feed, clothe, and house people, and to move people and things from where they are to where we want them to go. People with technical abilities know how to do things, how to make instruments to do things, and how to fix things when they are broken. Modernity thinks it is right to honor them and what they do.
Moreover, modernity has put both scientific truth and imagined beauty at the disposal of technique, producing the new phenomenon “technology.” Technology not only changes the bio-physical world, it alters our social and historical worlds by producing ever new waves of industrial revolutions. At the same time, it changes our mental world, the ideological structures by which we understand self, community, and cosmos.
Advised by science and served by poetic imagination, modern technological competence brings greater and greater capabilities of altering nature, history, human consciousness, and indeed, technology itself. We now have more organized means by which to induce intentional change in geometric increments than humanity has ever known. Insofar as technology is successful, it liberates us to do what we want to do.
To be sure, there are limits. One of these limits is functional. Everything in technology has to pass the “ergonomic” test, that is, it has to work, measurably. But the quest for efficiency is after all part of what technology is about. A second limit is ignorance. We do not know how to do a great many things. But we both seek to overcome that ignorance as quickly as possible, and to do everything that we already know how to do. A third limit is said by many people to be that of sheer survival: We could so alter the world that it might no longer sustain us. Indeed, the prophets of ecological disaster or nuclear winter say we have already begun to trespass this limit. But others say that the survival of the planet is not a limiting issue: We could simply decide to use the earth to establish colonies on other planets and thus populate the galaxy.
Whether one is an apocalyptic or a Utopian, the deeper point is that nothing either in malleable nature or in history, nothing in human nature or in ideology could, in principle, limit our attempts precisely to break these limits, since technology is nothing less than the praxis by which we have learned how to free ourselves from the constraints of nature, human nature, history, and ideology, so as to transform them according to our will.
The new liberation brought by technology poses an old ethical problem: the peril of freedom without norm. Many of the greatest theological thinkers of recent centuries have predicted the triumph of “rationalization,” “modernization,” and “secularization,” expecting a Faustian triumph of uncontrolled hubris, an erosion of human dignity, an assault on all things normative, and a contempt for all things theological. In opposition, a number of scientists have hinted that Promethean humanity might now escape the confines of myth-imposed chains and pains, storm the heavens, seize control of its own destiny and drive all irrational spiritualities back into the preconscious dungeons of the primitive mind, whence they came and where, if anywhere, they belong. Such debates were couched in discussions of the relationship of faith to reason, or religion to science, either of which saw a great opposition, tension, and battle between two arenas of life and thought—“history” and “nature.”
Many of these debates remain alive, but technology has set them onto new ground. For technology is not in any simple sense reason or science or nature any more than it is machines or bombs or pills or computers. It is rather a praxis guided by a metaphysical-moral vision that tells us that we can and should figure out how things work in order to make them work the way we think they ought to work. And this little word “ought” suggests the issue. Here we see why technology is important to ethics and ethics to technology.
Some time ago, the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss published a famous study called The Raw and the Cooked (1969). One aspect of his argument is of particular interest here. Among the primal cultures he studied, Levi-Strauss found myths, rituals, and grammars that tell us that certain natural resources are there for cooking. Things properly cooked are “civilized” and fit for human use; things uncooked or improperly cooked are “savage” and unfit. This is a refinement of James Frazer’s work on feasts, William Robertson-Smith’s analysis of sacrifice, N. D. Fustel de Coulange’s interpretation of the hearth; and it supports in considerable measure Max Weber’s view of “commensalism” (especially in the Mass) and Mary Douglas’s theory of “purity” with regard to food. Scholars will continue to debate these works, but what they all point to is that there has been and continues to be a vast process of transforming the bio-physical universe into that which can sustain life. They also show that that process inevitably takes place under the guidance of ethical and/or religious principles of discernment. “Ought” is built into the process.
Cooking requires the human use and control of fire. Fire is, we might say, superhuman—at once dangerous, potent, and necessary. It can destroy what it reconstructs; it can consume what it refines. Without it, humans regress to barbarous subsistence; with it, civilization becomes a possibility. But cooking with fire is not in itself divine; it requires a metaphysical-moral meaning beyond its own functionality—a meaning, in other words, beyond the physical facts of the matter, one at least believed to be beyond historical construction, a meaning that defines what is ethical, what is properly fitting to human society. Here we can see the importance of norm-laden ritual: the pagan raw is transubstantiated into the civilized cooked; the authentic human community is defined. Here ritual guards sacred meaning as nature, history, and ideology cannot do. Serious cooking must, in short, be “kosher.”
Today, for us, all resources have become cookable—in principle if not yet in fact. Virtually nothing is excluded from what can be transformed into a consumable product for human use. Indeed, not only nature, but many aspects of the social order—insofar as they can be engineered, planned, and transformed by the intentional designs of technological effort—can be cooked. The city is a cooked village; the factory is a complex oven, its products the cooked resources of mine and field; the corporation is an organized assembly of cooks; the news is cooked gossip; the shopping mall is cooked swapping; the university, the law court, the laboratory, all serve to facilitate cooking.
We in the modern world recognize no less than the ancients that “cooking” is necessary for human sustenance. Many modern philosophers and social scientists, however, are in doubt that sacred ritual or mythic content is or should be attached to it. Indeed, one of the things that most divides us from our forebears is our belief that the process of transformation from the raw to the cooked, and the norms by which this transformation is guided, are themselves human construals: we cook them up, too.
John Staudenmaier’s analysis of the content of the last quarter-century of the journal Technology and Culture is very revealing in this regard. He finds technology deeply intertwined with education, with the dominant dynamics of both industry and politics, as well as with the arts, medicine, law, and morality—all those elements that taken together are what we mean by the word “culture.” Technology thus cannot be understood merely by reference to such things as engineering or mechanics or new forms of know-how.
Technology involves the relationship of expected change to insight, to the support network that encourages innovation, and to the thought systems by which new methods are imagined, analyzed, revised, tested, made available to the public, and subsequently adopted by it. The praxis of technology does not stand by itself any more than the ancient methods of cooking dinner stood by themselves.
Each step in the course of technological change involves its implication in a distinctive “cognitive universe” that is prior to any specific technology. That is, it requires a set of metaphysical-moral presumptions of which its practitioners may not even be conscious. For instance, technologists tend to think of nature as an orderly, but not a closed, system; it is thus a system very much open to manipulation. They endorse novelty wrought by human creativity, and they value such activities as the use of science as a tool, invention, and the allocation of capital for efforts to transform nature—in short, ways of seeking new possibilities that might well change both the course of society and the logic of human understanding.
Such presumptions, of course, are not “natural.” Indeed, only in a cognitive universe where people are culturally fluent in this way can technology perpetuate itself. Wherever its underlying presuppositions are, intentionally or unintentionally, hidden from consciousness, technological transfer will be inhibited. In other words, technology is dependent on culture, not the other way around.
Technology is thus the embodiment of a particular symbolic rendering of what it means to be human, one in keeping with a kind of literacy for which many have forgotten the raison d’etre. Natan Setiabudi of Indonesia has pointed out that many who want the fruits of technology adopt it without realizing that it carries with it bio-physical, socio-political, symbolic-cultural and finally also religious and ethical assumptions of which they are not aware. Were they aware, they might not approve.
Which brings us to the question of the ethical character and specific moral content of the technological subjection of nature and history to human will. The answer seems quite obvious and simple. Two moral qualities are present in all serious technology: freedom and efficiency.
The freedom inherent in technology is that which reduces the degree to which humans must passively depend on the givens of the bio-physical order. In the more highly developed societies, neither work nor the conditions under which people work is determined by “nature.” Daily schedules, for example, are less and less determined by daylight. Communication is no longer bound by time or space. Diseases that were debilitating or fatal are increasingly subject to treatment or control. The peoples, customs, cultures, and religions of the world are more readily accessible, as are whole new ranges of foods, ideas, products, and life-styles. On every side, new freedoms explode.
Such freedoms, however, themselves depend above all upon access to the necessary cognitive universe. Those who either resist or are for one reason or another barred from the technological vision get confined on a kind of intellectual, social, and economic reservation. Thus, the elders of many societies, who recognize that the accession of technological freedoms means an exodus from the ontocratic traditions which they see as “natural,” increasingly find themselves ignored by the youth who want these new forms of freedom.
As for efficiency, it is a virtue of technology, in some sense even prior to freedom. For after all, much of this freedom derives from the reduction of drudgery. With mechanical and electronic labor, humans are less and less definable simply as beasts of burden. Efficiency also means the reduction of waste: the greater the technological control of the environment, the less waste there will be. When oil became more costly, for example, technology was able to squeeze nearly 40 percent more energy out of each barrel of oil. And there is much evidence to suggest that big logging companies and agribusinesses gain higher yield per acre and enhance a longer-range viability of the land than small extraction operations and family farms—although these facts often conflict with widely held social values.
Freedom and efficiency, however, are not ultimate but only penultimate values. Freedom is a necessary precondition for, but not in itself the substance of, living rightly or well. The capacity to transcend the constraints of circumstance and bio-physical determinism and the ability to overcome given limitations of time and space are necessary ingredients of human society; but one thing they cannot do for us is tell us how we ought to use our freedom. Indeed, as we know, the freedom brought by technology is often used precisely to violate human rights, to constrict for some what it enhances for others, as well as to construct instruments of destruction.
Nor can freedom be guided by efficiency. As with most virtues, we learn little of substance from efficiency without an additional normative reference. It is a good thing to be faithful, hopeful, and loving—if, that is, what we have faith in, hope for, and love is valid. So with efficiency. We can be as efficiently evil as good, for what it governs is means, not ends. It does not contain its own telos. In the service of ethically defined ends such as housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, defending the innocent, or seeking wisdom, the virtue of technology finds a fuller expression. Such ends, however, depend on principles of justice that are extrinsic to technology, on a social analysis of ordering discernment as to what the human community needs, and on a theological vision that tells us which felt needs ought to be met so that the order we create may accord with ultimate truth.
In brief, technology’s freedom and efficiency require an ethic beyond technology’s own virtues. In fact, I propose that it needs a Christian Social Ethic—one concerned with this question: How does God want us to live together in the world?
Many people would no doubt agree that a social ethic is necessary: but a Christian social ethic? Is theology required? Many might hold the position that while technology does indeed require a sense of normative order beyond itself, societies based on an intimate connection between freedom, efficiency, and a pattern of disciplined cultural norms may be enough. Surely, they might say, the discipline that guides freedom and efficiency need not be linked to or derived from Christianity; it might just as easily be guided by a philosophical humanism, or Judaism, or Confucianism, or, as seems to be the case in Japan, a “Samurai work ethic.”
But this issue needs to be disaggregated. First, there is the question of whether technology requires a social ethic extrinsic to itself; second, whether that social ethic must be religious in character, or whether a cultural or philosophical discipline will suffice; third, whether, if a religious or cultural dimension of discipline to guide freedom is required, it needs for any reason to be specifically Christian.
In taking up these issues, it is useful first to remind ourselves that what we often think about as “natural” is what has become “second nature” by technological, social, and cultural convention. Historical or sociological analysis reveals that much that appears to us firmly planted in the structure of the cosmos is in fact artifactual. This is one of the findings of modern philosophy that has caused great consternation among those devoted to certain classical forms of “natural philosophy.” The standards of justice drawn from what is “natural” in this sense of the term are altered in keeping with historical transformations. What our forebears willed, in other words, has become “second nature” to us.
The widely held view of nature as the most comprehensive category of all that can be known has long been challenged by theology. The doctrine of Creation puts all of nature in a larger context and sees it as artifact. Now that view is being challenged more concretely by technology—in part because, as will be later suggested, technology manifests a peculiar theological dependence. For the moment, however, it is enough to suggest that if we appeal to nature as the most comprehensive reality, we would have to say that human nature is a part of the whole. And we would soon have to note that human nature is constituted so as to cook things—otherwise we could not account for the fact that that is what we always do.
Cooking and worship are two decisive activities that distinguish men from the beasts. Perhaps ironically, those who appeal to nature most vigorously have wished to stand human nature on its head, maintaining that we should not cook things without constraint, that raw nature is more primal and thus more to be honored—even, for some, worshipped—since that is the source of our basic understandings of justice. But humans cook by nature: there does not seem to be any reason in nature why the cooks should be constrained by the cooked.
Several of the modern thinkers who most clearly perceived the increasingly pervasive character of technology—who saw its systemic challenge to the sovereignty of that “nature” that they took to be both the source and norm of justice—have been led to new forms of neo-pagan romanticism. They have been eager to overcome “artificiality,” to reverse “modernization,” to slay the dragons who thought that life should be guided by any thing “supra-natural.” Within this view is a denial of a theological ethic: the justice that should guide technology derives from the way things “naturally” are.
This neo-pagan romanticism is the source of various forms of the drive to repudiate modernity and civilization and reestablish raw nature, raw justice. Not a few social theorists, among them even some theologians, have adopted these tendencies. Yet these are precisely the trends that have brought about the least humane application of technology’s freedom and efficiency in modern history.
No one doubts that many of the uses of technology have been disruptive of the bio-physical universe. Ecological balances have been threatened, and further disregard for the intricacies of the biosphere is stupid. It is also clear to many that various forms of work under the dispensation of technology have been exploitative and dehumanizing—persons and whole groups have been deprived of their dignity, their self-sufficiency, their cultural identity. Some of the most important social movements today want to protect the environment for humane purposes and expand the human capacity to see beauty in the wonder of creation. But the very use of such terms as “stupid,” “exploitative,” and “dehumanizing” implies a moral judgment about the relationship between nature and humanity that is not rooted in how things are, but in a theory of how life ought to be.
Many romantics believed they had hit on a way for religious sensibilities to reassert themselves in alliance with nature and with the intuitive and organic aspects of human nature. In this way they would reclaim primal communal patterns and authentic primal wisdom and displace the cold, artificial rationalism of science. Wholistic spirituality, it was held, would restore religion, banishing rationalistic, objective, mechanical, and nomothetic realities. At the same time communal solidarity would take unto itself the vital, the subjective, and the unique. This romantic aspiration took several forms.
1. Martin Heidegger, like his predecessors among the German Romantic poets and his anguished forerunner Nietzsche, believed that an “onto-theological” view lay behind the human attempt to develop modern technology. Indeed, this was the source of the “illusion” that humans ought to have dominion over what is truly natural. In this view Being, conceived as form, is distinguished from vital Existence. Existence, then, is made to fit the mold of Being, abstractly conceived. In fact, he argued Being and Existence ought not be distinguished; but because they are, the thought of Being as it is present to us in direct encounter is effaced. It would be better, as Lisa Campolo has also recently argued, if we simply abandoned technology for poetry and allowed what is already in Being to be disclosed. This would invite us to become “responsive and contemplative” rather than “domineering and challenging.”
The matter has been and will probably continue to be hotly debated, but it seems quite probable that it was this philosophy that led Heidegger (and many less brilliant philosophers) to embrace National Socialism. Thomas Sheehan has recently pointed out that Heidegger anticipated a host of lesser lights in thinking that the West was experiencing the exhaustion of the Platonic-Christian tradition of meaning and was stumbling into the dark night of a global technology. Against this, he saw philosophically, in the ancient pre-Socratics, and politically, in the contemporary Nazi movement, a celebration of the mysterious and spontaneous vitalities that rise out of the unique historicity and spirituality of a particular people. These, he held, were much more “concrete,” “unified,” and “natural” than anything metaphysical, dualistic, or transcendent.
The Heideggerian movement spoke of the spontaneities of “genius” and not of form or pattern or norm, of particular and concrete relationships and events and not of universal or abstract principles. Thus, technology was rejected—except as an instrument of a Volk freely expressing its own spiritual “mystery of Being” and overcoming onto-theo-logical abstractions. The currently much-celebrated debates about deconstruction began with the efficient and free deconstruction of humans and civility on the basis of this repudiation of the abstractions of norm and principle in the name of what is “holistic” and “natural.”
2. To be sure, fascism is not the only form of romanticism. Marxism, although closer in many ways to the Enlightenment, has a similar, albeit more subtle, dimension. In spite of Marxism’s recent political collapse, it remains today the leading form of anti-intellectualism to have gained its influence by taking on the guise of science. Its primary impulse derives from the existential will of the proletariat, which, Marxists claim, is purified of false consciousness by suffering, and thus can undertake the effort to reconstruct the world in its own image without illusion and with technology as its tool.
Theory and reality, of course, are far apart. As the Belgian theologian Jean Ladriere pointed out some time ago, Marxism preserves its romantic attraction for many not because it is intellectually compelling (it is not), nor because it brings a new actualization of justice (it does not), nor because it is fully in accord with the class interests of those who are supposed to be helped by it (they are frequently the most cynical about it). Rather, minority elites take it up because they want to change the course of history and think that it is efficacious. That is, Marxism is viewed as an ideational technology that will allow these elites to realize their version of “the people’s will.”
Compared to fascism, Marxism is ethically to be preferred for the simple reason that it does have a universalistic element. It does not have only a national or a racial moral horizon, but a human, rational one—at least, in principle. However, its romantic impulse takes the form of a sense of solidarity that has tended to subvert its own humanism. That is, it believes that what is human can be reconstructed because humans are, finally, nothing more than, as Marx said, “an ensemble of social relations.” And the new humanity can be built by the reorganization of the means of production and reproduction—that is, by technology, by the reordering of the relationship of human collective life to the bio-physical realm. But, of course, something has to guide the reorganization of the means of production. And that is the vital will as it emerges in particular contexts of history.
Efforts to reconstruct Marxism are now taking place everywhere around the world, based on the recognition both that Marxism has not worked in practice as it claimed to in theory, and that its concentration of power at the center has produced terrible injustice. In other words, it has not sustained efficiency and freedom, and its vision of justice has faltered because it is not attached to a metaphysical-moral vision capable of guiding the liberation it ostensibly intends.
3. The presumptions of fascist naturalism as well as those of Marxist monism have been defeated in many ways. Yet in recent decades they have also recombined in a most interesting way to produce an energetic new challenge to theology. This recombination can be found in a number of the new “Creation Theologies,” as, for example, in Jean Houston’s “Prometheus Rebound: An Inquiry into Technological Growth and Psychological Change”:
The origins of the problem of technological growth . . . lie deep in the western psyche, and specifically in its religious roots. In the first chapter of Genesis, God is not consonant with His Creation. It is a “handiwork” which He declares “Good.” In many other myths and scriptures of the beginning time, the god is implicit in the creation, is often indistinguishable from it . . . In the Judeo-Christian story there is an immediate distancing between Creator and creation, an I-it objectification of reality. . . . And the being created in the image of God, man, is similarly authorized to be dominant and removed from the sub-human world.
This elevation of man, it is regularly alleged in the Whole Earth Papers, the writings of Matthew Fox, and a vast number of feminist articles and books, has led to a will to dominance over the earth, over other humans, other religions, and other cultures. Which is to say, the popular synthesis of selected themes from fascism and Marxism has become the new monistic orthodoxy of anti-theological criticism. These days this synthesis is sometimes called “spirituality”; it gives spirituality a bad name.
4. It is a fourth form of romanticism, however, with which we must struggle most directly in the attempt to understand technology as we look toward the twenty-first century. This is the one that, comparatively speaking, has worked most efficiently and produced the greatest amount of freedom, even if our assessment of it in terms of justice must remain suspended. This is the form that has triumphed in countries where Christianity has resisted fascism, Communism, and neo-pagan spiritualities, and where Christianity—perhaps especially in its Protestant forms—seems to have given some impetus to the development of modern. Western, capitalist society. Indeed, this is the one against which “Creation Spirituality”—and its dying forebears—rails most energetically, even as it is being exported to the whole world most energetically.
This is the kind of romanticism identified by Colin Campbell in his remarkable The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Consumerism (1987). Campbell has refined Weber’s famous study of some of the forces shaping modern production to show that the modern Western form of romanticism is fixated not on the genius of a “people” (as happened in fascism) nor on the will of a class (as happened in Marxism) but on the feelings of the individual. This has revolutionized consumption, and the cumulative effects of individualistic consumption are what have fueled the disciplined, cooperative technology of production—which, once revolutionized, has in turn cooked up more and more for consumption. Catering to the sovereignty of individual feeling has generated the kinds of advertising that helps people first to define what they want, and then gives them what they have defined. This is the same impulse that gave rise to mass evangelism on the one hand and to media politics on the other.
In the face of this concretion of the romantic impulse, not only do products find validity—but reason, science, community, traditions, art, marriage, and religiosity do so as well when they stimulate, then satisfy, ever anew, individual feelings on a mass scale. Everything that does not accomplish this is to be altered or abandoned, and the chief tool for alteration, for deconstruction of the old and reconstruction of the new, is technology. (In such a context, it is no wonder that the drug problem has become so serious. It is the quickest way for the individual to get a consumable technical fix for pain and insecurity.)
How attractive these forms of romanticism all seem; how vicious they all turn out to be when socially actualized. And this is because the various romanticisms deny, in their various ways, that an onto-theological reality is, or should be, something other than pure existence and that our wills and feelings should be subject to something beyond themselves. No extrinsic norm is accepted; hence technology is no more than an efficient means of freedom.
Modern social developments dramatically reveal that we cannot find the decisive principles of justice by calling for a return to nature. The advent of modern technology has reminded us that we were long ago expelled from that garden of innocence, and the social forms that develop on the basis of a love of “raw justice” become more perilous than those which they resist. Moreover, our primal capacity to recognize good and evil, to distinguish right from wrong, requires that we repudiate naturalism in all its pernicious forms. Indeed, that primal moral capacity suggests that morality itself is not so much “natural” as a gift of grace. Indeed, the analysis of our situation thus far points toward a demand for a divine source for the root beyond nature of both nature and the justitia originalis by which we may be called upon to alter nature through the use of technology. Indeed, it is by analysis of the social and ethical dimensions of technology that we are led to the brink of theology.
Do we then have a license to cook the world, and, if so, do we have any recipe for doing so?
At the root of this question is the fundamental issue of whether we shall refer to the way things are as “Nature” or “Creation” and whether what we are referring to is, in either case, perfect or defective. A basic claim of the biblical traditions is that nature is not, in any permanent sense, the most reliable guide to morality, social order, or meaning. Nature is actually Creation—that is, an artifactual reality, a temporal, historical existent made by a power and with a purpose greater than it. Nature is thus dependent on a Creator. The impersonal is dependent on the personal, and is therefore subject to intervention, change, and intentional reconstruction by agents of the Creator. Nature is not the most comprehensive category that humans can conceive, and perhaps to think so is simply a superficial reflection of the fact that we have not yet penetrated to the source of its being or the norm of its character.
To be sure, many of the available concepts of “Creator” seem so arbitrary or so obscurantist as to offend all decent notions of justice or truth. But then we must again make a distinction between Nature as the primary, potentially normative, structures of Being—of which traces appear in Existence—and those natural structures in Existence that have largely departed from the normative structures of Being. In any case, we have to think, against romanticisms ancient and modern, of a dualism—one that can account for the ability, and the felt obligation, of humans to know that much of what is “natural” is not normative and not only may be but ought to be reconstructed on the basis of a supra-natural norm extrinsic to it.
This puts a whole different light on the matter, for then we can recognize that when we say that “the world is created good” we are dealing with two categories that are not necessarily the same, that the goodness is extrinsic to the way nature appears to us. The created world, as it appears to us, is not the final authority in regard to its own quality. We can recognize defect in the way something is constituted and not take things as they are to be normative. Where the created world is genuinely good, it is still not holy, not perfect, and it is thus subject to improvement. The created order may, to be sure, always have traces of the Creator’s intent and primal structure in it. Some ancients argued compellingly for a universal vestigia trinitatis; more spoke of an imago dei, so that each existing reality has the capacity both to be and to be transformed, even if the vestigium is not the Trinity and the image is not God. No concretely existent thing is, in itself, perfect, moral, ethical, divine, or whole. In the face of divine reality, it may be altered.
We can now also see why it makes sense to speak of Christian Social Ethics. Ethical aspects of an enormously pervasive social phenomenon in modernity—i.e., technology—require a normative grounding in dimensions of reality that transcend both social realities and natural justice. We are at least invited to inquire as to whether theology can supply us with a more reliable basis for life in a modern, technological, increasingly global civilization.
In this connection, the Christian claim about the Fall may well be of great consequence in this public domain of technology. All that is created—human existence in relation to nature and society—has not followed the original design, but has turned in upon itself and celebrated its own existence as sufficient unto itself. It may be free to do what it wills, efficiently, or to will a resistance to freedom and efficiency, but the will by which either is chosen is itself self-centered, fallen, broken, incomplete, and therefore unreliable. We would be most foolish if we attempted to follow its fragmented “natural” patterns in economics, family life, religion, morality, philosophy, or even, as we can now dramatically see, in technology. Thus humans have a positive obligation both to confess our sins with regard to our treatment of creation, but also to engage in the reconstruction of nature—to bring it into the kind of harmonious integrity that was intended from the start, but from which it (of which we are a part) has fallen. Such a view suggests the need for a “sacramental” view of nature.
Modern technology was born from such presuppositions. Lynn White, Jr. was nearly correct more than two decades ago when he argued that “technology is at least partly to be explained as an occidental, voluntarist realization of the Christian dogma of man’s transcendence of and rightful mastery over nature. . . . The present increasing disruption of the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science which were originating in the Western medieval world against which Saint Francis was rebelling in so original a way. . . .” White continued: “Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious.” (“The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” Science,March, 1967)
White, like the romantics, was correct in that he saw that theological issues are the basic ones; but he was only partly correct, because he was confused about the nature of nature. He did not see it as Creation, or as in need of active and sacramental reconstruction because of the Fall. He thought that St. Francis’ love of the birds and beasts could become a symbol of the cultural constraint of technology. But he also thought that religion was a part of culture and that it could be redesigned by an exercise of imaginative will. In other words, lurking in the bowels of his argument White had a technological view of both culture and religion. His view was quickly taken up by a multitude of religious-ecological buffs in the name of protecting nature. Not many recognized that they had, in fact, abandoned the idea of Creation. Fewer still recognized that the reconstruction of nature was necessarily linked to Sacrament because of the Fall, which was Francis’ inspiration (as the contemporary French composer, Olivier Messiaen, has so wonderfully shown in his inspired opera, “The Life of St. Francis”). White, in short, did not yet have a theological view of the matter, and seduced many away from one in what is also finally an anti-technological direction. His theological followers thought that we had to choose between “cooking” and “Godliness.”
White’s error—and of course not his alone—was that he did not grasp that when nature, society, and humanity are seen under the aspect of the Creator, and treated sacramentally, technology is a more or less successful manifestation of humanity’s mandate to liberate the human spirit, and to reconstruct what is distorted or incomplete in nature in order to more nearly approximate the laws, purposes, and mercies of God. That is, he did not see that technology can be a potentially grace-filled instrument of concrete salvation; that it can conduce to “the city that has foundations, whose maker and builder is God,” and whose servants any creatures using technology with this vision may be. Nor did he see that it is the loss of this orientation that has made technology available to pagan spiritual forces—with their nihilistic racism, classism, monism, and consumerism. It is quite possible that certain theological battles within Christianity itself helped to distort modern understandings about what may be more just, and more related to truth and ordering discernment, than we have yet recognized.
All Christians believe in Creation and Fall; but the decisive questions that have divided Catholics and Protestants have to do with how much fell in the Fall, how far all that did fall fell, and what best cures the fallen. Characteristically, Catholics have tended to say that the supernatural graces were lost in the Fall, but that nature remains intact—although imperfect because of its separation from that which should properly complete it. In this way Catholics have continued to rely on natural law as known by natural reason, but as supplemented and guided by sacramental fidelity that can restore the supernatural graces.
Protestants opposed this view on three grounds. First, it seemed to imply a Pelagian tendency in the understanding of reason and natural law. It had no need of grace at the basic level of human moral understanding, and where it did need grace, it turned guidance over to a magisterium that seemed no more filled with supernatural grace than anyone else. Second, it seemed to manifest an intellectual arrogance—a knowledge about how nature actually works beyond what the natural sciences could confirm. And third, it seemed to make the sacraments into an infusion of grace, on command. So, in turn, Protestants developed their own theories: of “utter depravity” to guard against Pelagian tendencies, of “common grace” to assure that everyone knew that the “reason” of justitia originalis was less a natural human possession than a divine gift, and of communion as a “remembrance” to avoid any hint of magic.
Recent ecumenical efforts suggest that the intensity of these battles may be over, and that convergence on these points with aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy is also conceivable. We have seen that the distance between the “graced reason” of the Catholics and the “common grace” of the Protestants turns out, in practice, to be not very great—at least as those concepts bear on issues of social justice. But that convergence is related to a more consequential convergence regarding sacramentality. No longer can questions of ethics, questions of modern socialpraxis, and questions of theology be neatly segregated. Presumptions and implications of each bear on the practice of the others.
“Sacramentality,” it is increasingly recognized, involves receiving what is given in “nature” as a gift, even if it is known to be broken and fallen, assuming stewardly responsibility for the nurture of that gift on the basis of the intentions of the Creator so far as we can know them. That nurture involves the transformation of what is natural so that it becomes fit for human fulfillment and the common good in a universalistic community. Thus, the “grain of the earth” and the “fruits of the vine” are “transformed by human hands” and lifted up as an “offering unto the Lord,” and then distributed to the people to sustain them in this life and orient them toward the future.
All this is to be undertaken under a discipline of ethical self-examination, confession, repentance, and a joyful sharing with others in loving mutuality. It is to be joined to the preaching of Truth and the enactment of Justice in society as a matter of sacrificial vocation.
What remains is the recasting of the norms from these classical, radical, and increasingly recovered sacramental themes for the guidance of technology. This is especially pertinent to technology as a ministry of the laity, as a diaconal service of the whole people of God in the whole creation, and as the symbolic guidance system for a praxis that has lost its theological rootage and hence tends to serve interests that, also often without theological-ethical foundations, become demonic in their employment of technology’s freedom and efficiency.
The basic theological issues of technology today then become clear. At the hands of Godless social science, or of theology disengaged from and opposed to the decisive praxis of modernity, or of the romantic naturalism of modern neo-pagans, technology loses contact with its own deepest source and norm. It thereby fractures justice, dividing freedom from norm and separating means from end; it is seduced into selling its ethical principles to causes of oppression and confusion. This happens whenever an untrue or unjust metaphysical-moral vision defines its duties.
A sacramental view of technology has thus a great deal to do with what it takes to live when we transform and share natural resources. The primitive mythic division of the world into the raw and the cooked came close to it. The commandments for keeping “kosher” did have it, but did not fully see the universal implications of their own deeper meaning. In the Eucharist, however, the meaning is universalized in principle for all peoples and for all parts of creation: We are to overcome all naturalisms and all merely secular views of societal will in favor of a justice based in onto-theo-logical norms to guide freedom; and we are to overcome all romantic (and, especially, in our domestic situation, consumeristic) employments of technology that deconstruct these normative meanings. Sacramentality is Godly cooking.
On these foundations, we may utilize technology, train the next generation in it, honor those whose vocation it is, share its fruits with the dispossessed for their empowerment, and make it humanly accessible to all in the ecumenical, cosmopolitan city now under construction. Indeed, we may thank God that the blessings as well as the sins of the fathers are visited unto the children for many generations. These blessings now need to be recovered and recast, so that they can reclaim their normative status for the decisive praxis of modernity.
Of course, to do this, we shall have to convert a world that has forgotten whence its technology derived and to convert those theologies that have forgotten the significance of what they are about. We shall have to make the case that it makes sense to speak of God and sacramentality in such matters, and that we can do so with enough reliability to guide and direct our reconstruction of nature, society, and aspects of human nature.
This, I believe, is among the most important dimensions of the vocation of theologians, ethicists, and social analysts who wish to speak to a technological age. Clarifying the basis for Godly cooking may help guide modernity’s preparations for the eschatological banquet in the world without apocalyptic self-destruction.
Max L. Stackhouse is the Herbert Gezork Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Andover Newton Theological School.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?