The Theology of Technology
Technical innovation and the Church have had an uneasy relationship over the years.
For centuries, the Bible was the main science textbook, and consequently, the Church taught as a matter of scientific and religious fact that the sun and stars revolved around the earth (actually there are still many folks who believe this. It’s called ‘geo-centrism’.). In the 16th century, Copernicus suggested that the earth revolved around the sun, a theory later affirmed by Galileo's telescope. You can imagine the uproar.
A couple of hundred years later, technology and religion again found itself at odds when the Luddite revolution, itself informed by the labor reforms advocated by the Methodists, began smashing the factory machines that threatened their livelihood. While the official position of the church was on the side of the aristocracy, the underlying theology grew out of Wesley’s own concern for the plight of the working poor, and this presented itself as a difficult position to reconcile. (and you thought I wouldn’t be able to work in a reference to Labor Day!)
For some in the church, technology has been a tool to be used in furtherance of God’s kingdom on earth: From scrolls to Bibles, from hand printing to printing presses, from foot operated organ bellows to steam calliopes, to electric air compressors, from hymnals to a screen, technology has been used to present God’s word in increasingly broader and sophisticated ways.
But this use hasn’t always been welcomed with open arms, as you can imagine. When John Wycliffe first translated the Bible into English, he was declared a heretic. When Martin Luther used the emergence of the printing press to distribute his translation of the Bible into German, it resulted in war.
And while we don’t usually associate advances in technology with revolution these days, the use of technology in church is still fraught with opportunities to offend, wound, frighten, and infuriate congregations.
And with good reason.
I, for instance, am deeply offended by the emergence of mega-churches that will broadcast their Pastor’s sermon (by hologram!) to satellite churches. My offense is based on the idea that our faith is and always was an incarnational faith, that we believe that God came to us, Emmanuel, in the flesh, that he was really real, that he assumed our limitations and our finite-ness, and you could see him, touch him, hear him, eat with him.
Our reformed theology of communion is based on the understanding that we do not call Jesus down from heaven to be our own table, along with every other table in every church everywhere, but rather that we are brought into the presence of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
You can see how the idea of an infinite and artificial broadcast of a preacher is at the very least inconsistent with our theology of an incarnate and finite Lord. At least for me it is.
I also think that the way Facebook and Twitter is being used to say things that one would never say face to face is a real problem. I am personally not on facebook, not because I’m afraid of what I might say, but rather, I’m afraid of what I might see. The few times I’ve been online, I’ve seen things that are so completely out of character that I can hardly believe they are being written by people I know. The truth is, I don’t want my good feelings for my family and friends to be ruined by the carelessness that I see being exhibited by the rants and polemics that seem all too popular these days.
And so, the truth is, in some ways, I am a social technology Luddite (again with the labor day references!). While the great promise of social media was to bring people together, the reality is going into a restaurant, and seeing everybody, even those at the same table, deep into their phones. A technology that promised community is instead creating isolation.
On the other hand, as my wife can testify, I am a gadget freak. If it clicks, whirs, computes, or can break down for no discernable reason, I love it.
And so, I am an inconsistent Luddite. Some uses of technology scare me, some intrigue me. Some infuriate me, some fascinate me.
And I’m probably not alone in this. All of us, I think, continue to have an uneasy relationship with technology. Technology, in the right hands at the right time, has resulted in the word of God being available to all in every language. In the wrong hands, at the wrong time, it can result in a ‘dirty’ nuclear device going off in a major city.
So, back to my opening thesis, the theology of technology: I’m not sure there is one. We can use technology for good things and for good reasons, or for bad things for bad reasons. This isn’t an indictment of technology, but it is a reminder of our own failings as human beings.
But, it is important to be aware of the potential for hurt that technology possesses. While the printing press was a blessing, it resulted in countless deaths. While nuclear research has brought us targeted cancer treatments, smoke alarms, and runway lighting, it has also brought us nuclear bombs and catastrophic nuclear plant meltdowns.
And while I’m not trying to say that the use of technology in church is likely to result in a mass casualty event, it bears remembering that change is difficult, and it’s hard to predict the future.
On the other hand, nothing ventured, nothing gained! On the whole, we are better off with technology. 50 years ago, my Kidney disease would have killed me off within a year. The idea that they can run a camera up the arteries of my arm right into my heart is still baffling to me, but, boy, am I glad they can do that.
My computer has an incredibly sophisticated Bible research program on it, with Bibles and resources in literally every language. I can work on sermons and church work literally anywhere there is a Wi-Fi connection. When I was a kid, I used to dream of having a communicator like Captain Kirk, and now, I have a combined communicator, tri-corder and ship’s computer all in one Android-branded phone (Yes, I know, IPhone owners; yours probably includes a cloaking device of some kind).
So, I’m not afraid of technology. I am aware, however, of its power to disrupt. As we begin this new season of the church’s life, looking at new ways of communicating an old message, I would love to promise that nothing will go wrong, nothing will offend anybody, nobody will be hurt. But I know that I can’t do that. It may be a bumpy ride.
But we won’t be taking this ride by ourselves. We are in it together, and we are accompanied by God. And maybe that’s the best theology I can come up with.