David F. Noble’s The Religion of Technology starts with an intriguing premise. Many, he argues, assume that religion and technology have a long standing enmity with each other. This narrative, bolstered by the urban legend of the church’s opposition to Columbus, and a misunderstanding of what happened with Galileo, runs deep in our cultural mindset. The triumph of Enlightenment thinking for some seals the deal in religion’s ultimate defeat by the march of progress and reason. Noble’s book sets out to show the opposite, that the creation of technology has always stemmed from a religious impulse, and that many of the world’s great technological pioneers created with a distinctly religious aim in mind.
Noble makes a few interesting claims. On the one hand, he points out that the church sponsored, or helped create certain technologies, such as the heavy plow in the Frankish empire, and a variety of other things. He also attempts to show such sponsorship meant a departure from established Orthodoxy, assuming that such ‘orthodoxy’ stood against technical development, and then traces this religious impulse down to the modern day. I can appreciate any attempt to help understand and heal the divide between religion and science, and Noble’s work accomplishes this to a slight degree. His problems stem from his lack of understanding of the meaning of technology, and the Scriptural tradition related to the topic. He misses crucial nuance and context.*
For starters, how anti-technology can Christian orthodoxy be if
- The Old Testament has a variety of sections in which craftsmen are praised, especially those who build the temple.
- Adam was told to tend and develop the garden. One might suppose that he would do so with more than just his hands.
- Jesus was the (earthly) son of a carpenter
But Noble rightly points out ambiguity in the text and tradition, for we also see
- That Cain’s line was the first to develop technology
- That the early chapters of Genesis show that those that develop technology use it first for bad ends
- That cities get a bad rap in OT at least, with Cain, Babel, Sodom, Egypt, and the like.
Noble makes no attempt to resolve these seeming contradictions and place technology in its proper context.
First we need to understand the meaning of mankind in creation, and why Cain developed tools and cities.
One can read Genesis 1 in a variety of ways. I think it best read as, at its core, an explication of the meaning of creation. Mankind comes last, but throughout the process of creation we see continual duality, first cosmically between light and dark, and then later between sea and dry land, fishes and birds, plants and animals, and so on. This dualities get closer together until we get the creation of man and woman. Mankind has the role of mediating between heaven and earth, of being the center point of the ladder of meaning that travels between what lies above and below.
The picture deepens when we see the Garden in Genesis residing on a mountain. The idea of a mountain bursting with life–this kind of paradox permeates the Christian faith, a paradox that we need to understand to interpret technologies role correctly. When Adam and Eve leave the garden, they descend down the mountain, a descent away from heaven toward earth, from meaning to fact. This “fall” downwards also gives one more earthly power, which makes sense as a kind of parody of heavenly wisdom.
In the Old Testament, as well as in other mythic traditions, the problem with technology comes not with the thing itself, but mankind receiving or grasping it before the proper time. We see this in the myth of Prometheus, for example. In the Garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was declared “good” along with the rest of creation. To help destroy man the snake tempts them to take it before the proper time.** Cain’s subsequent wandering takes him down under the mountain, in fact. He begins to look not up to heaven but under the earth. He and his descendants build cities, tools, and even musical instruments. All of this has its roots in death–even the earliest instruments came from the horns or skins of dead animals. Naturally, actual physical death comes right on the heels of these technologies (Gen. 4:23-24).
Alienated from God, mankind no longer can properly unite heaven and earth. Many have speculated on the proper interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4. The early church saw these verses as the Book of Enoch interprets them. Fallen angels have, likely through demonic possession of some sort, join with women and their offspring become the Nephilim, a race of giants. Others see it in simpler terms, with the godly line of Seth intermarrying with the ungodly line of Cain. I prefer the former option, but either way, we see again the same problem, that of improper mixing, and mankind failing to properly mediate between heaven and earth. Once again, this results in violence and the flood. The flood represents chaos and a return to a formless void, but it only mirror the chaos already introduced by mankind who fell to the temptations of technology.
Science participates in the same pattern of uniting heaven and earth as other areas of life. No contradiction should exist between science and religion. Scientists take an idea, a hypothesis, and try and coherently unite that idea (what is ‘above’) to observable phenomena (what is ‘below’). One might argue that the power Science grants has a kinship with the power of words properly structured in a great speech. But, science seems to operate on a different scale. We many not initially see that the increase of power granted by technology serves in turn to make us more vulnerable. This shows itself in any number of ways in our experience. For example, if in traveling from New York to California we
- walked, it would take us a long time, but the worst that could happen more or less is that we would sprain our ankle, or
- ran, we could go a bit faster, but in falling, with the extra momentum, we could do more damage to our legs and feet, or
- drove, we would get there faster still, but if something went wrong with the car we could get badly hurt in an accident, or
- flew in a plane, we would go fastest of all, but if even a small thing goes wrong with the craft, death would be the likely outcome.
This quick sketch no doubt leaves many unanswered questions, but hopefully this shows that reticence the Church expresses about technology has nothing to do with fear of change, or control, but in something far deeper and more important. However, the biblical narrative develops another parallel track regarding the use of technology that begins just as the detrimental effects of the Fall take root. With Adam and Eve now naked and ashamed, God makes them a “garment of skin,” a covering, that allows them to encounter the world and each other. Such garments come from the death of animals, and we can see them as the first “technology.” This technology allows mankind to interact with the world. The garments come from death and are a concession to death, but serve a good purpose.
This turning of death into life also forms part of the pattern of creation, for “Christ was slain from the foundation of the world.” For, while the OT shows us the problem of cities within the patterns, the NT shows us that even the idea of the city becomes part of the glorification of all things (Rev. 20-21). We see hints of this in the OT as well, with the construction of the Tabernacle, which can be seen as a “covering,” a means for us to encounter God, since seeing Him directly would destroy us. The Temple later serves something of the the same purpose, but interestingly, many of the materials and craftsmen for the Temple came from foreign nations. such as Tyre and Lebanon, which allows to see two things simultaneously:
- A foreshadowing of the gathering in of all nations to under the coming Messiah, of God reconciling all things to Himself in Christ, and
- That these coverings come from Outside, they are not quite part of the “core” of kingdom culture, that the Temple is “tainted” in some way.
Noble makes the great point that our technological impulse is essentially religious. Done rightly, it can manifest our calling to unite Heaven and Earth properly. But a wrong application leads toward a potentially demonic path, where our worst impulses to make ourselves into one of the old gods. Noble fails to see this pattern and so he cannot coherently organize his thoughts to make a point beyond mere observations of particulars. To say that technological development cuts against “religious orthodoxy” is too strong a claim. To say that Church tradition has usually expressed a wariness with new inventions puts us nearer the truth. We need such caution on today’s rapidly expanding digital technology to give us a chance to navigate it rightly, and give us the best chance avoiding violence and destabilization.
In War and Civilization, a short work compiling Arnold Toynbee’s thoughts on the relationship between war and society, Arnold Toynbee quotes from a prominent biologist that,
One seductive and ultimately fatal path [of Evolution] has been the development of protective armor. An organism can protect itself by concealment, by swiftness in flight, by counter-attack, by uniting for counter-attack by others of his species and also by encasing itself within bony plates and spines. The last course was adopted by ganoid fishes of the Devonian with their shining armor. Some of the great lizards of the later Mesozoic were elaborately encased. Always the experiment of armor failed. Creatures adopting it tended to become unwieldy. They had to move relatively slowly. Hence they were forced to live on vegetative matter compared to living on more “profitable” animal food. The repeated failure of armor shows that, even a somewhat low evolutionary level, mind triumphed over mere matter. It is this sort of triumph which has been supremely exemplified in Man.
Toynbee used this analogy of armor as a reference point to the David and Goliath story. David’s rejection of armor gave him more than a potential tactical advantage over Goliath. We can see David refusing armor as a putting off of the Garments of Skin, as a return to something like the Garden. Jesus cursing the fig tree accomplishes much the same thing, which we can see as Christ reversing the fall–fig leaves formed the first covering for man (Gen. 3:7). And, when Jesus tells us that “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” He refers directly to the humility of His poverty. But he also hearkens back to the fact that He has no covering, that He shed his garments, so to speak.
With his commitment to seeing history through a spiritual lens, Toynbee arrived, perhaps unwittingly, had some of these same hesitations regarding power–another “covering” akin to the Garments in Genesis. He writes about the Roman Empire:
In the downward course of a civilization there is truth in the saying of the philosopher Heraclitus: “War is the father of all things.” The sinister concentration of the resources of a civilization upon the business of fratricidal warfare may generate a military prowess that will place their neighbors at their mercy, may create a military technique that may grant them a far reaching technical mastery over the merely “Material World.”
Since it is common to reckon success primarily by power and wealth, the opening chapters in the decline of a civilization will be hailed as times of blessing and growth, and this misconception can persist even for centuries. Sooner or later, however, disillusionment is bound to follow, for a society that is hopelessly divided against itself is almost certain to try and double down on military might, for that is what seemed to work initially.
For example, we see the money-power and man-power won for Greek society by Alexander the Great, and these same vast resources used to intensify the civil wars between Alexander’s successors. This same power swept into Roman hands through the meteoric rise in Rome’s land and wealth ca. 241-146 B.C. was just as quickly spent in the various civil wars that wracked Rome before the rise of Augustus and the Pax Romana. For Spain, the treasure gained in the new world and the free labor of the essentially enslaved native populations was the food for their wars in Europe during the late 16th and early 17th centuries–the same wars that brought them into second-rate power status in Europe.
Thus the increasing command over the environment gained is apt to bestow upon a society a disintegration that puts a greater driving power into the suicidally demented society’s chosen work of self-destruction; and that story turns out to be a simple illustration of the theme that, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). And again, the empires of industrialized Europe in the late 19th century gained the material resources to nearly destroy European civilization in our great Western civil war of 1914-18.
War and Civilization centers around Toynbee’s examination of Assyrian civilization. Assyria stands as the poster child of how a quick, massive expansion of power actually can bring about a swift ruin and complete dissipation of that power. Such near instant bursts of physical growth bring with them commensurate problems, hence Toynbee’s chapter entitled, “The Burden of Nineveh.” With this in mind, we have a possible lens through which we can know whether or not we choose our garments well or poorly. We can begin by realizing that whatever coverings we put on will not actually solve our psychological, spiritual, or physical longings, though they can deceive us not thinking so. Sometimes these coverings hinder and obscure the best parts of us. But at times they are a necessary expedient to cope with challenges we face. Different people, and different civilizations might need to choose differently depending on circumstance. We should walk these paths with caution. The only way to avoid the deception of our garments of skin is to wear them with humility.
*Noble annoyed me early on by quoting with approval Max Weber’s idea that Christianity revived Roman polytheism. I can appreciate that Christianity is not strictly monistic as is Islam and perhaps Judaism, but Noble should know better. I suppose he left it in for supposed shock value, since it adds nothing to his thesis.
**We can see this same element in human sexuality. It is good, created by God. Only when we are properly prepared, in the right context (marriage between a man and a woman) can this “power” be wielded in a good and proper manner.