God, Technology and the Christian Life
Last summer, I had a pleasant Lord’s Day in Grand Rapids followed by an enjoyable day going around it’s bookstores. As many will know, Grand Rapids is full of large Christian bookshops and Reformation Heritage Bookstore (RHB) was perhaps my favourite. It held many publications from FP Publications, Reformation Press and Ettrick Press, etc. At the front of the store, on offer, was this book which grabbed my attention as it fills a gap. We have a few books that tackle a Christian response to a particular piece of technology (from mobile phones to the internet) and there are many many books on theology spanning the ages, but the subject of technology doesn’t often appear as a section in these traditional theology presentations. This book sets out to create a theology for technology.
The history of our relationship with technology is really a history of the development of mankind. Many will have listened to programs like The History of the World in 100 objects, and whether or not we agree with the choices, the artefacts tell a story of how God has orchestrated our development and culture. God has placed us all in time and this means that the technology we confront is different to that faced in another era. Emotionally some people welcome change and others do not, but there are valid questions around a proper Christian response to today’s Big Tech (whether this is the ubiquitous smart phone, the self driving car, space travel, robotics or the growing role of artificial intelligence). It is important to consider God’s relationship to technology when we think about our gadgets. How do we walk by faith in a technological age?
Augustine praises the “natural genius of man” with innovations from textiles to architecture, from agriculture to navigation. Technology can be both simple and advanced, in 1 Samuel we see the confidence the Philistines placed in the technology of their champion (Goliath of Gath with his bronze helmet, his coat of mail, his bronze javelin and his iron spear) and Saul encouraged David to use the same technology , but instead he took a much simpler sling with five smooth stones. Gods strength is made clear in David’s weakness.
The Bible sometimes shows us the start of a technology, we get the wheel moving into a horse driven carriage. Time then passes and the horse is replaced by a different source of power (exploding petrol) which allows us to travel and much greater speeds for much longer, and now today we are on the cusp of vehicles that will drive themselves. There are many ethical challenges on the horizon, we are quickly being surrounded by a range of technologies from which we cannot easily escape. Our tools and our machines are becoming a dense part of our daily lives and they are often interacting with one another to improve our uses from them. How do Christians respond to the global scale of all this inter connected technology (from roads to communication, for power systems to healthcare)? There are some whose pessimistic emotional response is equate all of it as a form of man’s rejection of God. This type of thinking sees technological change almost as something that God cannot, or choose not, to stop. An example of this type of thinking is visible in the Amish living in Pennsylvania outside the modern city. The Reformed way of thinking is to trust in Gods providential orchestration of all things, to see technology as part of the way that God works in time. Most of us enjoy the benefits that technology has brought us, from our coffee in a morning to the widespread availability of different cuisines, our innovations and our developments don’t make Christianity any less relevant to life. We might look at the leaders of Silicon Valley and see and bunch of atheists busy trying to build a modern day Babel but, the question is does their technology have a proper Christian use.
In Genesis, we see God telling Noah to build an ark and, explicitly, to use pitch as a technology to waterproof it. In Genesis 11, his descendent’s as they explicitly disobeyed the command to spread across the earth, began to build a tower that would use the same technology. Babel was no accident, God used this rebellion to create the different cultures on this earth.
Isaiah 54 tells us that God created the blacksmith who produces the instrument and that He also created the waster to destroy. God is in control of the innovation in the creation of the weapon, he creates those who wield the weapon and he governs over the outcomes. This doesn’t mean that the waster will never do harm to the Lords people, but the actions of the waster are within Gods good plan of providence. The most powerful industries and big tech on earth doesn’t fall outside of Gods governance of his creation. Spurgeon told his Victorian hearer’s they could enter an engineering workshop and fail to make sense of the gears, cogs and flywheels. He said we see a wheel here and there, but don’t see the interconnected nature of one piece of machinery, with one aim and one object. Jonathon Edwards applies the same lesson, using the metaphor of the watch, to Gods power over all things, to fulfil his plan, for his glory and his peoples joy.
In Genesis, we see the early technologists, Jabal, Jubal and Tubal-Cain. Jabal inventing mobile housing, textiles and animal breeding. Jubal developing the music industry and Tubal-Cain starting both the Bronze Age and Iron Age world of tools. God had ordained that out of Cain’s lineage would come an outpouring of human innovation. Similarly, in Isaiah 28 where we see a range of planting techniques and multicropping, the glory isn’t given to a tool, or a technique, or a farmer but to the Creator. Every aspect of our art, our science, our technology, our agriculture, or computers and our medicine - all things that exist, visible and invisible were first in the mind of the Creator. It is no wonder that Einstein speaks in wonder at the amazing harmony of natural law. Calvin refers us to the “lone inventor” who made every technological possibility that can be imagined or produced in our world. As we move from an Old Testament flail to a modern day Combine with its GPS and wireless support - the tech doesn’t point to the farmer, or the John Deere company but to the inventor of all inventors.
At the same time, we see the damage our technology can do to creation and one another. Animals go extinct, some ecologies face problems and our activity will always disrupt the balances in our environment. We will always make mistakes, with faulty medicine, faulty machines, faulty containment of pathogens, so as we innovate we must listen to creation. Cancers in our bodies tells us when we have pushed too far, air and water pollution tells us when we are going too far, we are shown to pull back from lead paints and the widespread use of asbestos. The boundaries in creation are set by the creator too. All the patterns and possibilities in Creation are His. The same God who saw the first redwoods seed, taught the innovator to pulp trees so that we could print Scripture on it and send it to the corners of the world. The same God who placed volcanoes underneath oceans scattered uranium for us to excavate and use with fission to power the lights in our churches on the evening of a Lords Day. God crafts the lightening bolt, and he has taught us how to create a man made bolt that runs continuously to give us electrified homes, cities and a digital age. If a technology violates our conscience then we abstain from it, if it doesn’t we embrace it. We shouldn’t use the gifts and ignore the Giver.
The two criticisms I would have is that the author is clearly not using the authorised version and that is unfortunate, equally the couple of pages dealing with technological sins against the seventh commandment can make for uncomfortable reading. The book goes on the consider what our technologies can never accomplish, when they end and then concludes with a lengthy section on how should we use technology today? Our Science can do incredible things but it doesn’t explain our meaning or purpose. The device on which I write this review, runs of energy from nuclear fission - but this amazing technology comes from the sun, it is how God keeps the sun alight. I will store the review as a set of data, but inside my cells are DNA codes that put the programming of the machine to shame and hold a mind-boogling amount of information. It is God that patterned our universe, he links creation and invention. While we might seek a new technology, he explains how it should be used for both our good and His glory. As Psalm 104 explains The Lord sustains our world, he gives us our materials, he gives us our ships and we must stand back and consider how the entire system praises God. Einstein was wrong when he claimed that Science is the most precious thing we have, Christ is the most precious thing we can have. Our tech might fix broken bodies, but not broken souls. It might extend our lives but it cannot prevent our deaths. We must not idolise our technology, we must use it to fulfil our chief end to glorify God and enjoy him forever.