Christian Ethics Today

God in a Technological Society

By Tony Campolo

I just returned from Lisbon, Portugal, were I shared my thinking about God at a convention that brought together 70,000 computer experts. The convention was called the Web Summit and my responsibility was to speak at a seminar in which I was asked to make a case for God in an advanced technological society. To my surprise, more than 2,000, mostly young empirically minded conference attendees squeezed into a lecture hall to hear what might be said on this intriguing subject.

Before the discussion got underway, the moderator asked how many in the audience still believed in God. Sadly, only a scarce handful of hands went up. This highly secularized gathering of men and women was not nevertheless hostile toward my message. Though not religious, they mostly still claimed to be “spiritual,” and were intensely interested in what I had to say about God. They seemed hungry for a belief in something that transcended their world wherein everything that is real was being reduced to numbers and algorithms.

I first pointed out that religion has evolved over the last century and now has as one of its primary concerns, the task of creating and maintaining our humanity, over and against the challenges of what I believe to be the dehumanization being posed by positivism and technology. In making this point, I cited the renowned psychologist and author, Erich Fromm, who once declared that in our increasingly technological world, we more and more have machines that function like human beings, and have human beings that behave like machines.1. During pre-industrial times, there were artisans who worked with tools rather than operating machines. The often-routinized work of machine operators tends to turn workers into extensions of their machines. Whereas artisans once used tools that enabled them to express their individuality in creative labor, workers now increasingly are becoming people who are learning how to adapt to machines. In doing so, their motions become mechanical. They became, in modern industrial processes, interchangeable entities who, like the parts of the machines they operate are easily replaced. Distinctive personhood is lost in all of this and, as Karl Marx pointed out so well in his early writings, dehumanization increases.

Higher education has adapted to this move towards an increased technological and mechanized social system with its curricula that leave little room for what we call “the humanities.” Harold Bloom pointed this out a couple of decades ago in his book, The Closing of The American Mind. He stated convincingly that universities are less and less nurturing students in courses of study that enhance their humanness. Instead, the emphasis has shifted to such fields as computer programming and the development of a positivistic approach to life.2 The world in higher education increasingly is understood and analyzed in purely empirical terms; and while there is nothing inherently evil about this, it does have a spiritually deadening effect and a diminishing of humanness.

Humanness, I argued, is created and maintained through face-to-face relationships which have spiritual dimensions to them. On a rational level, some atheists and agnostics may deny God, but often in their deepest interpersonal relationships, they may experience God unaware. Although they may not recognize the presence of God in interpersonal relationships, God, nevertheless, may be an undefined presence they sometimes feel in the context of intimacy. I believe some important dimensions of humanizing relationships are being diminished in our increasingly mechanized society and an emotional and spiritual deadness is more and more evident in people’s lives. “This age,” said Soren Kierkegaard prophetically, “will die, not from sin but from lack of passion.”3

That life in a technologically conditioned world is threatening the kind of interpersonal relationships that make us human can be easily observed. Consider a handsome couple I saw in a restaurant waiting for their food to be served. They were not empathetically involved. Instead each was focused on their I-Phones. Mechanical communications with them was interfering with the possibility of a humanizing relationship. Also, consider teenagers and children who no longer play games with each other but spend inordinate amounts of time transfixed on the screens of computer games.

God may be experienced in various ways; but I believe that one primary way is in those “sacred” interpersonal moments that the Jewish philosopher/theologian Martin Buber, called, “I-Thou encounters.”4 It can be said that they are mystical moments when we no longer look at each other, “as through a glass darkly, but then face to face” (I Cor. 13:12). In such moments, time may seem suspended while we feel our ways into the depths of each other’s being. In such moments, we might experience something of what Rudolf Otto called “the holy.”5 I say that God is being experienced in such moments! There may be a reluctance to call what is being experienced, God. But it is God!

Those I-Thou encounters, referred to by Buber, are what lift us out of the mundane and provide us with a spiritual awareness that humanizes us. In these relationships, transcendence is experienced in ways that lifts us out of the mechanical world of technology with its limited empirical reality, and creates for those of us involved a sense of experiencing something supernatural. God is what happens, according to Buber, in the contexts of I-Thou encounters, and I believe he is right! The more society adapts to the encroachments of a technological world into our consciousness, the more there is a tendency for us to lose our humanness and view ourselves and one another as only organic machines. The spiritually evident in I-Thou encounters is, I believe, an antidote to the objectification of ourselves and others that overwhelms us in a world that reduces everything to what can be analyzed and understood only objectively and quantitatively.

In I-Thou encounters wherein a unique kind of love is experienced, I believe God is being experienced. A useful Biblical reference that I think validates this claim is found in I John 4, where we read that “God is love.” As I read through that entire chapter of scripture I sensed that it told me that wherever love occurs, as in an I-Thou encounter, that something of God is there. This I believe even though the persons involved might not recognize God in what is happening between them. Being a Christian, I affirm that the sense of transcendence that becomes real in I-Thou encounters has the name of “Jesus.” I believe being open to His mystical presence can transform what Buber calls “I-It” relationships, in which other persons are known only as objects surrounded by things, into I-Thou encounters.

A second essential role that I believe that God plays in our increasingly technological and rationalized society is that God provides a countervailing power against what many of us feel is an increasing loss of freedom. Explaining why this is so, consider what Jacque Ellul had to say in his book, The Technological Society. There, Ellul pointed out that there is only one most efficient way of doing anything.6 This means that in a rationalized competitive  society wherein each party, in order to win out, will seek the most efficient means of acting or doing anything, regardless of the operation or task. The result is that eventually everybody, everywhere will end up doing everything in exactly the same manner via the same means. For instance, this tendency is presently noticeable to those who travel widely. Cities in different countries increasingly all look alike. The efficiency in optimizing valuable real estate in the downtowns of the world’s great cities requires the building of tall buildings. Skyscrapers, consequently, are inevitable, and in seeking to build efficiently, there are increasing similarities in how people build them and what building materials they will use. We are pleased when architects do innovative designing; but in their efforts to make buildings attractive and somewhat unique, they inevitably sacrifice what would be economically most efficient.

The great German sociologist, Max Weber, recognized this and declared that because of what he called, “the increasing tendency to rationalization,” all societies would end up in what he said was an “iron cage of sameness.” Spontaneity eventually would be minimized and freedom for any unique expression would be stifled in that brave new world. This is a major point that he makes in his classic work, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization.7 Following up on Weber’s theory is the opening line of Herbert Marcuse’s book, One Dimensional Man, in which he points out that we are all being socialized into a comfortable, smooth, reasonable democratic form of un-freedom.8

It would be irrational to behave in ways that deviate from the ways of the optimized efficiency that are prescribed by a rationalized technological society, and therein lies our slavery. God, on the other hand, as we religionists point out, is a God of endless variety and spontaneity, to which nature itself testifies. Consider the diversity evident throughout all creation. Among those who are into spirituality there are many who find a feeling of God in creation, and that feeling can give them the energy to break out of Weber’s iron cage and into a freedom that affirms their humanity. Indeed, without that spiritual dimension our society becomes one dimensional. Spirituality, I contend, defies conformity, and therein lies the possibility of freedom.

Finally, without God, I affirmed, there would be no “morals” but only what anthropologists and sociologists call “mores.” By definition, mores are norms and patterns of behavior that emerge through human interactions within a given society, and primarily have relevance only within the society that creates them. Morals, on the other hand, are deemed universal, and generally require transcendentalized legitimation.9 A society that only has rules to govern behavior that emerge sui generis from social interaction would have rules that would be limited only to the society that creates them. Obviously, in this latter case, there could be no absolutizing of right and wrong in a way that would be universally binding. What would be considered right in one societal system might not be considered right within another social system. All values would come to be seen as relative only within the societies that established them. Behavioral rules would be mores rather than being morals, in that morals require transcendent legitimation.  As Dmitri declares in Dostoyevsky’s novel, Brothers Karamazov, “Without God, anything becomes permissible.”

For those of us in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is God who establishes the absolutes of right and wrong. Yet most people, including those who claim that all values are relative, still, nevertheless, believe in absolute values and, consequently, believe that such behavioral patterns as racism, sexism, homophobia, ethno-nationalistic triumphalism and any other “isms” that lead to discrimination ought to be abolished. That judgment, however, requires a universalistic ethic that only transcendentally legitimated imperatives are able to provide. This, it can be argued, can offer a cure for the social maladies related to ethical relativism. Certainly the Declaration of Human Rights established by the United Nations posits such a universalistic ethic, and even most atheists affirm its truth. They do so even for those who deny anything that suggests that there is a transcendental reality.

All that I have asserted in this essay does not make for a religious apologetic. It does, however, aim to make the case that in our increasingly rationalized technological world, God still is essential for our humanity and social wellbeing. Sociologists look for the function of ideas and beliefs within societies and, as a sociologist, I have outlined what I believe are some of the functions of the belief in God in an ever more overpowering technological society. I am sure there are more.

 

—Tony Campolo is professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern UniversityErich Fromm, The Art of Loving. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, Anniversary edition, 2019.

 

See, Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1987.

Soren Kierkegaard, The Present Age. Translated by Alexander Dru, Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1962, p. 39ff.

See, Martin Buber, I-Thou. Translated by Walter Kaufmann, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1970.

See, Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy. Revised Edition, Translated by John W. Harvey, London: Oxford University Press, 1923.

Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society. Alfred A Knopf, Inc., New York, 1964, Chapter 5.

Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Translated by A.M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons, The Free Press, New York, 1965, pp. 363ff. Also see Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., New York 1977, pp. 233f.

Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man. Beacon Press, Boston, 1964, p. 1.

Talcott Parson, Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives. Prentice-Hall Inc. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, pp. 26-29. Max Weber, Basic Concepts in Sociology. Translated by H.P. Secher, The Citadel Press, New York, pp. 26-29.

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