Society generally views technology through a rational lens, judging technological products only insofar as they enhance convenience, or provide some new capability. Technology (and the many products that have emerged from the rapid increase in technology) has had an undeniable impact on society in every sphere, including healthcare, communications, economics, education, finance and the military. However, rarely is technology examined in any kind of theological context. There is a small group of scholars and theologians who have undertaken this avenue of inquiry, but for the most part, this debate has not filtered into the mainstream.
Technology, theology and society and in the 20th-century
Leading thinkers in the field of theology and technology include the American Catholic monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968), and the French Protestant Jacques Ellul (1912-1994). Both were prolific writers who referred to technology and its relationship to theology throughout their writing. While they do occasionally make reference to a particular technological product (such as the automobile, television, nuclear weapons or even the simple tape recorder), for the most part, when referring to technology, it is the technological process — the rationality and efficiency that has culminated in the idea of progress — that both Merton and Ellul questioned. Ellul expressed this idea as “technique,” which he explained in his magnum opus, “The Technological Society,” refers to any complex of standardized means for attaining a predetermined result. He went on to explain in the same book that the “technical society” has committed itself to the never-ending search for the one best way to achieve any objective in any conceivable field of human endeavor, and that, in summary, humankind had set itself on a path of carefully determined means to carelessly determined ends.
Despite their different faiths and the fact that they never met or corresponded directly with each other, Ellul and Merton offer similar descriptions of the relationship between technology and theology. In other words, Merton and Ellul largely approach the issue of technology through the theological lens, and in doing so they engage with topics as diverse as world peace, race relations and social justice. Of course, the threat of nuclear war was part of the backdrop against which both men wrote — having done the bulk of their writing during the height of the Cold War. Social justice is emphasized as part of Merton’s Roman Catholic social teaching, and the Protestant Ellul engaged this topic in his work as well. Merton and Ellul shared similar ideas regarding the nature of technology itself and its relationship to organized religion in mid-20th century society.
Merton’s critique of technology originally focused on the actual products of modern technology rather than on any particular process. Once he entered the monastery, he had hoped to put himself out of the world’s reach, but technology caught up with him. The abbot, Dom James Fox, began a modernization project shortly after Merton entered the Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky in 1941. He found there a bunch of noisy tractors that had replaced the horses and wagons of old. Merton came face to face with the distractions that he had specifically sought to escape. It would be another two decades before he would read anything written by Ellul, and decades before he would begin to formulate his thought regarding the deleterious influence that technology was beginning to have on society as a whole. However, once Merton had considered the impact that technology and the idea of progress was beginning to have on American society as well as on the church, he would later proclaim that technology was rapidly spinning out of control, and that even the Vatican needed to start considering the impact that increasing technological advances were beginning to have not only on society itself, but on the environment and on world peace. Merton was firmly in agreement with one of Ellul’s central tenets regarding technique, specifically the notion that technology was taking on a life of its own, threatening human civilization. Merton combined a critique of not only the products of advanced technology, but also the mindset of efficiency and power exemplified by technology’s place in contemporary society.
Like Ellul, Merton believed that an uncritical acceptance of the idea that technological progress offered a panacea to all of humankind’s ills was dangerous and misguided. His thinking paralleled Ellul in this regard. Merton stated that if technology helped to express the creative power of love, then that was all for the better, but that was rarely the outcome of any technological advancement. As Merton’s thought on the topic coalesced, he repeatedly turned to Ellul’s writing on the subject, as Ellul had come to represent for Merton the leading thinker on technology. Merton wrote in a letter to his friend Marco Pallis in 1964, “the old structures, manifestly inadequate in some ways, are being taken away, and instead of being spiritually liberated, Christians are rushing to submit to much more tyrannical structures: the absolute dominion of technology-politics-business (or state capital). … Have you by any chance read the book of Jacques Ellul on the “Technological Society” (perhaps La Technique in French)? It is monumental, and one of the most important treatises on the subject.” Merton wondered how anyone could account for the dilemma posed by technology, and asked whether contemporary society was helpless to check the further spread of technology and the idea of progress. Merton largely believed that society stood helpless before technology’s eventual advance into every sphere of life.
The church’s relationship with technology
Both Merton and Ellul often wrote that the church had aligned itself firmly with the forces of efficiency and progress, manifest in technology. Although both men exhibited great faith and were members of established religious denominations, it is difficult to label either as stereotypical Christians. However, both believed that the church had a recurring tendency to align itself with technique, and they both suggested that an unrestrained materialism characterized the church, whether it was the Roman Catholic Church of which Merton was a member, or Ellul’s French Protestant Church.
Although Ellul was not a theologian in the traditional sense, his concern was to situate religion in the pantheon of ideas that pertain to the human condition in the here and now. He was not attempting to argue the finer points of dogma with ecclesiastical authorities. He was simply trying to take the revealed word of God and incorporate it into the realm of human freedom, using it as a foundation for defending the necessity of living freely and outside of the bonds imposed on people by technique. This precluded transforming the gospel message into any kind of system subject to the demands of technique and efficiency. It is due to the incompatibility of God’s design with human design that the gospel message, according to Ellul, must not be too closely associated with temporal society through institutions such as the church hierarchy, which is susceptible to being co-opted by the forces of technique. In order to further the gospel message, which is the source of human freedom in Ellul’s worldview, individual believers must internalize the message and decide whether to accept or reject it. Not only has the church juxtaposed a set of moral standards over the gospel message, but according to Ellul it has also furthered technique’s advance under the guise of Christian morality. These are harsh accusations, but the idea that the church has succumbed to technology’s promises is one way of exploring the relationship between technology and theology.
For another view of technology through a theological lens (or vice versa), or for a more robust examination of some of the ways that other philosophers have looked at theology through a technological perspective, one could turn to the work of Ian Barbour (1923-2013), specifically his book “Science and Religion” published in 1968, which offers another avenue for inquiry into this interesting field. Also, the Ellul Forum of the International Jacques Ellul Society can be accessed online, offering many articles and ideas that examine Ellul’s thinking and the thoughts of other philosophers on this topic. The International Thomas Merton Society also maintains the Merton Seasonal, another journal that often presents articles on the impact of technology on theology through Merton’s worldview, and the worldview of those many 20th-century luminaries with whom he corresponded throughout his life.
The topic of technology and theology is an important and interesting one, although it is relegated mostly to the intellectual sidelines in academia. However, familiarity with Merton and Ellul offers those interested in this topic with a solid introduction to this field.
Jeffrey M. Shaw is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, and author of “Illusions of Freedom: Thomas Merton and Jacques Ellul on Technology and the Human Condition.”