Gadgets & Gizmos

We live in the “Information Age.” Our society isn’t hung up on what you can do as much as it is what (or who) you know. A college degree, once the ultimate, nigh-unattainable goal of many has now become standard issue, and more people are pursuing advanced degrees than ever before. Our quality of life and sense of self-worth is largely dependent on how much we know and the nature of the material itself. (For example, knowing about data migration is probably a bit more helpful than learning the migratory patterns of butterflies. At least in certain circles.) And how do we manage all this information we learn, store, and use every day? Technology. Technology is the logical outgrowth of information, for it allows data to be managed and applied. As we learn new principles of biology and engineering, we can craft better prosthetics, drug delivery systems, and surgical techniques, among other things. Information Age cultures are largely driven by wave after wave of technological progress.

This puts the Christian in the interesting position of having to sort out what exactly to do with all of this new tech. Should we embrace each innovation that comes along and delight in progress qua progress, do we adopt only certain inventions which are developed in accordance with strict ethical standards and which can only be used according to a certain ethos, or do we reject new technologies and go back to older ways of doing things? (I admit we could probably fix the road rage problem if everyone had to ride a mule instead of drive an automobile.) Different groups throughout the history of the Church have answered the question in different ways. The first and most obvious is the “Christ Against Culture” mindset of the Amish and Mennonite communities (and my mother’s constant assertion computers are tools of Satan). All technology beyond that achieved by the 17th/18th centuries is eschewed as evil, and an appropriately contemporary German society is promoted as the ideal.

Most of us find that particular solution to be a bit extreme. At the other extreme, then, is the early adoption of all technologies regardless of any external factor. (Think of people waiting in line for weeks to get the latest iPhone. No concern for anything but the phone.) In this view of technology, progress is good because it’s progress. It’s a new way of doing things, and the new way is better. New technology allows for society to progress in other ways: better healthcare, more energy-efficient homes, cheaper clothes, etc. The tech in question could be entirely dependent upon slave labor for its production, or it could have required the death of a human embryo during its research and development phase. Moral and ethical issues simply don’t matter: the technology is the ultimate.

The more balanced middle view takes the ethical concerns into account when considering what technology to promote and what to eschew. If a medical treatment is developed using fetal/embryonic stem cells, it is to be rejected, but perhaps it can be replicated using adult stem cells. If a computer requires child labor, it shouldn’t be bought or even allowed on the market. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to ascertain these particular details most of the time. In our globalized economy, a single gadget or gizmo could need a dozen countries and even more labor forces to be designed, built, tested, and put into mass production, and it would take a great deal of devotion to trace each link in the chain. (But don’t let that stop you from trying when you can!) Elements of stewardship theory make it into the thought process as well. Christians should look for green solutions to transportation (fuel efficient and hybrid/electric vehicles) and other needs in an effort to show God’s love for the world He gave us to care for and steward.

Alright. Say a piece of tech passes the test and makes it into your hands. What can you do with it? The easy answer is “whatever is right, just, and true” (but then you just sound like Superman). Cameras on cell phones, tablet PC’s, and laptops make it much easier to stay in touch with people around the globe. Families connect via Skype or FaceTime, and many companies now conduct interviews over the Internet. But video technology in general can also be horribly abused. Pornography, sexting, and other sexually immoral practices depend upon the wrong use of a technology which can be used in right ways. People can hide behind a keyboard and post things on social media sites which are deliberately inflammatory and personally degrading (or just plain narcissistic) when they would never do so under normal “in-person” conditions. The rise of “stalkers” is also largely contingent upon the misapplication of technological innovations, and the list goes on. It’s important to realize technology in these cases may not be inherently immoral or evil; it’s the intent behind the use of the device.

It’s difficult to think of any invention which is fundamentally evil (although the electric chair leaps to mind fairly quickly). The problem is the person behind the gizmo. We have all sinned and continue to come short of the divine ideal. All of us have sin in our lives, and much of that sin depends on misusing some “thing,” whether it’s the Internet or a piece of paper. As always, the rule of thumb is to listen to the Holy Spirit and to evaluate the impact the tech will have on our walks with God. If we get addicted to the Internet, a television show, or something more sinister, we’ve walked away from God a bit. If we violate someone’s privacy or watch someone violate his/her body, then we walk away from God a bit more. By being open to the guidance of God and making deliberate decisions incorporating a Christian ethic, we can be sure to adopt helpful technological innovations and put them to use in the edification of the kingdom of God on earth.

On Humanity

Whenever we engage culture, we interact with systems and artifacts which are inherently human. The trappings of culture are human constructs, and they reflect the humanity of their creators. We often think of this as true especially in regards to art. “Art imitates life,” we say, and it’s largely true. Music, visual art in all media, literature, and dance all serve as external projections of our internalized human-ness. We wouldn’t write horror stories or watch people of dubious intelligence make really questionable decisions in horror films (does anyone really make sound choices when being chased by a chainsaw-wielding maniac?) if some part of our human nature didn’t possess a penchant for the macabre — and violence, blood, gore, and the rest of it. The inverse is also true: the good guys (almost) always win in all of our stories because we value goodness, courage, and self-sacrifice. Artists create surreal images and breathtakingly graceful sculptures because of the human desires for both the grotesque and the beautiful. Culture is both the result of human nature and a lens through which we view it.

Scripture has much to say about humanity, about who we really are. (We’ll tackle art in later posts.) Beginning in Genesis 1, we find we are beings created in the image of God (the imago Dei). This is restated in Genesis 2, most poignantly in vv. 7ff. To be human, then, is to bear the imago Dei. In some fashion, we all share in the divine. To be fair, the exact nature of the imago Dei we bear can depend on how one views the creation narratives. Proponents of evolution (theistic or otherwise) may see things differently than a kind of creationist, young earth or otherwise. Regardless, theologians can readily point to several key aspects.

The first is a relational nature. Genesis 2, in explaining the creation of Eve and purpose of marriage, simply says, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18a). Humans are relational, gregarious creatures. We weren’t designed to spend our lives in isolation, never loving or caring for anyone else. Humans were created to get outside of themselves, to seek community and live lives connected one to another. In this way, we mirror the nature of God. As Christians, we believe God exists as a Trinity: three distinct Persons, coequal in power and majesty, forming one God. The word theologians use for the relationship between the Persons of the Godhead is perichoresis. If you look closely, you’ll notice the same root we use for “choreography.” The Trinity dances with Itself, eternally existing as a relationship. And because God is a relationship seeking a relationship, we are made to exist in relationships. The first relationship is that between mortal and deity, but it extends to the connections between mortal and mortal as well. Part of the image of God is relationship.

A second aspect is that of authority. After creating humans, God gives what is called the Creation Mandate or Dominion Mandate: the newly-formed humans are to exercise authority over the rest of creation, caring for it and tending to its needs as benevolent rulers. Genesis 2 expands on this after detailing the Garden of Eden: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (2:15). Among other implications (the significance and holiness of work, the need to care for the environment, etc.), we see Adam (later joined by Eve) as being a caretaker. Humans weren’t tasked with being tyrannical despots bent on consuming everything for their own gain; we were created as gardeners, not soldiers. We exert authority in the context of relationship as stewards. And so we have the second part of the imago Dei: just as God rules us with grace, we take care of the earth in love.

Other aspects of the image of God appear as well. Rational thought and free will are perhaps the most noteworthy, and I think they stand on their own without additional explanation. All of these (and perhaps others) combine to reveal to us a species which is a partaker in the divine. We were good and holy, having no barriers between us and God.

Then someone let a snake into Paradise.

Theologians have battled for centuries (if not longer) over the exact consequences of the Fall. When our first parents sinned, they destroyed the perfect peace which had existed between a sinless God and His sinless children. But what does that look like? Most Christians agree on the doctrine of Total Depravity: we have been horrifically marred by sin in such a way we can’t know God without His direct intervention. We have no way to pull ourselves up out of sin without help. The image of God granted to us is distorted — but it can be fixed. Calvinists call it common grace, and Wesleyans dub it prevenient grace; call it what you will, it is the universal grace given to all humanity which repairs us enough to be able to know God. Some of our damage is patched up, and we can respond to God’s offers of salvation. We may still be in the gutter, but (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde), we can turn over on our backs and look at the stars. The “grace that goes before” repairs the imago Dei so that the effects of original sin are mitigated to an inherent predisposition to sin and an inability to save ourselves; it doesn’t remain a total brokenness.

Knowing who we are, how should a Christian think about being human? Do we embrace a fully humanist stance which is focused on the dominance of the self to the exclusion of some less-than-desirable realities, or do we realize the value of humanity even as we acknowledge our fatal flaws? I believe Scripture points us to the latter. We can’t pretend everything we do is good and right simply because we thought of it. We remain fallen creatures who create fallen cultures (and no, not even “church culture” is perfect in any sense of the word). We can’t be afraid to label evil as evil, nor can we sit on the sidelines with an “anything goes” attitude. To do so is to gravely misunderstand the true nature of humanity and human freedom.

We must constantly evaluate who we are and what we do, letting our identity rest in Christ and not some external relationship. We are beautiful creatures who bear the image of God Almighty. Because of this, all human beings have inherent worth and dignity. Everyone is worthy of respect, and everyone possesses both good and bad qualities. No one is worth more than anyone else, and God doesn’t love anyone more than anyone else — and (let’s be clear), He hates no one at all. Christianity calls us to value the worth of our brothers and sisters, recognizing they will never be perfect — and neither will we.

Imperfections and flaws are fundamentally different from diversity, and, as Christians, we are to value, not merely tolerate, the grand diversity of the people around us. Rather than seek to eliminate cultural differences, why can’t they be celebrated as simply alternate solutions? We must prize what makes us British, American, Rwandan, Argentinian, and Korean. At no point are we called to dismiss others as irrelevant or inferior; at all points are we called to display unconditional love and tolerance. This is the sort of love which recognizes no boundaries: all races, all genders, all sexual orientations, and all nations are comprised of people of inherent worth in the eyes of God, and each individual still bears His image.

Do we lovingly critique cultures and individuals running counter to God? Yes; true love offers corrections and seeks the eternal good of all people. But never do we make someone feel less than a beloved child of God simply for being different. We’re just as broken as they are. Respect, love, and tolerance. Respect people for who they are; love people where they are; and tolerate them for the beautiful diversity they bring to the common table of humanity.

What IS This Whole “Public Theology” Thing, Anyway?

Public theology is the intersection of faith and culture. Theology is combined with the public sphere to provide a way forward for believers who find themselves in daily contact with a variety of things which Scripture may address — or about which the Bible and church history may be totally silent. For example, what is the Christian take on caring for the environment? How do we think theologically about immigration? What should a Christian’s relationship with Facebook look like? Video games? Popular music? Dungeons & Dragons? (I’ve seen theological critiques of all these things.)

At the heart of public theology is a fundamental question: should the Christian faith speak into public matters, or should it remain an entirely private enterprise? In other words, should Christianity influence every aspect of a believer’s life or be something only discernible at home or in church? Theologians have argued both ways for a plethora of reasons. Many who espouse the private position cite the separation of church and state in the United States as a prime example of how all public life should be. The nonestablishment clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment means the government cannot take sides in conflict of religions, nor can it support one religion over against another by making it the official religion of the state. In like fashion, say some, a private citizen should keep faith at home and not act in overtly Christian ways when interacting with the public realm. No public prayer, no Christian mores about specific issues, nothing. Moral absolutes (inasmuch as they exist from a secular humanist perspective) are the only permissible expression of ethos; Christian distinctives must be relegated to one’s behavior at home and during worship services. In this fashion, the church is kept free from pollution by the state’s overreaching influence, and the public realm is spared from the power of any religious majority (or minority).

On the flip side of things, other theologians believe there is a clear mandate to think theologically about culture and to act theologically in public matters. Scripture and dogma combine to provide a Christian worldview serving as a lens through which to view all of life. If faith is kept a private enterprise and never sees public application, the position argues, what use is it? Believing Christ’s ministry to be paradigmatic, Christians are called to a life of public behavior in uniquely Christian ways. Faith should influence the political process; the music, art, and literature produced; social justice and human rights; how one goes about one’s work; leisure time; conceptions of family; and everything else inherent in culture.

Beneath this lies H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture” types. In his work Christ and Culture (1951), Niebuhr outlines five ways of considering culture from a Christian perspective: Christ against Culture, Christ of Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, Christ above Culture, and Christ Transforming Culture. The Christ against Culture view sees the Savior as opposed to all human cultural achievements, and so the Christian must live in a completely separate, isolated community bounded by the Christian ethos. (Think Amish and Mennonite communities.) In direct contrast to this is the Christ of Culture view, wherein Jesus is established as the highest form of humanity. All human achievements are therefore expressions of faith; culture is “baptized” into something holy regardless of actual content.

The final three types hold Christianity and culture in tension. Christ and Culture in Paradox creates sharp distinctions between the sacred and the secular. Anything secular is against Christ, but the elements of culture promoting Christian beliefs are holy, and the two remain in a dualistic battle until the end of the world. Christ above Culture views the world through a hierarchical lens, with Christian morality at the apex, followed by reason and natural law. Culture has some inherent worth, and Christian institutions can exist in an otherwise secular society, but culture itself will never be fully moral.

Christ Transforming Culture, the final view, was Niebuhr’s own position (and mine as well). Human achievement and cultures are still the kingdom of the world, but God seeks to reconcile all things to Himself. His people then use Christian principles to critique society and work within it to bring it into line with Scripture and Christian ethics.

Public theology (in my view) adopts this transformative perspective. We engage in interactions with culture in order to bring it into alignment with the will of God as revealed in Scripture and theology throughout the history of the Church. As new cultural elements arise (such as social media, military drones, fascism, Reaganomics, etc.), the Church scrutinizes them and holds them to Christian standards. The resulting diagnosis and “treatment plans” become public theology.

The field of public theology (and the field of ethics) will continue to expand as time progresses and new cultural artifacts are created and new positions adopted. At its base must always be the unchanging, immutable Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Christian rooted in a relationship with God and guided by the Holy Spirit will always seek to redeem culture and treat it in Christian ways, and she/he will look forward to the end of the age when God reconciles all things to Himself. Until then, public theology provides a way forward for believers, and the Church will explore the public life’s connections with matters of faith.