Christianity and the History of Technology, Part Six

This is the last in a series of posts discussing the work of a handful of scholars exploring the historical relationship between Christianity and technology. Firstsecondthird, fourth, and fifth post. 

In his 2005 book, Nature, Technology, and the Sacred, Bronislaw Szerszynski traces the evolving understandings of nature and the sacred in order to provide an alternative account of secularization and disenchantment, two processes in which technology has traditionally been assigned a critical role.

To begin with, he argues that the best way to understand the evolution of ideas about nature from pre-modern to modern societies is, in fact, not as a process of secularization or disenchantment, but rather as a process of depersonalization. The advent of Christianity did not, as Lynn White (among others) suggested, simply empty nature of its metaphysical content leaving it vulnerable to exploitation. Rather, Christianity removed personal agencies that inhabited nature and replaced them with a semiotic layer of meaning. Nature became alive, not with minor deities and spirits, but with meaning that could be allegorically interpreted. This conception of nature as a religiously meaningful system of signs acted as a brake on the potential exploitation of nature that White and others imagined following on the Christian triumph over the pagan worldview.

However, the Protestant Reformation, in Szerszynski’s view, did lead to a situation like that imagined by White when it collapsed all meanings and interpretations to the level of the literal and effectively contained them in the text of the Bible. In this way, the semiotic cloak that had protected nature was pulled back leaving it defenseless against the advances of science and technology.

The Reformation was decisive, but it did not act alone in reconfiguring the economy of the sacred in relation to nature. In the late twelfth century, conceptions of nature were already beginning to shift owing to the growing influence of voluntarist theology that privileged the unrestrained will and power of God over the potential intelligibility of the created order. Nonetheless, Szerszynski follows Ellul and Ovitt against White in taking medieval Christianity’s attitude toward technology and nature to be mostly ambivalent and not by itself the cause of the Western technological mindset. Even the Reformation, in Szerszynski’s view, did not entirely free technology from moral and religious constraints. The beginnings of this rupture are best traced to Francis Bacon’s privileging of techne over epistme. From this point Szerszynski traces a straight line to the evolution Ellul’s technological society.

At this juncture, Szerszynski introduces David Nye’s exploration of the technological sublime to reinforce his conclusion that by the nineteenth century technology commanded near religious reverence. This religious reverence, however, “echoes” the earlier voluntarist transformation in the theological conception of God: technology, like the voluntarist God was to be “loved for itself, apart from its fitness for human life and purpose.”

Combined with the rise of bio-power documented by Michel Foucault which focused narrowly on the preservation and governance of biological life this meant that all transcendent frames of reference that might have limited technology’s influence were now effectively displaced. As Noble noted, technology itself became the object of transcendent aspirations.

Some Closing Thoughts

Following Lynn White, the examination of Christianity’s relationship to technology has been firmly anchored in the Medieval period. With the exception of Szerszynski, none of the authors under consideration extensively explored the significance of the Reformation to the history of technology and Szerszynski’s work was thin on historical sources. More work is needed on the Reformation and its relationship to technology. Of course, much work has already been done on the Reformation and the history of one particular technology, the printing press.

Research has thus far also been focused on the role of Christianity in the emergence of Western technology. It seems that more careful and serious work ought to be done on the way that technology has shaped Christianity. Susan White gestured in this direction, but her work was largely derivative of the studies undertaken by Lynn White and Lewis Mumford and was focused on only a handful of illustrative cases.

Joseph Corn, whose work was not discussed above, has shown the importance of exploring religion’s role in the social construction of particular technologies. Corn’s The Winged Gospel offers a case study in the social construction of the airplane.

Drawing on a wide array of sources including newspapers, popular and professional journals, memoirs, and an assortment of varied cultural ephemera, Corn makes his case for the religious dimensions of the airplane’s social construction. The airplane was initially greeted by Thomas-like doubt that demanded sight in order to believe, and was thereafter frequently described with language that appealed to the supernatural — flight was a miracle. Additionally, the use of the airplane and its celebration was often marked by ritual and ceremony that bore a striking resemblance to elements of Christian worship and practice. Finally, attitudes toward the airplane took on the character of a “technological messianism,” a faith in the power of the airplane to bring about a nearly eschatological reordering of society. In the end, of course, these hopes are reigned in by reality.

Similar narrow studies focused on particular technologies and the role religious belief played in their social construction would strengthen our understanding of the relationship between technology and religion which thus far has been treated in mostly broad strokes.

Finally, religious studies can also provide a helpful set of categories for understanding the role of technology in society, particularly given the pervasive interrelationship of technology and religion as documented by Noble. Ritual studies, for example, may usefully augment our understanding of the intersections of technology use and embodied practice. David Nye’s incorporation of Durkheimian categories in his study of the technological sublime provides a helpful model for what this interdisciplinary exchange of methods can accomplish.