Material Faith: Gestures Toward a Theology of Technology

In his 2003 book, Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology, philosopher Albert Borgmann invites us to consider what a theology of technology might look like.  He suggests that “there is hope for a coming to terms with technology not in the vortex of the initial confrontation, but only after one has passed through it.”  Then he goes on to add,

A radical theology of technology would be one that, through the experience of technology, could call into question what now counts as unproblematic …. In short I believe that the experience of technology can awaken in us a new potentia oboedientialis, a new capacity to hear the word of God.

As I read him, Borgmann is suggesting that a theology of technology is enabled by the experience of technology to perceive aspects of human experience that would otherwise remain obscured.  Passing through the vortex allows us to see more clearly what we may have apprehended only vaguely, if at all.

So for example, it seems that the vortex of rapid technological change encourages us to become aware of technology’s cultural consequences in a way that those who experienced technological change at a glacial pace would have been unlikely to perceive.  When technology does not change markedly in a generation or more, it tends to blend into the presumed natural order of things.  The acceleration of technological change encourages awareness of the attendant disruptions of established patterns of life.  Such awareness is sometimes accompanied by anxiety, euphoria, or nostalgia.  At best, though, it is a first step toward a discerning, critical disposition aimed at faithfulness and wisdom.

Two elements of experience thrown into relief by passing through the technological vortex come to mind.  Theorists of technology, and of digital media in particular, have over the last decade drawn attention to the materiality of texts and to the embodied nature of knowledge.  It is a concern fostered by the apparent immateriality of digital media and the not-so-fringe visions of disembodied immortality that animate many in the Silicon Valley set.

The rhetoric of disembodied posthumanism, for example, led Katherine Hayles, a scholar of literature and computer science, to articulate a countervision which secures the significance of the body.  In doing so, Hayles drew on the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Paul Connerton.  Both Bourdieu and Connerton produced rich studies of embodied practices within traditional societies — practices geared toward the task of cultural remembrance.  Connerton cited, among other examples, the significance of the enacted Christian liturgy as an instance of embodied practice aimed at securing enduring social memory. The ascendency of digitized memory, then, is the figure against which the ground of embodied knowing and remembering becomes visible.

Along similar lines, Jerome McGann working within the field of literary studies and having pioneered the digital archive (Rossetti Archive) drew attention to the significance of materiality in the case of texts.  When texts become digital, it is suddenly important to ask what difference the material attributes of the book makes.  Reinforcing Borgmann’s point, the materiality of the book would have remained largely taken for granted had not the advent of digital texts and e-readers drawn our attention to it.

Similarly, a theology of technology will address itself to the new fields of human experience being disclosed by the rapid advance of technology.  This by no means amounts to a wholesale endorsement of all technological change and its consequences.  Marshall Mcluhan, for example, viewed the task of understanding technology as an act of resistance to that same technology:

I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what’s happening because I don’t choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me.  Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you’re in favor of it.  The exact opposite is true in my case.  Anything I talk about is almost certainly to be something I’m resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button.  (Understanding Me:  Lectures and Interviews, 101-102)

Of course, we need not take quite so oppositional a view either.  Rather, the point is to reckon with what technology discloses about itself, the world we inhabit, and the human condition – and to take theological account of such disclosure.

It is worth noting that the renewed focus on embodiment, materiality, and what amounts to liturgical forms of knowing and remembering accord well with prominent themes within the Christian tradition.  It is, however, a focus that the Christian tradition has historically struggled to maintain.  Strands of American evangelicalism in particular, but not exclusively, have tended to reduce faith and practice to assent to the intellectual content of propositional statements thus occluding the significance of the material and embodied conditions of Christian discipleship and worship.

Perhaps taking a cue from theorists of technology it is possible to look again at the significance of the body and the rich material culture of Christian faith and practice.  Moreover, resources within the Christian tradition may fruitfully be brought to bear upon contemporary discussions of embodiment and materiality yielding genuine engagement and dialog.  The Christian faith after all is a faith of bread and wine, water and wood, body and blood.  It is just the right time, then, to rediscover the body and materiality of faith.

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