Christianity and the History of Technology, Part One

This is the first in a series of posts reviewing the work of a handful of scholars exploring the historical relationship between Christianity and technology. 

Since the mid-twentieth century, there has been a sustained, if modest, scholarly conversation about the relationship between technology and religion. Among scholars who have specifically addressed the nature of this relationship, research has focused on the following set of concerns: religion’s role in determining Western society’s posture toward the natural world, religions’s role in abetting technological development, religion’s role in shaping Western attitudes toward “labor and labor’s tools,” and, more recently, the use of religious language and categories to describe technology. The majority of these studies focus almost exclusively on European and North American context and so “religion” amounts to Christianity. Jacques Ellul, Lynn White, George Ovitt, Susan White, David Noble, and Bronislaw Szerszynski have been among the more notable contributors to this conversation.

Jacques Ellul’s comments are the earliest, but they do not set the terms of the debate. That honor falls to Lynn White who in his 1968 essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” first proposed that Europe’s relationship to technology had been distinctly shaped by the Christian worldview. Scholars have repeatedly returned to further scrutinize this thesis and its ecological frame.

George Ovitt’s The Restoration of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture remains the most thorough treatment of the nexus of questions generated by White’s essay. Ovitt concludes that there is good reason to significantly qualify White’s claims.

Susan White’s study, Christian Worship and Technological Change, stands apart as a consideration of technology’s influence on Christian liturgy.

David Noble builds on the work of White and Ovitt to offer an account of what he terms “the religion of technology” which amounts to a pervasive intermingling of religious concerns with the project of technology as a well as a tendency to link the quest for transcendence to technology.

Finally, Bronislaw Szerszynski’s Nature, Technology, and the Sacred offers a theoretically sophisticated reconsideration of White’s argument which, with respect to the technological character of contemporary society, embraces Ellul’s diagnosis of technological society. Szerszynski also moves the argument out of the medieval period to argue that the really decisive transformations in the intellectual and religious context of Europe’s technological history should be located in the Protestant Reformation.

Ellul’s The Technological Society was first published in French in 1954 and the first English translation appeared in 1964. Within the brief historical sketch Ellul provides of the evolution of technique, he examines the relationship between Christianity and technology. In Ellul’s estimation, Christianity as it was practiced through the late Medieval period was at best ambivalent to the advance of technology. He recognizes that received opinion contrasts the Eastern religions, which were supposedly “passive, fatalist, contemptuous of life and action” with Christianity, the religion of the West, which was supposedly “active, conquering, turning nature to profit.”

Although this characterization was widely accepted, Ellul believed it to be in error. It both ignored the real technical advances of Eastern civilizations and misunderstood the posture of Christianity to technical development.

According to Ellul, the emergence of Christianity marked the “breakdown of Roman technique in every area — on the level of organization as well as in the construction of cities, in industry, and in transport.” In his view, Julian the Apostate, and later Gibbon, were not altogether mistaken in attributing the withering of the Empire to rise of the Church. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, a society emerged under the tutelage of Christianity, which Ellul characterized as “‘a-capitalistic’ as well as ‘a-technical.’” In every sphere of Medieval culture save architecture Ellul sees “the same nearly total absence of technique.”

Ellul goes on to challenge the two historical arguments employed by those who believed that Christianity “paved the way for technical development.” According to the first, Christianity’s suppression of slavery gave impetus to the development of technology to relieve the miseries of manual labor. According to the second, Christianity’s disenchantment of the natural world removed metaphysical and psychological obstacles to its technologically enabled exploitation. The former fails to account for the impressive technical achievements of slave societies, and the latter, while valid to a certain extent, ignores the other strictures Christian faith placed on technical activity, namely its other-worldly and ascetic tendencies. Additionally, Christianity subjected all activity to moral judgment. Accordingly, technical activity was bounded by non-technical considerations. It is within this “narrow compass” that certain technical advances were achieved and propagated by the monasteries.

(Next up: Lynn White Jr. and the roots of our ecological crisis.)

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