Christianity and the History of Technology, Part Two

This is the second in a series of posts discussing the work of a handful of scholars exploring the historical relationship between Christianity and technology. First post

In his classic essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Lynn White, Jr. staked out a position that departed from Ellul at almost every conceivable point. White begins by describing the gap in technical achievement that opened up between Western Europe and both Islamic and Byzantine civilizations to the the east. This gap predated the “Scientific Revolution” of the sixteenth century and was already evident by the late Middle Ages. Consequently, White turns to the Middle Ages to understand the nature of Western technology.

Although White is at this stage in his career moving from the single-factor approach to technological change, elements of the approach are still evident in the “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” in which he points to the introduction of the heavy plow as catalyst for changing attitudes about humanity’s relationship to nature. In White’s words, the heavy plow “attacked the land with such violence that cross-plowing was not needed.” White also notes that this new attitude of domination was soon given pictorial expression in Frankish calendars which depicted man and nature in opposition with man as master.

At this juncture in the essay, however, White shifts from a single technological factor analysis of social change to a consideration of the cultural influences that conditioned the development and deployment of technology in adversarial relationship to nature. White finds the Christian religion, as practiced in Western Europe, to be the chief culprit. “Especially in its Western form,” White concludes, “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” After briefly recalling the well known plot points and language of the creation narrative in the opening chapter of the book of Genesis, White contrasts Christianity to ancient paganism and the Eastern religions and finds that Christianity “not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.” Christianity accomplished this “psychic revolution” by disenchanting nature, making it “possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”

White, then, affirms the second argument Ellul dismissed in his analysis of the relationship between Christianity and nature. He surmounts one of Ellul’s criticisms — that eastern branches of Christianity did not yield the same relationship to nature and thus religion is not the key factor — by pointing to the significant differences in theological outlook that characterized the activist Latin churches in the West and the contemplative Greek churches of the East. Ellull had noted the difference, taking the Russian Orthodox Church as his case in point, but he concluded that the difference must be cultural and not religious. While the cultural shaping of ancient Christianity should not be overlooked, the fact remains that by the Middle Ages both Eastern and Western Christianity had taken on their distinct shape and were now, as culturally inflected variations of the same religion, shaping the intellectual climate of their respective societies.

Furthermore, White also strengthens the argument by pointing to the sacramental vision of eastern Christianity. Nature existed as a system of signs to be read and through which God spoke to humanity. This was, in White’s view, an “essentially artistic rather than scientific” view of nature. While the West initially shared this sacramental vision, by the late Medieval period it had given way to a natural theology more inclined to “read” nature by understanding the workings of nature rather than merely contemplating its appearance. (Bronislaw Szerszynsk will later take up this semiotic argument in depth.)

The rhetorical frame of White’s article concerns itself with the sources of “the present ecological crisis,” but the body of his argument addresses itself to another question: What accounts for the advance of Western technology beyond its civilizational rivals? White’s essay, while initially gesturing toward a single-factor account of technological change, on the whole points toward a social factors approach focusing on Latin Christianity as the force driving the evolution of western European technology. By so doing, it set the terms and became a key point of departure for subsequent discussion of religion’s relationship to technology. Most notably, it anchored the debate in the Middle Ages, it pointed to the cultural significance of seemingly arcane theological distinctions, it identified Christianity as the most important cultural factor driving technological activity in the West, and it linked the historical question to environmental concerns.

(Next up: More from Lynn White on cultural climates and technological change.)

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