Innovation, Technology, and the Church (Part One)

Last week I read a spirited essay by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry titled “Peter Thiel and the Cathedral.” Gobry’s post was itself inspired by a discussion of technology, politics, and theology between Thiel, the founder of PayPal, and theologian N.T. Wright, formerly bishop of Durham. That discussion was moderated by NY Times columnist Ross Douthat. As for Gobry, he is a French entrepreneur and writer currently working for Forbes. Additionally, Gobry and Douthat are both Roman Catholics. Wright is a minister in the Church of England. Thiel’s religious views are less clear; he identifies as a Christian with “somewhat heterodox” beliefs.

So, needless to say, I found this mix of themes and personalities more than a little interesting. In fact, I’ve been thinking of Gobry’s post for several days. The issues it raised, in their broadest form, include the relationship between technology and culture as well as the relationship between Christianity and technology. Of course, these issues can hardly be addressed adequately in a blog post, or even a series of blog posts. While I thought about Gobry’s post and read related materials, relevant considerations cascaded. Nothing short of a book-length treatment could do this subject justice. That said, beginning with this post, I’m going to offer a few of considerations, briefly noted, that I think are worth further discussion.

In this post, I’ll start with a quick sketch of Gobry’s argument, and I’ll follow that with some questions about the key terms at play in this discussion. My goal is to read Gobry charitably and critically precisely because I share his sense that these are consequential matters, and not only for Christians.

Reduced to its essence, Gobry’s essay is a call for the Church to reclaim it’s role as a driving force of technological innovation for the good of civilization. The logic of his argument rests on the implications of the word reclaim. In his view, the Church, especially the medieval church, was a key player in the emergence of Western science and technology. Somewhere along the way, the Church lost its way and now finds itself an outsider to the technological project, more often than not a wary and critical outsider. Following Thiel, Gobry is worried the absence of a utopian vision animating technological innovation will result in technological stagnation with dire civilizational consequences.

With that sketch in place, and I trust it is a fair summary, let’s move on to some of the particulars, and we’ll need to start by clarifying terminology.

Church, Technology, Innovation—we could easily spend a lot of time specifying the sense of each of these key terms. Part of my unease with Gobry’s argument arises from the equivocal nature of these terms and how Gobry deploys them to analogize from the present to the past. I would assume that Gobry, as a Roman Catholic, primarily has the Roman Church in view when he talks about “the Church” or even Christianity. On one level this is fine, it’s the tradition out of which Gobry speaks, and, moreover, his blog is addressed primarily to a Catholic audience. My concern is that the generalization obscures non-trivial nuances. So, for instance, even the seemingly cohesive and monolithic world of medieval Catholicism was hardly so uniform on closer examination. Consequently, it would be hard to speak about a consistent and uniform attitude or posture toward “technology” that characterized “the Church” even in the thirteenth century. Things get even thornier when we realize that technology as it exists today was, like so much of modernity, funneled through the intellectual, economic, political, and religious revolution that was the Reformation.

But that is not all. As I’ve discussed numerous times before, defining “technology” is itself also a remarkably challenging task; the term ends up being a fiendishly expansive concept with fuzzy boundaries all around. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that in the medieval era there was no word that did the same semantic work as our word “technology.” It is not until the ninth century that the Carolingian theologian, John Scotus Erigena, first employed the term artes mechanicae, or the “mechanical arts,” which would function as the nearest equivalent for some time.

Finally, “innovation” is also, in my view, a problematic term. At the very least, I do not think we can use it univocally in both medieval and contemporary contexts. In our public discourse, innovation implies not only development in the “nuts and bolts” of technical apparatus; it also implies the conditions of the market economy and the culture of Silicon Valley. Whatever one makes of those two realities, it seems clear they render it difficult, if not impossible, to make historical generalizations about “innovation.”

So, my first major concern, is that speaking about the Church, technology, and innovation involves us in highly problematic generalizations. Generalizations are necessary, I understand this, especially within the constraints of short-form writing. I’m not pedantically opposed to generalizations in principle. However, every generalization, every concept, obscures particularities and nuances. Consequently, there is a tipping point at which a generalization not only simplifies, but also falsifies. My sense is that in Gobry’s post, we are very close to generalizations that falsify in such as way that they undermine the thrust of the argument. This is especially important because the historical analogies in this case are meant to carry a normative, or at least persuasive force.

Because the generalizations are problematic, the analogies are too. Consider the following lines from Gobry: “The monastics were nothing if not innovators, and the [monastic] orders were the great startups of the day. The technological and other accomplishments of the great monastic orders are simply staggering.”

As a matter of fact, the second sentence is absolutely correct. The analogies in the first sentence, however, are, in my view, misleading. The first clause is misleading because it suggests, as I read it, that “innovation” was of the essence of the monastic life. As Gobry knows, “monastic life” is already a generalization that obscures great variety on the question at issue, especially when eastern forms of monastic life are taken into consideration. But even if we concentrate on the more relevant strand of western and Benedictine monasticism, we run into trouble.

As George Ovitt found in his excellent work, The Restoration Of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture, technical considerations were consistently subordinated to spiritual ends. The monastics, were, in fact, much else even if they were at times innovators. This is evident in the Benedictine’s willingness to lay aside labor when it became possible to commission a lesser order of lay brothers or even paid laborers to perform the work necessitated by the community.

The second clause—“the [monastic] orders were the great start-ups of the day”—is misleading because it imports the economic conditions and motivations of the early twenty-first century to the medieval monasteries. Whatever we might say about the monasteries and their conflicted relationship to wealth—most monastic reform movements centered on this question—it seems unhelpful, if not irresponsible to characterize them as “start-ups.” The accumulation of wealth was incidental to the life of the monastery, and, historically, threatened its core mission. By contrast, the accumulation of wealth is a start-up’s raison d’être and shapes its life and work.

I hope these considerations do not come across as merely “academic” quibbles. I’ve no interest in being pedantic. In writing about technology and Christianity, Gobry has addressed a set of issues that I too consider important and consequential. Getting the relevant history right will help us better understand our present moment. In follow-up posts, I’ll take up some of the more substantive issues raised by Gobry’s essay, and I’ll follow his lead by using the construction of the cathedral’s as a useful case study.

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7 thoughts on “Innovation, Technology, and the Church (Part One)

  1. Your summary of my argument was quite clear. I’m looking forward to your new posts but I do think that you are getting too caught-up with certain definitions.

    Here are some thoughts which might help clarify:

    “My concern is that the generalization obscures non-trivial nuances. So, for instance, even the seemingly cohesive and monolithic world of medieval Catholicism was hardly so uniform on closer examination. Consequently, it would be hard to speak about a consistent and uniform attitude or posture toward “technology” that characterized “the Church” even in the thirteenth century.”

    True enough. Catholicism is certainly never “monolithic.” But it was nonetheless _one_ of the things that the Church did, even if it was not expressed in that way.

    But here, for example, is a telling paragraph from Pope Benedict on the theology of Saint Bonaventure: “”Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt”: Christ’s works do not go backwards, they do not fail but progress, the Saint said in his letter De Tribus Quaestionibus. Thus St Bonaventure explicitly formulates the idea of progress and this is an innovation in comparison with the Fathers of the Church and the majority of his contemporaries. For St Bonaventure Christ was no longer the end of history, as he was for the Fathers of the Church, but rather its centre; history does not end with Christ but begins a new period. The following is another consequence: until that moment the idea that the Fathers of the Church were the absolute summit of theology predominated, all successive generations could only be their disciples. St Bonaventure also recognized the Fathers as teachers for ever, but the phenomenon of St Francis assured him that the riches of Christ’s word are inexhaustible and that new light could also appear to the new generations. The oneness of Christ also guarantees newness and renewal in all the periods of history.

    “The Franciscan Order of course as he emphasized belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ, to the apostolic Church, and cannot be built on utopian spiritualism. Yet, at the same time, the newness of this Order in comparison with classical monasticism was valid and St Bonaventure as I said in my previous Catechesis defended this newness against the attacks of the secular clergy of Paris: the Franciscans have no fixed monastery, they may go everywhere to proclaim the Gospel. It was precisely the break with stability, the characteristic of monasticism, for the sake of a new flexibility that restored to the Church her missionary dynamism.”

    “As I’ve discussed numerous times before, defining “technology” is itself also a remarkably challenging task;”

    This is self-evidently true, but I don’t see how it detracts from my general point.

    Same thing in re: ““innovation” is also, in my view, a problematic term. At the very least, I do not think we can use it univocally in both medieval and contemporary contexts.”

    Perhaps to clarify: I do not claim that “innovation” in the way we conceive of it today was something the Medievals *conceptualized*, but it is certainly something that they *did*, or at least close enough that we can use them as an example, although, yes, I am aware there are differences between the 13th century and today. In fact, I would even argue that it is precisely because they took it so much for granted that this is what they were doing that they had no need to conceptualize it.

    “The monastics, were, in fact, much else even if they were at times innovators. ”

    I do not for one minute claim otherwise.

    Incidentally, Ovitt’s work is not the end-all-be-all answer to this. As any Benedictine alive worth his or her salt today would tell you, the abandonment of physical labor by the early Benedictines was a perversion of the original rule and vision of Saint Benedict, which was based on “Ora et Labora.”

    “The accumulation of wealth was incidental to the life of the monastery, and, historically, threatened its core mission. By contrast, the accumulation of wealth is a start-up’s raison d’être and shapes its life and work.”

    But see, the accumulation of wealth is NOT a startup’s raison d’être, at least not necessarily, although for many of them it may be. There are much easier, certainly much less risky, ways to accumulate wealth in the 21st century. The classic Silicon Valley dichotomy is “mercenary versus missionary”, with the understanding that “missionaries” do better than “mercenaries.” Missionary. Hmm.

    What interests me in the analogy between a startup and a monastic foundation is the element of risk and folly in pursuit of a specific goal. Think of the earlier description of the Franciscans as “opposed” to the secular clergy of their era. They were very much a start-up: they envisioned a different way of building God’s kingdom–a way which seemed at the time crazy and risky and even dangerous. And those who joined the early Franciscans took on tremendous risk to do so–personal, canonical, even perhaps spiritual (think of Francis’ early mandate that none of the Franciscans learn theology).

    I also think of how Thomas Aquinas’ family tried to keep him from joining the Dominicans, instead insisting that he joined the Benedictines. The Dominicans at the time were seen as…scary. They were a radical, mendicant, reforming order. At the time, it seemed like if you wanted to build a career in the Church, joining the OP was a death knell. Very similar to how many parents today would blanch at the idea that their child would drop out of their expensive college to start a company instead of graduating and getting a steady job.

    What interests me in the analogy between monastic orders and startups is the distinct sense of mission, a mission which is accomplished through the daring, proficiency and determination of a small band of people, and through concrete ends. Believe it or not, I am well aware that technology startups and monasteries are not the exact same things.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to reply!

      Of course, I have no difficulty believing that you are well aware that a start-up and a monastery are not the same thing. Of course. But in drawing the analogy, you’re suggesting that one helps us understand the other. The relevant question, then, is how the two are similar. Then we may ask whether the analogy is helpful. Reading your initial post, I did not find very much to go on with respect to answering that first question. Now, your last three paragraphs above go a long way toward clarifying your intention (and they’ll help focus my subsequent posts).

      That said, it is possible that I may be “too caught up” with definitions. Although, I’m not quite persuaded that is the case. With regards to defining “technology,” the relevance, I trust, will be more apparent in subsequent posts. With regards to “the Church” and “innovation,” perhaps it all depends on what you hope the historical analogy accomplishes. If you mean it merely as a rather loose, more 0r less figurative comparison designed to rally the troops, so to speak, then I suppose that’s one thing. As I read your post, I understood you making a stronger claim by way of your analogy. I gathered something more along the lines of a moral imperative grounded on the past experience of the church. If that’s the case, then I think the particulars of your argument by analogy bear a closer examination.

      You write: “I do not claim that ‘innovation’ in the way we conceive of it today was something the Medievals *conceptualized*, but it is certainly something that they *did*, or at least close enough that we can use them as an example, although, yes, I am aware there are differences between the 13th century and today. In fact, I would even argue that it is precisely because they took it so much for granted that this is what they were doing that they had no need to conceptualize it.”

      I suppose this is the crux of the matter. Is it “close enough”? The differences seem more pronounced to me. For instance, what exactly did they take for granted? The passage from Benedict which you cited suggests that the idea of progress was itself a Franciscan innovation. If so, then who exactly was taking “innovation” for granted and when? The Benedictines through the seminal period of mechanical innovation from 900-1200 (only the last 20 years of which overlap with Francis’s life)? And was it a matter of taking innovation for granted, or being indifferent to it? And, again with reference to the passage from Benedict, what sort of innovation or progress is in view here and to what extent did it encompass technical innovation?

      These are the kinds of questions I hope to sort through in subsequent posts. Again, I’m grateful for the opportunity to think through them offered by your essay. Your thoughts/criticisms along the way would certainly be welcome.

  2. Micheal, well done. And Mr Gorby, thanks for expanding your remarks here, very helpful.

    (In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Buddhist convert, raised a Catholic)

    I might frame the discussion somewhat differently than either of you though. Heidegger noticed that modern tech is qualitatively different from craft or semi-craft tool bearing in that it revealed the world in a way that makes humans part of the “standing reserve”. This leads to a technological understanding of being that diminishes humanness.

    A theological understanding can easily incorporate a craft or semi-craft mode of production into its view because the tools are easily seen as extensions of human agency. This is not the case with the sophisticated semi-autonomous technology of computer coded machines.

    The project then places not the self driving car but the Singularity at the center of consideration. The SDC is but a piece of the teleological puzzle of the Singularigy.

    Pope Benedict’s comments a while ago about social justice were broadly covered. But little was discussed in the general press about his view that social justice is a means to the evangelical project. For me the question becomes is it possible, and if so how, would one yoke technology, approaching perhaps at a critical mass of autonomy to such a project?

    I look forward to this continued discussion.

    1. Excellent point about the changing quality of technology. That is precisely the point I’ll be making either in the next post, or one that follows. This is, I think, a major problem with many, not all, attempts to think “theologically” about technology. They assume tools as the object of inquiry, and don’t reckon with the character of contemporary technology.

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