Christianity and the History of Technology, Part Five

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

In 1994, Cambridge scholar Susan J. White, published a study entitled Christian Worship and Technological Change. White’s study reverses the direction of the inquiry by asking not about the effect of Christianity on the evolution of technology, but about the consequences of technology for Christian worship. In providing the rationale for her study, White cited the earlier work of Ellul, Lynn White, Mumford, and Ovitt exploring the complex relationship between Christianity and technology. In her most compelling chapter, White discusses the role of astronomical technology — the astrolabe, the albion, and the rectangulus — in refining the Christian liturgical calendar which had been in acknowledged disarray as well as the role of the mechanical clock in recalibrating the rhythms of the liturgy. On these points, however, White is mostly following the earlier work of Mumford and Lynn White. Thus her noting the contrast between Eastern Orthodoxy’s longstanding rejection of the mechanical clock and its quick embrace in the western churches, a point also registered by Lynn White.

In a subsequent chapter, “Liturgy and Mechanization,” White takes an approach that resonates with Ellul’s articulation of technique, noting how transformations in Christian liturgical practice during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were often inspired by the goals and logic of machine technology. In her analogy, liturgy became a form of mechanistic technology.

Susan White’s work is useful for its reframing of the question regarding technology and Christianity in light of technology’s influence on the religion. Her work is especially helpful for those who have never considered the consequences of technological change on liturgical practice. She does not, however, advance the debate initiated by Lynn White regarding the relationship between Christianity and western technology. In 1997, however, historian David F. Noble’s The Religion of Technology raised the question again with renewed vigor.

Noble describes “a thousand-year old Western tradition in which the advance of the useful arts was inspired by and grounded upon religious expectation.” Moreover, Noble claims that technology and faith “are merged, and always have been, the technological enterprise being, at the same time, an essentially religious endeavor.” Noble insists that this is not a metaphorical claim, but rather literally true: “modern technology and religion have evolved together …, and as a result, the technological enterprise has been and remains suffused with religious belief.”

In the end, however, it is difficult to isolate what exactly Noble has identified through his discussion of monasticism, millenarianism, Baconian enthusiasm, Free Masonry, and the twentieth century technologies of transcendence including the atomic bomb, space flight, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology. Noble has, from one angle, uncovered the history of an alternative religion, the religion of technology, which might be best understood as a Christian heresy with an immanentized eschatology. He builds on the work of White, Benz, and Ovitt to argue for a major transformation in Christianity’s view of the mechanical arts around the eleventh century, and, in his estimation, it was during this period that technological progress came to be equated with progress toward the material restoration of the created order. It was this faith in technological progress that would henceforth characterize the core of the “religion of technology.”

From another angle, though, Noble has only shown that religious language and religious aspirations are frequently associated with technology, particularly by the elite practitioners that are driving the development and deployment of new technology.  Any effort to arrive at a more clearly defined conclusion would falter under close examination since Noble has brought together a remarkably diverse collection of evidence and has not drawn very precise causal relationships. Instead, his method is to drive home a general sense of technology and religion’s entanglement by citing as many plausible instances of the claim as possible. Noble’s slippage between of the use of “faith” and “religion” is indicative of the general nature of his claims.

It is also problematic that Noble’s borrowings from Benz, White, and Ovitt give no indication that there is any underlying tension in their respective accounts of Christianity’s relationship with technology. For example, although he is clearly familiar with Ovitt’s work, he approvingly cites White’s thesis in “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” without qualification.

Moreover his deployment of theological terminology in the opening chapter does not inspire confidence in his grasp of nuance in the relevant theological literature. But Noble is less interested in joining that debate than he is in registering a more general complaint. Noble is clearly concerned about the religious hopes for transcendence that have been repeatedly attached to new technologies throughout the history of Western society. In his view, this tendency clouds our ability to think clearly about technology, a problem that grows all the more acute as our technologies evolve into more complex, and potentially dangerous realities. In the end we may say that Noble has established the presence of a religious veneer that frequently appears on the surface of technology to influence its development and adoption without clarifying or systematizing the varieties, sources, and consequences of that veneer.

(Up next Bronislaw Szerszynsk on nature and the sacred and some closing thoughts.)