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.