Is Technology Part of the Kingdom of God? | Greater Things, Part 3 of 6


If our machines now have knowledge that we’ll never understand, as this Wired article attests, does that make them worthy of our worship? Apparently one robotics engineer thinks so. Anthony Levandowski may have stolen the crazy trophy from Ray Kurzweil when he filed government papers for a new religion that worships Artificial Intelligence, but it does introduce a question worth consideration. What are the spiritual and religious implications of modern technology? In other words, should we have a theology of technology?

The question seems prescient in light of the seemingly ever greater increase that digital technology has on Western culture. The same Wired magazine that has been a leading observer and advocate of technological advance for the last twenty years recent posted a short bromide on the current state of tech fear, telling its readers to calm down, because everything is okay.

But is it?

For decades, the acronym “A.I.” meant popcorn dystopias such as Terminator or the Matrix. Or my favorite, the lesser known Kubrick / Spielberg collaboration, AI: Artificial Intelligence.

The movie A.I. was interesting because its premise is that AI isn’t a revolutionary rise of smart machines like the Terminator narrative, but an organic integration of humankind and technology. We choose to become cyborgs. Whether that’s good or bad, the movie doesn’t say.

 

The machines have already learned.

A movie about the organic rise of technology is the more realistic scenario, mainly because it’s already happening, as church futurist Leonard Sweet pointed out in a zoom call, Nov 13, 2017. If you take pharmaceuticals or are the owner of an artificial hip or a crown on your tooth, then welcome to the cyborg club.

Now we’re willingly putting computers in our bodies, like another recent story about an employer who is implanting microchips in his employees.  And the majority of the employees are saying, no big deal.

“It will happen to everybody,” says Noelle Chesley, 49, associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “But not this year, and not in 2018. Maybe not my generation, but certainly that of my kids.”

For most of my ministry I’ve been focused on doing the work of the church in the digital age. But we’ve just been babies. Adding a screen to a sanctuary is quaint compared to what’s happening now.

 

Now the real digital age is starting to emerge.

Consider life in 2018:

  • What would have once been considered a shocking loss of privacy is now just assumed.
  • Our digital avatars now interact more with other digital avatars than we do with other actual humans IRL.
  • We’re saving our memories to a hard drive. (I used to keep “artificial hippocampus” on google alert until I realized: iPhoto.)
  • Trans-humanism, or the machine-enhancement of humanity, will be one of the great ethical issues of the century.

To my professional church creative colleagues: we’re doing church as usual while the very definition of what it means to be human is changing. The future is here. As followers of Jesus, what the heck are we supposed to do about it?

 

The change happens when you aren’t looking.

First, we need to realize that the change happens quietly, in spite of the press releases.

The amount of technological innovation in the last 10 years alone is staggering. Here’s a partial list of things off the top of my head:

  • People talked about the decline of traditional cable television for years, but now it’s happening for real as more people cut the cord. After all the hype of the early 2010s, declines began in earnest in 2015 and accelerated in 2017. We all talked about cutting the cord, and then – later, quietly – it actually happened.
  • In the classroom, the presence of mobile screen technology is now assumed. The age of first time mobile device usage has dropped 5 years in the last 5 years, and is now on average 10 years old. (That’s 5th grade.) Don’t believe me? Ask a teacher. What if you forget to give your kid their lunch bag? They quit delivering stuff from parents at my kids’ high school. Now, they just assume you contact them on their phones and coordinate pickup. It’s almost impossible now for them not to have a phone.
  • The World Economic Forum surveyed 800 scientists and came up with a list of the top 7 technologies we’ll see by 2030. Here is the short version: 1 – AI 2 – IoT 3 – robots 4 – 3D printing 5 – mobile 6 – autonomous cars 7 – internet. Some of these already exist; others don’t. But all of them will look radically different very soon.
  • Of course, Apple iPhone’s newest release has facial recognition. Now Chinese vendors are selling masks so people can’t hack you while you sleep:

 

So, since 2007, technology has disrupted:

  • The ways in which we interact with others (smartphones and social)
  • How we date (match.com)
  • Our sources of entertainment (streaming)
  • Our means of transportation – how we get around (Uber and Maps, soon to her made obsolete by driverless cars)
  • The daily behaviors of our closest, most intimate relationships

The other night I am lying in bed in the dark with the phone light shining on my face and I look over at my wife and she’s lying in bed in the dark with the phone light shining on her face, and I thought, this is stupid! We used to talk about the day and our hopes and dreams and now to communicate I send her a bitmoji saying good night. That was just a joke one night, but still.

 

The change happens too fast for us to process.

Now, it would be one thing for us as Christ followers and as church leaders to casually sit off to the side and say to one another, “You know, that’s interesting stuff happening in the world,” while we sip our cups of hot tea like Kermit. But we can’t do that. Because these developments are impacting us in incredible ways and we don’t even see it yet.

Are these technologies good or bad? Do they have any influence on us? Or are they merely neutral tools to be learned and deployed at our leisure? Should we just keep responding and get over it?

To understand this, let me ask you a different question:

 

Is technology part of the Kingdom of God? 

If you are in the business of leading “modern worship” and your Mac froze this past Sunday, you’re probably thinking, no. Absolutely not. It’s pure evil.

(The keyword “modern worship” deserves quotations because it’s a euphemism for worship that uses technology invented in the late 20th / early 21st century. Some people call it “contemporary worship,” or literally “of the time worship,” but both are simply derivative terms, positioned against “traditional” worship that uses organs, mass printing and older technology. We are defined by our technologies.)

In fact, if you ask a set of people what their definition of technology is, you’d get varied answers. While the parameters vary, it’s amazing to me that most people define it in purely instrumental terms, as a means to an end. Very few people, it seems, are concerned with the ultimate meaning and direction of human technological advancement, and instead focus on the ethical implications of the use of various technologies. (By the way, the usual answer to the ongoing ethical question, which I encountered after writing The Wired Church in 1999, and I continue to see today, ranges from “No” to “Okay, but with caution.”)

 

We’ve overwhelmed but we need to think this through.

Perhaps one reason for this reductionist concern about technology is that we are simply overwhelmed by it and unable to process the rate of advancement with which we deal. Technological advancement moves so fast, we don’t have time to consider a theology of technology. Much of culture seems resigned to a technological fate – that we are locked up in a world of technological progress, so we need to adapt, assimilate and understand. All we can do is learn what the latest artifact is, how to use it, and whether or not we should try to make a judgment on its validity for the sake of our moral well-being and that of our children.

This begs the question about progress itself, and its roots in American culture and history. While the official, American Dream position remains that progress is both inherently good and the right of every American, the reality is much more conflicted. But this post is long enough already. (For more on the kingdom of God, see part 2 of this series.)

If we’re going to ever do more than react, it’s necessary for us to have a deeper understanding of what is going on. Otherwise, we will forever make decisions about which side of the boat to row without knowing what direction we are going or even when or where we might make landfall, or whether we’re about to go over the waterfall’s edge.

The deeper question is, what is the meaning and purpose of the things we make? From my point of view as a follower of Jesus, is technology part of the kingdom of God?

 

A definition of technology.

In order to tackle the question of a theology of technology, including all of its tendrils, we need to establish a definition. I am still going through a lot of research to look for a clear definition of “technology,” but so far I haven’t found one that is satisfactory.

In a short and somewhat confused article on the new trend toward Silicon Valley personalities worshipping their technological creations, Virigina Heffernan writes that technology is “best understood as the masculine form of the word culture.” I think that’s a joke, but her point is valid, and not a bad indicator for technology, as the artifacts of culture.

Of course, colloquially, we don’t think of it this way. If you chat about technology in everyday conversation, what people mean is something new and digital. For most, it means “something I don’t understand.”

The Oxford English Dictionary equates it with scientific or industrial development, but that’s only in the last 200 years. Technology is actually much bigger than what the OED says.

 

Jesus was a technologist.

The first half of the word comes from the Greek tek, which as its root means to bring forth or to bear, to produce. It’s a word for creativity, in any form.

When the angel says that Mary will bring forth a son in Matthew 1, there’s the root word tek. It’s a word about conceiving.

Jesus wasn’t just a carpenter. Accurately, he was a tekton. (This statement with broad implications was made by Leonard Sweet in a classroom at George Fox University, Sept. 7, 2017.) That word means a craftsman who produces things using whatever materials necessary. Since stone was more common than wood in Nazareth, Jesus was likely a stone mason as much as he was a carpenter.

Tek is the same root that gives us the modern word “architect.” It’s a word about creating something new. Jesus created for a living, which I believe is significant. If Jesus lived today maybe he’d be a church creative.

So if we combine “tek” (crafting or creating new things)  +  “ology” (the study of a field or discipline) we learn that when we study a craft and we advance it with our creativity by making something new, we’re engaging in the work of technology.

Etymologically, the word “technology” means the study of creating new things.

 

A theology of technology is really about a theology of creativity.

What we typically call technology are actually the artifacts of the creative process.

A pencil was once an amazing piece of technology. The scroll. Paved roads. The printing press. Radio. Each of these technological innovations changed the world. In fact, I listed these four because each one set the stage for an explosive spread of the good news of the story of Jesus, crucified and resurrected.

So here’s my working definition of technology:

Technology is a categorical description for the artifacts of human creative activity.

Equating technology with human creativity has significant implications. It means that our theology of technology is built on something deeper: our theology of creativity.

What if the tornado of technology, as captured in the image above, is actually a stirring of the wind of God’s spirit? I’ll deal with this in a future post.

 

This is part 3 of a 6-part series on my upcoming dissertation for completion of a Doctor of Ministry degree at Portland Seminary at George Fox University. My tentative title for the book that I hope will emerge from this research is Greater Things. Here is part 1 and part 2.

 

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).