A technological society envisions deployment of technology that extends personhood beyond restrictions. In other words, in a technological society, techno-human integration pursues creation of the ideal human through enhancement of human functioning without boundaries.
To illustrate the point, let’s imagine development of technologies to overcome a human limitation of getting from the first floor to the second floor of a building. This limitation initially is overcome by building stairs. But walking up a flight of stairs is not always efficient, and it is impossible for those without sufficient leg strength. So a subsequent development provides the escalator. An escalator is a significant improvement to stairs, though it has at least one great limitation. It is unlikely that escalators would be built in every building between two floors. The problem is that stairs and escalators (and elevators) are technologies for buildings, not integrated closely enough with physical anatomy.
But imagine a technology could be developed for springy socks. When one wears springy socks, the distance between floors can be covered in a single jump. This amazing technology solves the elevation problem, but only for those who have access to the socks and remember to wear them.
The ultimate solution is to enhance the jumping capacity of legs such that a human being has a vertical jump of ten feet. Initial solutions in this direction could begin with prosthetic devices that spring an individual upward. Yet another possibility would be a pharmacological solution – steroid-like pills that transform musculature to catapult one upward ten feet. Perhaps the ultimate solution is to engage a genetic engineering process whereby human embryos are given this capacity so that such enhanced function develops “naturally” in humans. With such a series of enhancements, integrating technology with the human jumping function could remove restrictions traditionally considered inherent to being human.
The illustration may appear silly because our concern for ascending floors is not great enough to motivate development of these kinds of technology. Yet every technology in the illustration already is applied in some sphere of overcoming human restrictions. Shoes and socks are engineered to optimize performance of various functions. Work boots, track shoes, snow shoes and weight-lifting shoes vary from one another in significant ways to move foot-related performance to higher levels.
Prosthetic devices have been developed to help humans recover and even exceed function of lost limbs. Pharmacological technology is used to improve brain function, liver and heart function, and muscle development. And of course, genetic engineering is being developed to alter human development from the point of conception. The uniting factor across these technologies is the close, even complete, integration of technology with the human being to overcome human limitation. Technology in this framework is not so much a tool I pick up, use, and put down. Rather, it is part of me, and thereby raises a question about my own personhood.
This change in technology usage is captured well by Dr. Steven Gimbel in his work, “Redefining Reality.”
The classical approach to the human condition is to embrace our inherent constraints, to admit that we are but small elements of a larger reality. Then, we construct ourselves as beings whose lives can nonetheless have meaning in spite of or, indeed, because of these limitations. We can transcend ourselves through relationships with others, by alleviating suffering, or through a connection with the divine.
The contemporary approach to the human condition is different. We are now technological beings. If we are defined by our limitations, then our job is to redefine our own reality to break down those limitations.
Superheroes of comic book fantasies once had abilities that seemed outlandishly beyond real life. Such is no longer the case as technology integrates with humans along several lines. For example, biomedical engineering has developed technology whereby the human brain can interact with a prosthetic device, sending commands to the appendage and receiving feedback from it. And the prosthetic device may actually have greater capacity than the original flesh and bone fixture. Additionally, the technology of various psychoactive drugs effects changes to brain function and personality.
A third example of technology-human integration comes from neuroscience. Scientists have been able to erase and embed specific memories in laboratory rats, leading to the hypothesis that humans can be “re-programmed” in terms of what resides in their memory banks. Further, tiny chips have been implanted in two individuals such that they feel what each other feels, even though they are not in the same location.
In a technological society, the ideal person may well be the technology-enhanced human – a human “created” through technology. The pursuit of Captain America may not be so fanciful after all!
In Captain America, we find an instructive example. In the movie, an unassuming young man experiences technological transformation that re-creates him into something extraordinary. Or perhaps it is not extraordinary but the realization of his true self. Professor Steven Gimbel articulates well the questions that surface as we re-create individuals through intervention of technology.
If our bodies become a blank canvas that we can use to create the self we want, both in appearance and in psychological proclivities, is there really a self present at all? If we can make ourselves as we want, would the result be a truer instance of ourselves or an inauthentic misrepresentation of who we really are?
Clearly, the preceding examples demonstrate high levels of integration between technology and the human body. However, another way to think of creating an ideal human is changing the starting point. There is an integration of technology with humanity that is not physical (within the body) but relational (between the bodies). Again, several examples surface how this is happening. At the rudimentary popular level, we now talk to our devices and expect them to obey our commands. Commands to Siri, Google, our Amazon Echo devices, our television sets and our house and yard lights yield a strange sense of being heard. It was a sense previously reserved only for interactions with animate creatures.
Of course, the other side of human interaction is receiving communication from the machine. So our devices now speak back to us in the volume, tones, and accents of our choosing. And the latest developments of a techno-person include the ability of the machine to analyze our daily schedule and advise us on how to proceed successfully. These software programs scan our email to remind us what we promised to do, what others have asked us to do and what tasks we already have planned to do.
The techno assistant approximates a human administrative assistant in my office but can do everything with greater efficiency. As the techno-assistant becomes more advanced, the machine completely replaces the human, a reality that has occurred in customer support roles across a wide range of industries. In these developments, we see another approximation of the ideal human, but rather than enhancing the human with machine-sourced powers, the approximation starts with the machine and enhances it with human-like characteristics.
Of course, real human interaction is much deeper than command and response and managing tasks (at least it should be deeper). So machines are “learning” how to initiate conversation, interact according to personal history, and even read feelings of a human being. A machine can recognize us by our face, our eyes, or our speech patterns. Sexbots are now being developed to produce sexual fulfillment. No longer is it difficult to imagine the experience of Luke Skywalker’s endearment to R2D2 and C3PO.
These droids became human-like companions who had all the ideals of faithfulness, kindness, patience, and intelligence. The droids could bring cheer to a downcast hero and help humans overcome any sense of loneliness or failure. But they had none of the foibles of humanity that make relationships messy. In other words, the Star Wars picture of an ideal human was cast in the form of a high-tech machine on motorized wheels. And what was science fiction at its release in the 1970’s is now within reach.
The point of this section is not to argue for or against the ethics of various technological interventions. From test tube babies to stem cell research to sex-change technologies, bio-ethics will be part of our landscape far into the future. Unfortunately when technology intersects with our bodies, it does not solve bioethical problems; it only raises them.
The core issue is one of human personhood. Where does “person” stop and machine begin? The lines between person and machine are not as clear as they once seemed to be. We are confronted here with an important aspect of the social imaginary of a technological society, namely, pursuit of an ideal humanity through integration with technology. As this pursuit becomes a center of society, it conflicts with other important considerations of what it means not only to be a Good Person, but to be a person at all.
A technological society envisions the ultimate hope for humanity in the removal of all limitations. In a sense, this final declaration simply sums all that has gone before, particularly as the statement speaks to the “removal of all limitations.” Yet I am trying to communicate an idea that a technological society creates a tsunami of sorts, a summative force of all technology across all of life to remove limitations. It is not just overcoming restrictions of space and time, not just eliminating limitations of physical capacity, and not just removal of inefficient processes.
Rather, we experience an overwhelming impact of this pervasive infiltration of technology. It works to direct our ultimate hope for liberation, a hope sourced in our own power to create. Even for those who do not seek to be on the cutting edge of technology, members of a technological society are drawn at the level of our affections, our desires for achieving the ultimate good, a liberation from all limitations. This is the quest for progress that omits issues of character and ethics. Progress becomes the ethic. If there is technological progress, it is to be pursued.
The original Toy Story movie casts Buzz Lightyear as a plastic space ranger who struggles to accept his limitations as a toy. Buzz can’t really fly, jump, or destroy enemies with his laser gun as he had imagined. Buzz simply cannot tolerate this life with all its limitations, despite Woody’s ongoing attempts to console him with assurances of how good it is to be “Andy’s toy.” Buzz has one mantra to live by, “To infinity and beyond.” Life must be lived without the limits placed on him by his creator. In a technological society, Buzz’s mantra leads the push of technology into every crevice of life, kindling anew a hope of our move to infinity and beyond.
This concept of ultimate liberation is a prevalent theme in the literature. The following survey reinforces the idea from several perspectives. First, John Dyer’s brief recounting of the history of technology concludes that a fundamental shift has occurred in which progress through technology has become the ultimate hope for many.
Of course, technology often does solve problems, and later generations of technology tend to have fewer problems than the first generation. However, over time our culture has begun to believe that technology will one day solve all of our problems, leading to a kind of utopia. Stephen Monsma calls this idea “technicism,” and he argues that it has become a kind of unspoken religion for the secular world. For those who don’t see God as an anchoring point for reality, technological progress has become a means of salvation and a source of future hope.
Murray Jardine has composed an entire book devoted to tracing the history and connections of technology to broader philosophical and political theories. In his Making and Unmaking of a Technological Society, Jardine explains how the contemporary idea of progress seeks “total human liberation.”
Modern Western culture, unlike any other culture that has ever existed, has been characterized by the belief that humans can improve their earthly existence through the application of scientific and technological knowledge, which will lead to increased material well-being and individual freedom, possibly even to the point of total human liberation.
I began this chapter with a brief reference to Jacques Ellul and his concept of techne or technique. We are now in a better position to understand what he meant. On the website for the International Jacque Ellul Society, James Fowler relayed Ellul’s thought in a way that serves as a fitting summary of my point here.
The industrialized technical employment of technique became a monster in the urbanized and technological society of the twentieth (20th) century, “the stake of the century” as Ellul termed it. Technique became the defining force, the ultimate value, of a new social order in which efficiency was no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity. Technique became universally totalitarian in modern society as rationalistic proceduralism imposed an artificial value system of measuring and organizing everything quantitatively rather than qualitatively. Like cancer in a living organism, the systematization of technique pervades every cell of our modern technical and technological society. The subtle illusion of this invasive methodology of technique is that people view technology as the liberator of mankind, the operational instrument that sets them free from natural function.
Preaching in a Technological Society
In the preceding section, I have endeavored to describe the social imaginary of a technological society. To make the description clear, I provided four statements describing the generally unspoken ideals of this society. A technological society envisions…
· a world where personal presence transcends limitations of time and space
· the removal of all inefficiencies
· deployment of technology that extends personhood beyond restrictions
· the ultimate hope for humanity in the removal of all limitations.
I suggested that these four aspects of the social imaginary constantly pull at all participants in a technological society, particularly bending their affections toward these concepts of human flourishing. Those who deliver sermons and those who listen to them are not immune to these same forces.
In the present section, I briefly set out how these aspects of a technological society may impact preaching. My contention is not that everyone is impacted in the same way or that everyone feels the same degree of pull upon their imaginations. Rather, it is that we must be alert to some of the ways by which a technological society extends its vision even to preaching. We divide our inquiry into three areas: 1) The Preacher in a Technological Society 2) The Sermon in a Technological Society and 3) The Audience in a Technological Society.
The Preacher in a Technological Society
In a technological society, a preacher can be conceived of as a technical specialist – that is, as a technician who delivers lessons from the Bible and provides for the cure of souls. I’m using technician here in the sense of one who masters technique. The journey through seminary provides the preacher-in-training with optimal methods of exegesis and sermon design. Equipped with procedural profundity, the preacher utilizes the latest software to nail the exegesis with accuracy and precision.
Then, as one proficient in information retrieval, the preacher searches for optimal sermon outlines, supporting material, and clever ideas. Finally, the sermon is masterfully coordinated with music, promotional announcements, and audio-visual support. The product is devised as a technical masterpiece – because the Lord deserves our best!
Of course, the preacher perceived as technical specialist obscures other important values. Such a view of the preacher likely downplays the roles of prophet, shepherd, and exemplar of Christ-like character. An audience seeking a preacher as technician is unlikely to see much value in these alternative roles. Meanwhile, the preacher himself invests increasing amounts of time and energy on acquisition of technical skills rather than character and heart preparation. One can always get better with dissecting the original languages, scouring the commentaries, utilizing the software, and editing one’s videos. That’s what technicians do! And that is what an audience will applaud if seeing preacher as a technician functioning in a technological society.
Secondly, in a technological society, a preacher is positioned as the purveyor of boundless ministry. This is easily disguised as a desire to “reach the world for Christ” or take the gospel “to the ends of the earth.” While this is clearly God’s intention for his overall mission, I’m not sure that he ever intended any single preacher or church to do it all. Yet, armed with a slick web page, prominent presence on social media platforms, and a top rate video distribution platform, a preacher can satisfy the longings of a technological society to overcome limitations of time and space.
When such a boundless ministry perspective is adopted, a bounded ministry seems like a failure, even if it is faithful loving service to a farming community in the Midwest or to an inner city church in the “rough part of town.” With present technology, nearly any preacher can become a “mega-preacher” through establishment of a virtual church that has no geographic limits. But such a pursuit may bring heightened risk that the preacher will stumble in pride, suffer with dissatisfaction, and struggle with local detachment.
The Sermon in a Technological Society
In a technological society, the sermon may be perceived as simply another tool, a device produced through the technology of the super-technician to effect its desired end efficiently. In such a view, the sermon, like any tool, is evaluated simply with respect to its effectiveness. If it does not move people toward discipleship efficiently (assuming that is an important goal), then it could be discarded for other tools preferred because they score better on an efficiency scale.
Perhaps more unnerving is the listener who sees the sermon as a technology for making life better; that is, removing limitations of earning money, making friends, improving marriage, etc. If the listener perceives that such effect is not occurring in an efficient manner or that a “quick fix” is not on the horizon, a negative evaluation of the sermon occurs. On the other hand, if the sermon is perceived to be an effective tool, then its digital transmission, archival, and retrieval are considered critically important, for the efficient achievement of ends can be achieved elsewhere with that particular sermon. The sermon can be treated like an audio book (or video book) that is retrieved repeatedly to multiply its effect.
In fact, sermons as technology need not be heard in the context of a church gathering. If the sermon actually is an effective tool, it does not matter when or where it is heard. As a result, preaching in a technological society may have no bearing on commitment to a local church because the sermon is but a tool to be utilized whenever and wherever it is needed.
Those with a theological understanding of preaching cringe at the description in the preceding paragraph. For a sermon is not a technology to be employed for quick, efficient results. Rather, it is an experience of submission to God through reception of His revelation. The sermon is to be delivered and received as an act of worship within and by the community, in faith that the implanted Word will bear fruit. The sermon as sacrament connotes something holy or sacred, valued for its inherent qualities, not simply for results that may be achieved through its proclamation.
The social imaginary of a technological society clearly works upon conceptions of the preacher and the sermon. In each case, we recognize our need as preachers to think through how we can utilize technology while simultaneously working against the pull of this technological society that lays claim to it. For with our every use of technology, we run the risk of reinforcing a value system that we know to be unbiblical.
We turn now to consider how sermon listeners are impacted by the pulls of a technological society. As we consider our listeners, we recognize their plight in fitting a biblical sermon into the social imaginary in which they unwittingly find themselves.
The Audience in a Technological Society
Parishioners parked in front of a preacher are implored to give their full attention to the upcoming sermon. Yet for the six preceding days, they have been drowning in distraction. For many of them, it is unlikely that they have focused their undivided attention on anything for 40 consecutive minutes in the past week. Even their television shows are interrupted with commercials every 8 minutes. Yet the preacher calls them to give to the sermon a level of attention that for some will be unprecedented if not at least unpracticed.
This disjunction may describe the most acute struggle for congregants who want to listen but find themselves with underdeveloped skills in doing so. For years on end, many of them have succumbed to the moment-by-moment checking of their cell phones. They have allowed notifications to dictate their attention and social feeds to excite their emotions. They have engaged in this secular liturgy that has in a most sinister fashion torn their hearts from the liturgy of the Word. And here comes a preacher hoping that listeners will focus on sermonic ideas and think deeply about how these rich ideas speak to the depths of their being.
For many of the listeners, despite their intentions to the contrary, they will succumb to the urge to check that tweet, news feed, post, or email. And when they cycle back to the sermon, their presence is not the same. The river has kept flowing and they have not gone with it. It may not be the phone that beckons their attention. It could be a memory from the past or an appointment in the future. Regardless of the source of the distraction, participants in a technological society don’t see it as distraction. They live with an expectation of being everywhere present. But such diluted presence significantly degrades their experience of God.
Besides their loss of attentiveness and deep thinking, parishioners immersed in a technological society struggle with sermonic language. “Brokenness” in a technological society is not sin but limitation. To be “pleasing to God” is to be productive and efficient. The “cure” for our brokenness is innovation through technology that we create. “Freedom” is from the tyranny of limitation, not the mastery of Sin and Law. The point is that congregants in the grasp of a technological society may reinterpret theological language to fit the affections of their hearts. Preachers dare not assume that their theological language is understood in the way it was intended.
These are the people to whom we preach. They are sheep who unwittingly invited a wolf to devour them. And if we preachers fail to help them see the dangers of this technological society, even worse – if we contribute to their deception through our own blind use of technology, we fail to preach sermons that truly help our listeners. But our sermons can be better for these people. They must be!
While the technologies of our day tantalize us with their potential, they remind us that indeed there is nothing new under the sun. Since the earliest days, humankind has sought to be
rid of creaturely limitations and ascend to the gods, calling upon the assistance of technology to aid their quest. The original fruit-pickers of Eden rebelled against their single divinely give limitation and were tempted to be like God.
A few chapters later, the Genesis account testifies of their descendants developing a race of giants – the original super-heroes. In so doing, they sought to move beyond their human limitations by uniting sons of God and daughters of men. And even after the cleansing of the flood, humankind reached for the heavens, utilizing engineering prowess to build a tower on the plain of Shinar. We humans love to shake free of our limitations and ascend to the gods, and we will do so with every technological innovation we can muster.
Proponents of a technological society take that tower of Babel as a well-intentioned effort that failed simply due to a deficient technology. It is a narrative to be pursued by humans until it reaches a perfect end of technology-enabled divinity. But we proclaim a counter-narrative to a different end. Our sermons trace again and again the beautiful arc to a New Earth wherein we creatures of God, embracing our divinely established limitations, are present, really present, with one another and with our king.
Victor D. Anderson is Director of PhD Studies and Professor of Pastoral Ministry at Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas.