7 Principles of Technogesis

“If you want to know what water is, don’t ask a fish.” So goes the Chinese proverb. By extension, if you want to understand the strengths and weakness of American culture do not ask an America. Why is this? To walk through life, we must take some things for granted, such as driving on the right side of the road or standing in line at the grocery store. However, God calls us to be discerning citizens of heaven and earth. Worldliness is a constant danger. To paraphrase David Wells, worldliness makes the godly look odd and the ungodly seem normal. The way of the fallen world is the way of the unregenerate flesh and its works. Paul warns us to avoid the works of the flesh by being filled with the Spirit.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).

Acts of the flesh can become habitual patterns of life and so recede into the background. They seem normal. Everyone does them. For example, selfish ambition is often seen as the engine of success: sell yourself, put yourself first. The humble are the losers. They do not inherit the earth.

Worldliness may also throw its invisible net around us through the uncritical use of technologies, particularly communications media. Facebook, for example, might make us jealous or feed illicit erotic desires. The sinful may become normal for us.

Media may dull our senses to things divine and may enmesh and ensnare us in habits of the heart and mind that are earthbound. Marshall McLuhan, the media theorist (trained in rhetoric and literary criticism), wrote that “We become what we behold.” Or, as Scripture says, we resemble the idols we worship or we resemble the God we worship.

To avoid worldliness and to embrace godless, we ought rightly to evaluate the cultural givens, testing them for truth-worthiness and asking how they may be used for human flourishing and the expansion of God’s Kingdom. Technological awareness also makes life more interesting and is another fun way to annoy your friends. Consider several principles of interpreting technologies in light of Christian character and Christian mission. I call this technogesis.

  1. Every technologies both extends and contracts human communication. The telephone extends the voice over distances far greater than a shout or even the stentorian capacities of a George Whitfield or L. Dwight Moody. However, the visual presence is removed. Thus, all nonverbal aspects of communication vanish. Skype allows us to protect our images around the world, but it still cannot bring the whole person with it.

In light of this, consider what the best form of media may be for particular kinds of communication. Hearing a sermon with other Christians in a church involves the whole person. Hearing the sermon on the radio or a podcast does not—useful as that may be.  You should not only send a text when you should shed a tear with someone who is suffering.

  1. Each medium has biases and prejudges. The text message or tweet has a bias toward speed and brevity. It is prejudiced against developed exposition and argument. Donald Trump releases may of his ideas and even policies on tweets. Had he lived to see it, this would have even shocked Neil Postman. The printed page has a bias toward recording thoughts through words in a linear fashion. Of course, the page can be fill with incoherence and randomness, but those values are better served by the Internet.

 

  1. With the development of technologies, there are always winners and losers. The carriage industry suffered with the advent of the automobile, as did the blacksmith. The original radios were large and took a central place in the home. They were well-crafted pieces of furniture. Now they are relicts, and how many families gather around a radio to listen to news and entertainment. Ear buds have radically individualized and miniaturized entertainment. With the coming of computer writing, typewriters become relics, whatever their virtues may have been. I wrote half of my first book on an IBM Selectric, the King of automatic typewriters in the 1980s. I could feel and hear the impressions of the letters on the paper. I could see most of the workings of the machine. It was not the black box, about which I could know nothing about its inner workings. What did I lose when I stopped writing on typewriters (as I did for all my many undergraduate papers) and switched to a computer?

 

  1. Technologies cater to extant assumptions and help reinforce them. Since Americans like to take technology with them, cell phones became smaller and more portable. However, that boomeranged when they became too small to manipulate. Now they are larger and some opt for even larger tablets for most of their communication. Since Americans love screens, technologies have put them everywhere—even on phones and watches. Many years ago, there was a cartoon called Dick Tracy, who sported a small screen on his wristwatch!

 

  1. Technological innovation is always a tradeoff. Consider e-books. What is gained in portability is lost in presence and heft. A book is a discrete object in the world. It has a history it carries with it. I have the first copy of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There, which I purchased from the University of Oregon book store in the fall of 1976. I have the same information in other token of the type of this book. Yet there is only one artifact that carries the meaning of this book. E-books are electronically searchable, a great boon to research. You can add notes. And yet…the book possesses virtues untranslatable into digital forms.

 

  1. Many media encourage the passive consumption of its content as opposed to the creative engagement of culture. Amazon video gives me access to myriad films and television programs. Watching (some of) these may be relaxing or touching. Some of the films may be great art. Because of my wife’s dementia, watching video and some old TV shows is one of a small number of activities we can share. Since Becky’s mental abilities are decaying, she cannot create or engage very much. She used to read, write, edit, sing, and more. I am grateful for the availability of this entertainment. It also makes me weep when I see her sitting in front of the screen by herself. Has it come to this? Yes, it has, although we search for others activities.

In Culture Making, Andy Crouch argues that we should try to create more culture than we consume. Play catch with a kid instead of buying him a video game. Enjoy no-tech meals with your family, paying attention to the preparation of food and the setting of the meal. Write a personal card instead of posting factoids on Facebook.

  1. Communication technologies encourage using culture instead of receiving it. According to C.S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism, to use a book or an image or a song is merely functional and utilitarian. One may read to “kill time,” God help them. Contrariwise, to receive a book or an image or a song means to submit to it, to consider it for what it is in itself. You pay your respects to a cultural artefact, such as a Mark Rothko painting in The Denver Art Museum. You linger at leisure. The Internet has a prejudice against receiving anything—although it is possible, say if you are watching a masterful jazz performance by Pat Martino.

My seven reflections are more suggestive than detailed. There are, doubtless, other principles for technogesis. These, however, should serve us well as we try to be in the world, but not of it.

Recommended reading

  1. Sven Birkerts, The Guttenberg Elegies.
  2. Andy Crouch, Culture Making and The Tech-wise Family
  3. Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace. First Christian critique of the Internet—which no one read.
  4. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism.
  5. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly.
  6. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: Extensions of Man.
  7. Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word, The Technological Bluff.
  8. Lassie: The First Fifty Years (1993).

The Book That No One Read

As the editor of a series of cultural critiques on compelling issues, Os Guinness wanted my work The Soul in Cyberspace to be “a shot across the bow.” I earnestly took up the challenge. At the time, Thomas Moore’s The Care of the Soul was a bestseller, and publishers were offering a proliferation of books on the Internet. Published in 1997, my book combined these two themes. My hope was that the book would sell well and help the church be more discerning.

The book was a flop. My success publishing essays from it in various periodicals and an interview in Christianity Today notwithstanding, it was dead after one small printing. As David Hume wrongly referred to A Treatise on Human Nature, it fell “stillborn from the press.” (For literary archaeologists, the book is available as a reprint from Wipf and Stock Publishers, and used copies of the original print can be found on Amazon.)

Why, then, did the book fail to engage the Evangelical world? Are there any lessons from it that apply to us today, especially given my last twenty years participating in the churning and ever-changing world of cyberspace?

First, it may have not been a good book. Perhaps it was written too quickly (as one reviewer put it) and/or without adequate research and nuance. God knows. I don’t remember any bad reviews; but there weren’t many reviews at all.

Second, it was written by a young curmudgeon, a social critic who did not (and does not) typically look on the bright side of things. In the middle 1990s, most Evangelicals (and everyone else) were agog with the teeming and wondrous possibilities of “life on the screen,” as Sherri Turkle put it. (She is now more nuanced and worried in her approach, as seen in her recent books, such as Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation.) Since Evangelicals yearn to reach as many people as possible with the gospel, we usually fall in love with whatever technology seems to have the broadest reach. Thus, we embraced radio to broadcast sermons, for example. I never denied the benefits of global connectivity—as much as I could glimpse of that in 1997. However, I pondered the unintended consequences that flowed from the nature of the medium itself, getting my chops and taking my cues mostly from Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul, and Marshall McLuhan. So, I was more of a nay-sayer than a cheer-leader. But, I was partly right. Let me explain.

All communication technologies amplify some human abilities and diminish others. They are, as McLuhan wrote, “extensions of man.” The radio and telephone extend the reach of the voice, but removes the embodied human presence from which the voice comes. It favors sound over image. Television extends and favors image over sound and rational discourse. Vinyl sounds better than digital, but is less portable. And on it goes. Trades-offs in meaning and knowledge are inevitable, but usually neglected or forgotten. Christians, of all people, should know this. God coming in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ is the consummate communication of God to humanity, improving on (but not negating) all previous forms of revelation.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word (Hebrews 1:1-3a).

The Apostles Paul (Romans 1:11-12) and John lamented that they could not visit the recipients of their Epistles.

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete (2 John 1:12; see also 3 John 1:13-14).

A 1993 cartoon in The New Yorker cartoon showed one dog saying to another, “On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog.” Being-there was endangered by novel and prodigious forms of high-tech mediation. Fakery was easier, authenticity harder. You could craft a web page to make you look other than you were, and gain much attention in doing so, given the novelty of the form.

I also warned of the cyborg, the human machine combinations beginning to find identities. How far might enter cyberspace? Might we thereby become less human?

If I was partly right in warning of the depersonalizing aspects of the Internet and right in advocating unmediated personal relationships in friendship and teaching and in the church, what did I miss?

Even the savviest techno-wizards would be stunned by many of the cyberspace eruptions from the last two decades. When I wrote in 1997, personal computers were tethered to desks or put on laps. Cell phones were new, bulky, expensive, and alien to the fledgling internet. There was no “Cyber Monday” and no texting. My attention is drawn to only two giants, who emerged in cyberspace since I wrote The Soul in Cyberspace—Facebook and Amazon. Space does not permit me to expound on three of their giant siblings—Google, Wikipedia, and the omnipresent smart phone (which often outsmarts us).

Facebook did not exist in 1997 and no one knew of Mark Zuckerman, who was then thirteen-years-old. The social nature of the internet was largely exhausted by chat rooms, emails, rather static web pages, and discussion boards. I flirted with Facebook for a few years, and even spoke out against it on a BBC radio program. I now find myself a dedicated citizen of this digital place, which I find vexing, annoying, and nearly indispensable.

Like all electronic media, Facebook is not unmediated face-to-face communication; and, it should never substitute for it. (Although it tries hard through video calls). It should it become an obsession or addiction, which it easily can. Often, we denizens of Facebook are better off reading books rather than our newsfeeds. (I must get to that new translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions!) Our posted selfies may reveal less than virtuous selves. Self-promotion takes on new dimensions on Facebook and it is easy to forget what Proverbs counsels: Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips” (Proverbs 27:2). I could go on. I hope you could you, too.

I did not know in 1997 that cyberspace might become, in some of its regions, a meaningful medium for insight, exhortation, commiseration, and prayer; yet, it can, indeed, carry existential weight. I have lamented on line, much of it on Facebook. Since my wife Becky was diagnosed with an uncommon and uncommonly cruel form of dementia in March of 2014, I have shared much of my grief before my Facebook “friends.” One long essay, written at the end of 2014, I called, “The Year of Learning Things I did not Want to Know.” The response was voluminous and heartening; it became a chapter in Walking through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament. Many offered prayer, Scripture, general concern, and tangible help for me and Becky. A friend set up a Go Fund Me account. I try to do the same for my siblings in suffering by posting my reflections on our journey into the darkness of primary progressive aphasia. No one can serve my wife communion on Facebook. That requires being there with her. But this social medium may be used as a conduit for genuine love and service. For that, I am grateful to God.

The Soul in Cyberspace said little about commerce in cyberspace. Amazon.com came into existence in 1994, selling mostly books and CDs. I went on line in 1995 and had not used Amazon until 1999, two years after I wrote the book. Like many, I was at first reluctant to buy anything on line. It was too dangerous, I thought. Amazon has made shopping quick, easy, and, all-to-often, irresistible. It eliminates the middle man of a physical store. The shopping is done on line; the ordering is done at home. The selection is vast and ever-increasing. Like Facebook, it is a staple of my life. But what should we make of this behemoth with “the largest inventory on earth,” as it says?

Customers of Amazon can become critics of Amazon through its rating system. This feature of customer evaluation was dubbed Internet 2.0 a few years ago. This, for me, has become a literary template for my hundreds of my comments, mostly on books and music. There are the obligatory stars (which are too reductionist), the headline, and the discursive comments, which may become essays. I have found essays worthy of academic publication—along with the emotive drivel, grammatical chaos, and sheer inanity. Nevertheless, the customer’s words can add understanding to the product. They can do more. My reviews usually contain an apologetic undercurrent. Granted, this is not like publishing in The New Yorker, and I do not have a category on my academic resume for “Amazon Essays.” Still, some souls might benefit from them and I benefit from some of the reviews. Moreover, those suffering from, or enjoying, hypographia (a form of literary hypomania) have their outlet. (You can write reviews on YouTube as well, but most comments are more sewage than salt, and it may not be worth the wading through.)

The arms of Amazon reach further and further into the world. The most ominous development is the Amazon Echo, called Alexa, the digital version of the ancient mystical oracle. This personal assistant (a title we once used for mere humans only) uses voice recognition to answer questions, order items from Amazon, and more.  Amazon advertises its magic.

Just ask Alexa to check your calendar, weather, traffic, and sports scores, manage to-do and shopping lists, control your compatible smart lights, thermostats, garage doors, sprinklers, and more

Alexa is always getting smarter and adding new features and skills. Just ask Alexa to control your TV, request an Uber, order a pizza, and more.

Your interactions are recorded and kept somewhere in the Cloud. To that, I say that the convenience is not worth the possible surveillance. And might we talk more to a machine than to the mortals in our midst?

There are many more souls in cyberspace today than when I wrote The Soul in Cyberspace. It is heartening to see a good number of serious evaluations of this medium appear in the last ten years. Nevertheless, we ought to be diligent in asking how cyberspace affects our minds, manners, and morals. Therefore, we must test the medium and how it affects us. As Paul said, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil” (I Thessalonians 5:19-22).

Christianity, Cosmos, and Human Meaning

Recently, Bill Nye, The Science Guy, remarked in a YouTube video that Christians were fools for thinking that human beings had significance in a cosmos that dwarfs them. He is merely echoing a chorus of like-minded critics who employ to reason against Christianity. The smallness means insignificance argument is usually coupled with the old canard about Copernicus dislodging the earth from the center of the universe and, thus, dethroning man and destroying Christianity. Bertrand Russell was one of the biggest offenders, throwing this idea around in his popular, A History of Western Philosophy.

The controlling falsehoods in this argument are both historical and logical. As C.S. Lewis notes, the ancients regarded the earth as tiny in relation to the rest of the cosmos, even if their knowledge of its vastness was not that of our own. No theology of human significance was ever tied to the relative size of humans with respect to the universe as a whole. No, human worth depends on the God who made man in his own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). The height, width, and weight of these image-bearers are irrelevant to their value. What counts is their nature. Humans represent God in the world through relationships, reason, emotion, and will. The Oxford Don drives this home in Miracles.

There is no doubt that we all feel the incongruity of supposing, say, that the planet Earth might be more important than the Great Nebula in Andromeda. On the other hand, we are all equally certain that only a lunatic would think a man six-feet high necessarily more important than a man five-feet high, or a horse necessarily more important than a man, or a man’s legs than his brain. In other words this supposed ratio of size to importance feels plausible only when one of the sizes involved is very great. And that betrays the true basis of this type of thought. When a relation is perceived by Reason, it is perceived to hold good universally. If our Reason told us that size was proportional to importance, the small differences in size would be accompanied by small differences in importance just as surely as great differences in size were accompanied by great differences in importance. Your six-foot man would have to be slightly more valuable than the man of five feet, and your leg slightly more important than your brain—which everyone knows to be nonsense. The conclusion is inevitable: the importance we attach to great differences of size is an affair not of reason but of emotion—of that peculiar emotion which superiorities in size begin to produce in us only after a certain point of absolute size has been reached (Miracles, chapter seven).

Here the critic may shift ground a bit and claim that Christianity is too anthropocentric, since it claims that God created all things for humans. The same critics, in fact, may do both at once, which is a contradiction. How dare we single ourselves out for such a compliment, we tiny mortals?

This barb bears at least two blunders. First, the Bible does not maintain that the universe has one purpose—to serve humanity. Rather, the cosmos is the handiwork of an infinite and personal Creator. The Maker crafted he world to manifest his goodness and to give him satisfaction, whether or not mortals are the beneficiaries. The Psalter features nature psalms or hymns that testify to God’s care and delight in the astronomic realm. Consider God’s call to nature in Psalm 148:

Praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord from the heavens;
           praise him in the heights above.
       Praise him, all his angels;
           praise him, all his heavenly hosts.
     Praise him, sun and moon;
         praise him, all you shining stars.
     Praise him, you highest heavens
         and you waters above the skies.

Let them praise the name of the Lord,        

   for at his command they were created,
  and he established them for ever and ever—
   he issued a decree that will never pass away

(Psalm 148:1-6; see also Psalm 104).

The heights above, the waters below, the angels, the sun, moon, and stars, are all praising God—with no human in sight. The purpose of creation is to bring God glory, not to set man at the center. Genesis chapter one reports that God was pleased with his creation—the heavens and earth, the plants and animals—before he created human beings. These were wrought by and for God before having any significance for human beings.

However, man alone bears the divine image. The ruin wrought by the Fall could not extinguish this image. As a man, God came into the world through Jesus Christ to save sinners by his death and resurrection (John 1:14; 1 Timothy 2:15). God, in his love, gave us a hospitable planet, which is perfectly placed to sustain life as we know it. The Privileged Planet by Guillermo Gonzales and Jay Richards argues this well. Still, this does not imply that the universe is anthropocentric. To the contrary, the universe is theocentric.

There is a second charge to unmask as errant. It is this: Christians are morally wrong to consider themselves as the objects of God’s special concern. Following from the accusation that Christians believe the world was made merely for humanity, atheists accuse believers of pride. After all, denying a special relation to God would be humble. Of course, the background assumption is that there is no God.)

But the skeptic cannot read the mind of a God he claims does not exist. The question is not, a priori, what seems the most humble way to view ourselves in the universe. Rather, the questions should be: Did God create us in his image and has he made a provision for us? The Gospel, moreover, indicts human beings as fallen and incapable of self-salvation. That is no compliment. And the greater something is, the farther it may fall. This is the human condition after the Fall.

Once again, I appeal to the master apologist, C.S. Lewis, this time for the last word.

Christianity does not involve the belief that all things were made for man. It does involve the belief that God loves man and for his sake became man and died. I have not yet succeeded in seeing how what we know (and have known since the days of Ptolemy) about the size of the universe affects the credibility of this doctrine one way or the other. . . . If it is maintained that anything so small as the Earth must, in any event, be too unimportant to merit the love of the Creator, we reply that no Christian ever supposed we did merit it. Christ did not die for men because they were intrinsically worth dying for, but because He is intrinsically love, and therefore loves infinitely (Miracles, chapter 7).

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Cosmology

Cosmology is the study of the nature and origin of the cosmos. The rare word, cosmogony, is sometimes refers to the origin of the cosmos. The study of cosmology requires that there be a cosmos that is physical. Idealists cannot, strictly speaking, be cosmologists since they claim there is nothing but ideas and minds. As such, cosmology ends up being a grand psychology. Pantheism falls into this category, since it claims that all is universal Mind and that there is no creation of anything apart from this Mind.

The cosmos exists for only one of three reasons. (1) It has always existed in some form, extending into an infinitely long past (2) It came into existence out of nothing and without a case a finite time ago (3) It came into existence a finite time ago because it was created by a First Cause. Consider each possibility:

  1. The eternal cosmos idea may be with atheistic or theistic. Materialists, such as Bertrand Russell, believe that the universe if “just there,” as he claimed in his debate with F. Coppleston in 1948. Some theists have taught—or allowed as possible—that the cosmos and God are coeternal, but that for all this time, the cosmos was contingent on God’s sustaining power. Thomas Aquinas claimed that natural theology can only prove this much. It takes special revelation for us to know that God created the world out of nothing a finite time ago.
  1. Pressured by the cogency of the big bang cosmological theory, some atheists affirm that the cosmos is not eternal. It originated at the big bang. However, they do not attribute a cause to this first event. The late Christian philosopher, Dallas Willard, called this “big bang mysticism.” This mysticism without God must grant that there are a-causal events or something can come from nothing without a cause. Principles such as this contravene all normal thinking about science and everyday life. There are no analogues to the big godless bang. As such, it is not rational to hold this view.
  1. If the cosmos began to exist a finite time ago, the best explanation for its origin is an immaterial being that is before and outside the cosmos. This Being possesses tremendous power (to create ex nihilo) and has the requisite knowledge to front load the big bang with all that is needed for life on earth. Thus, from modern physics, these divine attributes: creator, immateriality, unmatched power, transcendence, and knowledge (personality). As the Apostle Paul wrote: “ For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

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Christianity and Science: Reasons that Christianity Encourages Scientific Pursuits

Adapted from Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (InterVarsity Press, 2011, chapter five)

  1. The physical universe is an objective reality, which is ontologically distinct from the Creator (Genesis 1:1; Psalm 90:2; John 1:1).

2. The laws of nature exhibit order, pattern, and regularity, since they are established by an orderly God (Psalm 19:1-4; Romans 1:18-21).

3. The laws of nature are uniform throughout the physical universe, since God created and providentially sustains them. Miracles are not violations of natural laws, but supernatural interventions at specific times and for specific reasons.

4. The physical universe is intelligible because God created us to know him, ourselves, and the rest of creation. (Genesis 1-2; Psalm 36:9; Proverbs 8).

5. The world is good, valuable, and worthy of careful study, because it was created for a purpose by a perfectly good God (Genesis 1). Humans, as the unique image bearers of God, were created to discern, discover, and develop the goodness of creation for the glory of God and human betterment through work. The creation mandate (Genesis 1:26-28) includes scientific activity.[1]

6. Because the world is not divine and is therefore not a proper object of worship, it can be an object of rational study and empirical observation.

7. Human beings possess the ability to discover the universe’s intelligibility, since we are made in God’s image and have been placed on earth to develop its intrinsic possibilities. The world and humans were designed for discovery.

8. Because God did not reveal everything about nature, empirical investigation is necessary to discern the patterns God laid down in creation.

9. The intellectual virtues essential to carrying out the scientific enterprise (studiousness, honesty, integrity, humility, and courage) are commanded as part of God’s moral law (Exodus 20:1-17) and are the available through the power of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:13-25).[2]

[1] On the significance and depth of the creation mandate, see Francis Nigel Lee, The Central Significance of Culture (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1976), chapter one.

[2] On the presuppositions of science, see also J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1987), 198-201.

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