Technology and the Common Good

I went to a restaurant in Birmingham a few months ago and saw a family at lunch. Parents and children sat at the same table and ate in each other’s presence, but they were not together.  Each one was immersed in his own computer, smart phone, or tablet.  Communications technology, which promises to connect everyone, was disconnecting those who ought to be closest.  Now, I am a big fan of technology, including communications technology, but I tell the story because it illustrates a danger central to Scripture’s story and as old as mankind.

Tower of Babel

One passage that speaks directly to this danger is Genesis 11: the story of the Tower of Babel.  As a child, I read this passage as an etiology. That is to say, I thought its main point was to describe the origin of human languages. It was many years before I began to grasp the real, theological meaning of the text.  Man will achieve neither social harmony nor significance if he ignores God and relies exclusively on technology and material progress.

The key to Genesis 11 is to read the passage in context. It immediately precedes the call of Abraham (in Genesis 12), and is set in deliberate contrast to that passage. Consider the words of Genesis 11:

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

Note their goal and their method. The men of Babel apply technology (bricks, mortar, and architecture) in order to make a name for themselves (significance) and to achieve a measure of social cohesion (not to be scattered over the earth). Obviously, God does not approve their plan and metes out to them exactly the consequences they meant to avoid. He scatters them across the world and divides them.

The contrast with Abraham is stark and obvious. In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham to leave the security of land and family and to “go to the Land I will show you.”  What Babel meant to achieve through technology and development (a name, a family), God promises to Abraham through faith and obedience:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you . . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

The rest of the Bible and all of salvation history is the unfolding of that promise. The people of God are often strangers and sojourners, sometimes excluded from the world of political, economic, and technological might, and yet they are salt and light. They point others to their origin and destiny in God and to their common humanity.

The Second Vatican Council embraced this vision of the Church and her mission. In the constitution Lumen Gentium, the Fathers described the Church this way:

The Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.

The Council fathers did not reject technology, but they warned of its insufficiency:

All the endeavors of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm [man’s] anxiety; for prolongation of biological life is unable to satisfy that desire for higher life which is inescapably lodged in his breast. (Gaudium et spes)

 

Pope Francis has recently sounded a similar note. Technological and economic progress are insufficient to achieve the full, human good. We are spiritual creatures and find our good and the good of our neighbor only when seen in this light:

Growth in justice requires more than economic growth . . . I am firmly convinced that openness to the transcendent can bring about a new political and economic mindset which would help to break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society. (Evangelii Gaudium)

 

Abraham obeyed the call of God. He left Haran and lived as a stranger and a wanderer. He never saw the material promises fulfilled in his lifetime. Rather, he was looking forward (Hebrews 11 tells us), “to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”  “Do not be afraid,” God told Abraham, “I am your shield, your very great reward.” (Genesis 15:1)

The place of technology in human flourishing is critical to the story of Scripture.  In the opening chapters of the Bible, man attempts to achieve the human good without reference to his transcendent nature. The result is that he loses relationship both with God and with his fellow man.  In contrast, the Gospel promises that our good is to be found wholly in God and in the dignity of our neighbor, whatever our access to technology.  Pope Benedict XVI once wrote, “Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little.” (Jesus of Nazareth)

2 thoughts on “Technology and the Common Good

  1. Christopher

    Technology has become, for many people, the new idol, the new false god. It’s their whole world. They can’t live without it. It means more to them than anything else in the world. However, it goes beyond that. In the 21st century mindset, knowledge of technology and how to use it equals intelligence. I disagree. Knowing how to operate a cellular telephone or any other of the portable devices on the market today doesn’t make you smarter, but rather, just the opposite. I see where you’re going with this article, I concur with you. If we replace God with technology, we’re guilty of idolatry. Case closed.

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