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Thinking Through Technology

In his book, For Common Things, author Jedediah Purdy sounds a clarion call for reengagement in public debate and life by a culture who has developed irony and cynicism as central and defining parts of their identity. He speaks of the the influence of deep-seated cynicism on what he terms “the common things” that support all that we love and hold dear: law, government, culture, environment, education, and science.  The following excerpt comes from the chapter entitled, The Neighbor and the Machine: Technology and Responsibility.

Genetic engineering exemplifies the need to think through technology.  It elicits an ambivalence that pervades our responses to technological change.  Optimistically, it permits us to imagine preventing congenital disorders such as Down’s Syndrome, developing new treatments for diabetes and other illnesses, and even changing our genes to make our lives longer and healthier than ever in the past.  Yet some products of the new technology strikes us as wrong, or at least deeply unsettling.  Scientists have developed techniques for producing frogs with no heads or central nervous systems, inevitably conjuring images of mindless “human beings” harnessed as organ farms.  Princeton University molecular biologist Lee Silver predicts that, within a few centuries, genetic engineering will have made us into a multiclass society, where the GenRich (genetically rich) do all the important and renumerative work while the Naturals (people like us) sweep floors and care for other people’s children.

Genetic technology expresses a basic truth about technological change, and puts it in terms stark enough to capture and hold our attention.  The prospect of widespread genetic engineering makes explicit what we have intended to leave implicit, or to acknowledge uncomfortably and in passing: in making new technologies we remake ourselves.

If we are to take the assessment of technology at all seriously, we must be able to evaluate such a radical phenomenon as biotechnology.  This means considering how our prospective new powers might affect our capacity to uphold certain of our defining values.  This is not a matter of social engineering so much as it is a reflection of moral sensibility.  We know something of our best and worst possibilities, and have some idea of how the best are maintained and where the worst are engaged.  How does a new technology promise to interact with these, and where might it take them?

Viewed through these questions, the ambivalence we feel on first encountering genetic technology comes into sharper focus.  As a first try, we might put the problem this way.  Genetic engineering promises to advance the core modern values of humanitarianism – the commitment to pressing back the boundaries of death and suffering – and free self-development toward personal fulfillment and excellence.  At the same time, though, the new technology threatens to undermine the equally important commitment to equality, as both a social goal and a moral view about the bedrock importance of human beings.  That change would have grave consequences for morality and public life.  Grasping this possibility, and seeing its relation to the myriad benefits that accompany it, is the essential work in assessing the new biology.

 

When the Organization becomes the Institution

I am currently reading Alfred Edersheim’s epic The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. It is one of the most important modern references in existence of Jesus’ life and the Jewish culture that proceeded and encompassed his earthly ministry, or at least that’s what some people say (like these guys.)   It is terribly hard for me to read and more importantly to understand.  I think I need to read two or three other, lesser books before I can really understand all that is going on in this one, but I digress.  Thankfully, I am reading it in community with three other men who are helping me to keep going and giving me fresh insight that I otherwise would not grasp.  This grand tome has been referenced often in much of my other reading and study and I am glad to be finally exploring its riches.

The first “book” (80 or so pages) deals with the Jewish dispersion from Babylon and the emerging culture within the larger Jewish community.  Specifically, there is much information there regarding the rise of Rabbinicism in the eastern dispersion and the influence of the Hellenistic culture upon the western dispersion.  Are you asleep yet?  Edersheim traces how these emergent traditions form in the intertestament period and bear upon the Jewish people among whom will be born a Savior, Jesus the Messiah, decades later.  This rise of Rabbincism is particularly interesting to note, because it is this Rabbinicism of the east that Jesus will come face to face with in the personages of the Pharisees and the Saducees and their institutional structure.

The nature of this Rabbinicism of which Edersheim writes goes much deeper than a mere systematic hierarchy of Jewish teachers and teaching.  Their influence and understandings grow to become the de facto religion among the Eastern dispersion, often placed in higher authority than the Scriptures themselves.  From this development comes an exhaustive list of moral authority, going far beyond the scope and intent of the Old Testament resulting in a seismic shift in the way the Jewish faith is perceived to be lived out.  The “do’s” of their faith become the “don’ts” of Rabbincal authority.  In many ways, this moral authority of the Rabbis comes to replace the methods by which the Jewish people were to relate to God.  The organization of the Jewish faith becomes an Institution of Rabbincism.

This is a picture that observant religious historians may have seen before.  The farther we move away from actual involvement with the Divine, the more likely we are to place our faith and trust in the machinations of the Institution.  We see it throughout the Old Testament.  So many times, the people began to rebel against God as their lives become centered around the structures of their religion, instead of the relationship with their God.  This is especially true the farther you move away from Mt. Sinai and the actual giving of the law.  Edersheim traces this type of development in the intertestament period.  As the people begin to assimilate themselves with the countries and cultures around them, they fall deeply into this Rabbinicism.  The Roman church will suffer from this malady at key points in their history, necessitating the need for a great Reformation.  The structure of the faith organization becomes the Institution by which all should order their lives.

This is why the Pharisees and the Saducess are so violently opposed to message of Jesus and why many in the modern church refuse to build a theology of life around the Sermon on the Mount.  Like the Jews of old, we seek to replace our relationship with God with the trappings of religion, wrongly assuming that deliverance can be found there instead of in Him.  When our modern church society collectively “hangs it hat” on a few pillars of the Institution just like the Jews and the Roman church did, we replace the life-giving spiritual disciplines of the Christian life with a life-sucking list of moral authority.  Instead of an emphasis on prayer, the Word, solitude, worship, etc., we talk piously of the evils of money and homosexuality and woman preachers.  Jesus invades the world to tell us that there is no replacement for an actual relationship with God.  He speaks it.  He lives by it.  He dies to show its truth.  He rises again by its very power.  He lives on in our lives to guide the way for us to live.

There is no deliverance in any institution.  There is only faith in the One to Whom the institutions of this world bow down.  He is the God of the universe, Father of the Christ.  It is He to Whom Jesus points the way.  The organization of the church, its leaders, and its adherents should seek to do the same.  I pray that we will.