Technology’s Fingerprint on Christian Thought and Culture

A glance at the news and our surroundings will undeniably speak of how much technology[1] has become a central focus and part of people’s lives. The growth of the digital footprint over the past two decades alone has been exponential and shows no sign of stopping. While there have been numerous benefits of technology, society is beginning to experience some of the adverse consequences and is now being challenged with difficult questions such as the negative effects of social media. While it is easier to identify certain effects of technology, particularly those directly associated with the field or product, it is more difficult to be aware of how it influences and shapes our thinking.

This paper will focus on how much technology’s influence on human consciousness consequentially impacts Christian thought and culture.[2] I will be painting broad strokes across multiple areas with the intent to bring awareness. This brief exploration will not discuss the positive impacts of technology for the church and broader culture, while I do acknowledge them. Nor is it to prove or voice a pro- or anti-technology stance, but rather to state the current condition of Christian thinking and perhaps reevaluate how to consciously think ahead.

In order to claim that Christian thought and culture have been compromised, it is imperative to understand the effects of technology at the level of consciousness as well as knowing its ideology. First, regarding the effects of technology at the level of consciousness, Peter Berger best demonstrates this by examining the “essential concomitants of technological production” and how it shapes the “everyday consciousness of ordinary people engaged in [it].”[3] There is an organization of knowledge intrinsic to technological production. Workers possess a specific knowledge in relation to a much larger pool of scientific and technical knowledge, which creates a hierarchy of experts.[4] This work knowledge is unique in content as well as in style, which consists of mechanisticity, reproducibility, and measurability.[5] There is a cognitive style intrinsic to technological production, with its main features being componentiality and the assumption of maximalization.[6] These features and their impact will be expounded upon later. The key takeaway that Berger argues is that it will be “very difficult to ‘think away’ these elements while assuming that technological production will continue.”[7] The result is that this unique technological consciousness bleeds into the majority of the population. “For better or for worse, it is not necessary to be engaged in technological work in order to think technologically.”[8]

Second, an ideology of machines has emerged in the technologically dominated culture. Neil Postman defines an “ideology as a set of assumptions which we are barely conscious but which nonetheless directs our efforts to give shape and coherence to the world.”[9] One assumption of technology is that it “[eliminates] complexity, doubt, and ambiguity,” which can result in a lack of intellectual struggle for the ordinary thinker.[10] A consequence particular to the field of medicine is that medical technology has dissociated the disease from the patient and thus created a hierarchy where the “objective” technology is more reliable than the subjective patient.[11] In other words, the ideology of technology is that it is more trustworthy. Another unique assumption of technology is its ability to think, or more popularly known as artificial intelligence. When society continues to use and depend on artificial intelligence and unknowingly acknowledge a technology’s possession of beliefs, we reject the “view that humans have internal states of mind that are the foundation of belief and [argue] instead that ‘belief’ means only what someone or something does.”[12] Highlighting this ideology of technology may provide further clarity to its impact on Christian thought and culture.

With the above foundation in mind, we can now assess the impact this technological thinking and ideology has on Christian thought and culture. The organization of knowledge intrinsic to technological production impacts Christian thinking by disrupting the oneness of body. While there are some similarities between the hierarchy of experts within an institution and a Christian body,[13] the mechanical and reproducible nature of technological production can make one feel replaceable and dispensable. This is in direct contrast to Apostle Paul’s instruction, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ … On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are dispensable.”[14] While the irony may seem that the Corinthian church struggled with this issue before the technologically dominated world, it is only enhanced in today’s worldview. When Christians are constantly influenced by technological thinking whether in their workplace or subconsciously with the use of technology, it is ever more difficult to properly view Jesus’ definition of his body. With globalization ever increasing, this type of thinking not only affects the microcosm of a local body, but on a macroscale as well where each church may view others as dispensable, measuring success with false proxies such as attendance and finances.[15]

Closely related to this aspect is componentiality, i.e. “the components of reality are self-contained units which can be brought into relation with other such units—that is, reality is not conceived as an ongoing flux of juncture and disjuncture of unique entities.”[16] One major consequence is the “segregation of work from private life.”[17] While this occurs at an institutional level and thus a common prerogative for those seeking a job is a good work-life balance, this type of consciousness has impacted Christian thinking reflected in the Sunday-Monday gap.[18] There is a clear struggle for many Christians to connect their faith and work, and thus there is a lot of focus on redeeming one’s vocation, faith and work movements, or business as missions. The point here is componentiality has made its impact and now Christians are forced to respond to the consequences.

Another aspect of componentiality reveals itself through anonymous social relations. Berger argues that there is “an intrinsic requirement of technological production that those who participate in it define each other as anonymous functionaries.”[19] This has broad implications affecting the way people relate to one another and even one’s own identity. The componentiality of self and others leads to a human engineering of self, others, and emotions.[20] While the immediate effects of this can be seen in local Christian communities, how this affects the global relation amongst Christians is yet to be seen. The universal church is no longer an abstract idea forced into anonymity, but different denominations, branches, and schools of thought may be forced to view each other as concrete persons. Or, the global church will exhibit the same symptoms as the rest of the technological world.

Componentiality also affects the way we relate to Christianity. The 2002 National Survey of Youth and Religion (NSYR) discovered that “while most U.S. teenagers feel generally positive toward religion, [it] is not a big deal to them.” “Other social and cultural forces (therapeutic individualism, mass-consumer capitalism, the digital communications revolution)” compete for and take priority even within Christian culture.[21] From an early age, the compartmentalization of Christianity versus extracurricular activities, friends, and school take place. In other words, Christianity is just another component of one’s life, rather than something that defines it entirely.

On a related note, componentiality affects Christian teaching and learning. The NSYR found that “the single most important influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents.”[22] However, how often do we find parents leaving spiritual formation and guidance to youth directors and mentors, albeit being influential? Thus, this creates a mechanistic way of looking for those with the best knowledge to guide and teach. One step further, there is a clear distinction in teaching and learning at higher-degree institutions verse the formation and teaching within a community. It seems that advanced theological learning takes place at an institution and afterwards those with specialized knowledge are plugged into different “systems,” operating as components within a larger system that can be reproduced, measured, and replaced.

The second feature of the cognitive style in technological production is the assumption of maximalization. More simply put in contemporary language: bigger, better, faster. The way this shapes Christian thinking is more apparent than componentiality: bigger churches is synonymous with success, an overemphasis on better strategies and improving programs and methods of reaching out, and especially with the instant-gratification culture, expecting faster prayers, discipleship, and community. A unique element of this feature is multi-relationality, which poses a “constant threat in the situation of meaninglessness, disidentification, and the experiences of anomie,” which only adds fuel to what has already been discussed.[23]

The ideology of technology further complicates this current mentality. The main aspect that is being threatened is trust. As demonstrated with medical technology, medicine is now “about disease, not the patient. And, what the patient knows is untrustworthy; what the machine knows is reliable.”[24] Jacob Bronowski challengingly asks, “how are we to choose between what we have been taught to think right and something else which manifestly succeeds?”[25] For contemporary Christians, when someone is sick, are our instincts to pray and ask God for healing or is it to turn to ‘reliable’ medicine and examinations? The danger here is that this ideology is breeding less critical, intellectual reflection on these matters. There is a belief forming in this ideology that is secretly competing within Christian thought without many being aware of its dangers. While Jesus warned his followers that no one can serve two masters contrasting that with a more tangible mammon, the ideology of technology is largely invisible to most Christian thinking.[26]

While more can be discussed regarding the consequential effects of technological thinking upon Christians, equally important is to look ahead and be prepared. As stated earlier, it will be difficult to simply shift one’s frame of mind, however, we can be more aware and better prepared moving forward. Postman suggests a revamping of education so we can understand how technology is affecting our society and psyche, so that more informed conversations can happen surrounding it.[27] Romano Guardini also agrees for a deeper, richer education, yet goes further and suggests that an entirely new approach, thought, inwardness, and freedom is required to combat the chaos of the world.[28] The old worldviews nor a romanticism for the past will suffice, “but a living adumbration of what is coming.”[29] New technologies are being developed at incessant rates, which will continue to feed into the technological thinking and ideology. The task for the Christian is no longer to ponder about elusive concerns, but to wake up to the current condition of this world and provide direction moving forward. “When a method of doing things becomes so deeply associated with an institution that we no longer know which came first – the method or the institution – then it is difficult to change the institution or even imagine alternative methods for achieving its purposes.”[30] “Will we come to God from the depths of our being, link ourselves to him, and in his freedom and power master chaos in this coming age?”[31] Or will we continue in the patterns covertly dictated by technology?

[1] Technology is used here and most commonly understood as modern or digital technology. While there are extensive works on how to define technology, I will be using the word in an all-encompassing manner, with a leaning towards modern technology.

[2] Although narrow focused, I will speak about what I am most familiar with, i.e. a modern Western Christian thought and culture.

[3] Peter Berger, Brigitte Berger, and Hansfried Kellner, The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness (New York: Vintage, 1974), 23.

[4] Berger, 25.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Ibid., 27, 36.

[7] Ibid., 39.

[8] Ibid., 40.

[9] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993), 123.

[10] Ibid., 93.

[11] Ibid., 100.

[12] Postman, 112.

[13] 1 Cor 12:20 (ESV).

[14] 1 Cor 12:21-22.

[15] The idea of a false proxy was taken from, Dave DeVries “Measuring Success in Your Church,” Missional Challenge, accessed March 5, 2018.

[16] Berger, 27.

[17] Ibid., 29.

[18] Princeton University Faith and Work Initiative, “Sunday-Monday Gap Research Projects,” accessed March 5, 2018.

[19] Berger, 31.

[20] Ibid., 34-35.

[21] Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 202, 205.

[22] Ibid., 203.

[23] Berger, 37.

[24] Postman, 100.

[25] John G. Burke, The New Technology and Human Values (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1966), 33.

[26] Mat 6:24

[27] Postman, 198.

[28] Romano Guardini, Letters from Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994), 83.

[29] Ibid., 91.

[30] Postman, 143.

[31] Guardini, 95.