Sunday, May 11, 2014

Transcendence or Transgression? Technological Enhancement and the Human Vocation

Everyone wants to get ahead. Who can blame them? For most people, the good things in life do not simply drop into their lap. Life is work—more often than not, hard work. The good life—in virtually all credible definitions—entails expending effort; sometimes engaging in intense struggle, and perhaps enduring suffering. If our conception of the good life includes not only doing right but also, more broadly, doing well, then we might understandably welcome any advantage on offer—whether from our family or socio-economic inheritance, natural or genetic endowments, divine grace or, more recently and increasingly, the promise of technological enhancement. What kind of enhancements are on offer? Among other things, “genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, nanotechnology, information technology, and neural interface technology… to alter human characteristics” (Gerald McKenny). This is a ‘brave new world’ indeed that calls for moral reflection.

The relationship between morality and ‘happiness’ is often confusing already—not least because the very notion of ‘happiness’ is hotly contested, the possibilities of everyone fairly attaining ‘happiness’ are problematic, and, frankly, we are liable to deceive ourselves when self-interest and moral obligations appear at odds. If the temptation to put our own well-being ahead of ethical demands has gnawed away at human consciences from time immemorial, then how might the newer powers available to us through advanced technology exacerbate that condition? How should we think about the relationship between moral life, ‘happiness’ and the promise of technology? What pressures, both overt and covert, are upon us to think and act in ways that are contrary to nature, wisdom or gospel?

According to McKenny, there are three different levels of thinking about technology. Most basically, we could simply be “inquiring about the development and use of devices and techniques—the new software program, the new diagnostic test, or, [a] new gene-transfer vector—that enable us to carry out desired functions.” Modern technology is here considered largely as though it is an application of scientific knowledge. As philosopher James C. Edwards cheekily puts it:

It takes the world chastely undressed in laboratories and journal articles and fashions it into light bulbs, napalm, soaring freeways, Viagra, television movies, [confectionery], and much, much more, all of which answer to some desire, deep or adventitious, of some human being, representative or idiosyncratic.
The fact that these technological processes, systems and artefacts are bound up with projects of human desire and forms of life opens us up to the complex reality of the second level of thinking. Considering, for example, the “mechanical respirator” leads McKenny also to consider “the intensive-care unit, the specialty of intensive-care medicine, policies regarding brain death, the army of bio-ethicists and attorneys who address the ethical and legal implications of abating mechanical respiration, the remarkable and often tragic power struggles between the medical establishment and patients or their surrogates that have altered the practice of medicine, and the widespread execution of advance directives.” At this level, we “include practices and self-understandings” in our understanding of technology.

But there is also a third level of thinking: technology “designates an entire way of relating to the world” characterized “by the immense scope of its effects and by the cumulative and irreversible nature of its interventions.” Technology may also

be viewed as a way of constituting the world as means to ends or as objects for human manipulation. Finally, it may be viewed as a fundamental attitude—a relentless refusal to accept what is as it is, a rejection of the given.

It is on this third level of thinking that I want to dwell for the moment, as it is here that our convictions about the meaning and purpose of human life and the impulse for technological solutions meet and perhaps struggle with each other.

How do we conceive of human life and its purpose? In (late) modernity, especially in pluralistic, liberal democracies, each human life is considered to be a kind of project. Every person or ‘individual’ has his or her own ‘life plans’ which he or she seeks to realise; each person has a vision of the good life that he or she is (supposedly) ‘free’ to pursue. Now, while this conception has been critiqued from numerous angles—e.g. for being individualistic, for underestimating elements of ideological governance, for failing to acknowledge liberalism’s disguised ‘communitarian’ ends, or democratic freedom’s requirement of allegiance, and so on—it strikes me that the notion of life as a project—my project or perhaps our tribe’s project—remains largely intact. As the word ‘project’ suggests, we ‘throw ourselves forward’—we assert our goals and plans upon the world; we impose our ‘values’ on an ostensibly neutral reality. Further, as Lesslie Newbigin muses:

a project gives us a sense of direction. As long as we are working for that project, we know where we are going. We are not going round in circles.

Unsurprisingly, technology is easily wedded to such a view of life; indeed it may thrive upon it. Technology is perhaps itself the project par excellence—“constituting the world as means to ends or as objects for human manipulation.” Untrammelled by substantive, binding views of the good life or ‘comprehensive doctrines’ concerning humanity (e.g. religion), technology is indeed freed up to follow paths of purely instrumental rationality, to find the most efficient means to solve technical problems, in order to make our desired benefits and enhancements quickly available to us. In the narrow focus of immediate or short-term goals, this may seem attractive. Give technology the room it needs to better the human condition! Get out of the way!

“But,” as Newbigin asks,

when we have got there—when we achieve the project—what next? How do we know whether what we have achieved is worth having? Has it brought us any nearer to a goal which is worth getting to? … Do we know what is the direction that will ultimately take us anywhere when we have finished all our projects? Is there a direction which is really forward? Is progress a meaningful word—taking the human situation as a whole?

There is no point denigrating the efficacy of technology. But technology’s impressive résumé need not intimidate us into sidelining the important but comparatively uncertain questions of religion and ethics. Technology must answer not simply to the pressing need or problem, or even to a narrow aspiration or goal. It must be answerable to and responsible to bigger, broader conversations about human identity and destiny. But can contemporary Christianity keep enhancement technology accountable when Christianity itself risks being absorbed into the ‘project’ mentality? Miroslav Volf warns of the problem of faith being seen primarily as a kind of spiritual “performance-enhancing drug” that energises our own predetermined plans, or else a “soothing balm” to help us recover when they go wrong. Instead, Volf urges that we recover prophetic Christianity’s vision of human flourishing.

In a Christian vision of human flourishing, the idea of ‘project’ need not be rejected—the emphasis on initiative, ingenuity, improvisation and creativity should be affirmed, albeit critically—but it needs to be enfolded into a sense of vocation. Actually, speaking of a “sense of vocation” may be too weak. We can see even here the dangers of the technological mode of thinking—theology, like everything else becomes a resource, something ready-to-hand to be used and manipulated in service of human projects, a commodity to be expended, a fuel to be exhausted, or a methodology to be applied in service of a desired outcome. Theology must not be reduced to a source of useful ‘metaphors to live by’ but must challenge the ‘myths we live by’, or what Charles Taylor and others refer to as the ‘social imaginary’. If we are going to take vocation seriously, it needs to have a vital and coherent place in our lifeworld—it must genuinely have weight.

Theologian James Gustafson articulated a “strong hunch” that “to be human is to have a vocation, a calling; that it is to become what we now are not; that it calls for a surpassing of what we are; that apart from a telos, a vision of what man can and ought to do, we will flounder and decay.” If this hunch was correct, there are possibilities for both critical and creative interaction between projects of human enhancement and Christian theology.

Both are oriented toward what Charles Taylor in A Secular Age characterises as a human quest for ‘fullness’. For those whose vision is bounded by materialistic and technological horizons, ‘fullness’ might be understood primarily as the realisation or maximisation of human powers—perhaps especially the faculty of reason through the scientific endeavour and technological ingenuity—or, in our terms, the realisation of the human project in a decidedly modern form. McKenny and others have referred to this as the ‘Baconian project’ where knowledge and power are combined and used for the “conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate” (Francis Bacon, The New Organon, 1620, LII). This project has clear echoes of the Christian vision of creation, redemption, and the imago Dei—but there are important differences.

For the Christian, ‘fullness’ is more likely to be understood as something received rather than achieved; oftentimes gratuitously—a gift of undeserved grace. The flip-side of the good news of grace is the recognition of the authority of God and this in turn entails a confession of human limitations and failures—a difficult pill to swallow: indeed it can be interpreted as a dampener to technological aspirations. However, it can also be interpreted as a recognition that the world is superintended by a loving God whose judgement and redemption of creation is our ultimate hope—that is, gospel. But theological ethics should not primarily be an exercise in putting up ‘conservative’ barriers to swift technological advancement—barriers that are likely to be toppled under cultural, scientific and economic pressures. We need a constructive ‘evangelical’ theology of technological development that is more winsome and wise than the promethean impulses of modernity.

Grace is also evident in relation to the blessings of obedience to ‘the way that leads to life’—a way that embodies the eschatological hope of Jesus and creational wisdom. Human beings are not simply elected to be passive recipients of God’s gracious action. Responsive relationship to God in the context of covenant is a Jewish and Christian conviction. Human beings, made in God’s image, are called and enabled to take on the task of dominion—neither as dominators nor merely caretakers—but as creative agents under God to express the character and purposes of the redemptive missio Dei. The technological project must be enfolded within this mission and vocation that exists in a tension between sheol and shalom—between the limitations of both created finitude and sinful brokenness on the one hand, and the shared call into human flourishing and something ‘more’—genuine, faithful, Christ-centred transcendence, on the other.

Despite eschatological hopes and technological know-how, what is often called ‘nature’—whether the world or our own bodies—is not infinitely malleable. As Oliver O’Donovan notes:

That which most distinguishes the concept of creation is that it is complete. Creation is the given totality of order which forms the presupposition of historical existence. ‘Created order’ is that which is not negotiable within the course of history, that which neither the terrors of chance nor the ingenuity of art can overthrow. It defines the scope of our freedom and the limits of our fears.

Our notions of created order have been problematized by our increased capacity to alter ‘nature’, but we remain answerable to the Author of life for the ethos, logic and aims of our technological capacities. In what sense do we live within created bounds? For human enhancement as project, ‘bounds’ are simply obstacles to be overcome. Within a conception of vocation, one must ask more difficult questions: is challenging certain bounds a matter of transcendence or transgression? As McKenny says, technology can become “a relentless refusal to accept what is as it is, a rejection of the given”—the given-ness of created order, divine authority, and grace. In effect, are we faced with a form of the struggle between Augustine’s two cities: a human city fuelled by hubris or the City of God infused with love for God and the world. But we can also ask: Can enhancement technology, enfolded within a Christian vocation, become an expression of partnership in God’s mission, an anticipation of eschatological transcendence? What convictions and character would be required to embody this?

A solely conservative or hesitant stance will merely hold up for short episodes the inexorable push of modernity’s enhancement project. Criticism of the effects of particular technologies will not cause a rethinking of the project overall. Instead, a venture into the ‘third level’ of thinking, into the deepest presuppositions and cultural narratives of our society, is required—that is the public task of theology; to articulate and announce the possibility of truly transcendent humanity with a ‘fullness of life’ that will only be found in the grace and ‘way’ of the Lord Jesus Christ; to mediate the call to true humanity to society and the innovative professions; and to continue to think hard about the relationship between Christian conviction and the emerging ‘enhanced’ realities.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Resurrecting Real Hope

[I wrote this article when I first started work with Australian Evangelical Alliance as Director of Public Theology. It was before the appearance of Tom Wright's Surprised by Hope, a book which happily made this view much more popular. It had various reactions. On the hand, I had angry or despairing letters decrying my theology (misunderstanding it as a liberal social gospel - it's not) and other very encouraging letters explaining how 'the penny had dropped'. Let me know what you think...]

You don’t need to loiter among Evangelicals for very long before undoubtedly you’ll hear strong affirmations of the authority of the Bible and declarations of confidence in its testimony. Pick any story or truth and you’ll elicit a resounding ‘amen’. Yet it is one thing to believe certain truths ‘because the Bible tells me so’ and quite another to understand how they fit together. I am constantly astounded by the disjunction between a strong affirmation of the resurrection of Jesus and quite muddled thoughts about what it actually means. In fact, in churches and classes, I regular encounter befuddlement about what the Christian hope entails and its relationship to the resurrection of Jesus.

So, Christian apologists regularly roll out a succession of impressive arguments to take seriously on historical grounds that the empty tomb of Jesus is best explained by the claim ‘God raised Jesus from the dead’. ‘Yes, it happened!’, we hear and affirm. But why is this important? It is not enough to simply reply, ‘It must be important, because, after all, Paul says, ‘if Christ is not risen, we are still in our sins’.’ Why does Paul say that? If we were to believe many sermons, we would struggle to give a coherent answer. “Jesus rose from the dead so that we could go to heaven”, I hear. Or, ‘He rose so that we would know the atonement worked.’ Or, ‘He rose as a proof of his divinity.’ Strikingly, none of these conclusions are drawn from the New Testament. Neither is it clear how these ideas couldn’t instead be resolved or achieved by some other extraordinary sign or vision.

When resurrection is believed but not understood, its fundamental connection to Christian hope (‘eschatology’) tends to disappear and ‘hopes’ of a different character arise. For instance, browsing through the shelves of a Christian bookshop one day, I came across one of the last books to come from the pen of the ‘late great’ Hal Lindsey, the bestselling populariser of old-style, Cold War era, dispensational theology. The title was Vanished into Thin Air with the startling subtitle, ‘The Hope of Every Believer’. Undoubtedly, you and I both know people we would hope might ‘vanish into thin air’ sooner rather than later… but as a description of the Christian hope, this is quite disturbing. Mind you, one wouldn’t have to find someone subscribing to Lindsey’s particular brand of ‘Rapture theology’ to locate similar elements of escapist ‘hope’—‘escapology’!—among Evangelicals. In sermons and books, in Bible studies and prayers, many Evangelicals express the hope of departing the earth to live in heaven forever. There are undoubtedly a few texts and phrases (e.g. kingdom of heaven, eternal life) mistakenly read as completely otherworldly yet this is to read against the flow of the whole Biblical story. That story is not one of creation abandoned but creation restored; not an earth destroyed but redeemed and healed and ‘filled with the glory of the LORD’.

As the apostle Paul declares, the creation ‘waits with eager longing’ for the revealing of the children of God, to be ‘set free from its bondage to decay’ to ‘obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’. Along with the creation, we do not look forward to escaping our bodies but rather the ‘redemption of our bodies’ (Romans 8:18-25).

The connection between resurrection, creation and history is just as clear when one returns to the roots of the idea in the scriptures of Israel. There, in texts like Hosea, Isaiah and Ezekiel, resurrection emerges as a metaphor for the expectation that God will reverse the fortunes of the covenant people in history rather than some escape from history to another realm. Its development at the end of the book of Daniel into a hope for ‘the righteous’ for bodily resurrection to ‘glory’ is not a departure from the corporate promises of restoration given to God’s people but its application to men and women who have passed from the world so that they too can share in a future where God’s will is truly done ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.

In short, the hope of resurrection is a hope for this world, that God’s ways and will shall finally triumph in God’s creation. It is the hope of a new order, a new aeon, a new or renewed creation. This hope has been set in motion and guaranteed by God’s act raising the crucified Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. In Jesus, the new creation has begun and the Holy Spirit, God’s personal, glorious presence has been poured out in anticipation of God’s final act of restoration and more. The call not to seek the ‘things of the earth’ is not a denial of creation but to see it in its proper perspective in light of the one who ‘sits at the right hand of God’, the very place from which we anticipate the arrival of our final salvation and transformation (Philippians 3:17-4:1, Colossians 3:1-4).

How does that change the character of our lives now? As theologian John Howard Yoder put it, it calls the people of God to live now as a sign, an agent—even a foretaste—of God’s promised future. It gives us confidence that God’s future will indeed become the ‘new world order’ in contrast to the power plays of the world. It gives us strength in following the way of the cross, knowing that in the resurrection, God already vindicated that cruciform life of our Lord that we are likewise called to follow. This is the eschatology and hope of the ‘now and not yet’ which changes the character of our lives now and encourages engagement with all of life; not the ‘escapology’ of ‘not yet and elsewhere’ which treats present engagement with the world with indifference or selects a few issues to engage with.

Only the hope of resurrection, made possible by the truly human one who was raised ahead of us, overcomes the ‘vanity’ and futility of a world marked by death with the triumph of a loving God. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, we are indeed left marked by sin, futility and death. But he was. And with that firm resurrection hope, Paul can encourage us now with our ‘holy worldliness’:

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Monday, June 25, 2012

Human Scale and Human Pace: Thinking about Everyday Technology

Gary Larson is probably my favourite cartoonist. He appeals to me because of his eye for the bizarre and the off-beat: from cows conscious that they are “without opposable thumbs” watching helplessly as their telephone(!) rings, to the Lone Ranger discovering in retirement that when Tonto referred to him as “Kemosabe” for all those years, he was actually calling him “horse’s rear end”. Occasionally, as philosopher Albert Borgmann notes on the same cartoon I am about to describe, the cartoonist is able to make explicit in an absurd way our tacit, faulty assumptions about cultural commonplaces. The Far Side cartoon by Larson I have in mind features, from memory, two parents sitting on a couch with their two children lying on their stomachs on the floor with their chins propped up on their hands, all of them facing an empty lounge room corner. The caption reads: “The family in the days before television.”

The scenario is clearly and deliciously absurd and yet it captures to a large degree the naïve way we often think about the presence or absence of ‘everyday technology’. We tend to treat technologies, particularly the new electronic devices we buy—personal computers, DVD players, VCRs, mobile telephones—as mere items that fill the empty spaces in our lives. Many of us tend to think that a new technology merely adds new capacities to our lives, improves sound or picture quality, promotes ease of communication, increases speed of tasks, enables access to information and entertainment, and so forth. That may well be the case. But there is a whole lot more happening when modern technology is introduced into our lives, even when it is done so with our full consent.

As I ‘write’ this on my computer—yes, yes, I know, I’m using a computer—I sense already the sceptical reader wondering where this is going: and perhaps guessing as to whether I am a ‘technophobe’ who in conclusion is going to insist on unplugging, disconnecting, or whatever; perhaps raving that the best way to go in the technological society is actually out of it; to take the nearest information superhighway off-ramp one can find. Perhaps I am some kind of neo-Luddite, ready to smash the army of digital cameras held by parents at school plays. (I won’t deny the thought has occurred to me.) But let it be said that the original ‘Luddites’ of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s smashed the textile machines manned by unskilled workers because of the moral dimension: the uncaring introduction of the machines which threatened the livelihood of craftsmen and the extinction of a craft. They were not simply against the ‘new and improved’. The introduction of new technologies on this kind of scale has consequences. My wife, as she seeks to re-enter the office workforce after a decade and a half, must rapidly overcome her lack of easy familiarity with what is now the taken-for-granted role of computers and desktop publishing and all things Microsoft.™ Skills are not simply supplemented by new technology: often they are supplanted. A particular technology gives with one hand; but it will take with another. Knowing what that trade-off might be is a task for the discerning community.

In his book Technopoly, Neil Postman recounts a pertinent story from Plato's Phaedrus in which Socrates discusses the invention of writing via a story of Theuth, an Egyptian god and King Thamus. Theuth brought his inventions before King Thamus for his evaluation before handing them on to his people. Theuth is particularly enthusiastic about writing, claiming it would make the Egyptians wiser and improve their memory. Thamus, the ‘philosopher king’ is less enthusiastic; and he warns that the inventor of something is unlikely to be the best evaluator of his creation. Thamus replies to the god Theuth thus:
O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Socrates is particularly concerned to highlight the importance of conversation, of dialogue, and the art of the question, of adaptation and response in ‘real time’.

One of the seminal thinkers of the modern world, Sigmund Freud, observed the effects of technology in Civilization and Its Discontents:

One would like to ask: is there, then, no positive gain in pleasure, no unequivocal increase in my feeling of happiness, if I can, as often as I please, hear the voice of a child of mine who is living hundreds of miles away or if I can learn in the shortest possible time after a friend has reached his destination that he has come through the long and difficult voyage unharmed? Does it mean nothing that medicine has succeeded in enormously reducing infant mortality and the danger of infection for women in childbirth, and, indeed, in considerably lengthening the average life of civilized man? ... If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice; if traveling across the ocean by ship had not been introduced, my friend would not have embarked on his sea-voyage and I should not need a cable to relieve my anxiety about him. What is the use of reducing infantile mortality when it is precisely that reduction which imposes the greatest restraint on us in the begetting of children, so that, taken all round, we nevertheless rear no more children than in the days before the reign of hygiene, while at the same time we have created difficult conditions for our sexual life in marriage… And, finally, what good to us is a long life if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?

You may not like all his examples, but Freud surely had a point. A technology does not simply create possibilities but creates and pushes actualities upon a society. It catches us up in a certain logic, a certain way of seeing things and other people. It recreates our habits. It reshapes our notions of time, space and of place. It changes the nature of our relationships. In fact, it is quite inadequate to talk about technology as having ‘effects’. Rather, technologies involve us. As philosopher Langdon Winner puts it, technologies are “forms of life”.

Watching My Television
The introduction of a new technology does not merely fill empty space. As Borgmann says, life is “already always full” and the introduction of a new device requires a reweaving of the fabric of life around it. Let’s return to our well-known and perhaps well-worn television example. Is a television simply another piece of equipment that exists alongside a piano or a bookshelf? After a day at work, is watching a couple of hours of lightweight television merely ‘just another option’ alongside reading a demanding book or generating a conversation… or prayer? It is possible that devoted readers or classical music lovers may be exceptions, but in most cases the answer is simple and it is ‘No’: television has a prominent place. Chances are it is reflected in the arrangement of your home’s living area and the question, “Shall I watch television?” (if it is at all a conscious question) is hard to avoid. What’s more, should you decide to limit your television viewing, there’s a good chance you’ll be on the outer as you listen to people at work discuss their latest viewing habits: “How is he going to break his brother out of prison?” “Are the ‘survivors’ of Oceanic flight 815 in purgatory?” etc, etc. You may not be privy to what people are talking about when they say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that…” Missing out on the banter of everyday discourse may be a minor thing (to you) but it illustrates yet another one of the levels on which media and  technology is interweaved with social and cultural reality.

Television as a medium is impatient with words, or, as the visually-biased may say (tellingly), “talking heads”. It favours the visual, the spectacular, and the rapid changing of images and camera angles rather than continuity and development of thought. It is, overall, a feast for the eyes and ears but not a genuine exercise of imagination. The exercise of imagination has largely been done for us by others and the results are on view. Television thus encourages passivity rather than activity and consumption rather than conversation. Its connection to a system of programming is likely to make constraints on our plans, VCRs notwithstanding when the ‘best’ shows are on. It demands our full attention in a room unlike music in the background. Neil Postman asks, “What do Americans do?” To sum up: “Americans… watch… TV.” Australians aren’t all that different. I’m not going to deny my own love affair with television. Along with my favourite dramas and comedies, I watch my fair share of SBS documentaries and current affairs on the ABC. I try to be ‘informed’ though I seem to have more information than I know what to do with. (Am I supposed to act on this stuff? I dunno… Maybe I should ‘blog’ on it… that’ll help…) As Marva Dawn has noted, the constant flow of information widens the gap between ‘knowing about’ and meaningful response.

But returning to the Far Side cartoon, what has been lost? Is there space for conversation in the home that is being needlessly consumed? Can we really join in a pining for ‘community’ if we surrender our time to luxury and private preference? Are we less likely to visit or receive visits? Will we be as likely to learn new skills and crafts? Is our ability to question and think through issues—like technology—enhanced or lessened? We at least need to ask the questions.

Answering My Phones
Being ‘connected’ is part of our contemporary jargon. We need to connect and communicate with each other. It is part of our search for ‘community’. But ‘connection’ in the technological society is partly ideological. To refrain from being connected is to ‘miss out’. Perhaps it is even a sign of irresponsibility in the eyes of some. This is the age of access. Not only do you have access to information, you have access to others; but they must have access to you. Now.

I can hardly remember what it was like not to have a mobile phone. I can certainly remember how helpful it was organising our move from Perth to Melbourne when so many decisions had to be made very quickly and on the move. I value being able to organise something spontaneously. I appreciate knowing that my daughter can ring from her mobile phone if she misses a bus or is lost or needs my urgent help.

But again (and hopefully without sounding like I am moaning) I must wonder about how life is being re-formed around the possession of the mobile phone. With my mobile phone, people know I can be contacted in an emergency. They now also know they can contact me in other cases. And actually, they now expect they can contact me at any time. They are probably annoyed if I don’t respond or, worse, if I do not carry my phone with me at all times and places. It is no longer a mere tool which I can pick up or put down. It is expected that I will have it standing by just as it is expected I will check my email several times per day and respond quickly. It is a cultural commonplace. It is ‘irresponsible’ for me not to have it ready. Sure, you don’t have to use the technology that way; but you’re not using it on your own. You are part of a network. It is embedded in the way we relate now. There are expectations which come out of the values of the technology.

I remember some years ago, (and many students will relate to this experience!), when my home phone was disconnected when I didn’t pay my bill on time. It was a nuisance: though, frankly, not as much of one as I would have expected. A phone call at the local phone booth required some more deliberation: Do I really need to make this call? How urgent is it? Can this question wait until I see that person next? I was also pleasantly surprised by the extra number of visitors we received at home. Was I crazy to get it reconnected?

Being Human in the Human-Built World
The age of access, of information technology, of readily available ‘multimedia’ entertainment (though not nearly as ‘multi’ as it claims) is predicated on the value of immediacy. Our sense of time and space is compressed. E. F. Schumacher spoke of “human scale” and suggested that “small is beautiful.” Reflecting on our relationship to everyday technology will certainly help us re-evaluate our connection to the spaces we inhabit, both the human-built and the natural; and to connect more deeply with the human and non-human creatures which inhabit it. But we may only be able to do that if we can recover a human pace. Carl Honore’s book In Praise of Slow celebrates a reassessment of the way we inhabit our day. Alongside of Schumacher’s suggestion, we may want to add the idea that “slow is beautiful.” What would it mean to recapture a more human rhythm to life? Surely that’s a genuinely Christian concern.

As Christians in a technological society dedicated to immediacy, access and connection, how do we respond? Is there a conformity to the world to be avoided? If so, how should we be “transformed by the renewing of our minds”? What virtues are being confronted by the culture of technopoly? The first that spring to my mind are patience and longsuffering. How can I learn patience with people when everything around me says “hurry up”. This fax is processing the pages too slowly, that web page is taking ‘forever’ to download, and this program is running too slowly! Now will you hurry up and answer my email? Can I learn to anticipate something good and accept the waiting without being frustrated by an inability to turn it on now? Can I be satisfied by what I have rather than be in a rush to ‘upgrade’? Is a ‘better’ technology actually solving real problems I have? Or is it providing an answer to that for which I don’t have a question? Can my children continue to hand in work that is handwritten and not face prejudice? Is ‘Google-ing’ the same as researching?

A recovery of human scale and human pace may require a reassertion of the primacy of our being made in the image of God rather than the image of our own creations. I am more than a fleshy second-rate computer. I am a body with a wondrous array of actions and senses and not just a mind, eyes and ears mounted on a deskchair or lounge chair. The people that God has placed around about me in real space and real time deserve my attention and conversation moreso than the monologue of television.

Recovering a biblical sense of time on the macroscale through the church year may be important as would the smaller scale of ‘sabbath-ing’ regularly. Take off your wristwatch (and make someone in your family or Christian community the designated timekeeper if need be). Any of these scales helps us for some time at least to lift our eyes beyond the immediate (and not just to the business planner either).

Living in the technological society as a faithful Christian may not mean getting unplugged, but it does mean we ought to see our ‘material culture’ as a place of necessary moral and theological reflection and deliberation. But it is not only the devices which inhabit our homes, but the very design of our homes—and our suburbs and cities—which need attention and, at times, resistance and transformation. Perhaps that is a subject to which we should turn in the near future?

Is your living room a place of conversation and shared activity or a 6-7 day per week mini-theatre? Perhaps that’s something worth thinking about for a bit. Just make sure you have your mobile turned off…

“'All things are lawful for me,' but not all things are beneficial. 'All things are lawful for me,' but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Cor 6:12)

First published in Zadok Perspectives No. 94 (Autumn 2007), pp. 7-9.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Can We Be Good without God?

“Can we be good without God?” This is a question that exercises the minds of ‘apologists’ of all sorts, both theists and atheists. In my experience, it is always bound to draw the ire of the on-line blogging and commenting cohorts of the so-called ‘new atheists’. Sadly, it is a topic fraught with tension that lends itself to combative to-and-fro. Making and taking critique of morality can very quickly become very personal. If substantive morality without God is called into question, some atheists can’t help but imagine that their own moral life is being rubbished.

The proper distinction failing to be made in such matters is between the actual moral performance of people on the one hand and a reasonable justification for ethics on the other. There is no doubt that there are people who identify themselves as atheists who live morally exemplary lives, just as there are staunch believers in God whose behaviour is morally questionable… or worse. Still, unpopular though it may be, it is a live philosophical question (with much practical and political import!) whether the higher moral ideals of the so-called Western world—and the atheism with which we deal is pretty much a peculiarly Western and post-Christian phenomenon—are adequately justifiable in purely non-theistic or non-religious terms. Whether or not particular people are morally laudable is not the final answer to the question of the justification of morality. We can reasonably ask, What are the sources of our particular moral outlooks? What kind of moral behaviour can we reasonably expect from our fellow human beings in a culture that seems to have bought into the ‘death of God’? What vision of goodness can be sustained in a post-Christian society?

In such a society, the two main sources for ethics are either nature (a contested term if ever there was one) or society. ‘Nature’ is certainly not straightforward. We might be appealing to something called reason or to other ‘natural’ human capacities. If ‘reason’, then which ethical theory wins the day? Kantian duty-based ethics or perhaps utilitarianism? The philosophers continue to debate theories just as long and hard as any contentious religious argument over the proper interpretation of Scripture. Furthermore, the reduction of ethics to rationalistic maxims fails ot grapple adequately with the complexity of ‘the moral landscape’. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments:

“How bright were the hopes of the rationalists in the 18th and 19th centuries that the good life could be reduced to a simple formula. Treat persons as ends, not means, said Kant. Act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number, said Bentham. Forbid only the things that harm others, argued John Stuart Mill. These beautiful oversimplifications remind me of the snatch of dialogue from Woody Allen. “I’ve learned to speed-read. I read the whole of War and Peace in one hour.” “What’s it about?” “Russia!”

What aspect of human nature can be our guide? Is ethics some kind of realisation of human potential; a kind of commitment to excellence or particular virtues? But if so, which qualities are to be preferred above or instead of others? We have many different drives and desires, aspirations and appetites, cravings and compulsions. Outside of our permissive society, the wisdom of most philosophies and religions has urged discernment and discipline in resisting, delaying or even denying certain urges. Human nature, as we actually experience it, does not merely generate altruistic feelings. Honest self-knowledge recognises darker tendencies within.

In that case, the affirmations of some that ethics is largely explained by some benign biological impulses that give us an evolutionary advantage seems vague, inadequate, and even a little out of touch with history. But such affirmations are designed not so much to give genuine explanations as to merely to serve anti-religious polemics. They tend to give us stark (but false) alternatives: either we recognise the intrinsic biological roots of ethics or we rely upon the extrinsic pronouncements of God or the gods to tell us what to think and do: biological science versus a divine command caricature. ‘Religious ethics’ becomes, in this simplistic picture, an exercise in consulting some exhaustive index of arbitrary divine directives (or odd human rules masquerading as divine commands).

However, Christian ethics does not require a denial of the biological grounding of many of our moral impulses—Why would there be a problem with recognising that we feel deeply stirred in our bodies with compassion, empathy or love? Christian ethics does not deny that following the will of God—or pursuing any human cooperation for that matter—is in a deep sense congruent with who we are as physical beings. It does question—along with most other philosophies and religions—naïve accounts of human nature as simply an unfolding of the good, or the idea that simply reflecting on our desires will reveal to us which way to live.

Grappling with the complexities of human nature is a task we undertake with others. Human existence is social existence and so our co-existence with others requires much give-and-take in life; a recognition that we must curb ourselves at times—perhaps much of the time—to make space for others. We are shaped and in a sense ruled by social custom and conventions. Some new atheist apologists seem to think that pointing to this basic social need for reciprocity provides an adequate answer to the big philosophical question of morality. We need to live together as a matter of proper functioning, so what need to speak further of divine or religious contributions to morality? But what does reciprocity significantly tell us beyond the need for social cooperation? Does an appeal to reciprocity actually tell us what we ought to do? Does it provide serious guidance to the questions of bioethics, new technologies, questions of war and international competition?

We cannot appeal to the mere fact of sociality to provide a substantive account of moral life; but neither can we simply appeal to the particularities of our community and culture as a sufficient ground for ethics. To make our particular social arrangements and inherited judgements, embodied in tradition, the final standard for moral norms is to surrender the aspirations of morality to an acceptance of the status quo or acquiescence to moral relativism. Is slavery ‘moral’ in a certain place simply because it is widely practiced there? While the particular history of judgement, deliberation, and discernment of our community is important, it cannot be the final justification for action—there needs to be a higher court of appeal, higher aspirations or purposes to call us forward, and a higher authority to hold us to account. As important as community and tradition is, if it becomes the basis for ethics, we risk trading ethics for mere politics, and therefore morality for the exercise of power.

In his Ethics: SystematicTheology, James McClendon describes a fully-fledged Christian ethic as incorporating three strands: the body strand, the social strand, and the resurrection strand. Just as a rope is made up of several strands and no strand alone can do the work of a rope, so Christian ethics requires all three strands to function properly. Rather than being denied, the biological or organic aspect of humanity is affirmed but deemed insufficient as a final guide. Our desires are shaped in recognition of shared wisdom, social arrangements, and deliberations along the way of a shared journey in life together are all affirmed as legitimate and indeed necessary aspects of ethical life. But again, they are not the final word.

The story of each and all is itself hungry for a greater story that overcomes our persistent self-deceit, redeems our common life, and provides a way for us to be a people among all earth’s peoples without subtracting from the significance of others’ peoplehood, their own stories, their lives… Christian morality involves us, necessarily involves us, in the story of God.

God acts and speaks, creates and redeems, calls and commands in order to shape new life along the way of history. This resurrection strand of ethics is God’s revelatory and redemptive activity to do “a new thing” among us, to create new possibilities in response to the gospel of God’s saving action in Jesus Christ. Ethics is the shape of shared human life under the vocation of God in Christ. It also includes an openness to creativity and imagination in practical judgements about ethical cases.

If there is security and confidence to be had in recognising this third strand of ethics, there is also a need for us not to be triumphalistic apologists regarding Christian ethics. We must acknowledge the failure of Christians past and present to live in accordance with their own pronouncements. (The message of forgiveness is a great comfort but ought not be used as a pious veil over wilful wrongdoing.) But perhaps more importantly in questions of justification of morality, we cannot trumpet the good news of a deep divine source for ethics without also recognising the problems of living Christian morality. Grounding ethics in the character and purposes of God does not automatically lead to clear and discrete answers to complex moral problems. We still have many disagreements about the shape of our lives. Hermeneutical disagreements arise not only from poor use of Scripture, but also from the legitimate pluralism of moral judgements that arises from many people seeking faithful ways forward. Christian ethics draws upon a wide variety of resources: a compilation of wisdom, prophecy, testimony, parables and stories of divine and human interaction that provide an imaginative world in which to confront both persistent and new challenges in our lives together: but that rich variegated resource also lends itself to many possibilities.

Moral life is complex; moral problems are complex; and the resources we need to deal with them are also complex. We must resist the oversimplification of the apologists of atheism and Christianity to score easy wins in the argument over God and morality. Christians must remember that it is in the patient and gracious exemplification of moral reflection that Christian ethics gains a hearing in the wider world rather than an abstract appeal to a divine authority.

Can we be good without God? We are all troubled by others’ and our own behaviour, relieved at other times, and on occasion delighted. But we expect or at least hope for more from others and ourselves. Do we have good reason to do so reflecting upon the ambiguities of human nature within an ultimately impersonal universe or are we merely provided with excuses? Do we have good reason to expect more from our fellows if our society drifts in less charitable directions, with no higher authority than itself? There is ultimately only good reason to hope for more if there is Good News: a Higher Authority who not only exemplifies goodness, but surprises us with his call, care and companionship, to save us from ourselves and increasingly close the moral gap between who we have become and the ‘much more’ that we were intended to be. That indeed flows from the good news of Jesus Christ and in the end can only be the work of God.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mulling over Vocation - Prologue to a Theology of Calling

What might it mean to live an authentically human life? What might we mean by ‘authentic’ when asking such a question?[1] And what might it mean to ask such a question in the first place? Is there something which compels me or perhaps compels us to look beyond what appears as merely given by nature or society? Is there something within human beings why cries out to be realised, a potential groaning within, longing for expression or growth and development? Or is there a larger natural order that exerts a pressure upon us to either conform to a role within a complex ecology, either providing a space within which our capacities are to expand, or pushing down upon us to constrain some promethean disposition[2] and help us to learn to live within limits? If so, could we speak of a responsibility to such an order or is this a metaphor that indulges an unjustifiable anthropomorphism? Or is there something that or someone who transcends the finite order? What might it mean to respond to a ‘transcendent order’? This still seems too abstract and impersonal and simply a matter of choice as to one should follow it up. Can one speak of a human purpose? Can there be a compelling reason beyond mere utility if we bracket out the question of divine authority?

What is the extent of the demand—if we can call it that—that comes from nature? We can concede, at any given time, that there are structures and processes that appear unshakeable and unmoveable—we call them ‘laws’ (and we are barely conscious of the metaphor that presumes a divinely instituted order)—and we are then left to judge whether or not we must therefore accept our fate within an untameable world or whether we can exploit these same laws to change our vulnerability in relation to the supposed giveness of our condition.

What we call ‘ethics’ exists within this question of living within an alternately ambiguous and inflexible ‘nature’ as the lower level of normativity, within alternately agreed and contested judgements in society about human flourishing, as a slightly higher level; but then with an orientation to vocation—a larger vision of life to which we are compelled or summoned—that may suspend particular natural potentialities or social obligations; that is, there may be the need to endure suffering, to abstain from certain worthy goods such as ample food, shelter or perhaps sexual relations, or to leave behind social roles or relationships that might have seemed unproblematic.

The question of vocation—whether or not there is a call that reaches into the life of a human being (or a community) and reorients its shape and purpose—is not simply a luxury of the wealthy professional or even the relatively wealthy person of the so-called ‘developed world’ seeking out or simply honing their craft or trade. It is a question that can stir in the heart and mind of any person who, perhaps only for a moment, can lift her eyes from what is immediately in front of them—the plough, the chisel, the brush, the pen, the keyboard—and can envision a different world and her place within it. Perhaps it is no settled place but only a path marked out toward it, in hope that others will reap the benefit of her labours.

What might that different world look like? Perhaps it is simply a better version of what is right here, this time and place. Or is it the world turned upside down? If there is a call to a different world, does it send one back to the plough, the chisel, the brush, the pen, the keyboard, perhaps with a renewed vigor or resolve, to do what one was already doing, to cleave with fidelity to the history that brought this person to this place and this task; to love the community which in part sustains her and in part relies upon her? Or does this call to a different world turn her world upside down also. Must she ‘lay aside her nets’ and take on something so strange and unexpected as, say, a ‘fisher of men’, something with connection to previous life as tenuous as a metaphor.

This question of a different world and the possibility of vocation invites deeper questions about the nature of mundane and transcendent realities. Can we conceive of our quest as simply an unfolding of nature’s potentialities, simply riding the wave of some progressive dynamic inherent in the cosmos that carries humanity (as far as we know) at its leading edge? In such a world, we are not so much ‘called’ to a way of living as living according to the nature of things. The problem of evil and the naturalistic fallacy shadow us. But why this way of life and not another? In a universe that feels like it is not wholly determined and seems open to a variety of possibilities, what is it that could urge a particular shape to human life that is more than provincial and customary?

This is the question of vocation.

[1] So Greg Levoy, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997); cf. Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity

[2] Cf. Gerald McKenny’s characterisation of the Baconian project in To Relieve the Human Condition: Bioethics, Technology, and the Body (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Are We Having Fun Yet? Rest, Joy and Play in a World of Trouble

Christians generally don’t take much convincing that life is serious business. But what about the idea that life could be—or even should be—fun? Is that even a legitimate theological question? And who gets to ask questions like that in this troubled world? In the wake of floods, fires, earthquakes and tsunamis, it might seem frivolous, insensitive or even sinful to inquire about such things. Certainly, there is a question of timing—“rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep”. But perhaps this is in fact an ideal time to consider the place of fun. If, after all, Australian Christians live in an affluent culture that more or less takes it for granted that space for fun should be a given (some may even say ‘a right’!), looking at a theology of the enjoyment of life ought to have one eye on the realities of suffering and struggle.

We can expect too much from life in the present. But it is also possible to hope for too little. Any Christian assessment of life exists in the messy middle between two horizons: behind us, God’s good creation and benevolent intentions, including human flourishing; and, before us, God’s intentions realised in the renewal of creation, or ‘a new heavens and a new earth’. It is possible to get so caught up in the messiness of the middle—where work can become toil, where delight meets disappointment, where friendships can be fractured—and lose sight of those framing horizons that remind us that the world is not out of control but our patient, faithful God remains in charge and will accomplish all He has set out to do.

In the opening story of Genesis, we are invited to see humanity enter the scene on God’s day of rest. Rest is a necessary precursor to work, just as it is a proper end or goal. Living without an appropriate sense of Sabbath rest distorts human life. How many people feel crushed under the weight of workloads that seem to pile up without end, weight that stays with them even when not in the office or on the job site? And what of ministry-without-end? A failure to rest ultimately takes its toll on our productivity but there are more than utilitarian reasons to rest. Marva Dawn speaks of Sabbath practice entailing ceasing, resting, feasting and embracing. ‘Ceasing’ opens for us a fresh space to see a world outside, beneath, above and beyond the logics of economy, productivity and growth. ‘Resting’ renews us. (For women as well as men—let the reader understand.) ‘Feasting’ shows us there is time to celebrate and be thankful. Unthankfulness is a fundamental sin in the progression of the world’s distortion and depravity in Romans 1, leading to a ‘futile mind’. ‘Embracing’ reconnects us with our primary community and family, ties of baptismal water and ties of blood rather than commercial exchanges. It is the time and place of generosity and hospitality.

We need to be released from a false sense of guilt for not being productive, even “for the kingdom”. Even theologies of ‘vocation’ can become complicit in a drive to work, to perform, to achieve. But the One who sought labourers for an imminent harvest in Israel also called those who were “weary and heavy laden” to find “rest”. The Suffering Servant was paradoxically known as one who frequented celebratory feasts as signs of the inbreaking reign of God.

Space to rest is one component of a life that flourishes as God intended. Delight is another. It is ironic that a culture like ours devoted to entertainment finds itself continually bored, avoiding feelings of futility, and looking for the next big thing. The entertainment culture is itself driven and without rest. There is an excess of stimulation and titillation around us—but little delight in the excess of God. Real enjoyment is thus threatened and fun becomes fleeting and unsatisfying. Delight cannot be contrived. If there is such a thing as ‘faithful fun’, then space to cease, rest, feast and embrace and so to cultivate moments of delight in God and God’s world must be a part of that. We must intentionally and regularly seek out this space. And having found it, let intentions fall to the side and let the freedom, spontaneity and surprise of play to take over.

False guilt for enjoying life does nothing to help those in less happy circumstances. It can even reflect a profound lack of thankfulness for being the particular creature you are in a particular time and place. Be thankful for the blessings that you have. And in the space of ceasing, resting, feasting and embracing, delight in the Lord, play before him, and be re-energised for your small part in the ongoing work of justice in the world. Enjoy that which God has allowed you to enjoy with some ‘faithful fun’.

And then think how you might generously share the joy of rest with those who go without.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Reframing Rights Language

The language of rights has become the predominant lingua franca of moral discourse in Western democratic regimes. Rights language is powerful language; indeed it is something of a ‘fighting creed’. At its best, it calls for a recognition that access to vital goods is being denied or hindered by agents or agencies that have no moral or political legitimacy to do so. There is strength in rights language. Perhaps for this reason in particular, it has become customary and even instinctive for persons to state their moral viewpoints or make their claims in terms of rights. This is most unfortunate for a variety of reasons.

Rights language tends toward the absolute and uncompromising despite the recognition by policymakers, lawmakers, and those who implement policy that rights claims must be prioritised and balanced with competing claims. Framing moral claims or aspirations in terms of rights does not automatically guarantee their legitimacy nor the capacity for other persons or institutions to meet a need. Such claims are frequently stated in conflictual or adversarial manners, sometimes justified, sometimes not. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is some resistance to an inflation in rights discourse for fear of the adversarial stances and seemingly irreconcilable positions we see in debates—such as those surrounding abortion—being extended to more areas. (Similarly, the adversarial and litigious culture of the United States is not one we desire to see transplanted in any way in Australia.)

The capacity for our society to have coherent moral discussion is in a bad state. Numerous philosophers, social theorists and theologians have provided various diagnoses of this reality in our pluralistic culture which pressures us to create an ostensibly neutral, supposedly ‘secular’ language. Human rights discourse appears to some to be just that. However, it is more likely that our instinctive leap to claim ‘rights’ for all and every moral or political aspiration is not access to a universal moral language so much as an attempted shortcut to getting what we need (or perhaps just want) rather than going through the difficult processes of moral argument and persuasion.

In looking for a reframing of ‘rights’ language, it is not my intention by any means to resist moves to see the poor and marginalised, the victimised or oppressed lose what rights they have or fail to be protected with rights they should have. I desire instead to see processes of deliberation and education that properly grounds rights and really do advance our aspirations to embody the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human rights in its complex outworkings.

The social dimension of rights needs to be properly elaborated in any discussion. It has been rightly said that discussion of moral and civic responsibilities needs to be increased; though it is difficult to see how well this discussion can be encouraged in an individualistic culture where the assertion of a ‘right’ to ‘do what I like’ so long as ‘I don’t hurt anyone’ is paramount and what ‘hurt’ actually entails is unclear or hotly contested.

What exactly are rights? I suggest that rights are warranted claims on a commitment of a particular society or agency thereof to guarantee particular goods or prevent unfair restrictions to access them. We do not simply ‘have rights’ as ‘individuals’. We have rights in community with others committed to our mutual good. We can legitimately argue that there are rights that all human beings ought to have. In this respect we can call them ‘human rights’. In other words, rights do not trump moral argument or recognition but are their outcome. We recognise there are certain essential goods (such as particular kinds of freedom) that are essential for human flourishing. When we commit to guarantee access to such goods insofar as it is reasonably possible for us, these can be enshrined as rights. However, the process of social recognition should not be subverted by the mere claim of a (novel) right and enshrinement through legislative stealth. The place of cultural deliberation and social recognition must be upheld. If cultural deliberation is subverted through overreliance upon rights language, we actually undermine the discussions of common good required to create or sustain a culture that is truly committed to ‘human rights’.
Such concerns need to be at the centre of any ongoing discussion of the future of rights in our country. Any rush into expanding rights discourse that does not adequately deal with these difficult and problematic issues is ill-advised and may well lead ironically down a path of less concern for each other in our diversity and for those in serious need. Our responsibilities to help others must transcend ‘rights’ and reach for a higher justice.