Is technology just a tool? Or are we the tools?



I got a smart phone not too long ago, and I am learning how to use it more and more. I’m getting better at checking Instagram and Twitter, and I’m learning that posting on those things, which is generally against what I might do naturally, can be helpful in making relatio

It’s not always viewed favorably. Sometimes people think it is distracting, that it takes away from the moment, it make some folks feel insecure. They might think, you have to be texting now, even when we are with people we know face-to-face?

There’s a fear though that our use of social technology is damaging—it hurts our relationships, it helps us avoid conflict, we try to establish intimacy through these means and it doesn’t work. Just ask New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, who weinergained fame again, after sending out pictures of his penis to a half-dozen women. So I sympathize with people who criticize one’s use of technology, I generally think their point is a good one.

On the other hand, we might have some reason to use technology. For example, I was outside of Trader Joe’s this week and a worker stopped me and tried to convince me to use wind energy to power my house instead of PECO. I was convinced it was a good idea—and of course, I thought, I’m glad we have alternatives to coal, nuclear energy, and other fossil fuels. My friend just told me her new car gets 56 miles per gallon! So it’s clear that technology, even beyond social media can be good.


However,, I was watching the season premiere of Newsroom, and someone was making the argument that drones were the way to fight wars because they didn’t have a human life in them. So drone warfare is better than the other kind, I suppose. I have a lot of ideas about why that’s wack, personally. This distressed me and made me long to be a luddite. Here’s what a drone operative said:

“It is a lot like playing a video game,” a former Predator drone operator matter-of-factly admits to the artist Omer Fast. “But playing the same video game four years straight on the same level.” His bombs kill real people though and, he admits, often not the people he is aiming at.

I suppose this tells us a lot about how distanced drone operators can be from the people they kill, as well as how violent our videogames can be. But perhaps technology, in and of itself is a tool.

Some gun owners might say that guns are merely a tool to be used, so you shouldn’t vilify the technology necessarily. Technology, perhaps is neutral, and it just matters how it is used.. George Zimmerman’s (who killed Trayvon Martin) relatives couldn’t wait for him to get his gun back, since he needed it to protect himself, and a gun advocacy group sent him $12,000 to buy more guns. On the other hand, the U.S. owns nearly half of the world’s handguns so the we might becoming tools of the neutral tool.

What do we do then? Paul addresses how to deal with these matters when he is talking to the Corinthians.

For the Corinthians, and their Greco-Roman pagan culture, participating is idol feasts and eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols is a big temptation. Culturally, it is quite relevant, and Paul is trying to build the body of Christ. He doesn’t merely want people to make individual choices, not just for the sake of unity, but for the sake of consistency. He tells them you can’t drink from the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons, you can’t be at both tables.

Paul’s basic point is that, yes, you can do whatever you want. You can act however you like, engage in what you want, and do whatever. If all you are concerned about is redemption, you can do anything. You have freedom in Christ! But that might not be the most constructive or beneficial thing.

He’s really trying to help them practically, and three basic ideas emerge. The first one is don’t go to heathen festivals and participate in idolatry. But if you go to someone’s house or want to buy meat at the market, go ahead—live missionally, love your neighbors, that is part of how we are doing it. On the other hand, if you neighbor points out the sacrificial origin of the meat, you may not want to engage.

Paul isn’t making rules because something is right or wrong, he wants us to have a desire to glorify God and bless the people around us.

He basically talks about the importance of mutual submission. And of course, this applies to a lot more than the use of technology, it could apply to any number of things. We need to live in a mutually submissive.

We need to be sensitive to what others might be offended by and what gives Glory to God. It’s about God and others. Paul is referencing Jesus’ basic commands: love God and love others. So in how we conduct ourselves, we need to consider what is beneficial in that sense.

And of course, there is a range when it comes to basic tools that we use. It seems to me like social technology is probably permissible, but we need to use it in a fashion that is beneficial. There are other things that are probably more clear; but it should be a question of what benefits others and God and what is constructive to that end.

Whatever we do, Paul writes, we should do it for the glory of God. It is our responsibility to cause no one to stumble. And we should also know what we do behind closed doors never stays that way either. How we treat ourselves affects God and others. We are not in a vacuum. I suppose you could eat meat that was sacrifices by yourself, and not worry about offending your brother, but the question of why you would withhold a lie from him or her is noteworthy. What that does to your soul is noteworthy.

Paul is trying to please everyone in every way (like he mentions in the previous chapter), and so he doesn’t want to his actions to cause them to lose their faith or stumble. He goal is to get the world saved.He doesn’t seek his own good, but the good of others.

So for us, we need to think about what it looks like to seek the good of others. The truth is that when we use technology, and when we do anything, I think we are leading other people. What are we teaching them? What do they learn from us? What do want to teach?

Here is a canon of conduct I thought of when we use technology:

First, test everything.  (1 Thessalonians 5:15-22)

Just like Paul exhorts to the Thessalonians—give thanks, pray, rejoice. Don’t quench the Spirit he said, don’t despite prophecy (like someone telling you that drone warfare is evil or the way you are relating to your friends isn’t best), but go ahead and test everything. See if it’s good, and if it’s not, get rid of it!

Come to technology and all other things with a critical mind. The truth is that the government and multinational corporations that produce much of the technology we consume aren’t neutral. They actually have a purpose of doing these things and it usually involves making money, sending messages, and helping influence how you think. Don’t forget that.

Second, be intentional. (1 Timothy 4:12-16)

In the pastoral epistle of 1 Timothy, Paul is instructing his apprentice. Paul does tell Timothy to live above reproach—we should all be examples of speech, conduct, faith, and purity. I wonder what that looks like for us. I think we have some people that really live like that too.

Part of the greatness of our community is that we inclusive and welcome and so we sometimes develop a reputation for “tolerating sin.” I hope we can accept others where they are, but be unafraid to allow Jesus to work in their lives too. I suppose it isn’t all about acceptance and tolerance—we are trying to get from here to there.

Timothy is instructed by Paul to be intentional—to exercise diligence and to make sure his beliefs don’t get watered down not nothing.

If we are going to use technology, we need to intentionally us, we need to use it with care and diligence. We are really doing it because we think we can glorify God better through it. If that’s not happening, if we aren’t on mission through it, it’s good to be conscious of that.=

Finally, stay true. (Acts 2:42-47)

Fundamental to the early church was this basic idea that we needed to do things face-to-face: prayer, fellowship, eating, meeting and so on.

Don’t forget to be a real person. A lot of our worry with technology is that we lose connection with humanity. I’m not just talking about social media and smart phones either—the consumption of music and entertainment, television, microwave dinners, fast food, faster cars, faster planers, faster trains. Technology, really, just makes it easier, simpler, and faster to the things that we used to do.

It seems thought like technology can sometimes just make us workaholics and people that are way too busy. Ironically, I wrote a portion of this speech inside Nick Schummer’s autoshop and my neighboring friend was talking to me. She was happy that I was typing on a keyboard, instead of a tablet—and she marveled at the fact that I could “take my business” everywhere with you. But she wisely said, it’s dangerous because you might never stop working. I wonder if we’ll learn to stop and slow down and have real relationships with people.

Truly it is convenient and it has many benefits, but we can’t let it replace the face-to-face. We need the tangible. We need to do it right.

We’ll have this sermon online this week, but it won’t replace the connection we have here. We can text message later tonight, but it won’t be as good as having a conversation. You can comment on my blog, but it’s not as good as doing talkback. You can send someone a picture of your genitals, but it won’t replace intimacy. Let’s be real people and let’s make sure we don’t let technology replace the tangible.

I honestly think an extreme position one way or the other makes us ultimately unrelatable, so I’d rather advocate discipline, a critical mind, and a true character when it comes to these things. Let’s keep discerning together.

2 Replies to “Is technology just a tool? Or are we the tools?

  1. Good words, Jonny. This reminded me of part of an essay that one of my old college professors published a few years ago. He was responding to Chapter 6 of Pope Benedict’s encyclical “Caritas in veritate” which is also well worth a read:

    “[Caritas in veritate] takes up the complicated question of technology in its last chapter. Benedict of course acknowledges that technology
    “enables us to exercise dominion over matter” and to “improve our conditions of life,” and in this way goes to “the heart of the vocation of human labor” (n. 69). The relevant point, however, is that “technology is never merely technology” (n. 69). 28 It always
    invokes some sense of the order of man’s naturally given relations to God and others. Technology thus, rightly conceived, must be integrated into the call to holiness, indeed into the covenant with God, implied in this order of relations (cf. n. 69): integrated into the idea of creation as something first given to man, as gift, “not some-thing self-generated” (n. 68) or produced by man.

    Here again we see the importance of the family. It is inside the family that we first learn a “technology” that respects the dignity of the truly weak and vulnerable—the just-conceived and the terminally-ill, for example—for their own sake. It is inside the
    family, indeed the family as ordered to worship, that we first learn the habits of patient interiority necessary for genuine relationships: for the relations that enable us to see the truth, goodness, and beauty of others as given (and also to maintain awareness of “the human soul’s ontological depths, as probed by the saints”: n. 76). It is inside the family that we can thus learn the limits of the dominant social media of communication made available by technology, which promote surface movements of consciousness involving mostly the gathering of bits of information, and foster inattention to man in his depths and his transcendence as created by God.”

    Technologies comes laden with certain suppositions about what it means to be a human being and how we understand our relationships to each other and to God. The dominant culture will try to persuade us that our ingenuity means that we no longer need God. Technology can be good if it helps us to do God’s work, but that’s not the message that’s being marketed to us by the technology companies. So, like everything else, it’s best if we think about and utilize technology from within strong families and a strong church community that is bound together by Jesus. We need to develop a common awareness that we (and our technologies) are meant to serve God. As Benedict says in CV: “…human freedom is authentic only when it responds to the fascination of technology with decisions that are the fruit of moral responsibility…Moving beyond the fascination that technology exerts, we must reappropriate the true meaning of freedom, which is not an intoxication with total autonomy, but a response to the call of being, beginning with our own personal being.” Our identity, our worth and our salvation are freely given to us by God through Christ. Your advice is well taken: let’s discern its meaning, risks and potential together and continue to live in the freedom that can only be found in Jesus.

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