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Beware a world that is shaped by electronics

16 November 2010

Robin Gill reads a plea for a Christian vision to defy technology’s prevailing influence


BRIAN BROCK, a lecturer in moral and practical theology at Aberdeen, has written an ambitious book, based on his Ph.D., which argues both that modern society is damagingly shaped by the power of technologi­cal culture, and that the Christian gospel offers a radically alternative vision.

In making the first claim, he follows a line of philosophers from Martin Heidegger onwards, and in making the second a line of theolo­gians from Jacques Ellul onwards. This is a lively and intelligent book that will repay much rereading.

The first part contains an ex­tended account of the way in which Heidegger, George Grant, and Michel Foucault argued that technology, far from being simply a human construct, actually shapes the way in which we perceive the world around us. Brock argues that it has produced a cost-benefit culture, in which we move, say, from “child-bearing” to “reproduction”, and view life around us in increasingly instrumental terms.

It is all too easy, he holds, to see technology as just a useful aid to modern life, while ignoring the way in which it may actually shape life: “questions about technology go much deeper than contemp-orary moral deliberation about new tech­nologies typically admits.”

While all of this is clearly argued, I missed any engagement with George Pattison’s earlier (and less strident) account of Heidegger on this theme, or with Jeremy Carrette’s extended analysis of Foucault.

In the second part, Brock looks at how theology can offer a radically alternative vision. After an initial overview of the issues in question, he looks at a series of theologians ranging from August­ine, through Karl Barth, to Bernd Wannenwetsch today. From the last he explores the idea that the Chris­tian moral vision is primarily shaped in the community of wor­ship; and from Augustine the notion of the two cities. It is Barth who is finally the most influential, however. A crucial chapter explores Barth’s account of Genesis 2, connecting work and the sabbath.

In the final chapter, he develops his own voice more distinctly (al­though generally well written, the earlier chapters still tend to read like a Ph.D.). Here he argues that a com­bination of the theological concepts of “created material order” and “gift” offer an important challenge to secular understandings of the world around us.

To make this distinction clearer he offers a thought experiment. Suppose that an ovum-testing machine were to be developed: “the new machine will generate digitised information about the ova, allowing comparisons with computerised databanks containing information about chromosomal defects. This will allow ova to be sorted and suit­able specimens fertilised prior to implantation.”

A secular cost-benefit approach will tend to look at business factors such as price, competitiveness, and safety/risk, but not at whether we ought to be developing such a machine at all.

In contrast, the theologian, com­mitted to the concepts of “created material order” and life as a gift from God, “is especially prepared to point out that what is being tested is not only the genome, but also the vision of biological phenomena it expresses, and with it what types of human being ought to exist in the world . . . [that is] a deeper theo­logical question about the extent to which humans are qualified to judge and grade humanity at all.”

This thought experiment does help to clarify crucial differences between (some) styles of secular thought and a Christian vision of the world. Unfortunately, it also exaggerates, as do a number of other theologians currently working in this important area. Given the risks and intrusion of ova-collecting, it is highly unlikely that some ovum-testing machine will widely replace natural means of concep­tion. The Brave New World envis­aged is hyperbole.

In contrast, reliable genetic testing for those families with tragic inherited disabilities is perhaps more likely to be viewed by many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, as a godsend.

Canon Gill is Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent.

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