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Giles Fraser: Unlike iPads, we are not disposable

12 October 2011

BACK in 2005, Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, gave a remarkable speech at Stanford University. “Death”, he insisted, “is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you, but some day, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old, and be cleared away.” His own death last week gives these words an extra­ordinary poignancy.

In many ways, his speech can be read as profoundly anti-Christian. He says that “even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there,” and builds on his message to argue that we all ought to refuse the “dogma” of other people’s ideas, preferring instead to make it up for ourselves.

Yet the deepest contrast between the philosophy of his speech and that of Christian theology is in its approach to change. While Jobs celebrates change, and, as a con­sequence, death, as the very engine of life, Christianity has always celeb­rated God’s changeless­ness. “Change and decay in all around I see; O thou who changest not, abide with me.”

On one level, I am persuaded to agree with Jobs. After all, what sense can we really make of life, unless it in­­volves some reference to change. Surely even the very mini­mum description of life must take in notions of growth and vitality, all of which involve change. What is the difference, I want to ask, between something that never changes —indeed, can never change — and something that is dead?

On the other hand, I have always understood divine changelessness as being more about God’s constancy. God will always love us, and that love will always be there: something to reply on, never wavering, never in doubt. Jobs’s celebration of change, however, makes me feel like one of his fancy products — valued only when new, but to be disposed of when out of date. His line that “you will gradually become the old and be cleared away” is chilling.

It feels significant that Apple HQ, whose address in California is 1-6 Infinite Loop, feels a bit like a bad view of heaven — full of perfect-looking people: thin, beautiful, and young — and set in perfectly mani­cured lawns and pervaded with that sense of beatific calm which is often ascribed to eternity itself.

My own sense of God’s constancy is wholly different: it is that, even when we are old and broken, finishing our days in a home for the elderly, God will always love us and value us. Human beings are not com­modities with built-in obsolescence.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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