Part of a Symposium on Colin Redemer’s Intro to Made Like the Maker
As I write this, there is a watch on my wrist. It isn’t especially fancy—this isn’t a Rolex or Omega, but a stainless-steel Seiko. Its case and band no longer glint in the sunshine, but bear the dull matte burr of long wear. And over the years I’ve had to do various forms of upkeep, from adjusting the size of the band to replacing the crystal face to fixing the internal mechanism that makes it run.
This watch was my grandfather’s, and after he passed away in 2014, it descended to me. Since then, it’s been a fixture in my life: I wore it at my wedding, and, God willing, I’ll pass it on to my son someday. Whenever I wear it, I find myself grateful that my grandfather didn’t buy a cheap Timex or Casio. Instead, he invested in an item that would last—not something extravagant, or something indestructible, but something nevertheless worth preserving and handing on.
In short, I carry on my wrist an item of technology permeated by both memory and history—by my grandfather’s past, and by my own future. It has a particular “immanent” function, to be sure: on a traditional Aristotelian account of virtue ethics, a watch that tells time rightly is properly called a good watch, since it functions as a watch should1. My watch is a good watch, by this standard. And yet what matters to me isn’t just the watch’s function of telling time, but the deeper realities—the deeper loves—to which it points.
Something like this intuition first drove the Christian transposition of Aristotle into a Neoplatonic key2. For Christian thought, the life rightly lived involves both the exemplification of one’s essential virtues and final union with a transcendent Reality that overflows the finite. Beneath and beyond the apparent flux of history and becoming, eternity is ever-present—and all created beings stand within its horizon.
In Made Like the Maker, just as in his classic Centuries, Thomas Traherne once again proves that he is the great English poet of just such participation in the divine. Traherne’s sacramental universe is a world not merely shaped by a demiurge’s hand, but a cosmos positively overflowing with glory for those with eyes to see.3
Mere apprehension of that glory, though, is not the end of the story. Activity is key. As Colin Redemer ably shows in his compelling introduction to Traherne, the Christian has the right—and even duty—to act in freedom to perfect and improve this creation. Over against those who might suggest that Christian contemplation entails stasis or quiescence, Redemer stresses that “the work of man is not finished. The finishing touches of creation are still ours to freely fill.”4
It is in this spirit that Redemer confronts the question of technology and Christian ethics—of the ways in which human beings may rightly exercise their own “sub-creative” faculties. He begins by noting that technological progress as such lacks any orienting principle, beyond the brute fact of incremental improvement in performing some function or other: “Version 2.0 is better at satisfying the needs that version 1.0 was designed to satisfy.”5 That is a crabbed view of advancement indeed.
This myopic tendency is exacerbated by the fact that when modern people think about producing things—that is, creating technology—they tend to think in terms of techne, or “making” through skilled craftsmanship. But, Redemer points out, the notion of “making” is fuller-orbed than this.6 Where, after all, does technology come from in the first place?
The answer is that technology first emerges from ideas put into words. This making-with-words—poesis—is the necessary condition of any development at all. Some poetic vision or other (understood broadly) logically precedes crafting or manufacture: “Techne is a making without words, but the true technician must first know what he is making, and that requires learning the language of the thing made. This learning shows us that the techne is downstream from poiesis.”7
Of course, the poesis exercised by Christians is inherently derivative of the original Word with which God spoke creation into being. Failure to recognize this leads to idolatry, as the maker of the idol inevitably seeks to arrogate originating creative power to himself.8
With the relation of techne to poiesis clarified, how then should Christians think about technological advancements? As a governing principle—or perhaps framework—Redemer settles on a distinction, drawn from Oliver O’Donovan, between begetting and making.9 Begetting is the act of bringing into reality that which is like the progenitor in essence, and which is received as it is: a child who is begotten is human, like her parents, and is received by her parents just as she is. Making, conversely, involves the deliberative craftsmanship, by way of both techne and poesis, of that which is truly other than the maker.10
These two must not be conflated. “We are bits of creation, and so we are made,” Redemer urges. “Much as human pride rages against it, we are made by God. As we follow God we must beware not to attempt to make what ought naturally to be begotten. This truth grounds us in humility, in moderation.”11 An obvious case of confusion between begetting and making, one assumes, would be the use of CRISPR or similar tools to produce an infant “according to specifications.”12
But as far as “making” goes, Redemer contends, the field is largely open. In metaphysical terms, it is open because whatever human beings do as sub-creators cannot undercut the reality of God as source and end of all things. “Knowing creation is made, and that we are made as part of that creation, also gives us courage to act,” Redemer stresses. “We are not constrained by the fear that our making or begetting is going to fundamentally alter the nature of nature. The making that is ultimately God’s is a complete and whole thing inside of which our making takes place.”13 Hence, for Redemer, “[w]e need not fear the creation of our hands, be it an artificial ‘intelligence,’ a genetic modification technology, a neuralink, or a new form of as yet unrealized power generation.”14 In conclusion, Redemer urges Christians to anchor their own poesis within their theological inheritance, embracing “the word and the sacraments [as] the spiritual technology of Christian poetics.”15
This is a bold vision—neither reactionary nor uncritically accelerationist. It is optimistic. And it is a vision that rightly grasps the centrality of technology to the contemporary question of Christian being-in-the-world. Any theorizing about ideal Christian politics will never escape the armchair if it tacitly assumes away the Industrial Revolution, the internet, and the smartphone. Opposition to progress tout court is a fantasy.16
But all progress, of course, is not created equal.
As far as technological ethics goes, a great deal of Redemer’s argument seems to hinge on the distinction between begetting and making. All to the good: I certainly don’t disagree on the central point. But the question of begetting strikes me as largely restricted to the domain of bioethics, and as such, it represents a comparatively small sliver of that which counts as “technological progress.” Most of what Christians do in the world is making, a fact which invites an important question: what should we make, and why?
Basic intuitions suggest that the question is not malformed. Within a Christian frame, is there is something about my grandfather’s watch that makes it a more suitable human expression of techne and poiesis than, say, an 85-inch OLED television or the latest TikTok video? Perhaps we can formulate a principle that might hold even if we concede that, as a matter of Christian liberty, the range of opportunities for “making” is quite vast.
This question becomes even more pressing when second-order political considerations are invoked. The market is not a free-for-all: it reflects the incentive structures created, intentionally or not, by those who make and enforce the laws.17 These same lawmakers must decide, through the exercise of prudential reason, whether technological developments are to be permitted, regulated, subsidized, or prohibited entirely. For those invested with such authority, the decision not to act carries just as much normative weight as any affirmative deed. So what principles should guide their deliberations?
In previous work, I have offered an answer: we should build that which lasts.18 Human poesis should aim at permanence, imaging the eternity of God within time. Of course, this side of the eschaton, moth and rust will inevitably destroy19, but this isn’t an argument against the principle as such.
Elsewhere, I have defended the principle on political-philosophical grounds.20 But it can—and must—be urged on expressly theological grounds as well. Consider, for example, the apex of human techne, within the horizon of divine poesis: the buildings of the Tabernacle and the Temple of Solomon.
Crucially, the Tabernacle is not disclosed as a vision, fully formed. Rather, its essentials are narrated through the word, a summons to build that invites active human involvement in its crafting.21 Bezalel, craftsman of the Tabernacle, has a measure of freedom: God does not dictate the details of the faces of the cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant, or stipulate the inlays on the lamps burning within the tent of meeting.22 And the same is true of the Temple.
The Tabernacle is not an absolute novum, nor is the Temple. They are the repositories of the covenant law, structures built to carry forward something of God within them23. All the technical mastery poured into their respective creations—all the skill of Bezalel and those who labored atop the Temple Mount—exists to point beyond itself, to the expression of God’s poesis stewarded in the Holy of Holies.
When will this beyond be finally revealed? The closing pages of the Revelation of John describe the eschatological city that is the perfection of God’s poesis, prepared for those who love him:
On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.24
Just as, through the participating human poesis and techne of the Tabernacle and Temple, history carries with it eternity, so too eternity carries with it history in the divine poesis25 that is the City of God. It is this logic, I contend, that should govern our technological “making”: we ought to bring into being that which points beyond itself, which in its very enduringness testifies to the eternity set before us.
Redemer is quite right to stress that technology becomes idolatrous when its makers forget that all human poesis is derived from divine poesis. Indeed, when Scripture speaks of false worship, it does not describe the God of Israel’s defeat or displacement. Over and over again, it describes forgetfulness. The Lord’s wrath kindles against Solomon “because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice.”26 Nadab and Abihu are condemned for offering strange fire “contrary to [God’s] command,” exemplifying a techne of incense burning that has been previously forbidden to them.27
This is a pattern that underscores the concern to reflect, however imperfectly, the source and end of all things made within time. Human beings require reminders of their nature and destiny. A throwaway culture breeds forgetfulness of eternity, and so breeds idols.
And beyond the risk of idolatry, human beings simply flourish within a built environment that is thick with transcendental significance.28 For Traherne himself, the apprehension of finite things as meaning-rich, as potentially disclosive of a sublimity as yet unknown, is the catalyst of productive joy:
The concealment of an object whets our appetite, and puts an edge upon our endeavors, and this carries a mystery in it. . . . We are touched by an unknown beauty which we never saw, and in the midst of our ignorance are actuated with a tendency which does not abate the value of our virtues, but puts life and energy into our actions.29
Given that the preceding argument is phrased in positive terms—what we should make—it is worth considering the negative corollary: what we shouldn’t make. It follows from the principle of imaging eternity that Christians should generally avoid making things that are deliberately evanescent, trafficking in a logic of cheap junk or “planned obsolescence.”
But this point can be pressed further: Christians should avoid making technologies that are anesthetic, that consciously dull the capacity to apprehend the divine poesis displayed within the natural order and—one step removed—within the human-built order.
It is almost axiomatic at this point that many digital technologies tend to facilitate a pattern of enervating consumption, what Traherne might describe as “the bare tranquility of idle peace.”30 Ever-more-addictive algorithms are deployed to keep individuals engaged with particular platforms or devices. Through such processing algorithms, words, music, and images are all collapsed into the single undifferentiated category of “content.” Such content serves as merely an adjunct to the technology’s raison d’être: a habit of user addiction that gives rise to lucrative advertising opportunities for platform operators.31
Deep and enduring engagement with any particular ”piece of content” is antithetical to the imperative of the platform, which is the proliferation of novelty. A user who does not consume more content is a user who is engaged with fewer opportunities to display advertisements, and so is a less profitable user. Hence the rise of “infinite scroll” and disappearing-message apps like Snapchat, which deliberately undercut the possibility of sustained reflection on any particular thing.
Under such conditions, any meditation on “permanent things” is made difficult by design. Where such technologies are deployed, the divine poiesis that underpins all reality is occluded by a current of endless becoming. It is not coincidental that generations of Christian mystics sought out the silence and stillness of the desert, far afield from such distractions, for their meditation.32
The end result of anesthetic tech can only be stupefying and soporific, as opposed to the firm Christian confidence that follows from the careful ascertainment of true principles. It is the ethos of the kitchen sponge. Here, once again, Traherne proves incisive: “To live by accident, and never to pursue any happiness at all is neither angelic, nor brutish, nor demonic, but worse than anything in some respect. It is to act against that which makes us human, and to wage war with our very selves.”33
Reasonable Christian minds may disagree about which screen-mediated technologies are “anesthetic” in this sense: I tend to think there is a salient difference between, say, The Last of Us and the Instagram Reels autoplay algorithm. But the central point—that technology ought not sedate—remains in any case.
Where does this leave the Christian who makes? It leaves him at the point of Luther’s famous paradox: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”34 The Christian is free to create, to progress, to more perfectly refract God’s creating light in created things: “not trample them under feet, because they have the benefit of them, but magnify and extol them,” as Traherne has it. The Christian is also free to serve God and neighbor by disciplining his own faculties of techne and poesis. Through the technology he makes, he may—or may not—acknowledge that his own poesis is derived, not possessed a se. It is often tempting to forget this; that is the ever-present temptation of idolatry.
It is in the practice of Christian community that, week after week and year after year, Christians are discipled in the recognition that they are not their own, and that all they have, they have first received. Their making, and their very capacity to make, is always a sheer gift. In the end, Redemer rightly reminds us that wherever the future finds them, whether on Luna or Mars or the far-flung moons of Io and Ganymede, Christians will continue to gather, baptize, commune—and remember.
Perhaps, among them, my great-great-great-grandson will still be wearing the same watch.
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