The Double Edge of Technology

Part of a Symposium on Colin Redemer’s Intro to Made Like the Maker

I’ve long appreciated the work of the Davenant Institute. I cut my theological teeth on the sixteenth and seventeenth Reformers. It wasn’t until fifteen years into my pastoral work that I realized that I hadn’t exhausted the Reformed Protestant tradition once I had a working knowledge of Luther, Calvin, Turretin, Owen, Boston, Brooks, and Watson. There were so many other valuable works with which to engage, some in print and some not. I realized I had work to do as a student of Protestantism, and I realized that the church had work to do, the work of retrieval and publishing. Davenant bridges my academic desire and the church’s work as they reacquaint a new generation with Protestant works—some lost and some just forgotten, works like those of Thomas Traherne. 

But this work by Thomas Traherne is even more personal to me. I’ve also been fascinated by poetry since my AP English days in high school, delving into the works of George Herbert, John Donne, TS Eliot, and Czeslaw Milosz. I was neither aware of Thomas Traherne as a man, theologian, ethicist, or poet. And for one more layer of personal interest, I haven’t been able to shake an annoying fascination with the Christian ethics of technology. That last fascination led me to the study of Jacques Ellul, Ivan Ilich, Marshall McLuhan, Wendell Berry, and Matthew Crawford. So, a new publication of a Protestant Reformer—a poet and a Christian ethicist—is a welcome addition to the Davenant fold of published works. And an introduction to Traherne’s work on a Christian ethics of technology is most welcome. Colin Redemer has done a double service to the church: reviving the works of Traherne and contributing to the ongoing conversation of what we are to do as Christians with the swarming technology that encroaches on every aspect of our lives. A brief response follows to a few facets of Redemer’s writing on technology. 

Poiesis in the Shadow of the Industrial Revolution

The comparison between techne and poiesis is central to Redemer’s thinking on technology. Likely because of its etymological similarity, technology is often traced back to the Greek word techne and the concept of craft, art, or making with one’s hands. But, as Redemer notes, another Greek word denotes making: poiesis. Poiesis is a making that occurs not with one’s hands but with one’s words. “Poesis is a making with words. It is an action, but one that is done with language. ‘So let it be written, so let it be done’ is one example. The performative utterances of a christening or marriage are another. One cannot both say ‘I do” at the alter, looking at a loved one, and then, turning around, claim not to have done.”1 This concept is helpful in that it shows the obvious that there is language to all craftsmanship and a language that is “upstream” from all techne. There is a canon at work for all trades, whether they be cabinet making, auto mechanics, or writing. There is a set of rules known to the craftsman himself that governs the actual art or work that is produced by that particular artisan. The jazz musician must know the language of the jazz standards before he can riff in a jam session. 

This concept closely aligns with other work done on the subject of technology. The major error that technologists make is focusing on the particular technology at hand. This is an iPhone. This is an electric car. This is an industrial combine for harvesting grain. There is some use in considering the specific device or technology. But more important is considering the overall language or culture from which that particular device springs. Jacques Ellul wrote forcefully on this topic. Rather than writing about individual technologies, their merits or demerits, he wrote about how individual technological advances sprung out of a societal epistemology and how each technological advance contributed to or detracted from the overall good of that society. In this way, Ellul’s technical thinking (in a technical society) is very similar to Redemer’s concept of a poiesis upstream from techne.

To illustrate this point, Ellul compared the effect of ordnance not based on the destructive potential of that particular shell but on where that shell went off. He writes,

However, this often admitted difference does not seem to me to characterize conclusively the singularity of the technical situation today. The characterization can be challenged because it does not rest upon deep historical experience. It is not enough simply to declare, by drawing on everyone’s experience of the disparity between our technique and the limited needs of our bodies, that technique is a reality in itself. We may keep this in mind, but we must also recognize that it is incomplete and not altogether convincing. It is not, then, the intrinsic characteristics of techniques which reveal whether there have been real changes, but the characteristics of the relation between the technical phenomenon and society.

Let us take a very simple comparison. A shell explodes and the explosion is normally always the same. Any fifty shells of the same caliber when exploded display approximately the same objective characteristics from a physical or chemical point of view. The sound, light, and projection of fragments remain nearly identical. The intrinsic characteristics of the fifty explosions are the same. But if forty-nine shells go off in some remote place and the fiftieth goes off in the midst of a platoon of soldiers, it cannot be maintained that the results are identical. A relation has been established which entails a change. To assess this change, it is not the intrinsic character of the explosion which must be examined, but rather its relation to the environment. In the same way, to learn if there has been, for man, a change in modern technique in relation to the old, we must assess, not the internal characteristics of the technique, but the actual situation of technique in human society.2

And so, it is not just what device or advance is most novel or immediately helpful; it is the where of that particular technology. In Redemer’s paradigm, the poiesis (the language) from which that particular technology is birthed (begotten in Redemer’s helpful distinction) dictates the concomitant effects that technology will have on society. And it is not just looking back to the past or to the present that truly defines a technology. Poiesis, as upstream from techne, also dictates what future effects a technology may have on a particular culture. Wendell Berry writes on this culture-forming (poiesis shaping) nature of technology when he writes,

And so it becomes clear that, by itself, my rule-of-thumb definition for a good tool (one that permits a worker to work both better and faster) does not go far enough. Even such a tool can cause bad results if its use is not directed by a benign and healthy social purpose. The coming of a tool, then, is not just a cultural event, it is also an historical crossroad—a point at which people must choose between two possibilities: to become more intensive or more extensive; to use the tool for quality or for quantity, for care or for speed.3

And this, then, is where Redemer’s concept of poiesis is helpful. We need a way to describe the language or the culture in which a new technology occurs. The modern Protestant thinks about technology much differently than Thomas Traherne did. Over the past four hundred years, several significant societal shifts have significantly changed our societal view of the tools we use. Our poiesis or the technical system (as Ellul would call it) has changed. We cannot simply pick up the Bible and our new-fangled tool and “do ethics.” We must consider how our society and particular culture conceives of technology. There is a language behind our tool creation, consumption, and use. Blindness to this language, this societal epistemology, has deleterious effects. 

And this is where I believe more work needs to be done around this concept of poiesis. Most notably, we must consider how the Industrial Revolution (1760–1840) led to a tectonic shift in how global cultures conceive of technology. This shift occurs chronologically between some of our brightest Protestant Reformer lights (like Traherne) and our current cultural moment. The Amish Option is not an option. We cannot simply return to a pre-industrial way of thinking. The Industrial Revolution has occurred (and the digital revolution after it), and societal epistemological change around technology and conceptions of thriving humanity have also changed. This isn’t to say that Traherne and his colleagues don’t have something to say to us moderns. But it is to say that some translation is needed. And to be honest, men like Ellul and Illich were not operating out of an American Reformed Protestant paradigm. We need thinkers who can appropriate classical Protestant thought on technology in light of the Industrial Revolution and help us make sense of ChatGPT, social media, screens on every conceivable surface, and how technology has metastasized into every area of our spiritual lives. Our God is sovereign over the craftsman and the historical moment in which that craftsman creates. We must be wise to the techne and the poiesis. Redemer’s thoughts on the concept of poiesis are a step in the right direction as we muddle our way through the seemingly endless and expedited introduction of technology into our lives. 

We Should Fear (Some of Our Tools and) God

Redemer also picks up two other streams of theological thought crucial to developing a Christian ethic of technology, streams that are absent from many theological traditions but robustly present in Reformed theology. These are the themes of the sovereign rule of God and the dominion mandate given to man. Put simply, God is sovereign over all creation and has made man his vice-regent, responsible for exercising godly dominion over all creation (Gen. 1:28–30). Redemer connects poiesis to the dominion mandate, drawing his reader’s attention to one of Adam’s first expressions of dominion: naming the animals (an act of poiesis, not techne). “Our naming is part of our dominion and might even be our clearest vision of what such dominion would mean. It isn’t the crushing rule of the tyrant, but the loving care of one who knows and names.”4

Redemer rightly places weight on our dominion-taking under the sovereign rule of the Lord. This leads him to a chastened optimism about the use of technology. “We know that our technology will not bring a utopic return to Eden, but ought we fear that our making will bring us to a bad end?”5 And further, Redemer writes,

God has told us how our story ends. And this too is good news and freedom. We 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.

Such anxiety is right for the pagans who know that what they are bringing forth is liable to demand blood like a dark god of old, and indeed is inspired by their own desire to rival God. They too believe the world is destined for destruction. They spend their time calculating to the nth degree the hour and the day when the world will end (whether it be by climate change or nuclear war or overpopulation, it matters not) and they act in fear that they will bring it about. They act, and cringe, and they fear death.

Christians fear God. We do not fear our own actions, our own creations, our own death, or even the end of time.6

There is much in this statement to commend. And certainly Redemer is correct about the rule of God, the tech-idolatry of the nations, and the assured final victory of Jesus. But, at the fear of becoming a nuance bro (and seeming to deny my own theological convictions), I believe it is more complicated than this. Christians can create or appropriate technology that they should (if not now, then eventually fear). Ellul makes the point throughout his writing that all technological advances come with inherent blessings and curses. The blessings typically come first with clarity, while the curses lag behind and are often hidden. Ivan Illich makes a similar point that technological advances have two watershed moments. The first watershed is when a tool is used to meet a true need. The second watershed is when a tool can be used to exploit society.

At first, new knowledge is applied to the solution of a clearly stated problem and scientific measuring sticks are applied to account for the new efficiency. But at a second point, the progress demonstrated in a previous achievement is used as a rationale for the exploitation of society as a whole in the service of a value which is determined and constantly revised by an element of society, by one of its self-certifying professional élites.7

Pharmaceuticals are a net good for society; a hastily deployed and under-researched mRNA vaccine isn’t. Technology that allows us to receive pictures of our grandchildren halfway across the country is a glorious use of smartphones and the internet; exploiting women and children through internet pornography is a heinous evil. We could continue to add to the list. 

Now, maybe Redemer is speaking in the absolute. To some degree, it is right to say that Christians fear God alone (1 Sam. 12:24; Matt. 21:46). And when a Christian fears God alone, he is well-equipped to know how to prioritize lesser “fears.” But we should indeed fear some potentialities of technological advancement and some of our tools. And as of yet, there is no comprehensive Christian answer on what to do about this. Ellul also notes that technology will do whatever technology can do. It may be that the dominion mandate and the dominion of God through the Holy Spirit in the hearts of his people is the answer to this. Maybe godly men can use technology like Tom Bombadil held the ring of power. In Tolkien’s work, he includes this dialog about Bombadil and the ring: “‘It seems that he has a power even over the Ring.’ ‘No, I should not put it so,’ said Gandalf. ‘Say rather that the Ring has no power over him. He is his own master. But he cannot alter the Ring itself, nor break its power over others.’” This, I think, is the crucial question facing Christians. How can we fear God alone and have a healthy, godly, and chastened use of technology? Can we set down a technology when its curses outweigh its blessings? This question is yet to be answered.

Final Thoughts

There is more excellent thinking from Redemer in his introduction that deserves a response, more novel concepts about technology that continue to rattle around in my head. And that is why this response to Redemer’s work is written with gratitude. Christians need to continue to have this conversation. It is a conversation that extends beyond the walls of the church, and few Christians are engaging it with the skill and thoughtfulness that Redemer has, much less engaging with a robust Protestant theology. My only major disappointment with Redemer’s work is that it is a twenty-nine-page introduction to another work and not a book-length treatment that stands on its own. Maybe Redemer will, in time, expand on this introduction and offer a more extended treatment on the topic. The church would be served if he did. 

Image Credit: Unsplash

Show 7 footnotes
  1. Colin Redemer in the introduction to Made like the Maker, by Thomas Traherne (Landrum: Davenant Press, 2023), xvii.
  2. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Knopf, 1964), 63–64.
  3. Wendell Berry, The Gift of the Good Land (Berkley: Counterpoint, 1981), 106.
  4. Colin Redemer in the introduction to Made like the Maker, by Thomas Traherne (Landrum: Davenant Press, 2023), xx.
  5. Colin Redemer in the introduction to Made like the Maker, by Thomas Traherne (Landrum: Davenant Press, 2023), xxvi.
  6. Colin Redemer in the introduction to Made like the Maker, by Thomas Traherne (Landrum: Davenant Press, 2023), xxvii.
  7. Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (New York: Marion Boyars, 2009), 16.
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Joe Holland

Joe Holland is the Managing Editor of Grimké Seminary, Academic Dean for Grimké College, an executive coach, and a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.

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