Technology in Tolkien and Laudato Si

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I just discovered TrueMyths.org and added John Carswell’s ebook “Tolkien’s Requiem” to my Inkling’s collection. What brought me to his site was a headline on NewAdvent.com: If you want to understand Laudato Si better, J.R.R. Tolkien can help…

The excellent article “Laudato Si: Pope Francis’ Tolkienian Encyclical” mirrors much of my thought regarding the encyclical (an initial bit of which can be read here). Particularly, the author’s discussion of technology and man’s relation to nature piqued my interest.

The encyclical is very anthropological, going back to examine who/what man is and the consequent implications for his various relationships with the rest of the cosmos – God, other human beings, and the rest of creation. The inclusion in Laudato Si of sections on technology could be easily just seen as additional fragments of this Pope’s anti-modernist commentary. However, I would argue that discussion of the benefits and dangers of technology goes right to the heart of the human condition because from the garden of eden the temptation to grasp at “being like God” through some tool or technique of our own wielding has been at play.

Pope Francis:

105. There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means “an increase of ‘progress’ itself”, an advance in “security, usefulness, welfare and vigour; …an assimilation of new values into the stream of culture”,[83] as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such. The fact is that “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well”,[84] because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience. Each age tends to have only a meagre awareness of its own limitations. It is possible that we do not grasp the gravity of the challenges now before us. “The risk is growing day by day that man will not use his power as he should”; in effect, “power is never considered in terms of the responsibility of choice which is inherent in freedom” since its “only norms are taken from alleged necessity, from either utility or security”.[85] But human beings are not completely autonomous. Our freedom fades when it is handed over to the blind forces of the unconscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest, and of violence. In this sense, we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint. (Laudato Si)

Our internal powers do not necessarily keep pace with the development of  external/Instrumental means. This theme of course runs all through the Tolkienian epic. The point is not that power/magic/technology/industry are simply good or bad, but our hearts are attracted to or entranced by them often for the wrong reasons and the great perhaps invite a graver danger than the simple in wielding such things. Mr Carswell explains:

In a 1953 letter, Tolkien explained that one of the main themes of his Middle-earth works is “the Machine.” By “Machine” he meant the technologies we devise for “making the will more quickly effective.” By contrast, he finds virtue in what he terms “Art,” the “development of the inherent inner powers or talents” of a thing. For Tolkien, legitimate creativity and innovation involves a deep respect for the nature of the thing being developed as opposed to the will to dominate and change its nature. Similarly, Pope Francis says: “Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us.” Man, through the Machine, has gone from seeing nature as something to be tended, cared for, and developed to seeing it as an object to be dominated and put to maximum use.

Check out the rest of Mr. Carswell’s article and his website here:

http://truemyths.org/2015/07/01/laudato-si-pope-francis-tolkienian-encyclical/

“We are not God”: Anthropocentrism vs. Christian Anthropology in Pope Francis’ Laudato Si

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I was up early last Thursday downloading the Pope’s new encyclical, Laudato Si, trying to get it read before my own busyness and the public commentary could sweep it away. Frankly (pun intended) I loved it.

Since its release there has been the expected variety of fuss and all manner of attempts to claim or disclaim aspects of the encyclical for a particular faction or interest. I hesitate to add more to the fray (go read the encyclical for yourself!), but was moved to share a few thoughts this morning by private correspondence with friends and family on this unique letter from our good Pope Francis.

A strain of commentary that has begun to emerge and which resonates with my own reading and those of my close confidants, sees in the encyclical as a whole a profoundly evangelical presentation of Christian anthropology.

In a piece entitled “The pope’s climate change message is really about rethinking what it means to be human”, Stephen P. White yesterday wrote the following :

Reading the encyclical, one quickly realizes that the “pope fights climate change” narrative is far from the whole story. In fact, that line leaves out the most fundamental themes of the encyclical: the limits of technology and the need for what he calls an “integral ecology,” which “transcend[s] the language of mathematics and biology, and take[s] us to the heart of what it is to be human.” (http://www.vox.com/2015/6/24/8834413/pope-climate-change-encyclical)

Yes, it struck me as a profound piece of Christian anthropology to counter the anthropocentrism of our age (though it is certainly a perennial tendency). The Pope invites us to stand back and attend to the basic way that we as humans think of ourselves and our relation to the rest of the cosmos.

In the first creation account in the Book of Genesis, God’s plan includes creating humanity. After the creation of man and woman, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good” (Gen 1:31). The Bible teaches that every man and woman is created out of love and made in God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26). This shows us the immense dignity of each person, “who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons”.[37] Saint John Paul II stated that the special love of the Creator for each human being “confers upon him or her an infinite dignity”.[38] Those who are committed to defending human dignity can find in the Christian faith the deepest reasons for this commitment. How wonderful is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles! The Creator can say to each one of us: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer 1:5). We were conceived in the heart of God, and for this reason “each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary”.[39] (Laudato Si, 65)

This is a beautiful expression of our Christian understanding of human nature and dignity. This is who we are. But what has occurred?

66. The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19).

From the beginning man has struggled with the temptation to grasp at “being like God”, pridefully disregarding His commands and engaging in the practical relativism that the Pope references in which we evaluate and respond to other created things, not according to God’s creative design, but according to our own values and uses.  Consider the powerful passages on this “practical relativism”:

122. A misguided anthropocentrism leads to a misguided lifestyle. In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I noted that the practical relativism typical of our age is “even more dangerous than doctrinal relativism”.[99] When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay.

123. The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labour on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage. In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary. We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided. (Laudato Si)

So much, even coming to believe in God, comes down to a person’s basic attitude toward the rest of the universe. Does a person, with the materialists, reductionists, utilitarians and atheists, make himself like god and evaluate everything else accordingly? Or does he seek to understand his own nature, something given not self-made, and the natures of other things? Does he humble himself to the honest realism of trying to understand what things are and responding in kind? Does he stand in submission before God, in respect and love of all fellow mankind, and in grateful stewardship toward the rest of creation, declaring that it is good and is to be cherished and enjoyed by all?

As the Pope notes, “We are not God.” (Laudato Si, 67)

All this puts me in mind of today’s Gospel:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’
will enter the Kingdom of heaven,
but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
Many will say to me on that day,
‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name?
Did we not drive out demons in your name?
Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’
Then I will declare to them solemnly,
‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’

“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them
will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.
The rain fell, the floods came,
and the winds blew and buffeted the house.
But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.
And everyone who listens to these words of mine
but does not act on them
will be like a fool who built his house on sand.
The rain fell, the floods came,
and the winds blew and buffeted the house.
And it collapsed and was completely ruined.”

When Jesus finished these words,
the crowds were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority,
and not as their scribes. MT 7:21-29

My fellow Christians and I must ask, what does it really mean for Jesus Christ to be Lord of our lives if not ever greater surrender to His Gospel, to love and serve God with all we are and our neighbors as ourselves?  Must we not strive to give over our merely temporal projects and values to the “Father who creates and who alone owns the world”? (LS, 75) Lest we cry “Lord, Lord!” in vain, we must always expect that there are more nooks and crannies of our lives (our finances, the environment, our technologies, our human parties and projects) which we are not giving over to Christ, and are thereby, for all our industry, building houses on the sand.

Thus, I will listen attentively and prayerfully to the Pope’s reminder of who God is, who man is, and whence and for what purpose came this beautiful home we inhabit together.

(Thanks for reading. Be sure to download and read Laudato Si yourself, whatever your background or beliefs: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html)

Capsules and Odd-Looking Sticks

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March 6, 2015: Today I discovered an odd-looking capsule with variably sized holes lying in a junk drawer. After noting a correlation between the size of the holes and the size of the odd sticks of which our house seems to be infested, I ventured to place the narrower end of the stick inside of the capsule. After turning it in the hole I removed it and to my astonishment the stick was sharpened to a dark point. I have since discovered that the pointed end of the stick, when used as a writing utensil, leaves a gentle but clear marking and has proven far superior to the faulty, plastic pens of which I am so amply but frustratingly provisioned. More mysterious still, the pinkish membrane which occupies the other end of the sticks appears to rub away the darkish marking with but the gentlest touch. The mysterious capsule and as many of the sticks as I could expediently gather are now kept in a special area on the left side of my writing desk.

Curtailing Facebook

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I recently went through my list of Facebook “friends” and changed about 900 of the 1000 or so into “acquaintances,” which — in theory — will keep all but the most important of their posts or activities from showing up in my news feed. I also went through and “unliked” nearly all of the hundreds of pages/causes that populate my feed with their updates (keeping but a small few that met criteria which I may discuss later).

This is the half-measure that I am going to try out in lieu of abandoning Facebook altogether. I’m not sure if it will work.

Here are some initial thoughts and reactions:

There’s Only So Much of Me to Go Around

The experience of the change immediately reinforced what I had begun to realize about Facebook specifically, as well as my life in general. Simply, I have a very finite amount mental/emotional/spiritual space, and it becomes cluttered more quickly than I ever expect.

Tools like Facebook give us the illusion, since we are able to make and manage more social connections, that our capacity to engage them (i.e., to care about them) has increased. It hasn’t.

Furthermore, we think that we can introduce, through use of tools like Facebook, thousands upon thousands of new connections, new bits of information, new stimuli and, yet, still selectively pay attention to, care about, respond to only those that are important — without any loss or negative impact. (It is not I, but those other fools that are affected by advertising.)

I have been noticing this in a variety of areas of my life, mostly in ways connected with technology. To use Covey’s classic imagery, we readily expand our sphere of concern far beyond our sphere of influence, which then contracts as a result. We are concerned about vastly more and, thus, concerned about each individual matter far less, and all the while, our ability and inclination to do much of anything about anything dwindles.

I tended to think that having a Facebook app on my phone, which is connected to 1000s of people and advertisers at all times, doesn’t affect me as long as I only open the app an appropriate amount of times throughout the day for an appropriate duration of time. I tended to think that having a streaming music service doesn’t negatively affect me or change how I think about or value music, as long as I don’t play it too much or play the wrong type of music.

I’m just not so sure about this any more. Inevitably, I find that Facebook and those thousands of connections have changed how I think, feel, react, and regard. Even when I close the browser or turn off the app, spiritually and emotionally the clutter remains.

I am more and more experiencing the truth of McLuhan’s insight: despite what we think, the medium is perhaps more potent than the message it mediates.

Nixing the Entertainment Fix

As said, I had played around with the idea of these and even more drastic measures regarding Facebook for a while. What I underestimated was how immediate and profound were the subjective effects of cutting a list of 1000 people down to 100 with whom I am making a conscious choice to engage.

Instantly, the news feed is no longer a news feed. It is no longer a diversion that I can turn to for an entertainment fix. Suddenly it represents actions, needs, responsibilities, things that I do or don’t but ought to care about.

It is not that those 100 people (close friends, family members, etc) weren’t there before. They were there, but they were diluted in a sea of irrelevance presenting itself as news/content/entertainment to be consumed.

Removing the Soap Opera Effect

Now, I realize the tendency of the newsfeed of this supposed “social network” to simply become, for one, a source of diversion, of a quick entertainment fix, and also leads one to begin seeing all the people represented therein as the same. It starts with those who really are obscure to one’s concern (the celebrity stories, the friends of friends from whom one can never remember accepting a friend request, etc.). Then, it moves inward to those one is acquainted with but has no ongoing involvement. Finally, it proceeds to even those close family and friends that one would/should (if one could) care about/love/pursue/engage with for their own sake.

They all become simply content for my newsfeed — the characters that populate the soap opera that is always playing in an open browser tab and in the app on my phone.

Frog in the Pot

We know this. All these things are cliche, passé. We know, and we resolve to not be affected. But we are, and we persist! Thus, we must question whether we really knew or understood the implications of the situation in the first place.

As my father is so fond of referencing, this is truly a “frog in the pot” scenario. We continually look around and observe the pot, the water, and the increasing temperature, but insist that the heat is manageable now, and we’ll certainly jump out if it becomes otherwise. But, the whole point is precisely that from within the pot one has the worst vantage point on both the current and future state of affairs.

Good Servant, Bad Master

Of course, even what I have recently done has been but a half-measure. I am still, for now, on Facebook.There is a case to be made for such measures in such cases though.

Whether or not I perfectly interpreted the work or its implications, one of my takeaways from Neil Postman’s eye-opening book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology was the value in a seemingly arbitrarily holding oneself back from the “cutting edge” when it came to technology. It is not that there is some ultimately “right” or “safe” level of technology for a human person to inhabit (computers, pen and pencil, stone tablets, the spoken word). But if the concern is whether or not I am able to evaluate and manage the influence of technology on myself and my family, there is something to be said for intentionally staying behind the curve.

One primary danger of technology — any technology — is simply its initial novelty and the fascination that it engenders in a subject. At its introduction, a technology is a slippery thing to grasp. The new user and, even more so, the technology’s creator are in precisely the worst vantage point for evaluating the net usefulness of a technology and its effects on our way of viewing the world and other people, one’s information and values.

Thus, there is good reason to consider holding back, enforcing a certain distance from the “cutting edge,” using technologies that are now boring, or intentionally limiting or truncating the functionality of novel ones, however arbitrary and counter-productive such limitations might seem.

It has been said that technology makes a good servant, but a bad master. What we underestimate is how easily the former can shift to become the latter and how subtle the change can be.

“I understand the technologies I am using and I would know if I am being unduly influenced or changed by them,” says the frog swimming in an already-quite-warm stew.

Gaining Perspective

So this is my experiment with Facebook for now. It may be temporary, it may be a half-measure, it may not work. But I am reaching for perspective and space to evaluate such things. If greater cuts must be made, then so be it.

On a separate but not entirely unrelated note, you should check out Marc Barnes’ essay on “Modesty and Act” which explores what it means to be a subject, and how one’s ability to act/choose is affected by the world. It is a fascinating piece that digs into this question of our perception vs. the reality of whether (and to what degree) we are influenced by fashions, technology, and the opinions of others.