But it goes much further. For it does not merely give comfort to the poor; it promises that through devotion to it the poor will become rich. Its record of achievement–there can be no doubt–has been formidable, in part, because it is a demanding god, and is strictly monotheistic. Its first commandment is a familiar one: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This means that those who follow its path must shape their needs and aspirations to the possibilities of technology. The requirements of no other god must interfere, slow down, frustrate, or, least of all, oppose the sovereignty of technology. Why this is necessary is explained with fierce clarity in the second and third commandments. “We are the Technological Species,” says the second, “and therein ties our genius.” “Our destiny,” says the third, “is to replace ourselves with machines, which means that technological ingenuity and human progress are one and the same.”
But we know, and each day receive confirmation of it, that this is a false god. It is a god that speaks to us of power, not limits; speaks to us of ownership, not stewardship; speaks to us only of rights, not responsibilities; speaks to us of self-aggrandizement, not humility.
Those who are skeptical about the language and presuppositions of the great god of technology, those who are inclined to take the name of the technology god in vain, have been condemned as reactionary renegades, especially when they speak of gods of a different kind. Among those who have risked heresy was Max Frisch, who remarked that “Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it.” But he along with other heretics were cast aside and made to bear the damning mark of “Luddite” all of their days. There are also those, like Aldous Huxley, who believed that the great god of technology might be sufficiently tamed so that its claims were more modest. He once said that if he had rewritten Brave New World, he would have included a sane alternative, a society in which technology were used as though, like the Sabbath, it had been made for man, not as though man were to be adapted and enslaved by it.
Huxley did not rewrite Brave New World, but, as it has turned out, it was unnecessary. That the technology-god enslaves and gives no profound answers in the bargain is now increasingly well understood. Heidegger wrote of it, and Mumford, and Ellul and Weizenbaum and Roszak and dozens of others, so that the covenant we made with technology is each day being shredded. It is a victory of sorts but a bitter one, for we are left at last with no loom to weave a fabric to our lives. This is the problem Vaclev Havel spoke of when he address the U.S. Congress. He said that we will need a story that will help us “to be people with an elementary sense of justice, the ability to see things as others do, a sense of transcendental responsibility, archetypal wisdom, good taste, courage, compassion, and faith.”
Where shall we find such a story? The answer, I think, is where we have always found new tales: in the older ones we have already been telling. We do not need to invent a story for our times out of nothing. Humans never do. Since consciousness began we have been weaving our experience of ourselves and of our material world into accounts of it; and every generation has passed its ways of accounting on. And as new generations have encountered more and more of the world and its complexities, each generation has had to reread the stories of the past–not rejecting them, but revising and expanding their meaning to accommodate the new. The great revolutions and revelations of the human past, and I include the Christian revelation, have all been great retellings, new ways of narrating ancient truths to encompass a larger world.
We in the West are inheritors of two great and different tales. The more ancient, of course, is the one that starts by saying, “in the beginning, God . . .” And the newer is the account of the world as science and reason give it. One is the tale of Genesis and job, of Mark and Paul. The other is Euclid’s tale, and Galileo’s, Newton’s, Darwin’s. Both are great and stirring accounts of the universe and the human struggle within it. Both speak of human frailty and error, and of limits. Both may be told in such a way as to invoke our sense of stewardship, to sing of responsibility. Both contain the seeds of a narrative more hopeful and coherent than the technology story. My two favorite quotes on this matter were made 375 years apart. The first is by Galileo, who said, “The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.” The second is by Pope John Paul II, who said, “Science can can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”
I take these men to mean what I would like to say. Science and religion will be hopeful, useful, and life-giving only if we learn to read them with new humility–as tales, as limited human renderings of the Truth. If We Continue to read them, either science or Scripture, as giving us Truth direct and final, then all their hope and promise turn to dust. Science read as universal truth, not a human telling, degenerates to technological enslavement and people flee it in despair. Scripture read as universal Truth, not a human telling, degenerates to Inquisition, Jihad, Holocaust, and people flee it in despair. In either case, certainty abolishes hope and robs us of renewal.
I believe we are living just now in a special moment in time–at one of those darkening moments when all around us is change and we cannot yet see which way to go. Our old ways of explaining ourselves are not large enough to accommodate a world made paradoxically small by our technologies, yet larger than we can grasp. We cannot go back to simpler times and simpler tales–tales made by clans and tribes and nations when the world was large enough for each to pursue its separate evolution. There are no island continents in a world of electronic technologies–no place left to hide or to withdraw from the communities of women and men. We cannot make the world accept one tale–and that one our own–by chanting it louder than the rest or silencing those who are singing a different song. We must take to heart the sage remark of Nils Bohr, one of our century’s greatest scientists: “The opposite of a correct statement is an incorrect statement. The opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth.” He meant to say that we require a larger reading of the human past, of our relations with each other and the universe and God, a retelling of our older tales to encompass many truths and to let us grow and change.
We can make the human tale larger only by making ourselves a little smaller–by seeing that the vision each of us is granted is but a tiny fragment of a much greater Truth not given to mortals to know. It is the technology-god that promises you can have it all. My own limited reading of Scripture tells me that that was never a promise made by God–only that we should have such understanding as is sufficient–for each one, and for a time. For people who believe that promise, the challenge of retelling our tale for new and changing times is a test not of our wisdom but of our faith.