The Vatican, technology, and being human

This past Tuesday, on the 60th anniversary of Pope Benedict’s ordination to the priesthood, the Vatican published a new, interactive, accessibility-oriented website called….

Impressive to say the least.  Note the nice twitter integration; the links to tumblr and facebook; and a video of the Holy Father using an iPad to launch the website!

The whole site is a leap forward in terms of embracing modern technology for the Vatican. But this leap forward was not entirely unforeseen.  Just in the past few months, the Holy Father has hosted a conference for Catholic bloggers, started a twitter account, and chatted with astronauts on the International Space Station. Remarkable as all these events have been, this blog post is not so much about the Holy Father’s newly found love for technology, but what it means for us as Christians seeking God.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote volumes concerning the Christian’s engagement with science and technology.  Across many books, Teilhard spoke of the process of becoming human, both anthropologically and spiritually.  This process is not complete until we have reached the center of life itself, the soul of the World, in Christ.  Teilhard himself lived out this belief.  The late Thomas King, S.J., a foremost Teilhard scholar, once described his focus on self-development and becoming fully human:

Like the Christian tradition before him, Teilhard saw great value in self-sacrifice, but for such a sacrifice he insisted there must be a self.…Contemporary spiritual directors have told of some directees having such a fragile sense of self that the directors must first try to give the directee a minimum of self-confidence.  When Thomas Merton [the 20th century monk, activist, and writer] became novice director, he was surprised to find this was the need of many novices.  The sons of Mahatma Gandhi became alcoholics and wife reproved him: “You wanted to make our sons holy men before they were men.” In each case, self-development must proceed self-sacrifice.  This need for self-development is a major theme in Teilhard, but it has not been a theme in much spiritual writing, East or West. (Teilhard’s Mass, 89)

This “self-development” seems straightforward enough, but it is often passed over in everyday life.  We strive after goals, opportunities, holiness, and even love without ever striving after a full understanding of ourselves.  Indeed, I would argue that this self-development is one of the main reasons why Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body has been so successful.  Despite its controversies, JPII’s theology urges people to become more fully themselves.  He taught that sexuality is not only an integral part of being human, but something to be celebrated rather than simply tolerated.  He integrated modern biological science in order to explain who we are and who we are meant to be in the eyes of God.  The late Holy Father was trying to teach us to be more fully human, and, in doing so, to be closer to God.

In the early 1990s, the philosopher and theologian Philip Hefner wrote that due to the existence and production of humans, “nature” must be redefined.  Discarding the natural/artificial duality that often exists in theological and philosophical writings, he argued that humanity has “conditioned virtually all of the planetary physico-biogenetic systems, so that human decision is the critical factor in the continued functioning of the planet’s systems.” Essentially, ever since humans have started to create tools thousands of years ago, we have redefined nature through our existence.  With the dawn of modern technology, nature must be understood to incorporate both the perfectly planted oak tree on a suburban street, a multi-million dollar computer lab at AT&T, and the dark and virtually untouched recesses of the Pacific Ocean.  In technology, we are not confronted with “tools out of control,” but a “fundamental, all-permeating condition of existence.” Indeed, to imagine a world without technology is, in reality, to imagine a world without humans–and, in this manner, quite dangerous. (The Human Factor, 155)

With Hefner’s thoughts rattling in our brains, I am compelled to ask: what does it mean to be human today?  I tend to agree with Hefner on many points–it seems silly to think of “nature” in some abstract manner that involves wild animals and exotic shrubbery when this is simply not a reflection of my experience with the world.  I cannot truly imagine my life without my computer, my cell phone, and my internet connection.  Even to attempt such an exercise forces me to imagine the entire world without such technologies, which in turn forces me to begin an endless cycle of “what if”s and “if only”s that lead nowhere.  Nature is what is around us; nature is everywhere.

That the Pope launched a website from an iPad is rather insignificant in and of itself.  Individual instances of technological development are remarkably fleeting, but the seeming omnipresence of technology tends to grow every day.  Think about the simple and rather likely notion that the internet will outlive every single person alive today.   Whether we like it or not, this growing interconnectedness of our everyday lives with technology affects us theologically.  How can it not?  We do not worship a purely “natural” sun-god who rises and sets with the day, nor one who must painstakingly learn how to login to an email account or use facebook.  We worship an omniscient God who is more technologically-savvy (by definition of omniscience) than we can possibly imagine.  While Jesus never used a computer and never blogged, He has interacted–by means of the Holy Spirit–with every culture, every generation, every evolution of humanity into something new.

The question we must ask ourselves, and something I think theologians and philosophers will discuss for quite some time, is how does all this technology affect my relationship with myself, with others, and with God?  This is why the launch of is newsworthy, and why it isn’t.  For while it signals a long overdue technological presence of mind at the Vatican, it does not offer the Christian faithful a comprehensive way to understand the direct and indirect implications for our relationships with God.

2 responses to “The Vatican, technology, and being human

  1. Thanks, John, for adding some reflection to what otherwise could have been simply fun news. I have a couple of questions, and perhaps you might direct me to what you consider to be beneficial ways forward. First, I find your account of Hefner’s argument compelling, but wondering what we might be losing in the expansion of the definition of “nature.” Perhaps analogous to the nature/grace debates surrounding de Lubac’s work, I wondering if the distinction between nature as part of divine creation and that nature resulting from the human being as (to use Tolkien’s term) “sub-creator” is one that we need—a distinction without separation, perhaps, but a distinction nevertheless. Second, will all due respect to Teilhard, King, and Merton, I am a bit uncomfortable with all that has come to be included in the “self” (much of which these three would most likely have rejected). I wonder if it is possible to develop a Christian self that isn’t tied to self-sacrifice—trying to establish a self while bracketing sacrificial giving seems to contradict the heart of the Gospel. Just some thoughts.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Andy. In the first place, analogous to Tolkien, Hefner was one of the first to coin the term “co-creator” (as opposed to sub-creator) in the modern context, mostly coming from a process theology background. I’m not sure where the distinction will fall, however, and I think that the definition of “nature” is one that must continue to be reformulated for every generation. Is there an essential portion of every person and thing that God has deemed “natural,” or are we, by our subsequent creations and inventions, redefining our natural selves? Perhaps the technological world as we know it today has actually brought us closer to the divine intended creation than the stone-age or industrial age before us? Or, perhaps, the next age of humanity’s development will aid our psychological nearness to the divine?

      Then again, it seems that some part of the “self” must be consistent for humanity to continue remaining humanity and ensoulment to be consistent throughout the millenia. We are not of the same culture as Jesus of Nazareth, but we are the same species and have similar thoughts. How far, then, does this bring us?

      On the second part and relatedly, I hope that the discussion on theological anthropology tracks this way in the future. I would lean towards not so much removing self-sacrifice but (yet again) redefining its forms. I.e., how we can incorporate the corporeal sacrifice of Saints past alongside a theology of development via psychological and emotional sacrifices that more align with “the heart of the Gospel” so as to move us toward the future.

      Good discussion, and a necessary one that I’m sure will continue!

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