Not Neutral:Technology and
the “Theology of the Body”
Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body” is becoming better and better known among ordinary Catholics, many of whom have found in it a way of connecting the central mysteries of the Christian faith – Trinity, Incarnation, and Eucharist – with their marriages, their bearing and rearing of children, and their sexuality. To such Catholics, the theology of the body has transmitted the “good news” of Vatican II that marriage, too, is a way of holiness, on which couples are called to walk with their children as an ecclesia domestica, a domestic Church.
The Pope’s theology of the body is very timely. As we all know, the institution of marriage is crumbling around the Western world, and if there was ever a time when Catholic couples needed to feel that their ordinary lives are anchored in the heart of the mystery of God, it is now. But the theology of the body is timely in another way. It responds in depth to what is arguably one of the main cultural causes of the collapse of marriage: the mechanization of bodiliness through technology.
This statement will probably surprise many readers, who may think of “technology” as meaning nothing more than the “latest gadgets”: computers, cell phones, genetically modified corn, and the like. What does satellite TV have to do with the breakdown of marriage?
It is worth noting that the latest gadgets sometimes provoke an ill-defined sense of unease in us. The latest gadgets tend to change our lives in massive ways, and often rather more quickly than we are prepared for Think of the sudden ubiquity of the personal computer and then, on its heels, of the internet. A whole generation (“generation Y”) has grown up “wired”, before we have had a chance to ask what being wired means and whether it is a good thing or not. And so, amidst all of the celebration over the latest life-changing technological breakthrough, there is also a good deal of head shaking, too. Somehow, we feel dimly, something is being lost. The machine has won another victory over nature. Are we altogether sure that it is good for the machine to be so invincible?
Instead of dismissing this unease as the result of nostalgia or the inevitable, but short-lived, shock of the new, we should try, for a change, to get to the bottom of it. If we do, I think we will see that it illuminates the cultural significance of the Pope’s theology of the body in surprising ways.
The Age of the Machine:
If we are going to make any sense of technology, and so name the source of our unease with it, we need to stop thinking of it as a mere collection of tools. We need to start thinking of it as what it really is: a mind-set, an implicit philosophy. The Canadian philosopher George Grant (following Heidegger, although meaning this in a different way) has even called technology the “ontology of our age”. By that he means that technology is the filter, or framework, through which we Westerners (and, more and more, all peoples) approach and experience the very being of things. Technology, Grant is saying, is the name for our basic world-view, our overall “take” on reality as a whole.
According to Grant, the pervasiveness of the technological mind-set makes it especially difficult to think clearly about technology. Technology is ubiquitous, so much a part of the very air we breathe that it shapes how we think about technology itself. Of course, since technology is “in the air”, we are likely not to notice how deeply it has shaped our thinking about technology. And so we need to make a special effort to distance ourselves from our usual way of imagining technology – as a set of neutral tools or instruments, harmlessly lying ready for whatever uses we may decide to put them to. But if technology is not neutral, what is it?
In order to avoid misunderstanding, let me clarify that by calling technology the “mind-set” of our culture, I am not suggesting that each of us is psychologically a convinced technocrat 100% of the time. Human nature, fortunately, is too complex and too refractory for that ever to be the case. What I am saying, though, is that technology is the dominant element in the overall drift of modern Western civilization. This implies, of course, that our civilization contains other elements, too, some of which are survivals from pre-technological ages. My point is simply that the form these many elements take – the form that distinguishes modern Western culture from, say, ancient Chinese culture – is shaped decisively by technology. Or, if the word technology is unhelpful, substitute the phrase “modern project”: the project, that is, of mastering nature in order to better the lot of man in this world. Technology is another name for modernity as the enterprise of becoming “masters and possessors of nature.”
The humanitarianism allied with the modern goal of mastering nature is of course attractive, but we need to be clear about the meaning that the founders of modernity (people like Bacon and Descartes) gave to that goal. Nature, these founders thought, is amoral, unresponsive to man’s “loftier” aspirations. So much so that these aspirations, however noble seeming, are no better than foolish idealism. Rather than trying to conform ourselves to some alleged Purpose animating nature, the early moderns said, let us therefore try to conform nature to our purposes –the more realistic purposes of making our lives more (materially) better in this world.
I won’t try to assess the merits of this modern proposal here. I only highlight one of its implications: if nature is amoral, then there is no such thing making with the grain of nature or against the grain of nature; there is just making, just the raw transformation of the raw material of the world. Human making is unbounded by any pre-given moral order written into the heart of nature. Of course, we modern Westerners still remain under the spell of Christianity, whether consciously or nor, and so our making is in fact curbed by an inherited morality. The point is simply that, given the drift of the modern project, there is no reason why it should be.
Our feelings of unease at developments like the Internet or biotech are often waved away with the bland assurance that the problem with technology isn’t technology itself, but how we choose to use it. The trouble is that this faith in the neutrality of technology expresses the essence of technology itself – the conviction that the transformation of nature is uncircumscribed by any moral standard given in the nature of things apart from human will. The belief that technology is a set of neutral instruments, like technology itself, is of a piece with the typically modern conviction that there is no moral order in physical nature, just brute matter whose only meaning we put into it through our transformative making and doing. To say “technology is neutral” is to say “making, as making, is amoral, but you can add morality to making – if you wish.” And so it is to say that human making, human will, is the only source of moral value in the universe, and that technology is the instrument of this freedom.
Of course, the technological mind-set is not just a mind-set. It has also profoundly changed how we make things. The word “technology” sums up the passage from a concern for working with the grain to the conviction that there is no grain – at least no morally binding and significant grain – to work with in the first place. It is shorthand for the shift from the ideal of the craftsman to the ideal of the technician. And since this shift has affected how we make what we make, the technological mentality behind the shift is bound to be “wired” into our gadgetry itself.
Take the computer. It is true that people use computers for all sorts of different purposes, ranging from evangelization to purveying pornography. But, however different the purposes of the users might be, the computer itself has a purpose. We could state this purpose as “processing information”. Processing information may sound innocuous, but it isn’t. For it means taking human meaning and turning it into “information” – that is, into packets of electrical signals that the computer is programmed to “read”. Processing information means breaking down, or attempting to break down, the whole of an idea into parts that a computer can handle without having to understand the idea as a whole (computers are made not to be “artificially intelligent”). It means treating, or attempting to treat, an idea as a bit of machinery that you can assemble and disassemble at will. It means treating a whole precisely not as a whole, with an integrity that goes beyond the “sum of its parts,” but as what Aristotle called a soros, a “heap”: an accidental aggregation of elements thrown together any which way.
The point I am making is that no one would have thought up the computer if he or she hadn’t first thought up the idea of “processing information”, and that no one would have thought up the idea of processing information if he or she had not had a technological mindset to begin with. For a technological mind-set is essentially the attitude that says that you can – even should – prescind from the wholeness of the whole, break the whole down into its parts, and re-arrange the parts for purposes that don’t have to have any intrinsic connection with the whole, but come entirely from the transforming will of the human agent. It is just this understanding of the whole-part relation that the idea of “processing information” applies to thinking and communicating. The computer is the technological mind-set come home to roost.
Note well: the action of “processing information” is always the purpose of the computer itself. It is thus one that every user necessarily makes his own, even if implicitly, by the very act of using the computer. Your may use the computer for evangelization, and not for selling porn. You may be trying to convey ideas, and not reduce them to bits of machinery. Nonetheless, by turning on the computer, you are just so far accepting the purpose of the computer itself. In order to achieve your purpose, you have got to let the computer achieve its purpose of processing information. That is the bargain that most of us have accepted without much reflection. Perhaps we could do with a bit more of the skepticism of those who used to warn caveat emptor.
Back to the Body:
What I have said so far suggests why technology may cause a sense of unease in us. The machines we build have the technological mind-set built into them. The hawkers of these machines seek to assure us, of course, that they have no purposes other than the ones we give them – that we, not the machines, are the masters. But the fact is that the machines do have purposes of their own, purposes hidden from most of us by the pervasiveness of the mind-set those purposes express. And so we begin to wonder: are we really are the masters after all, or might not the machines be pulling the strings? I’m not suggesting, of course, that anyone (in his right mind) actually believes that there are, say, gremlins in his refrigerator or computer. My point is just that there is a logic to the development and spread of technological gadgetry – a logic partly fuelled, of course, by the market – that seems to stride forward with an increasingly irresistible momentum. Most professionals, I daresay, are now hooked up to the internet in their homes and/or offices. Was this the result of a sovereign choice? Or of a more or less willing capitulation to the inevitable?
What does all of this have to do with the body? The answer is that we (as a culture) filter our own bodiliness through the technological mindset. The same technological mind-set that makes the computer shapes our dealings with ourselves in our embodied condition It is not just that the technological mindset began with the world and ended up with our bodies. The very act of refashioning (or attempting to refashion) the world technologically also refashions (or attempts to refashion) the conditions of our bodily existence. It is already a first technological assault on our bodily existence. By de- or re-naturing the world in which we have to live as bodies, we de- or re-nature or bodies themselves. How we treat physical nature is by definition, and in the same act, how we treat ourselves, and the modern attempt to become “masters and possessors of nature” has always aimed at making us masters and possessors of our own human, bodily nature.
We thus come to the deepest reason for the vague unease that the latest technological gadgets arouse in many of us: technology is the project of erasing the distinction between artifice and human nature. To put it provocatively, technology has always been biotechnology, and biotechnology threatens the irreplaceable uniqueness and inviolable sanctity of the body.
Not surprisingly, a culture that thinks it can reshape the physical world technologically is also prone to think, sooner or later (especially when the cultural influence of Christianity begins to wane), that it can extract human consciousness from its given embodiment, rearrange this embodiment, and then reinsert consciousness when the rearrangement is satisfactorily completed. A technological culture is committed, in principle, to the view that our consciousness can be downloaded into any old embodiment just as the consciousness of the characters in The Matrix is downloaded into computer-generated bodies. But as soon as I think of my own body in this way, I am assaulting my own dignity as a human person, which is tied up with my given embodiment. This assault is perhaps most deadly when it comes to the sexual sphere, because sexuality is a (if not the) basic, pervasive inner shaping of our given bodiliness as an embodiment of our personhood. (Which suggests, by the way, that phenomena like contraception and abortion are not just regrettable sins that a hedonistic culture has chosen to indulge in. They are flashpoints where the technological mindset that shapes our whole culture becomes particularly evident.) As C.S. Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength, the attempt to master our own bodily natures becomes a form of slavery that subjects us to the ruthless tyranny of an anonymous, superhuman techno-logic mocking our efforts to control it.
One can only admire the genius and, no doubt, the good will of the men who invented the computer, the television, and the telephone. And there is no question that technology has improved our lives in certain respects. My point has rather been that we have bought the good things technology has put within our reach as part of what Grant calls a “package deal”. Once again, technology is not just a “supermarket” of neutral tools that we can pick and choose to suit ourselves, regardless of our world-view. It is our world-view, and, as Grant argues, it is this world-view that makes us think of technology on the model of the supermarket, and not of the package deal. Technology has been arguably the most powerful organizing myth of Western culture for close to five hundred years. Since we are all caught up in this myth, none of us can point fingers, but all of us ought to try to think as comprehensively and deeply about technology as we can – especially since it has so many consequences for our experience of our own bodiliness. We are coming more and more to think and feel our own bodies through technology (although, happily, we can never do so completely). Is it a price we are willing to pay?
One of the reasons for the plausibility and appeal of the myth of technology has surely been the precariousness of the human condition. Our bodies expose us to suffering, death, and all the shocks mortal flesh is heir to, and this exposure is uncomfortable and often deeply perplexing. And so the temptation to take things into our own hands, to attempt the impossible task of engineering our way out of the human condition, is always near at hand. Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body trains the light of the Gospel on this temptation. On the one hand, the Pope re-orients us towards the hoped-for Resurrection of the Body, in which we will rise with Christ immortal. There is thus some truth in the technological myth, which may be thought of, perhaps, as an “immanentized” hope for the Resurrection – albeit in this world. On the other hand, the hope for the Resurrection reveals that the vulnerability and exposure of our bodily condition endure transformed into the transparency of Trinitarian communion. We are free, the Resurrection suggests, not when we belong to ourselves, having mastered our bodily natures, but when we belong to the Father in our bodies’ unashamed exposure to his love. Thus, just as Jesus rose with his wounds, in the same body that suffered on Calvary, the Resurrection we “look for” underlines the dignity of the mortal body even in its weakness. This is the “good news” that John Paul II’s theology of the body has to tell a technological world whose desire to escape the misere of the human condition has led to a forgetfulness of the true grandeur that shines forth in it.
Adrian Walker is an editor of Communio. This piece appeared in Second Spring issue 7.
 We are not disembodied consciousnesses standing over against our bodily selves. We are consciousness embodied, embodied, moreover, in this given body that we not only have, but also are. We are the irreplaceable persons we are partly because we come into the world embodied, as male or female, without having had a chance to choose whether we wanted to be so or not. The clock of our one-of-a-kind personal history, which we and we alone live as our unique selves, is already ticking, and has been ticking since were conceived in and as this body. All of this means that the “thrownness” of our bodily condition (to borrow a term from Heidegger), our lack of control over our own origin, is something that gives us dignity, not that takes our dignity away. That we can’t control our origin is what allows the Origin to display his paternal goodness in us and our bodies.