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Technology, Our Idol

Kathryn from 'Through a Glass Brightly' - published on 03/02/14

It's good, but it isn't the Good.

I'm interrupting the schedule of blogging topics that I have assigned myself for the next few months to say some things about Monday's Gospel and the Microsoft commercial that ran during the Super Bowl. A friend of mine who's a theology student sent me the ad suggesting that I write about it. He said, "[It is] one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen." In case you missed it, you can watch it above.

My first thought is, wow—all of that is true. We members of the human race have achieved amazing things through technology. All of those advances in medicine and science ended in new legs for that little boy and the new ears for that woman. There's no doubt about that, for their testimony is proof. But it's also true that way too many people have taken that fact and turned it into an idol. Christians (especially Catholics) know that faith and reason work together—religion and science can peacefully co-exist. Yet people today walk around clutching their iPhones (here's Jerry Seinfeld joking about that "juiced-up hard rectangle") in the way that people in the Middle Ages clutched their rosaries. The cart has gotten ahead of the horse in a big way.

So many of us are just like Kip from Napoleon Dynamitein our relationship with God: "Yes, I love technology, but not as much as you, you see; but I still love technology, always and forever." I experience this struggle every day when my baby goes down for his nap and I'm faced with the choice to engage in mental prayer for fifteen minutes as I plan and pledge to do or check my email, scroll through Facebook, or refresh my blog stats just for a sec. Screwtape has a blast. 

Technology is a good, but it isn't the Good. It isn't an end in itself. Also, it doesn't do great things for us; people do great things for us with it. It's a tool, and our use of it makes us either better or worse—brings us closer to God and others or pushes us farther away. We have to struggle to keep this perspective when computers and phones and cameras are just so awesome right now. Everything that Steve Gleason says in the Microsoft ad (with the help of a computer) ought to be attributed to God, of course: "Technology has the power to unite us." … "It inspires us."… "It gives hope to the hopeless." Without God granting us the gifts of His image and likeness, we would have never discovered all of the glorious truths of our universe through the power of our reasoning and intelligence. The ad features the lame walking, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing—so many of the miracles performed by Jesus in the Gospels. It's clear that the capacities of human imagination and ingenuity are amazing and even mindblowingly so. It's easy to think there's nothing we can't do, nothing we can't control, nothing we can't master. Professor Patrick Deneen described this in an article from The New Atlantis while discussing two transformations which mark modernity: 

"In the second transformation, natural phenomena were to be understood not as a subject of theoretical study — that is, the object of contemplation — but rather, were to be understood as material to be worked on, as a domain that could be altered and transformed through human knowledge and activity. Action upon nature was to become the main object of modern science, particularly as inaugurated by Francis Bacon. The truly practical sciences were now understood to be the natural sciences which would act upon nature, altering its original form to exist in conformity with human comfort — to provide for “the relief of man’s estate,” as Bacon put it."

Theology, however, remains otherwise. It searches above and beyond while it teaches us our limits and our finitude. As Hamlet says to Horatio, "There are more things in heaven and earth / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Here I want to focus on just one of those things—one of the invisible things in which was say we believe when we recite the Creed : demons. Let us consider demonic possession as one of the many things that technology simply cannot solve. 

Exorcisms don't make it on the news too much. They're usually private affairs handled by the family of the victim and the local exorcist of their diocese. But our culture harbors a deep interest and even obsession with exorcisms, because like the "healed" people in the Microsoft ad, the afflicted victims and their witnesses have provided testimony. Every few years there appears another blockbuster all about this bizarre reality. I've never seen The Exorcist, but I have seen The Exorcism of Emily Rose and I think it is a really good and very important movie. At the very least, it depicts in vivid detail what possession really looks like, the priest is fantastic, and there's quite a surprising twist at the end. The movie explores the possible cause of Emily's transformation by pitting natural ones against supernatural ones in a courtroom drama setting. The most important piece of evidence is the audio recording of the exorcism itself (which used the tape from the real life events that inspired the movie). Ultimately it becomes clear that something supernatural is the cause, and only the supernatural can rescue the poor, tormented girl. 

I've heard plenty of homilies that have suggested that the possession and exorcism accounts in the Gospels are merely metaphors for sin and repentance or that these were all just physical or psychological disorders the people back then didn't understand. There might be some of that in a few of the accounts, but not this one

"And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”" (Mark 9:14-29)
Take three minutes to watch this scene from Franco Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth. It's better than you remember, though it does leave out some of the important dialogue. In the Gospel passage, Jesus makes a distinction between types of demons, types of possession. Here he tells us that there is at least one kind against which science and technology are powerless. Only the power of Christ channeled through one of his ordained ministers will overcome this particular obstacle. Of course plenty of people simply reject this. They don't encounter the supernatural in their own lives, so it's easy not to believe in it. If you'd like to challenge your skepticism, I submit to you this story of demonic possession which came out at the end of last month. This ran in several regular news outlets. It's amazing and terrifying. Many reading this would still find it hard to believe. The events go far beyond what natural science can explain; their remedy is therefore beyond the scope of technology. 

Technology is an attractive good because it is also a good we can master. And this makes it easy to set aside and draw a box around the things that defy technological explanation and mastery—including God. Even those of us who do believe have to be reminded every once in a while. Faith is something that must be nurtured if it is to flourish. The prayer of the father in the Gospel passage above is really a perfect one for all of us: "I believe! Help my unbelief." For years I've been repeating this phrase in my heart at the moment when the priest elevates the consecrated Eucharist in the Mass. It helps me to experience that moment with both wonder and humility.

Wonder is certainly one word that comes to mind when I watch that Microsoft ad. But my hope is that humility will also follow—the humility to realize that the human genius that develops this technology is a gift from God; and the humility to appreciate the limitations of technological tools, which stop where the natural order ends and the supernatural begins. In our time, the means of reason and rhetoric are being highly challenged by media technology. But the Church offers technologies (if you will) of its own that use reason and rhetoric differently and that submit to different standards of evidence, belief, and proof. Exorcism is among the most dramatic examples of this. When faced with the problem of demonic possession, Microsoft's claim to be a Christ-like healer will prove hollow. "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer"—prayer which calls the supernatural power of God into our midst.

If you want more information about exorcisms, check out the book An Exorcist Tells His Story by Fr. Gabriel Amorth. I have some mixed feelings about its value mostly because of Tolkien's warning to Lewis as he wrote The Screwtape Letters (a book that I find extremely valuable) that delving too deeply into the craft of evil would have consequences; but I know a few people whose faith was significantly strengthened by it.

What are your thoughts?

Courtesy of 'Through a Glass Brightly'

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