Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Thinking about God in an Age of Technology

I'm working my way through George Pattison's book Thinking About God in an Age of Technology. Apart from his strange fascination with radical theologies (a fascination for which I have very little sympathy), I'm finding it helpful. If nothing else, I'm taking note of the thinkers and theologians with whom he's interacting: it's a reasonably good start at a map of the various theologies of technology that have been proposed. Not surprisingly, there's more there than I realized. That's good, as I'm hoping to do a dissertation on the topic at some point, and I was hoping that the ground wouldn't be entirely unplowed. Still, it seems like there's a fair bit of work remaining to do on this topic.

I may have more to post on Pattison's book later, but I'll leave it now with an interesting note. On pp. 51-56, he offers his criticisms of Ellul's critique of technology, and Pattison's criticisms can be reduced to saying, "It isn't all that helpful."

Can Ellul offer more on the plane of human action and value than a kind of negative dialectic, a critique of the present in the name of an impossible and humanly unattainable freedom? If technology is charged with a totalizing tendency that sucks all phenomena into its infernal machinery, is this not a projection of Ellul's own Barthian method, namely, the reduction of the phenomena in their entirety to a single category (in this case 'technology') that is then used as a name for the kingdom of this world, for everything that is not and is intrinsically and essentially opposed to the Kingdom of God? Is there anything here one could lay hold of as a concrete strategy of resistance of transformation?

Now, I have to agree with him that this is a weakness of Ellul, or at least, of the very little bit of Ellul that I've read. But I find it curious that Pattison doesn't seem nearly as interested in attempting to understand whether Ellul's critique of technology (never mind its theological or practical ramifications) is true. For what seemed to me obvious reasons, the questions that struck me as I was reading Ellul centered on whether his critique was accurate. Does technology actually have the absolutist tendencies that he claims? Will it really "suck all phenomena into its infernal machinery"? Is there really so little hope that we can escape its power? And of course, the answer I came up with (here, here, here and here) is, "I don't think so, for the following reasons". But Pattison seems more interested in how Ellul can be used than in whether Ellul is right.

I only noticed this about Pattison's treatment of Ellul because I had recently been engaged in a similar project: but it makes me wonder if a lot of academic writing suffers from precisely this lack of concern over the status of the truth-claims of the literature with which it's engaging. It certainly seems to me that a position should be dismissed because it's inaccurate and fails to correspond with the reality it's trying to describe, not because it's unhelpful. But perhaps I'm operating with an excessively naïve and optimistic epistemology.

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