In 1954, Japanese filmmaker Ishiro Honda unleashed Godzilla upon the world. We now associate the radioactive lizard with the campy monster flick. Still, this first version of the iconic beast was meant to be a reflection of post-war Japan: a creature confused and enraged by the destruction caused to its home. In his review Poetry after the A-Bomb, film critic J. Hoberman notes that Honda’s film was a spiritual reflection on how the atomic bomb had changed Japan as a nation. The Second World War had ended less than a decade ago, and nations were left reeling by the destructive potential of our technological prowess.
That same year, German philosopher Martin Heidegger published his essay The Question Concerning Technology. The goal of the essay was to discover what technology is. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines technology as “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.” This definition is simple enough, but it doesn’t tell us the purpose of technology. If you want to understand what technology is, you have to talk about what it does. Heidegger arrives at this funky idea called Enframing, which he says is the ‘essence’ of technology. Enframing is related to the German words for “bookcase,” and skeleton — structures that hold and store matter. In short, Heidegger argues that technology is not merely the tools that we use, but a way of perceiving reality as raw material that we can manipulate and store up for our use. He calls this ‘standing reserve’.
Technology today takes a different relationship with nature than pre-modern forms of technology, like the blacksmith’s forge. In the ancient worldview, technology was the same thing as craftsmanship, whereby we make a new thing out of raw materials from nature. Skill and imagination come together to produce something new. We still think like this today.
Modern technology also involves craftsmanship, but it tends to “enframe” the natural world in some way — to package, sell, and consume it. This view obscures the complex ecosystems that sustain life on earth. For example, supermarkets present apples for us merely as food, rather than part of the life cycle of a tree. The river becomes water for the hydroelectric dam. Wood becomes fuel for the fire, or paper for the printer. Even people have become seen as customizable products. Transhumanism, the belief that we can achieve immortality by technological self-modification, fully embraces this view. We dream of presiding as lords over nature, including our own nature. In this technological worldview, the cosmos is not seen as God’s creation, but something that must conform to our desires for it.
“As Christians, we should reflect on how our thinking may be influenced by the ‘technological gospel’, which says we can save ourselves through technological innovation.”
Of course, technological innovation has improved our lives in many ways. During our current public health crisis, it becomes clear how much our lives today depend on our systems and tools working properly. City sanitation, telecommunications, and airline travel have boosted our quality of life in many ways. Right now, services like Skype or Zoom are a blessing, while many of us are self-isolating. But overall, our increased reliance on technology makes it more important than ever to consider its transformative power.
Heidegger’s philosophy of technology brings profound insight to bear on our modern industrialized age. It is not just a tool we use to shape our environment, but something that shapes us as we use it. Therefore, we must go beyond simply contemplating how we use technology, and ask whether certain technologies may ultimately be off-bounds for us as followers of Jesus.
So, what should we do? That is a larger conversation that we need to have as the church, and this article is not a final word. As Christians, we should reflect on how our thinking may be influenced by the “technological gospel”, which says we can save ourselves through technological innovation. After all, God’s kingdom is not of this world, but a divine plan that God is bringing about in the world through Jesus. We are not the architects of God’s restorative work in this world, but that does not mean we should just passively accept whatever comes. God’s desire is that we work for his kingdom’s vision, not our own. This makes it vital that we pay attention to our formative source, asking where we truly put our faith, and what we allow to form our hearts and minds. In all things, we should live in the knowledge that salvation comes through faith in Christ alone. As our Lord prayed while fasting in the desert, “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 8:3