We never wore helmets back then. When I learned to ski as a child in New England, we skiied on simple, icy paths with little variety. Most of the trees had been cleared. The chairlifts went up. The trails took us down.
Decades later, our skiing has changed dramatically. Even as my children were learning to ski, dodging trees in what skiers call the “off-piste” areas thrilled them far more than simple, cleared trails. While the trees are more exciting, they are also much less friendly to sudden impact with our heads. If we were ever meant to glide down a mountain on fiberglass planks, we certainly weren’t meant to collide with trees in the process.
But we haven’t stopped skiing. Or even limited our choice of trails. Instead, we wear helmets and enjoy a wider variety of trails than ever before.
Ski habits aren’t the only thing to have changed in recent years. Driven by technology, almost every aspect of our culture is transforming at a much faster pace than innovations in skiing.
In his recent book, Thank You For Being Late, columnist Thomas Friedman suggests, “we are living through one of the greatest inflection points in history.” Never before has news traveled this fast. Never before have so many people been connected at the touch of a button. Never before have humans been able to do what we are capable of doing today.
Some of that change is exciting. I can communicate with friends and family halfway around the world with ease. I can access information instantly for virtually any question I have. But some of that change is dangerous. Am I losing the ability to have coffee with a friend without checking my phone every ten minutes? Have we given up on wonder because there are no more unanswered questions?
Many are exploring the pros and cons of technology’s influence on culture. You can easily find perspectives about the effect on teens, marriages, individuals, and communities. But how does technology affect our spirituality?
What happens to prayer when all ideas are expected to fit into 140 characters (ok, now it’s 280)? Why do we need a God who is all-knowing if Google promises the same? Will Jesus be able to distinguish people from their machines if he returns after the singularity?
[bctt tweet=”Will Jesus be able to distinguish people from their machines if he returns after the singularity?” username=”theology_tech”]
It will help to begin by defining technology. A broad definition allows us to explore a wide variety of issues. Technology doesn’t require electricity or a screen. It isn’t necessarily even a thing. Technology can be a system of thought or a method of operating. In the widest sense, technology is something that humans create to extend their natural capability.
We have been creating and using technology for as long as we have existed. There is no need now to suggest that we stop using or creating technology. New endeavors always come with new dangers. But new dangers suggest that we need new protection. As technology changes, we want to be aware of the risks to our faith and worship. And we want to adapt.
As we start skiing on more varied and more dangerous terrain, there are two questions that we can ask. What kinds of helmets should we be wearing? And how should we design those ski trails to maximize fun and variety but minimize some of the risk?
I worked for seven years as a Product Manager cultivating software to make warehouses run more efficiently. Now I’ve served for eleven years as a pastor cultivating fragile but powerful relationships of faith in Jesus Christ. My church is located in Palo Alto, California: the heart of Silicon Valley. Nowhere in the world are more people creating technology to change the world.
But too few people are talking about how to create technology with awareness of its risks to our faith, our worship, or even our humanity. There are questions to be considered for using the new technology in our world. But there are also unique questions around the creation of that technology. What kind of theology do we need in light of the subtle shifts that arise in our notions of God, when our patterns of communication, relationship, and community are transformed?
Cultural changes don’t change theological truth. But when our culture changes, our starting point for grasping and engaging with theology moves. It’s possible to arrive at the same destination. But we can’t take the same path.
What helmets should we use to protect our faith from the dangers of technology? How can we create technology that enhances our faith, grows our humanity and widens our worship? What opportunities do new technologies offer to people who view themselves as stewards of God’s creation? What new forms of oppression must be stopped by those who view themselves as protectors of the vulnerable?
It’s more than just recognizing we need to take breaks from our screens or make rules, like “No phones at the dinner table”. We need more than suggestions about filtering, monitoring and managing the use of technology. Those things are important. But we need to explore how we should use and create technology, not just when we shouldn’t.
[bctt tweet=”We need to explore how we should use and create technology, not just when we shouldn’t. ” username=”theology_tech”]
Followers of Jesus have a long history of building a library of theological truth from which to draw from when new cultural questions arise. We might think of it as a theological buffet. Having constructed such a table of options, when questions arise, we have somewhere to turn. We have developed theology around the role of the stranger, the dignity of life, the importance of sexual ethics, and the value for community. This allows us to fill our plates with responses to the contemporary questions of sexual harassment, care for the elderly, national identity concerns, and more.
But where is the theological buffet full of the ideas that we need to address questions of new technological advances? Unfortunately, it seems that our options are limited and the buffet is somewhat meager. How can we discover and articulate theological truth that helps us address our changing world of technology?
To answer that question, we begin by turning to the Bible. The story of God’s work in the world is full of technologies of information, communication, weaponry, and travel. As God creates, guides, redeems and renews his people, technology shows up regularly and often in surprising ways. We want to notice his attitude toward these technologies and reflect on their place in his work.
As we build a foundation of biblical insight, we want to surface the questions and challenges of our culture with regards to technology. How does voice control change our understanding of God’s creative ability? Does artificial intelligence threaten to degrade the image of God in humanity? Is the internet a replacement for an omniscient deity? Will technology save humanity?
Equipped with the wisdom of revelation and the questions of our day, we can start to connect the dots. Which biblical stories shed light on which questions? How can we navigate the opportunities of new technology with proper awareness of the theological risks? What conclusions lie at the intersection of changing technology and the eternal gospel of Jesus Christ?
This is not a job for a single person. This kind of theology requires a community to develop. Biblical scholars, theologians, sociologists, and technologists all in conversation with each other. Allthingsnew.tech is our hope for that community.
We want to create a place for users of technology. For creators. For optimists. For skeptics. For fanboys, futurists, and early-adopters. For Luddites, social media boycotters, and maybe even off-grid homesteaders.
Join us on this journey: as a reader, thinker, biblical observer, technology questioner or connector-of-the-dots. Together let’s be faithful users and makers of all new things in light of the one who makes all things new.
Father to five; husband to one; helping Christians engage thoughtfully as they follow Jesus Christ.
Pastor at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, CA since 2007. Graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Industrial Engineering and worked for Oracle Corporation as a Senior Product Manager designing software solutions.