Christian Ethics in a Technological Age

Written by Brian Brock Reviewed By John Dyer

In recent years, an increasing number of authors have written popular-level books on technology that address basic moral issues. But substantive works that consider “technology” itself-not just the devices in our pockets or the cell towers and electrical lines that connect and enliven them, but technology as the underpinning of our entire modern way of life and thinking about the world-are much more rare. Rarer still are works with the kind of deep, integrated thinking and theologically driven answers that Brian Brock offers in Christian Ethics in a Technological Age.

The book, which is adapted from Brock's doctoral thesis at St. John's College, is divided into two major parts. Part 1 traces the thinking of Martin Heidegger along with two of his interpreters, George Grant and Michel Foucault, as they make the case that “technology is not the things we make but the way we live” (p. 32). None of these philosophers would have claimed the mantle of “Christian,” but Brock demonstrates that each offers keen insight into how the technological ideal has infiltrated and dominated the way in which humanity conceives of itself, going back to Newtonian science.

Brock's central claim is that we have unwittingly come to see every aspect of our lives-from food to families to sex to employment-in technological terms. Even more importantly, this technological way of being in the world is often in conflict with the biblical vision of humanity. He traces many of the problematic pathways uncovered by Heidegger, Grant, and Foucault by highlighting the dehumanizing effect of technological thinking. For example, Foucault's concept of “problematization” attempts to show how many modern “thought forms and practices make aspects of life appear as problems” (p. 105) that must be solved with tools and methods. This leads us to conceive of ourselves as technological beings whose highest ideal is efficiency. Brock uses each man's thought well, but he also occasionally pushes back. He critiques, for example, Foucoult's views as “overdetermined by his Enlightenment dialogue partners” (p. 130) and criticizes Heidegger for being an “earth-centered relativist” (p. 61). Brock closes the first half of the book with a case study on in vitro fertilization, carefully observing how we make ethical choices with technology and through technology.

In the second half of the book, Brock takes up the more difficult task of offering an alternative pattern of life that “allows us to relate to creation as creatures and not aspiring gods” (p. 26). He draws on the ideas of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Augustine, Bernd Wannaenwetsch, Karl Barth, Wendell Berry, and others. Following Bonhoeffer, Brock argues that Christian ethics cannot begin merely with a set of principles, but with “hearing and responding to God” (p. 171) and that our ethic must “take the form of a resolve to pursue a specific action in specific circumstances” (p. 177). Brock does not construct a set of boundaries so we can ask, “How far is too far?” Instead, he wants our ethic to be centered upon a thoroughly christological account of life in the present.

He begins by arguing from Augustine's The City of God and from Barth that the importance of technology is less about the specific tools we make and use and more about the expression of our desires represented by such usages. This includes the desire to secure salvation apart from God. In subsequent chapters, Brock addresses patterns of life such as Sabbath, community, worship, work, and gifts contrasting their portrait in the Scriptures with technological assumptions about their meaning and value. Toward the end of the book, he offers some examples of how to think Christianly about modern technology, such as breeding poultry for disease resistance. Brock also returns to the case study of in vitro fertilization, showing how the theological orientation he offers changes the questions we might ask.

Brock's work is so massive in scope-both in the thinkers he covers (from Augustine to Barth) and the subjects he addresses (from spirituality to politics)-that, if there is a criticism to be offered, it might be that it is challenging to come away with concrete actions or methods for approaching future technological questions.

But perhaps this is simply because, under the influence of the technological ideal, I tend to view books as tools that offer answers, solutions, and tools for a life of questions, problems, and needs. If Brock is right, what I need is not more technique, but a more thoroughly christological eyepiece through which to question our technological world. Indeed Brock succeeds not only in arguing for the need of such a reorientation, but in showing what such an orientation looks like in a technological age.

John Dyer

John Dyer
Dallas Theological Seminary
Dallas, Texas, USA

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