Technology and the City of God

Posted Sep 11, 2012 | New Media Project


By Jim Rice

Augustine’s City of God offers helpful principles for approaching the moral questions around our use of technology—which is pretty impressive, given that it was written 16 centuries ago, around the fall of the Roman Empire. The chariots and swords of the fifth century A.D. may bear little resemblance to the technology of today, but the Augustinian tools for moral assessment are surprisingly relevant to contemporary issues.

Augustine, as interpreted in Brian Brock’s very helpful Christian Ethics in a Technological Age, explained what he saw as the different approaches to the problem of technology in the “city of God” vs. the “city of the world.” In the former, the task of technology, in Brock’s words, is “the discernment of the proper human place within an ordered love of earthly goods and the flourishing of all creation.” In the earthly city, on the other hand, technology is focused on “how best to gain tactical advantage by its application.” That difference is rooted in Augustine’s understanding of the social nature of sin: It’s not our material nature itself that is sinful or evil (as the Manicheans contended), but rather it’s the misuse of the good gifts of creation for selfish reasons, rather than to serve God and the people around us.

Using Augustine’s framework, Brock names criteria that define when technology, the “pride of our age,” is sin. Technology is sin, he writes, when it becomes a “way of life expressing a quest for power and self-aggrandizement.” It is sin when its use is determined by the “fetters of self-interest, without wonder at the goodness of existing creation, without concern for the neighbor.” (Those same criteria, by the way, can very aptly be applied to money and its use as well.)

Themes that are relevant to a moral assessment of technology, in this framework, include:
  1. Limits/discipline. Gilbert Meilaender, in The Theory and Practice of Virtue, suggests that for Augustine the first vice as people seek to expand knowledge—which applies not only to technology but all other areas of study as well—rests in “treating human ingenuity as an end in itself and so intrinsically brook[ing] no limit.” It isn’t the inherent pursuit of knowledge or advancement itself that raises the moral problem, but rather doing so under the hubristic assumption that there should be no limits on our explorations and that no discipline is required in setting and honoring boundaries in these pursuits.
  2. Confusion of creation and Creator. For Augustine, God is the only salvific deity—not science, not technology, not anything else. The mistaken belief that we can rely on technological advances for our salvation, in the Augustinian framework, is an example of idolatry. On the other hand, the proper pursuit of advances in knowledge recognizes the difference between the gifts of creation and the Creator and is accomplished in a spirit of reverence for God.
  3. Curiositas vs. studiousness. Augustinian scholar Paul Griffiths, in his 2009 book Intellectual Appetite (and his previous book The Vice of Curiosity), explains that Augustine differentiated between the positive attributes of “delight” and “wonder”—the openness to God’s rich gifts—and what he called the sin of curiositas (“curiosity,” which has mostly positive connotations today, would be a misleading way to translate that term). Curiositas, in this Augustinian sense, connotes the reaching out for the knowledge of good and evil, a lust of knowledge and power that rejects all notions of constraint. The opposite, according to Meilaender, isn’t passivity, but a theologically shaped “studiousness,” an appetite to learn more about both the created world and its Creator.

While, needless to say, not everything Augustine wrote will apply to contemporary challenges, the invoking of City of God and other classic works to help us shed light on current issues around technology, by Brock and other scholars, is a helpful antidote to the fallacy that only what is “new” is good or that truth is only found in that which is most current or trendy. Sometimes, the path to the future can be best illuminated by drawing on the wisdom of the ages.

Jim Rice, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is editor of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C.



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