Learning to Live in the Moral Domain

“Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1).

“This is still another way of defining Technopoly.  The term is aptly used for a culture whose available theories do not offer guidance about what is acceptable information in the moral domain”  (Neil Postman, Technopoly, 79).

We live in a world in which technology is generally viewed as unqualifiedly good.  There is no problem so great, we think, that if the right minds are applied to it, cannot be solved through innovation.  Life presented humanity with a problem: everybody keeps dying off.  “How can we keep that from happening?” we wondered.  So we put some folks on it who came back with all sorts of machines and medicines and therapies capable of substantially prolonging life.  As a result, now even if we can’t cheat death finally, we can at least hold out for a while thanks to technology.  Only, what technology cannot provide is a coherent account as to why it is better for a person to live than die.

Another problem: people get bored sitting around looking at their loved ones; they like to be entertained.  So we corralled some folks out in Hollywood; they put their heads together and came up with movies and television and countless other purchasable diversions to wrest us from the throes of tedium.  Now, we have an endless stream of entertaining images besieging us, averring merely to amuse us, but subtly socializing us into the cult of consumption.  However, what we consume is no longer just tooth paste and tennis shoes, but ideas.  The problem is that technology cannot give us any guidance as to why it might or might not be good to stockpile a bunch of stuff, or which images are beneficial and which are garbage, which ideas are helpful and which are demeaning.

We live in the “information age.”  The thing we have yet to come to terms with is whether or not it is possible to have too much information or whether the information we have is of any value.  Technology may be able to solve the problem of building a better wicket, but it is incapable of telling us why our lives would be either enriched or enervated by access to new and improved wickets.  Technology cannot tell us how our use of wickets will impact our children’s development as moral agents.  Technology cannot give us any help in determining whether these new wickets will make us better people or merely people more reliant on emerging wicket technology to make it through the day.

We have been seduced by the idea that technology is always our friend.  The assumption we cling to as a culture is a moral one, however, which is that if we can do something, invent something, create something through technological means, we should.  What we often fail to take into consideration is that each new technology, each advance in existing technology comes to us with a price.  There is a cost that accompanies every benefit; and technology by itself is powerless in helping us to tell the difference.  In order to do that, you need a narrative that purports to tell you what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong.

Paul writes to the folks in Thessolonica that the church relies on a greater story—one that transcends the technological story—to help people know what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong.  He tells them that they learn how to discern good from bad, right from wrong by learning a different account of reality, embodied in the lives of those who, through their proximity to Jesus Christ, know a little something about reality.  One cannot learn to be a good person apart from a story that claims to produce good people.  One cannot even learn what a good person is apart from a story that claims to know what one looks like.

Technology is just as likely to destroy the world as save it.  In fact, technology couldn’t tell you why one would be preferable to the other.  No.  If you want to be able to make moral decisions in this world, then you had better have a story.

Christians have a story.  Not coincidentally, it is a story about the destruction and salvation of the world, and it just happens to be embodied in the life of a Jewish carpenter who was destroyed by the technology of his day as a way of saving the world.  If you learn “how you ought to live and to please God” from him, you won't have many problems finding “acceptable information in the moral domain.”