The problem of technology

I read a fair number of books. When they grab me, I’ll apply myself and read them quickly. When they don’t,  I’ll work more slowly. Albert Borgman’s Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology is one of the latter. I received it as a Christmas gift in 2008 (don’t you wish your presents were as good as mine!), and am still reading it.

In chapter 4, “Contingency and Grace,” Borgmann talks about our perception that our culture is unfriendly to the Christian faith, though he takes what we perceive as “unfriendliness” (or outright hostility) is better described as indifference. The root of this indifference is a culture closed off to grace, and the root of that closure to grace is our rejection of contingency.  He says:

Grace is always undeserved and often unforethinkable, and a culture of transparency and control systematically reduces, if it does not occlude, the precinct of grace. A technical term for what lies beyond prediction and control is contingency. What we need is to recover then as a condition of receiving grace is the realm of significant contingency. (p. 65)

You can tell right away that Borgmann is one of those philosophers comfortable with neo-logisms – “unforethinkable.” At least I’ve never seen it before, though its meaning is fairly clear. We don’t like the unexpected. We want to be able to control and predict our world. We think we ought to be able to understand everything.

Christians are not immune to this attitude. In fact, I wonder if what we see in our broader culture isn’t a secularization of a Christian desire to eliminate contingency. The Christians who aspire to this may not look to science, technology and human control of all things, but they do look to God as the One who controls everything. If this is the way God operates then there is no contingency. Everything that happens has been determined by the active willing of God to so happen. There is nothing that happens that is not in accordance with God’s will. What our current society has done is take this desire for non-contingency and brought it fully into the human realm. We humans ought to know and understand everything. If we understand the initial conditions of the system, we ought to be able both to predict the future of the system and to bring about our desired state of affairs. A perfect Newtonian worldview.

Borgmann identifies this aversion to grace and contingency and its love of control with “modern technology.” (p. 66) I’m spurred by this to not think only of our common understanding of technology, that which deals with physics, chemistry and other physical sciences, but our social technology. My beef isn’t so much with computers, cell phones, and the like (at least not right now), but with Max Weber’s routinization of charisma and rationalization of social processes.

I agree with Borgmann: our culture’s infatuation with “transparency and control” has been an expression of closure to grace and the contingency that would make room for it. Inasmuch as I am an inhabitant of this culture, I share that concern. But my greater concern is that the church has completely bought into Weberian social technology, whether implicitly or explicitly, leading to the church disallowing contingency – and grace – in favor of command and control.

Some of our churches express our dedication to Weber with our command and control bureaucracies, our commitment to systems of rational administration, management and accountability. Other churches turn away from mid-twentieth century bureaucratic forms, embracing instead a pursuit of “leadership.” Books, videos, conferences and courses in this “leadership” have been multiplying over the past decade or so. Once upon a time pastors flocked to Evangelism or Prophecy conferences. Now we flock to Leadership conferences. We need to hear the latest digest of leadership “principles” that we can take home and apply to our churches. Once we master these principles, we will be able to assure the right results.

You may notice the problem with both these approaches, the bureaucratic (my own denomination’s favorite) and the cult of leadership. Who needs grace? Sure, we can look back on people who had charisma, the founders of our movements. They did awesome and amazing things. But now we have their “principles” and “systems” to go on. If we work the system, apply the principles, things will turn out right.

But I’m an anti-Weberian on this. I think our commitments to bureaucratic rationality and the cult of leadership are forms of institutional atheism. Who needs God, when we have the right methods, the right principles? I’d argue instead that the need in our churches is not a more efficient bureaucracy, a more effective system, or better crafted principles. While none of these are evil – or even bad – in themselves, they have become for us a substitute for the Holy Spirit. We will not be the church we want to be – or need to be – apart from a fresh filling and empowerment by the Spirit. I say this knowing full well that one of the problems of the Spirit is unpredictability. When the Spirit leads, we don’t know what will happen next. Our penchant for planning is marginalized. But I’d still rather have the Spirit.

Some will say, “That’s all very nice. But Weber was just describing the way things are. Organizations do start with charismatic leaders. When the next generation lacks the charisma of the founder, they rationalize and routinize what they see in the founder. That’s just the way it is.” Maybe so. Maybe what Weber says is an accurate description of the way organizations have worked. So what? Must they be that way? Must we reject grace in favor of a completely naturalized rationality? I’d rather not.

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This entry was posted in Albert Borgmann, church growth, Max Weber, Ministry, United Methodism. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The problem of technology

  1. Jeff says:

    I am going to work on reading this blog post. I’ll let you know when I finish. 🙂

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