Gun Violence and Technology
The killing of seven innocent people at a fourth of July celebration has now been added to the growing list of gun violence in this country. We are momentarily shocked by the news, tragic and frightening as it is, but it is another news item sandwiched between Jalen Brunson’s $104 million dollar contract with the Knicks and summer party favorite foods. Perhaps Nicholas Carr was right: the internet has stolen our brains. Google now manages our thoughts. We are not much better than the robots that will soon be driving our cars. We are a superficial people on an ailing planet. As long as we are having fun and looking good on social media, nothing else really matters for the moment. After all, we are momentary people living the best of our lives in the “now.” On the other hand, many people feel overwhelmed by the news. The problems are too great, and the solutions are too few. It is difficult to adequately assess what is going wrong, but there is little doubt that we are living with fractured minds in a fractured society, creating a fractured world. And we are all complicit, one way or another.
Our systems are like Velcro, they stick around but they are not holding up anything, except the dysfunction that pervades our culture. Getting an education is mandated up to a certain age and going to church or service may be a family tradition, but otherwise entertainment is what occupies our attention: Reality TV, rock concerts and sports feed our virtual lives and satisfy our need to transcend ourselves We have a desperate need to remove our minds from the overwhelmingness of our world and to imagine another one. Millions of dollars are spent on attending these events and supporting the actors. Is it not alarming that a basketball player can make $90 million dollars for shooting hoops, while a teacher or, better yet, a specialist in contemporary literature, makes $46,000? Higher education is a social event and not much more.
How does a twenty-one year old kid slip through our systems to become a killer? Who reads the signs of the fragile mind? Who reached out to help him along the way? One thing is certain—loneliness, depression and anger can find a friend on the dark web of the internet. Guns may be a problem, but the dark web is an infinite world of unbridled evil. It is an extensive, global net of information and very difficult to monitor or control. Gun violence in America and the war in the Ukraine are entangled phenomena. Our war is silent and cloaked in secret bits of information, even while sitting on a beach. The war in Ukraine is visible and overtly destructive. Either way, we are immersed in war, and the internet plays a vital role.
Technology can do wondrous things, like connect lonely grandmothers and grandchildren, or provide biomedical solutions for rare diseases—but it can also provide information to carry out mass shootings or bomb a city or hack a computer grid. Technology left on its own can be a frightening tool. The value of internet technology is the value humans ascribe to it; it can be used for human purposes and belong to God, or it can acquire an autonomy that gives it a quasi-divine status and power, placing humans under its thrall. When we place technology out of care and responsibility, we may get disastrous and unpredictable results.
Technology is not so much a tool, as it is an extension of human nature, a mirror of our deepest desires. John McCarthy wrote in 1956: “We create the tools and the tools create us.” Technology tells us what we want and what we want to become. Since we humans are part of nature, technology is part of nature, and nature is not a stage for human history. When nature is depleted of its depth dimension, which is the function of religion, God gradually disappears to us because we ourselves are nature. Philip Hefner wrote: “The goal of achieving a right relation to nature and technology is thus only possible if we engage at the level of the sacral meanings – both benign and malign—that inform our current relationships with them.” If human beings are part of nature, technologies are part of nature too. The distinction between the artificial and the natural then must lie not in their source—human or not—but in their characteristics, in the way they relate to the world around them.
Religion is bound up with technology because religion, like technology, is concerned with the depth dimension of nature, the place of ultimate concern. The sacred ordering of nature is an ongoing process – religious meanings do not disappear; they just change and new forms of treating nature as sacred are generated. The function of religion is to create stories of mythic depth. New understandings of the secular are products of transformation in the sacred. Our idea of nature has changed along with our ideas of the sacred, and technology plays a fundamental role in this regard. The technological transformation of nature belongs to the story of the ongoing sacralization of nature. In themselves, however, technologies lack telos or ultimate goals.
And this is where religion may be the greatest obstacle to a better world. Without realizing that development of computer technology is part of human evolution, and that evolution requires a new understanding God in relationship with a dynamic world of matter, we are beholden to old, brittle institutions and their inability to face themselves in a spirit of change. All monotheistic religions are currently tied to the ancient Ptolemaic cosmos and are formed by ancient Greek philosophical ideas. They function as social units and places of community support. What they do not do is provide a zest for evolution or show us how God may be active and alive in a world of change.
Last Sunday I attended Mass at the Franciscan Monastery in Washington DC. There were twelve men on the altar to celebrate the Mass, all dressed in priestly vestments. Twelve men—despite the fact that liturgical theology affirms one mediator between heaven and earth: one body, one Christ, one community. But the Church, like many other institutions, is a self-righteous institution where every action or decision is justified: “This is our way of doing things.” This mentality is reflective of our lonely, internet world as well. We can justify everything because somewhere on the web, someone else is doing the same thing as we are or having the thoughts or plans. The internet, like the Church, is the “everything is possible,” milieu.
The future is too important and too dangerous to be left to unbridled technological evolution. Without a larger story of God and technology, we are bits of information vulnerable to being hacked. If we deny that technologies belong to God, their very construal in secular terms, allows them to start to belong to themselves, to become autonomous – to give them a quasi-divine status and power and thus to place humans under their thrall. When we place our technologies out of sight, out of sphere of care and responsibility, we may get disastrous and unpredictable results. As Hefner writes, to eliminate religion from technology is to leave us vulnerable/fearful.” [n] We must begin to realize that the technological transformation of nature belongs to the story of the ongoing sacralization of nature. The goal of achieving a right relation to nature and technology is thus only possible if we engage at the level of the sacral meanings – both benign and malign—that inform our current relationships with them.
Teilhard de Chardin realized the power of computer technology and saw that it could usher in the next level of evolution if we use it toward this end. He used the language of ultra-humanity to emphasize the need for humanity to enter into a new phase of its own evolution. Man is psychically distinguished from all other animals, he wrote, by the fact that he not only knows, but knows that he knows.”[i] He spoke of a new level of “co-consciousness,” a collective awareness brought about by the convergence of human beings (the noosphere) over the surface of the earth. With the rise of technology, he saw a forward movement of spiritual energy, a maximization of consciousness and a complexification of relationships. While technology can extend the outreach of human activity, it depends on a broader use of human activity and how humans control psychic, spiritual energy needs and powers.[ii] Conscious evolution, in and through technology, demands a deep awareness of being in evolution, our role on this evolutionary process, and the power of God who is drawing us into a new future.
The heightened anxiety of a post pandemic world has created a greater reliance on technology with its transhuman promises of enhancement. Traditional religions remain outside the scope of computer technology and the gap between religion and evolution is widening. I do not see a hopeful future for the human person unless this gap is reconciled. World religions must be aligned with computer technology and the way technology is affecting human consciousness. Without the depth dimension of religion, technology will leave us fearful and vulnerable. Instead of drawing us into global community, online relationships will become more tribal and oppositional; the breakdown in human relations will lead to greater wars and cataclysmic events.
The world is in process of becoming something more than what it is, but it takes a conscious awareness of belonging to the cosmic whole in order to help creatively evolve towards greater wholeness. We cannot begin to know this wholeness if we are constantly distracted, self-promoting and self-justified in every thought and action. If we do not contribute to the ongoing evolution of the whole, in which God is the vitalizing center, we will be its breakdown.
Our times demand deep thought, not superficial feelings. Yes, we need to “get out and chill out” during these summer months, but how much decompression is necessary before the next shooting or the next bombing? Yes, we can close our eyes and make believe all bad people will go away, or we can get down on our knees and pray to an “all-mighty God” who will deliver us from our temptations. But let us face the truth: there is no God “out there” waiting to deliver us. There is only the power of God who is here and now, entangled in the mess we are making. We have one choice – to wake up, see the light, and turn our lives and world in a new direction. This is the promise of God, a new heaven and a new earth, and it is still within our reach.
[i] Teilhard, Future of Man, 293.
[ii] Joseph A. Grau, Morality and the Human Future in the Thought of Teilhard de Chardin A Critical Study (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1976), 274.
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