God, Technology, and the Christian Life
God, Technology, and the Christian Life. By Tony Reinke. Crossway, 2022. 320 pages, paper, $21.99.
For modern Christians, navigating the waters of technology is a subject increasingly top-of-mind. Tech seems to change monthly, with new products and sciences requiring us to constantly evaluate our approaches. It is a challenging task, and, predictably, there are now many voices offering to guide us through these uncharted seas.
Tony Reinke entered this field five years ago with 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. Now, he has re-emerged with a new book, God, Technology, and the Christian Life. This is his most ambitious project yet, leaving us with much to consider.
Reinke’s book consists of six chapters, each answering its titular question. The questions are extremely broad—the first one is simply “What Is Technology?”—and Reinke addresses each carefully. His focus is on technology in the fullest possible sense of the word: “technology is applied science and amplified power” (14). If you’re looking for detailed treatment of Silicon Valley, this is not the book for you. Instead, Reinke sets out to provide an “-ology of technology, a biblical theology of technology” (30). He cites Scripture throughout, especially highlighting the smith and the ravager of Isaiah 54 and the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17 as examples of God’s usage and rule over technology.
Reinke traces his perspective on technology back to a firm belief in God’s sovereignty. Isaiah 54 provides a significant text here, as Reinke identifies God’s hand directly behind the events of the smith and the ravager:
"God governs each creature towards good ends directly; and he governs over all sin and evil indirectly. He governs the lives and decisions of all his creatures to his wise end, a sovereign truth commonly called the doctrine of concurrence. God is the primary, but remote, cause of all human action. Humans are the secondary, but proximate (or near), causes of their own actions. Thus even the scope of the ravager’s destruction is sanctioned by God. He governs human technology and how those technologies are wielded, even destructive ones. He does all this by secondary causality." (48)
Reinke spends a bit of time on this point, trying to clearly outline questions concerning sovereignty, free will, and responsibility while also reassuring the church:
“Here’s my point. In any discussion of technology, many Christians get hung up on the most powerful technologists in the world who are inventing the most threatening innovation on earth—nuclear power, killing weapons, space rockets, modified genetics—and assume that these men and women fall outside God’s governance. They don’t. Isaiah 54:16–17 shows us how God creates and governs the most powerful technologies. Reckoning with God’s power over big tech is essential for many Christians who must resolve this obstacle before they can see and worship God for the tens of thousands of innovations they use every day.” (53)
Reinke next moves on to define how technology happens: by copying and combining. He explains:
“Human innovators are really all just discoverers, separators, mergers, replicators, copyists, and refiners. More generally, technology is like playing in a sandbox that someone else made….Our Bibles tell us who built this sandbox, in Genesis 1:1...” (75-76).
Reinke also dwells on Genesis to underscore how much technological discovery resulted from the line of Cain, noting that it will likely be someone besides God-fearers at the cutting edge of innovation. Later in that chapter, he notes that “God sends innovations through geniuses and by inevitability” (123) and describes “technology as God’s gift to mankind to push back the curse” (132). Throughout, Reinke draws on the language of delight when talking about God, his creation, and discovery, and he ends the chapter noting that “all innovation should fix our awe and thanks on the Creator” (143). To that we should all say a hearty “Amen.”
After highlighting the wonders of technology, Reinke gets more serious about what it cannot accomplish. He spends much time critiquing “the Gospel of Technology” that “seeks to fill a spiritual void in us, to make us feel secure.” In the chorus of hope and aspiration surrounding modern technology, Reinke detects “echoes [of] the idolatry of Babel” (163). The Gospel of Tech is a human-centric philosophy that:
- …begins with man’s origins in evolution (atomized);
- …corrals human hope into technique and science;
- …has no fall of man, only impediments to the rise;
- …is built on an acceleration culture;
- …preaches comfort;
- …ends in embodied post humanism or disembodied transhumanism, with a desire to control everything.
This Reinke strongly condemns:
“This is how the Gospel of technology works. It says ‘Come find safety in what is not God, in what we have made and invented.’ The distortion is older than chariots, older than steam engines, and far older than social media and smartphones with a bitten apple on them (an icon to remind us of the false promises in Eden)” (178).
The Gospel of Technology as the extension of Babel/Babylon leads naturally into Revelation and the fall of Babylon. As technology is a man-made thing, the defeat of the city of man provides a chance for Reinke to explore mankind’s relationship to cities, to the limits of technology, and to the end of the world.
Finally, Reinke moves into most practical realm: how should we use our technologies today? Here Reinke focuses on wisdom and its importance for our lives. Employing mimesis and poesis, he strongly encouraging believers to “see the Creator’s patterns, to acknowledge that the ultimate meaning of the material creation is God, and to know that our making must always submit to the Creator’s realities” (234). To Reinke, “wisdom is found in the creator, not in pilfering his creation” (235). Skill in technology does not provide the wisdom needed to live well.
Reinke includes fourteen theses about the proper use of technology (he has a thing for making and explaining very long lists), but the simplest definition of his ethos comes just before it: “there are a million ways to use innovation, but technology works best when we follow the lead from creation and restore what is broken” (238). Reinke also includes nine “Tech Limiters,” ways that God continues to show us that He is in control. After listing these, Reinke offers a concluding remark:
“It’s going to be a wild ride. It won’t always be comfortable. We will overreach. We will attempt too much. We will make mistakes and maim ourselves along the way. We will always be in need of correction. But by faith we can rest assured that the technium will never escape God’s nine limiters” (296).
God, Technology, and the Christian Life is thoughtfully written and worth careful consideration. It is important to remember that this is a work of philosophy/theology, not a practical manual. Reinke is not trying to think through how we should interpret and respond to the technologies in our world today. Instead, he is trying to give us the tools to interpret and interact with technology across time and space. He focuses on technology itself, not simply on the technologies of the digital age.
This focus is both helpful and harmful. On the one hand, Reinke should be commended for attempting the vastly harder task of building a theology of technology, rather than simply responding to the concerns of the current moment. This work is important and often left undone.
On the other hand, by addressing technology as a whole, Reinke has drawn his circle exceedingly broad, making it nearly impossible to explore important details or draw out specific implications for different technologies. This book is not “saying nothing by trying to say everything,” but neither does it give as much to chew on as one would hope. Instead, we find ourselves faced with large, abstract categories—and that is where we start to find a few challenges.
Reinke sets up a couple different “this-or-that” distinctions in the book that don’t quite line up with each other. He begins where we’d expect, with tech pessimists vs. tech optimists (since Reinke admits to being a sober optimist, I’ll admit to being a hopeful pessimist). Given that Reinke is looking at the development of science and technique, it is here hard to argue against tech optimism. Which one of us does not want things to get better, more convenient, safer, etc.? But later, Reinke reverses this by pitting a belief in tech optimism (i.e. the Gospel of Tech) against the Christian story (i.e. the Gospel). Now it is hard to argue for tech optimism. Reinke is right to be suspicious of the Gospel of Tech, which smells strongly of the Enlightenment mindset. But his reversal is somewhat confusing. At what point does tech optimism become sinful?
That question is one that Reinke struggles to answer throughout the book. Emphasizing the primary causality of God, Reinke considers all technology inevitable, like natural resources waiting to be discovered or cultivated (e.g. 40, 48, 114, 125, 127). But while this view rightly recognizes God’s government over every human action (cf. WSC 11), it does not sufficiently explore how free will and sinful human nature factor into technological innovation. Reinke states that we are responsible for our own actions, but without further nuance it is hard to avoid the implication that our sin, like our technology, is inevitable.
This relates to another challenge in the book: the restriction of technological ethics to questions of use. By taking technology as inevitability, Reinke ends up placing all the responsibility on those who use a given technology, and none on those who discover or develop it. He writes:
“I find it difficult to imagine any technology that cannot be used for both good and evil—to tar an ark and to tar a tower… The true challenge of ethics is not in determining which technologies should be made possible but in determining how those new possibilities are wielded. Thus, Scripture puts the emphasis not on the technology, but on how those innovations are used” (70).
Put bluntly, Reinke does not believe that we can develop a technology that itself is evil. He therefore critiques the “technologically timid” Christians for fearing we might become like Tolkien’s dwarves who “delved too greedily and too deep” and disturbed the evil Balrog (112). “On the contrary,” writes Reinke, “if God did not want us to discover something—raw materials or natural laws or potential powers—he simply didn’t code it into the pattern of his creation.”
Here we find some real difficulties. This book does not address the reality of second- or third-order consequences of technology, nor does it sufficiently wrestle with whether a given innovation can itself be morally opposed to God’s design.
We cannot ignore the fact that every invention changes the world in some way. It has been noted that the introduction of air conditioning changed cities profoundly, allowing people to congregate inside during hot days instead of being forced onto the porch or street. Similarly, the Kennedy-Nixon debates underscored the impact of television on the way ideas were debated and evaluated. Did these technologies make our lives more conformed to the patterns of Scripture? Do they subdue the earth or subjugate it? How do they change the way we interact with the world, with our neighbors, and with God? Marshall McLuhan’s famous adage of “we shape our tools, and afterwards, they shape us” is a critique we do well to consider.
McLuhan, sadly, is not found in this book. Neither is Ivan Illich. Jacques Ellul is, briefly, but he is called out as a pessimist and later frowned upon (206). This is frustrating, because all three offer useful critiques to the Gospel of Tech that Reinke outlines. It would also have been helpful to see interaction with someone like Alastair Roberts, whose work on typology would lend another lens to the discussion of how the way the world is ordered should affect the way we order our own worlds. Reinke showed us he could address these kinds of ideas and concepts in 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, but in the present work they are unfortunately left unexplored.
Though it may seem strange, I suggest we become more like the Amish—at least in our approach to evaluating technology. The Amish still have a phone in the barn in case of emergency, but it is not in the house because they do not want its effects on their society. This decision was a joint one, after one person beta tested the technology and then reported back to the entire group. The Amish have a clear idea of what human flourishing looks like, and they evaluate all things to see whether such things fit into it. Although we may disagree with their vision of flourishing, their approach is a wise one. We should be testing new technologies, carefully considering whether they align with God’s design for our lives—something that Reinke himself encourages in his earlier works, though it is strangely absent from the present volume.
A good place to start is L.M. Sacasas’ 41 Questions Concerning Technology. Here are the first ten:
- What sort of person will the use of this technology make of me?
- What habits will the use of this technology instill?
- How will the use of this technology affect my experience of time?
- How will the use of this technology affect my experience of place?
- How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to other people?
- How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to the world around me?
- What practices will the use of this technology cultivate?
- What practices will the use of this technology displace?
- What will the use of this technology encourage me to notice?
- What will the use of this technology encourage me to ignore?
Our calling is to be in the world but not of the world, wise as serpents yet innocent as doves. Although we recognize and appreciate the many good gifts of our Creator, we still must engage with them thoughtfully. This is what Reinke tries to show us in his book, and (my critiques notwithstanding) this is something we should commend. With Reinke, we should stand in awe and joy at the wonders of creation and of the technology that we can discover—while also ruling wisely in the world.
Recent news about Francis Collins—whom Reinke admires and quotes in the book—serves as a reminder that our faith must not be in chariots and horses, but in the Lord our God. After all, He is the one who made the universe, and our own creative/world-building efforts through technology are but pale imitations. Maybe, someday, our imitation worlds will seem indistinguishable from (or superior to) the original. We are always fascinated by the question of what could be. But even if it could be, we ought to consider whether it should be.
And perhaps that’s the best place to end: to consider the stars. To consider that they were made too. That they exist without our aid. That they have predated us and will outlive us. That we have built machines to see them more clearly, and await a day when we will see them more fully. That they have been an aim for inventors across centuries and languages. Consider the stars, and marvel at the One who made them in the beginning.
Ty Clark (@dailiescentral) works at a technology company near Philadelphia and lives in South Jersey.”
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