Reviewed by Jacob Shatzer
Brent Waters’s Christian Moral Theology in the Emerging Technoculture creates a critical and constructive theological engagement with modern technology (especially communications technology). Waters refuses to call technology “neutral” because he rightly notes the way technology forms moral agents. He also rejects a Luddite rejection of technology, not merely because it is impossible to do so, but because rejecting technology would come dangerously close to rejecting the world that God has made. Waters wants to be critical of technology’s forming power while also seeking a positive, constructive engagement.
Waters’s thesis is that Christians should engage the emerging technoculture “by preserving the necessity of place, narration, and communication in a culture that is tempted to replace them with space, information, and exchange” (229). In Part 1, he covers Nietzsche and Heidegger to show the way the modern world has developed an historicism and nihilism that places humans in a posture of control and value-creation. He then interacts with three thinkers. George Grant names the darkness as darkness but fails to have enough hope; Hannah Arendt laments modernity’s focus on death rather than birth but puts too much emphasis on Kantian reason; and Albert Borgmann turns to focal practices and focal communities to reorder disordered desires but is reticent to offer a thick normative account of the good. Thus these three begin to point the way, but Waters prepares to answer each limitation with theological categories.
Waters begins his construction in Parts 2 and 3. Part 2 is “Theological Construction” and covers confession (which sees the darkness as darkness), repentance (which renews the possibilities of second births without the overemphasis on Kant), and the amendment of life (which reforms desires). This leads him to emphasize the importance of particular places rather than mere “space” (“the creation or identification of a point in time where an action of transaction is pursued” ), narration of a common story rather than mere exchange of information without context (which just fuels the will to power), and communication rather than mere exchange. These three issues – place, narration, and communication – are oriented to the Christian theological tradition, whereas their opposites are not. In Part 3 Waters turns to three topics: the Internet, politics, and economics, to show how his focus on place, narration, and communication shape new possibilities for engagement with the technological world.
Waters writes well. He organizes the book very clearly, including introductions to main parts of the book that help the reader regroup from the previous part and its argument in order to prepare for the argument in the upcoming part. I particularly enjoyed his illustrations, which often connect sections and chapters. For instance, in one chapter he repeatedly returns to a decision to eat a salad or a hamburger for lunch to illustrate multiple points. He also utilizes lengthy treatments of characters in Iris Murdoch’s An Accidental Man and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead in multiple chapters. This practice of recurring illustrations increases the reader’s ability to understand the main argument and various connections.
Nomads vs. Pilgrims
While most modern people are “nomads,” Christians are called to be pilgrims. Neither is completely at home in the world, but for different reasons. Modern technology allows modern people to live a nomadic existence in which the particular place does not matter because they can create “space” for relationships via technology (think of people on their smartphones in an airport; the actual place does not matter). Pilgrims are not autonomous wanderers but an eschatological and teleological people (149). Pilgrims, on the other hand, are not completely at home in any particular place, but particular places still matter.
The place where such space is created is neither an irrelevant consideration nor an encumbrance. When Christians gather in Christ’s name they do so as embodied creatures, and as such they cannot escape being in a particular and shared place. Such gathering not only acknowledges the impermanent and transient character of temporal creatures, but also affirms the finitude of creaturely life as a good gift of the creator. Consequently, although place does not determine Christian identity, it is not necessarily regarded as a limitation but as a requisite context for ordering the Christian life. It is a particular place that enables the creation of a holy space and, more importantly, gives it a commanding and formative presence. (169)
Part of the Christian task, then, in the face of the modern technoculture, is to call modern nomads to the pilgrimage that is the Christian faith.
In the end, Waters’s treatment is especially dependent on Albert Borgmann, whose work plays a prominent role, and Oliver O’Donovan, who emerges at key points in the argument. Waters depends on doctrines and ecclesiological practices to form his response, most notably baptism, eucharist, and Sabbath. These “focal things and practices,” in the conceptual world of Borgmann, form moral agents in opposition to the prevailing forces of the emerging technoculture. While Waters admittedly makes few concrete practical applications (because he wants to avoid creating a how-to manual, p. 242), he does make a few helpful connections to questions about Christian worship gatherings (173).
After I finished the book, I wondered whether Waters really succeeded in one of his goals. He repeatedly stated that he did not want to simply reject technology nor embrace it entirely, but instead to provide a critical and constructive account, pointing a way forward for Christian thinking. I think he does point a way forward, but I’m not sure it avoids the rejection of technology as much as he might want it to. Sure, he does not advocate rejecting cell phones or Second Life, but in his positive, constructive moves, these technologies are nowhere to be found. The focal practices and focal communities are not centered on advanced technology but instead require pulling back from those technologies. They entail at least some degree of rejection of technology (rejecting, for instance, the smart phone at least long enough to have a family meal, or participate in a worship service while physically present with pastor(s) and congregation), at least for the time of the focal practice. I suppose this is still a “middle ground,” but it still leans towards rejection because engaging technology does not play a guiding, formative role.
I don’t want to end on such a negative note for such a good book. Waters seeks to be critical and constructive, and he succeeds in both. However, I think his constructive project is more ordered to the critical. In this book one will not find the secret to using smartphones in Christian small group settings or how to disciple robots. But the book should not be missed by anyone interested in questions of the relationship of Christian faith and technologies that can form or deform Christian communities. Waters weaves a masterful tale here, philosophically and theologically informed without being entirely beholden to any previous treatments of technology. Great read filled with important questions and promising answers.
Dr. Jacob Shatzer is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Sterling College. He is also Book Review Editor for Ethics here at Books At a Glance.
Buy the books
Christian Moral Theology In The Emerging Technoculture: From Posthuman To Human