Noreen Herzfeld

noreen herzfeldA reviewer of my recent book Technology and Religion wrote that one weakness of the book was that I did not clearly delineate between religion and ethics, and that the book would have been more properly titled "Technology and Ethics." In pondering that criticism, I found myself wondering what the reviewer might have said to Moses: "Hey Mose, enough with telling us what to do or not do -- give us ten philosophical concepts about God." Or to Jesus, "What's all this about feeding the hungry or giving up one's cloak -- we want theology." Which is to say, religion at its source deals less with concepts than with actions. It tells us what to do and, as the ancient monastic tradition has it, it is in the doing that we come to find out what we believe.

So what are we to do? If we look at the figure of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark we find that the majority of his actions are to "heal the sick and help the suffering." In the book of Acts the disciples follow the same path. Science, through its offspring of technology, gives us tools to do likewise. Pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering, modern prostheses, new crops, nanotechnology -- these all give us new ways to heal the sick and help the suffering. Even the humble solar flashlight is a life changer for many in rural Africa, allowing children to study at night or frighten away wild animals. Peter Gatuoth, a Sudanese refugee writes: "In case of thief, we open our solor and the thief ran away. If there is a sick person at night we will took him with the solor to health center." Science and technology give us new ways to live our faith and show love to our neighbor.

But who is our neighbor? When asked this question, Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan, a story that enlarged one's duties beyond the expected boundaries of nation and clan. Technology enlarges the neighborhood even further. The advent of new communication, information, and transportation technologies means we encounter one another, not only on the road, but in cyberspace and over the airwaves. We live in a world in which transactions happen on a planetary scale in real time. Money moves from the halls of Wall Street to the trading floors of Singapore with the click of a mouse. A protest in Beirut appears on television screens from Buenos Aires to Tokyo as it occurs. Pollution drifts from China to the forests of British Columbia. Western induced melting in the Arctic threatens the Maldives. The global is now local; the road to Jerusalem is everywhere. 

Thus science expands our love for one another, by giving us new tools to express that love and by enlarging our neighborhood, giving us more people whom we are called to love. We can, and often do, fail at this task, using our technologies to widen the gap between rich and poor, or to perpetuate division and war. Our technologies often seem to face us with greater challenges than in the past. Yet, at root, the challenge is what it always has been -- to love all, and exclude none. Advances in science and technology have simply helped us to see the magnitude of that call.

Noreen Herzfeld is the Nicholas and Bernice Reuter Professor of Science and Religion at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota. She holds degrees in Computer Science and Mathematics from the Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. in Theology from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. Herzfeld is the author of numerous articles in both academic journals and the popular press as well as several books, including In Our Image:  Artificial Intelligence and the Human Spirit (2002), Technology and Religion:  Remaining Human in a Co-Created World  (2009), and The Limits of Perfection in Technology, Religion, and Science (2010).