Vocation, Technology, & Luther’s “Theology of Tools”

Vocation, Technology, & Luther’s “Theology of Tools” February 14, 2019


Rev. A. Trevor Sutton, the co-writer with me of Authentic Christianity:  How Lutheran Theology Speaks to a Postmodern World,  is working on a doctorate in which he is studying the relationship between technology and theology.  He has written some interesting articles lately that I wanted to pass along.

In Mr. Zuckerberg, Meet Martin Luther, he applies the doctrine of vocation to Silicon Valley.  Like the “Robber Barons” of the Gilded Age, the tycoons of Silicon Valley have been both lauded for their economy-and-culture-changing entrepreneurship and condemned for their all-too-human faults.  Trevor shows that not only in their influence but in the “digital interfaces” that they rule over, the CEOs of high-tech companies function much like the “rulers” whom Luther exhorts to serve their subjects.

Then Trevor connects technology to what Luther wrote about tools, in the context of vocation.  I’ll give you a sampling of that.

From A. Trevor Sutton, Mr. Zuckerberg, Meet Martin Luther:

Luther’s advice for Zuckerberg would extend beyond principles for social responsibility in leadership; he also wrote about technology. Similar to power and influence, technology should be used in service to neighbors. In The Sermon on the Mount (1538), Luther suggested:

If you are a manual laborer, you find that the Bible has been put into your workshop, into your hand, into your heart. It teaches and preaches how you should treat your neighbor. Just look at your tools—at your needle or thimble, your beer barrel, your goods, your scales or yardstick or measure—and you will read this statement inscribed on them. Everywhere you look, it stares at you. Nothing that you handle every day is so tiny that it does not continually tell you this, if you will only listen. … All this is continually crying out to you: “Friend, use me in your relations with your neighbor just as you would want your neighbor to use his property in his relations with you.”

In Luther’s mind, the methods and tools of one’s craft—technology—are rightly used when deployed in service to neighbors; needles, thimbles, beer barrels, scales, computers, and smartphones ought to enrich the lives of others instead of hurting, harming, or taking advantage of them. This implies also that those who create these technologies must also consider the ends to which they are being employed—to help or harm others. This understanding of technology suggests that the Silicon Valley creators of software, user interfaces, algorithms, and social networking platforms are more responsible to the individual users than the tech investors and profit margins to whom they’ve traditionally answered. One can imagine the widespread change that would occur if designers, programmers, and tech companies as a whole created their technologies with the well-being of their neighbors at the forefront of their minds. To be certain, this way of producing technology would also be very disruptive to the current economic paradigm.

Zuckerberg and other leaders in Silicon Valley possess considerable power through their social networking sites, whether they’re willing to say so or not. And while Luther may not be able to help us fix the inherent problems of our economic system, his theology of tools—that is, arguing that the technologies we create and employ should serve rather than take advantage of our neighbors—should at least give Zuckerberg and other tech leaders pause to consider, “for whom are we to fix things.”



Illustration via MaxPixel, CC0, Public Domain

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