Finding Spiritual Life in a Technological World

Finding Spiritual Life in a Technological World May 28, 2011

I cannot tell you how many times I have stood in awe before mountains and canyons, forests and cliffs, rivers and seas, marveling at the sublime majesty of God’s creation and the incomprehensible power and intelligence that must have been required to conceive such wonders and bring them into being. Yosemite National Park, the northern California cliffs, the towering redwood groves — all led my soul to magnify the Lord.  I remember laying in my sleeping bag atop Half Dome and watching as a meteor shower filled the sky with brilliant streaking lights and filled by soul with the presence of God.

But I can tell you how many times I have stood in front of a room full of computers and marveled at God. The number is not hard to remember — because it is zero.

It is not that I have never seen technological wonders. I remember well when I first saw a massive laser array at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. I recall gawking at SR-71 jets, at supercomputers, at aircraft carriers, and at rockets and lunar landers. I remember seeing them — I just don’t remember being inspired by them, in the same way I am so often inspired by the works of nature, to marvel at God.

Why is that so? If it is extraordinary that God could make rivers, is it not even more extraordinary that God should make humans with the ingenuity to cross those rivers by designing and building bridges? If we should give thanks to God for the beauty of the ocean, should we not give thanks to God for the beauty — and utility — of the microchip? Is it not ingenious that God should make human eyes that can observe the regularities of nature, human brains that can penetrate those regularities to the laws beneath them, human imaginations that can devise new ways of making use of those laws, and human hands that can go about building and distributing new forms of technology? Technology has made shelters and irrigated fields, has crosses rivers and tunneled through the earth, has eliminated diseases and provided the means to overcome disabilities and handicaps, has given us undreamt-of powers of communication and organization.

Yet when I am driving in my car down the freeway, speaking (yes) on my cell phone with my sister across the country, who is using her computer to look up the map of the store where I am about to buy a new computer — why am I not praising God for all these things? To be sure, a bridge is not as beautiful as an oak tree, but the fact that we can build a bridge is beautiful and awe-inspiring. Perhaps the bridge or the computer does not point us toward God because we tend to take the glory for ourselves. Yet even though we made the bridge and the computer, we did so with powers that were given us by God. Or perhaps the bridge and the computer do not usher us into worship because we think they are “scientific” and God has no place in the scientific realm. Yet this would be a surprise to many of history’s greatest scientists, who sought to understand the physical world precisely in order to understand God’s glorious design. Science is only possible because we are creatures with powers of perception and intelligence, and we live in a world of God-given regularities and order.

One of the aspects of the monastic life I most appreciate is the way in which one is surrounded constantly by ‘pointers’ toward God. This is a deliberate, designed part of the monastic life. Wherever you turn, you are reminded–whether by a cross, by an icon, or simply by the spire of the church–to direct your thoughts heavenward and remember God. The pealing of the church bells, chanting the hours, everyday disciplines–everything became an occasion to remember God.

Habitual Reminders and the Monastic Life

It can be difficult, without such “habitual reminders,” to remember God in the midst of our daily lives.  There was a time in my life when I sought to create my own habitual reminders, from putting up crosses and icons, or significant words in places I would often see them, and I even sought to make it so that I would remember God whenever I tied my shoes.  The specifics may seem flippant, but the idea is serious: prayer is a discipline of attention, and the attention wanders.  Especially, of course, in contemporary society, where “attention spans” are famously short, it can be difficult to harness our attention and direct it consistently toward God.

Do you see the problem? The natural world is filled with “pointers” toward God, yet few of us work amidst the wonders of the natural world. More of us work amidst the wonders of technology, yet since we cannot see these things as pointers to God. Thus we are effectively cut off from God in our places of work. If we could sit in front of a computer and marvel at the work of God in fashioning a creation and creature for which such a computer is possible — then we would find ourselves surrounded by pointers to God.

And those who work in industry and technology, in chemistry and engineering, should know not only that they engage in the holy work of redeeming creation and making it fruitful but that the works of their hands give evidence of the creative power of God.

Yes, it is extraordinary that God should build a mountain. But it is more extraordinary still that God should make people who can move mountains.

[Note: this is drawn from two previously written pieces, here and here.]

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  • Mary Duval

    Wow! I, too, am in awe of our great God when I see the grandeur of nature: amazing mountains, oceans, trees; beautiful fields; the great expanse and largeness of the things He has created; the delicate gentle flowers He has lovingly fashioned; and my very favorite – the ever changing clouds which I always associate with God. I think the reason I have never associated man-made things with God is simply because they are man-made. I never stepped back to realize God indeed has created the very humans who created these man-made things. That is also amazingly wonderful! Thank you for bringing that to my mind.

  • Brian Wixted

    This is beautifully crafted essay and it leaves me with the question – why don’t we see man made things as pointers to the creativity of man in the image of God? There are probably more but there are two possibilities which are non-exclusive (ie they can both be true) that come immediately to mind for me. The first is that when we see technology we are all too aware of the creativity but also the brokeness of our technology. When I see a computer I am simultaneously aware that it will improve my work but also that 1. I can’t afford all the addons and software I want, 2. it will have bugs and problems and there are people out there trying to exploit them and 3. there will be a new model out next year. Note though that we interact with technology and therefore develop have a greater appreciation for its multiple meanings fun / work (and thus for some though not all – drudgery). We don’t interact with nature in quite the same way – we get to accept it as present and stand back and marvel.

    The other issue is that we as the body of Christ have done a really bad job of telling each other how much we value their individual gifts – whether that be science, ttechnology or teching or healing.

    On the other hand when I wander into a forest I am awe struck by both the complexity of the animal/bird/fish/plant, soil and water interactions that I know surround me and what perfect machinery it seems to be. Everthing working in its own harmony – who couldn’t praise God for that creativity.

    BTW I read this blog on the same day as I viewed a TED talk by Hans Rosling. The kicker is in the last few seconds of the talk so fast forward if you want.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Great thoughts, Brian. Thanks for sharing. -Tim