Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Technology and the church: an analogy

Following the reflections on technology vs. technologism I posted a week ago, I thought I'd offer an extended analogy to tease out what I think are some of the implications for the church of rejecting such technologism in relation to our ecological predicament.

The AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa is a large and wicked* social problem. Its causes are complex and involve (amongst others) both individual lifestyle choices and broader cultural assumptions. It is a slow-burn problem, with cases multiplying in largely invisible ways (that is, infection is not an experience that a subject is usually aware of at the time) and symptoms only really becoming manifest years later. It is also a problem where the accumulation of individual cases generates further complex social realities (AIDS orphans, child-headed households, a culture of stigmatism and so on). In South Africa, for quite some time, the government held a position of officially denying the link between HIV and AIDS, holding back implementation of various policies that, while being very unlikely to "solve" the problem, nonetheless could have significantly reduced the spread of the disease and hence the resulting human suffering.
*Wicked in the technical sense, that is, a complex and multifaceted problem without a single "solution".

I'm just sketching a little and I'm going to assume that the parallels to a number of ecological problems are more or less obvious to those paying attention to such matters.

The point I'd like to make concerns the role and limitations of technology. In this case, I have in view both the very low tech option of condoms and the considerably higher tech option of antiretroviral drugs. Widespread adoption of safer sex practices would very significantly slow down the spread of the disease. Therefore, government and NGO programmes that promote such harm minimisation are, to my mind, basically a no-brainer. The widespread provision of antiretroviral drugs is slightly more complex, involving various economic implications and calculations, though still clearly a good idea on balance. These do not cure the disease, but they do slow its progression in an infected individual, and so increase his/her life expectancy. Now, in this situation, technology serves to provide real social and personal goods, and any responsible government ought to be implementing such actions amongst their many priorities.

Nonetheless, such provisions, while reducing the pace and severity of the crisis, do not by themselves decisively solve it. Huge damage has already been sustained and more is in the pipeline in the form of millions of carriers whose lives are likely to be shorter than they would otherwise be, and whose future sexual activities will be conducted under a shadow. Grief remains a healthy and appropriate response, not as a replacement for these policies, but simply out of emotional honesty.

Furthermore, implementing these policies doesn't remove the moral evaluation (at both personal and cultural levels) of the failures that enabled the problem to spiral to such magnitude. It would be easy to indulge in cheap and simplistic condemnation of the lax sexual ethics of many of those who end up infected (though of course, many spouses and children may contract the condition entirely innocently), and this would be reductionist if that were the extent of one's response. Conversely, not to comment on the sexual sins as a spiritual problem manifest in grave social harms would also be to miss an important component of the situation.

Now the analogy is not perfect and I'm sure there are all kinds of important differences between AIDS and ecological crises, but perhaps this example may illustrate the possibility that technological responses of real social benefit do not render the problem less wicked (in the technical sense) and do not sidestep the need for careful moral evaluation of the situation.

Now, consider the position of a Christian church facing an AIDS epidemic amongst the congregation. There are all kinds of possible responses, and a healthy one will include many facets: caring for the sick and orphaned; seeking honesty and reconciliation in relationships damaged by sexual misdeeds; helping the congregation understand the nature of the disease including causes and its likely effects; calling on governments to implement responsible social policies; planning for a future in which more families are broken and child-headed households increase. Amidst this, I presume that it would be a good idea to lay out sensitively the good news of sexually committed exclusive covenant relationships (within a full-orbed proclamation of the gospel of grace, repentance, forgiveness, freedom and reconciliation). Now, to speak of the goodness of sexual relationships as they were intended may not "cut it" as a social policy, and nor need this proclamation imply ecclesial support is restricted purely to abstinence/chastity programmes. But if the church does not recognise that one of the significant contributing factors to this epidemic is the eclipse of scriptural sexual ethics, then it would only be doing part of its job. Ultimately, the church will be praying and working towards becoming a community within which healthy sexual relationships of trust and commitment are the norm, where failures are handled sensitively and graciously, where reconciliation and stronger relationships are the goal. And even if to some observers it appears foolish, naïve or old-fashioned, it will hold onto the possibility of the partial and provisional healing of desire amidst a sinful world that at times shows little evidence of such a message being effective. It will hold onto the hope of eschatological healing, yet without confusing this with any sort of divine guarantee for miraculous deliverance from the consequence of our actions today.

Similarly, while technology may offer certain paths that reduce the pace and severity of ecological harms, and while governments may well be wise to consider various options carefully and responsibly (rather than the present mix of short term opportunism, denial and misguided or cynical tokenism), nonetheless, the church cannot but notice that behind our ecological woes are certain assumptions and patterns of behaviour: a reckless indifference to the consequences of our pursuit of ever higher levels of consumption; an insatiable acquisitiveness that desperately tries to find meaning in stuff; a foolish arrogance that claims to wield ultimate mastery over matter; a short-sighted willingness to sell our children's inheritance for a quick thrill today coupled with an inordinate unwillingness to let go of luxuries; and an ignorant inattentiveness to the plight of our fellow creatures. Noting these roots needn't remove the possibility that the church will support responsible technological mitigation of our crises, but the church will continue to hold out - despite the apathy and scorn of the surrounding culture - a picture of human communities not based primarily on acquisition, of a good life that is not built primarily around consumption or material wealth, of a heart that is content and generous and which desires neither poverty nor riches. It will speak out against the personal and systemic greed whose manifestation is a destabilised and scarred planet. It will grieve over the damage already done, and the more that is in the pipeline. It will speak of grace, forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation - and of a divine eschatological healing of a groaning world, yet without assuming that this implies we will not face the more or less predictable consequences of our present failures and so not at all neglecting the task of both caring for victims and advocating on behalf of those without a voice in the matter: the global poor, future generations and other species.

In short, the church is not unmindful of the potential benefits of technology, but it is called to be free from the slavish fascination that treats it as our saviour. A world in peril needs more than a renewable clean source of power; it needs a renewed and cleansed heart.


Lawyers Sydney said...

Nice article.

byron smith said...

Elton John on the AIDS epidemic: "Everyone deserves compassion. Everyone deserves dignity. Everyone, everyone, everyone deserves love. Why am I telling you this? Because the Aids disease is caused by a virus, but the Aids epidemic is not. The Aids epidemic is fuelled by stigma, violence and indifference."

byron smith said...

Yale360: Ecological modernists vs Arcadian conservationists.

Fred Pearce reports on a growing ideological battle amongst environmentalists.