Brian Brock on Brent Waters’s Christian Moral Theology in the Emerging Technoculture
Brent Waters’s Christian Moral Theology in the Emerging Technoculture: From Posthuman to Technoculture extends inquiries pursued over the last fifteen years into the question of what it might look like for Christians to live coherent lives in late modern developed cultures. It completes a two-volume project that began with From Human to Posthuman. In this second volume, Waters articulates the central problem facing every contemporary attempt to come to grips with technological development: ours is a culture that has little reason to distinguish between what humans have been given and what they have made. As the inhabitants of late modern developed societies settle into the belief that God is dead, a corollary moral presumption has become widespread: it is up to us to create value as well as to save and preserve those natural things we take to be valuable.
Waters’s incisive framing of this situation prepares him to mount a vigorous resistance to the view, popular among theologians and lay Christians, that most of this human making and invention is not only a good thing, but should be understood as nothing less than the co-creation of value with God. Waters illustrates in details the frightening practical implications of such a stance. The increasing power of technological manipulation means that no creature on earth, let alone any human, can escape the tentacles of what Waters calls “technoculture.”
One of the founding myths of the modern technological world has been that, with a good plan, adequate financing, and a savvy sense of the technical possibilities, we can achieve a life of leisure, wealth, and comfort. Technology expands our capacity for action and thus allows us to live the lives we want to live, instead of lives we have to live. The cracks in this widespread belief become visible only if we stop to notice how busy our lives have become. For we are compelled constantly and radically to reorganize our lives if we are to keep up with the latest technologies.
The increasing power of technological manipulation means that no creature on earth can escape the tentacles of technoculture
As the realms that new technologies offer to us have continued to expand, so has the fear of discharging this new freedom in less than optimal ways. The perpetual need to update our technology means that we must constantly reorganize our lives in order not to miss out on all the new possibilities that seem so relentlessly to advance toward us. “The question how we want to live,” comments the social theorist Helmut Rosa, “is equivalent to the question [of] how we want to spend our time, but the qualities of ‘our’ time, its horizons and structures, its tempo and its rhythm, are not (or only to a very limited extent) at our disposal. The time structures of modernity … stand above all under the sign of acceleration.” We chafe at our seemingly constant descent into ever more harried busy-ness, but we no longer have a sense of how we might slow things down. We have no metric to assess which changes we experience daily we ought to embrace or resist.
We also cannot help but notice how easily this busy-ness is being exploited to steer our behavior. Recent public furors about the exponential growth of state surveillance and the intentional manipulation of social media users’ emotional states exacerbate our worries that, far from creating a world that is better and more free, we are instead building a relational architecture that will constantly drift toward totalitarianism. Waters insists that only by squarely admitting our enmeshment in this predicament will we find a way to combat our ethical disorientation. We will be able to deliberate about the continuous drumbeat of small changes that are the hallmark of the emerging technoculture only as we suffer it.
The premise of Waters’s book is refreshingly clear: we can never really predict just how new technologies will change us as well as the social fabric we inhabit. To come to terms with our choices about technology therefore demands an admission of the role social disruption has come to play in our daily experience of life. For instance, when the Global Positioning System (GPS) was being developed about 40 years ago, no one could possibly have predicted the ways in which it would change western developed cultures. Though originally intended to guide bombs more accurately to their targets, its developers might have daydreamed that could someday allow the development of driverless cars. But they could not have predicted the fusion of technologies that is Google Glass. There is no way to know how such technologies will be taken up by users or how they will be embedded in the social and material fabric of our lives.
In his introduction, Waters explains why he has come to take our inability to predict the future more seriously in this book than he did in From Human to Posthuman. He thus comes to the heart of the problem in both secular and Christian discussions of new technologies today: our dreams and predictions about the future are both obscuring masks and unwitting projections of our current desires. We imagine the better future a new technology will give us, but this “fixation on a glamorous future serves to misdirect attention away from the demanding and crucial task of critically examining the moral formation and pattern of daily, mundane life, which is precisely where technology, for both good and ill, works its greatest formative influence.” By refusing to engage in imagining fantastic future scenarios which typically clutter ethical discussions about new technologies, Waters is able to bypass simplistic popular debates about new technologies in order to hone in on the territory in which the crucial battles must in fact be fought: our daily lives.
Changing communication technologies offer us an obvious illustration of Waters’s point. It is certainly true that the first land-line phones disrupted existing ecologies of face-to-face interaction, and it is just as true that the sense of disruption they caused dissipated in time. Drastically new social habits could then emerge, such as the culture of carrying a personal phone and feeling compelled to answer it anytime and anywhere. This cycle of felt disruption and new social patterning has become so pervasive that we late moderns can now experience constant disruption of our patterns of life as a new social norm, and large corporations can develop new technologies assuming this to be the case. And, as Dave Eggers has recently pointed out, the tech companies can safely assume we’ll get used to people wearing Google Glasses, even when they are worn in spaces we today think of as camera-free zones, such as public toilets or our homes.
Even if we suspect that our conversations are distracted or disrupted in ways foreign to inhabitants of pre-phone cultures, we are unsure how we might break into the trajectories we watch developing in our lives. We recoil at the implications of simply opting out. It is hard to imagine that people who do not carry a mobile phone or who resist new communication technologies are not somehow closet luddites or wilfully aloof loners. In such a world, Waters insists, the task of a Christian witness is to be neither a prophet of doom nor a cheerleader for infinite progress but to engage our neighbors in a manner that is simultaneously critical and constructive.
We come now to a fork in the road. One option is to engage the dynamism that has become our lot by searching for a point of unchanging conceptual stability from which to judge the good and bad trajectories in our own lives and the societies we inhabit. This has often been the default quest of modern Christian cultural analysis, but Waters takes it to be a theologically shortsighted approach. Christians, he insists, ought to be more modest about what they know — and how well they can claim to know themselves. Though Christians confess their redemption in Jesus Christ, and that this redemption is complete in Him, they must also confess that they do not fully inhabit this redemption. It is in process. Partially sighted and partially blind, Christians may recognize God’s claim and yet still be claimed by the gods of this age and to that extent remain pagans, “worldly” in the language of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 3:3). Christian sanctification is tied tightly to an awareness that Christians are still in need of being reconciled, healed, and disciplined (Hebrews 12:3-13). Waters insists that the engines of our busy-ness and disruption are not susceptible to dispassionate analysis and a technical fix — they grow from inner tangles that must be revealed and from which we must repent and be forgiven. Here he draws on Augustine’s image of Christians as pilgrims moving toward their eternal homeland. Because Christian sanctification is an unending process, humans can only, finally, be at rest in the presence of the ones they love. The ultimate ground and source of that love, Augustine insists, is the eternal and unchanging Trinitarian God.
Ironically, this understanding of the dynamic nature of human personality sounds a lot like the views of inhabitants of contemporary technoculture who have become comfortable with processes of continual disruption and cultural dynamism. Christian pilgrims and what Waters calls “late modern nomads” are both liberated from strong ties to particular physical or imaginative locales and are free to be physically mobile. For Waters, however, the core question is the purpose of this mobility: “Or, stated more prosaically, despite their similarities, there is a sharp difference between late modern nomads, who wander where they will, and Christian pilgrims attempting to align their journeys along a teleological and eschatological trajectory.” What is distinctive about Christians is their ability to chart a course, even though all the landmarks are melting into air.
In order to explain how this orientation happens Waters draws on a topographical metaphor, making an analogy between the task of judging the changes constantly afoot in technoculture and navigating an airplane through a storm. Modern pilots use a method called “dead reckoning” in such perilous circumstances. In distinction from the moral aimlessness that Waters takes to characterize late modern nomads, Christians are able to find their moral orientation by dead reckoning because they have God’s promise that human history has a destination, God’s eternal reign of judgment, love, justice, peace, and reconciliation. They also have the travel logs and journals of those who traveled toward this destination before them. From these logs, as learned in the enacted performance that is Christian liturgy, Christians are given back the time horizon that the late modern nomad lacks.
Thus it is the lived practices of Christian worship, confession, repentance, and amendment of life that are the vectors through which human hopes and desires are offered alternatives. Christian practices and texts provide Christians with a past as they tell the works of God in previous generations, and a future because this narrative can orient their hope. They are empowered to make judgments about their present impossible for modern nomads whose fragmented narratives offer them no grounds to assume the future will be predictable enough to make it worth forming long-term hopes. Entrusted to the living fragility of the church, the Incarnate One restores Christian powers of moral discernment by reestablishing the trajectory between transgenerational memory and orienting hope that the late modern nomad lacks.
Dead reckoning involves navigating in the absence of reliable landmarks. So perhaps map-using is a better metaphor for the effort of Christians to continue to follow the leading of a living God amidst the disorienting dynamism of contemporary technoculture. By conceiving moral decision-making as akin to that of a pilot in a storm whose maps and instruments are still true but no longer seem to direct us in our specific predicament, Waters can press us to think harder about how we navigate our lives when our old moral landmarks have been so obviously rendered irrelevant. In this, he clearly advances beyond the dominant approaches that attempt to reestablish familiar moral principles by which solid ground can be discovered by those disoriented by the disruptions of technoculture. I would like to press one step further, however: does Waters’s reliance on the image of the imagined horizon, with its capacity to allow us to plot a straight line toward it, remain wedded to a map-user’s account of navigation in which God is a “point of orientation” rather than a living person?
A digression into what we do when we use a map can help concretize the differences between moral thought understood to be organized by ideas and as a living responsiveness to persons — supremely, God. Anthropologist Tim Ingold contends that the way moderns conceive of maps is an expression of the high-Enlightenment habits of mind with their preference for God’s-eye views of terrestrial landscapes. The view of the world a map offers us is powerful because it gives us useful information about things that are not immediately visible. Yet maps also obscure the reality that, to be intelligible, they must draw heavily on knowledge that has been gleaned from more basic activities of discovering and becoming oriented in an environment. This is why Ingold suggests that what we commonly think of as a “place” (i.e., an eternally fixed location in space) is more accurately described as an intelligible moment of convergence in a network of stories or histories. Our ordinary procedures for finding our way around are more like storytelling than modern map-using.
For example, imagine a student trying to find a university lecture. A lecture is not only a “place” but an event in time as well as a gathering of people that also (and necessarily) occurs in a place. How, Ingold asks, will you know you are where you want to be? You might have a map of campus but perhaps not of the rooms in a building. We must search for the lecture hall. As we do so we feel a sense of relief when meeting someone else who tells us they are also looking for the same event, a feeling that increases if they say they have been to the room before and then lead us to a room where others also say they have gathered for the event. One only rests easily when the lecturer actually arrives. “The lecture” is not any place on a map, and you cannot be sure you are there until all the knowledge built up in various interactions comes together in an event you recognize as the real thing.
Ingold calls this “wayfinding.” The stories others tell about the location of the lecture hall and the people we meet as we travel there allow us to navigate, recognize, and enter into the event when it occurs. The various maps on which we might draw as we seek out this event can only be distillations of the knowledge of other persons who have been places and seen things. They can never substitute for wayfinding skills, skills that are essentially temporal and narrative in nature. Maps are distilled slices of this first order knowledge. To decide what level of reality a map will need to display, the map-maker relies on much detailed knowledge that cannot appear on the map. Only because we know as we go can we later produce maps for other people, to lead them through the places we have already been. Mapmaking, Ingold suggests, is therefore best understood as a laborious process of turning this basic active knowledge into second-order iconographic representation.
Those trained to watch how we actually act rather than how we think we act point out that, for the vast majority of humanity, maps have been not a supposed eternal representation of something but a rapidly drawn sketch on sand, snow, or some other temporary surface by which one speaker strings together moves in a particular dialogic or storytelling context in order to give navigational clues to a particular hearer.
The stop-and-go character of navigation, and its reliance on the illusion of fixity, constitute a double indicator of the specific and derivative character of the knowledge offered to us by a map. If we have to stop, get out a map, do a mental navigational calculation, and then resume movement, we do not really know where we are. A pilot in a storm is only an extreme instance of this experience of disorientation. When we know where we are we have no need of a map. It is thus not an exaggeration to suggest that, when Christians think of scripture as a map guiding their behavior, or the eschaton as an imagined but invisible point on the horizon, it can only be a sign that they are no longer being oriented by a sense that God’s movements can be detected amidst the experiences of their daily lives.
I hope that dwelling on the role of wayfinding in our lived lives allows us to recover the ancient insight that what Christians need most to know in order to live with and follow God is fundamentally unmappable. I raise this point because Waters’s construal of Augustine’s eschatology seeks to orient human moral activity primarily through the mental activities of recalling the past and anticipating the future. But if we agree with Waters that a Christian response to our technoculture must apprehend events as they happen (as I think we should), we are also forced to ask about the adequacy of mental acts of remembrance and anticipation as the place where Christians can find their moral orientation in a culture characterized by constant disruption.
Waters’s account of the Christian moral life as a matter of dead reckoning shares one feature of the map-dependent account of the moral life: it obscures precisely what we need to know, which is how to find our way around in living relationships. A Christian moral theology adequate for the challenges of technoculture will certainly need to admit a fluid moral landscape. But Waters’ gravitation to the image of a pilot flying through a storm toward the light thrown off by an imagined horizon sounds uncomfortably like Plato’s allegory of the cave: he proposes that moral reorientation essentially involves fixing our eyes on a horizon that will always remain eternally distant.
I propose that Christian moral reorientation is more radical and embodied than Waters suggests with his map metaphor. It is no accident that the paradigmatic usage of the term “to know” in the Old Testament is a euphemism for the extremely tangible and bodily act of sexual intercourse. In the biblical traditions the most certain types of knowledge are not grounded in conceptual clarity but in interpersonal trust. For though expressed in different ways and idioms over the centuries, the faithful saints described in scripture appear to understand the task of moral navigation to be a matter of waiting for and trusting in God’s caring and salvific activity. The Psalter is representative in its constant presumption that faith in the God of Israel depends on the ability to recognize the arrival of God. “O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When God restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad,” the psalmist prays (Psalms 14:7, 53:6, cf. 107:6, 13, 19, 28).
Israel’s hope in God is symmetrical with the assurance of faith that his help will be recognized when it arrives. Its sages understood righteous actions as enactments of trust in God’s promised faithfulness. In all the various biblical accounts of knowledge it would be as absurd to produce a map that could orient us in life with God as it would be to believe that any form of map (including anatomical or how-to books) could be anything more than the sketchiest guide to sexual embrace. The same, I suggest, also applies to map-like mental projections that seek to orient us by reference to an unseen eschatological horizon. For the biblical traditions, moral orientation was not achieved by imagining the distant goal, but by responding to the proximate, embodied claim of a redeeming and healing God.
Christian Moral Theology in the Emerging Technoculture is asking all the right questions: How do we find narrative continuity in an age subjected to constant disruption? How are we to understand fundamental notions like “home,” “place,” and “communication” when all we have experienced of these in the past is constantly being overturned? Waters offers powerful insights into the way the concreteness of the Christian tradition and worship can orient us amidst the dynamism of technoculture by offering us experiences that sharpen our powers of moral discernment. To the extent that he has emphasized the practices of Christian worship, I think he has met this challenge.
But his gravitation to the image of dead reckoning introduces a level of abstraction that does not do justice to the embodied, proximate sensitivities and discernments needed to counteract the reified ideas of placeless late modern nomads. Ought we to trust our intellect and will to rejuvenate Christian powers of discrimination through the mental operations of remembrance and anticipation? Is the solution to Christian confusion in the contemporary world to embrace a more accurate depiction of the coming future that will allow Christians to make better judgments about specific technological changes?
While Waters’s deployment of the metaphor of a dead reckoning navigation of the moral life is clearly an advance on much more static and dominant contemporary accounts of Christian ethics, I contend the Christian witness is not primarily a matter of making good judgments and decisions but of walking a path opened by the acts of a God who is reconciling humanity. Something does not quite ring true about followers of a first-century prophet-sage imagining themselves in the image of a hero of technological modernity, the mathematically and technologically sophisticated pilot battling a storm. Perhaps they might imagine themselves more like the premodern seafarer who must respond to the gentle breath of the reconciling Spirit. This would be to treat the events of this world not as totems and hints of an unseen world, but as real appearances of what has been genuinely begun in Jesus Christ and already being realized in a measure among us. A pilgrim understood in these terms would aim to navigate the storms unleashed by the ceaseless technological disruptions of the material and social worlds by hoping and looking for real-life moments of peace and human flourishing today.
In short, Waters would have been more true to his own best insights were he asking us to find our orientation by looking for the divine appearance among us that can be “tasted and seen,” calling us to look to the moments of divine condescension in the lived present, rather than squinting towards the abstract horizon. Confessing that that the Trinitarian God has promised to graciously descend into the brokenness and fragmentation of specific lives, Christians can hope for more than to one day be at rest. The places in which we live our lives can be rescued from their hurry and fragmentation and lent a new density and gravity by the God who has promised to dwell with His people. Awaiting the redemptive working of this God is not a passive capitulation to the status quo but a concrete orientation that seeks to discern in the world God’s good gifts as well as judgments on the way to glory. Here Waters is certainly right: a way to begin is precisely what we need.