Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sin, Technology, and the Well-Being of Society

Necessity is the mother of invention but so too is theology. Let me try to explain in a round-about way. At an Ethical Culture Society discussion group, the leader asked us all to give our prognosis regarding the West – whether it will be able to overcome its various civilization-threatening problems. While we all saw serious signs of wear-and-tear, most of the respondents were surprisingly confident about the West’s prospects. My response was the most negative:

  • I think we have lost our way back home. We are not asking the right questions and are therefore miles away from the right answers.
I tried to explain that our economic and environmental crises were underpinned by a moral crisis. I mentioned one businessman who was packing it all up. He explained:

  • It’s hard to get your money anymore. You have to take them to court, but who has the time, and they all know it!
On one level, the problem is very simple. However, Indian Christian convert and scholar, Vishal Mangalwadi, takes the analysis of the problem a lot deeper in his The Book that Made your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization. For one thing, he claims that in our secular, post-Christian era “condemns technology as a dehumanizing force,” instead of personal, indwelling evil, which corrupts our use of technology and enslaves others in various ways to satisfy our appetites. According to Mangalwadi, the philosophers of the ancient world also failed to see the sin problem:

  • Rodney Stark explains that most of the ancient philosophers supported slavery because they had “no concept of sin to put teeth in their judgments and no revelation from which to begin” critiquing slavery. Stark continues:
  • “Although it has been fashionable to deny it, antislavery doctrines began to appear in Christian theology soon after the decline of Rome and were accompanied by the eventual disappearance of slavery in all but the fringes of Christian Europe.” (101)
The West reproached the sin of slavery – not technology - and thrived. Instead of demonizing technology, Mangalwadi relates how it was esteemed by the Christian West:

  • Technology was…meaningful. Its purpose was to use human creativity for the glory of God and for the service of the weak. The absence of that worldview prevented Indian monks from developing technology. (105)
While technological advance is consistent with Christian theology – creation is good, orderly, and knowable and we were given the mandate to manage it – Hindu theology was not so:

  • Our monks did not develop technical aids to improve their eyesight. They took pride in closing even perfectly good eyes in meditation. (108)
If this material world is illusory, then work and technological advancement are counter-productive:

  • It is virtually impossible to find a Brahmin guru in traditional India who resembles the apostle Paul – a rabbi who made tents for a living. Brahmins said that manual work was the duty of lower castes, a result of bad karma from their previous births. Mahatma Gandhi was the first Indian leader who used a spinning wheel to try to import the Pauline work ethic into India: “No work, no food.” (109)
Their mis-identification of the problem - along with a disdain for hard work - kept India backward for centuries. Although Gandhi believed in hard work, he disdained technology:

  • Gandhi’s idea that technology was evil and that a simple, natural life was morally superior came from British idealists like John Ruskin. Sensitive people like him had become critical of England’s Industrial Revolution because of the exploitation, oppression, and other evils associated with its “dark satanic mills.” Mahatma Gandhi brought this opposition to technology to India. (111)
However, it was technology - and theology that inspired it - that had saved the West. Mangalwadi gives several examples:

  • The peasants’ humble wheeled plow generated the economic strength that helped save Europe from colonization by Islam. During the Middle Ages, Islamic forces were able to invade Europe almost at will. Muslims conquered southern Spain and Portugal and invaded France in the eighth century. In the ninth century, they conquered Sicily and invaded Italy, sacking Ostia and Rome in 846. By 1237, they had begun to conquer Russia. Constantinople was captured in 1453, and the battles of 1526 in Hungary and 1529 in Vienna suggested that it was merely a matter of time before the mullahs, caliphs, and sheikhs would rule cities like Rome, Vienna, and Florence. Equipped with a coulter, a horizontal share, and a moldboard, Europe’s new plow increased productivity by tilling rich, heavy, and badly drained river-bottom soil…The net result was the gradual elimination of starvation, the improved health of the people, and a strengthening of the economic foundations of the West relative to Islam. (101-102)
The Book of Proverbs claims that “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (Proverbs 14:34). A pre-occupation with sin and its evil power exalted the West. Proverbs adds that wisdom comes easily to the righteous. Could sin and our denial of it be the real problem of the West’s decline? Mangalwadi provides an illuminating example from his own country. In 1631, the monsoon failed to come. Consequently, there was a great famine. A British traveler relates the devastation he saw:

  • From Surat to this place all the highway was stowed with dead people, our noses never free from the stink of them…women were seen to roast their children…a man or a woman no sooner dead but they were cut in pieces to be eaten. (112)
Mangalwadi reasons, “My people did not starve because they were stupid, lazy, or unproductive.” Instead, immorality killed them! They were taxed 80% of their produce. This left them with little and nothing to store for an emergency. The only way for the people to have any money was to “join their exploiters.”

Our problems will not be solved by merely passing a few more laws or hiring more regulators. Instead, the problem is lodged deeply within each of us, and until we realize this, we are simply the “blind leading the blind.” How then can we find the fire-escape?

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