Pope Benedict XVI. Wikimedia Commons

Opening Up A Breathing Space

Technology's totalitarian tendencies, and the sense of resignation it inspires, meet human freedom and the hope of a transcendent horizon in a surprising guide for modernity: Benedict XVI's latest encyclical.
Ellen Roderick

Today's society is one now deeply rooted in technology, with all its Facebook connections and Wikileaks intrigues, and systems so colossal that they seem out of control as the technocratic machine rolls forward. Speaking of technology as "a profoundly human reality" in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI draws our attention to the relationship between technology, human desire, and the Liturgy, the "breathing space" where man can enter into dialogue with the Creator. Acknowledging that "our artifacts end up governing us instead of serving us," Dr. Michael Hanby, widely published author and Assistant Professor of Biotechnology and Culture at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute, offers Traces insight, based on the encyclical, into the optimism of a way forward in a modern era seemingly imprisoned by predeterminism and a lack of vision.

You recently said that technology was an often overlooked but central theme in Caritas in Veritate and central to Pope Benedict's proposal of integral human development. Yet, the encyclical seems to have a somewhat ambivalent position regarding technology.
Yes, there is a certain ambivalence in Caritas in Veritate regarding technology, ambivalence which Benedict extends in similar fashion to markets and to globalization. On the one hand, he clearly deplores the technocratic mindset. But he also deplores ideologies that deny the value of development, on the other hand, which lead to a rejection of "scientific discoveries themselves which, if well used, could serve as an opportunity for all." He goes so far as to praise technology as an expression of the human aspiration to development and as a response to God's command to keep and till the earth.

What are we to make of this?
First, there is Benedict's insistence that technology bears the imprint of the human logos, which is intrinsically related to an objective order. Then, there is the very definition of integral development as involving every man and the whole man. Nothing within the ambit of man, and certainly nothing issuing from him, can be neutral with respect to his humanity. And finally, there is the immediacy with which Benedict specifies the limitations of a purely technological society in meeting the goal of integral human development. He could have characterized contemporary society in any number of ways; that he chose to characterize it as technological immediately after posing the question of whether the vision of Populorum Progressio has been realized is, I think, telling. It suggests that the subsequent degeneration he traces in the political, social, and cultural spheres–increasing helplessness of public authorities, the demise of social networks of solidarity, the instability of the family exacerbated by the mobility of labor; cultural eclecticism and leveling; the dissolution of traditional cultural forms; the anti-birth mentality, the fragmentation of knowledge, and dearth of wisdom–should all be seen to issue in some way from this technological conception of society.

Can you elaborate on this ambivalence?
Let me say more about the negative pole of this ambivalence first. Benedict is not alone in diagnosing modernity as essentially technological. Heidegger, Hans Jonas, George Grant all saw technology as essential to the meaning of modernity, not least because they all saw that technology is not merely an instrument we use. It is a way of knowing and regarding nature, including human nature, as something inherently mechanical and malleable, which of course also means inherently meaningless. It is a way of knowing whose aim is to magnify human power beyond a human scale. But, for this very reason, technology and its consequences tend to defy human control, and our artifacts end up governing us instead of serving us. We can think of the recent financial crisis, or our dependence upon information technology, or our sense of helplessness before the forces of globalization in this regard. In our attempts to be super-human, we subordinate ourselves "bestially" to what is subhuman. But part of what is distinct about the peculiar modern, technological dimension of this phenomenon is that the technological conception of reality confines reality within an immanent horizon.

The more this horizon dominates–and a total domination of nature is inherent in its basic logic–the less we are able to see beyond it. It is astonishing how often we are counseled to resign ourselves to the brute power of impersonal forces of our own creation. There is an insidious radio commercial from Audi whose tagline is, "Progress can't be stopped. But it can be driven," which exemplifies this perfectly.

So at the heart of the Pope's concern is life lived within an immanent horizon…
I read Benedict's warnings about technological society in Caritas in Veritate as warnings against this technological immanentism and its subtle totalitarian tendencies.

If you read the encyclical closely, you will see Benedict counseling us against resignation to fate and insisting repeatedly that market dynamics, globalization, and the brave new world of biotechnology are not impersonal forces of destiny, but artifacts of our own creation bearing a human logos and susceptible, even now, to humanization… but only if we allow this closed circle of immanentism to be interrupted and penetrated by transcendent truth.

What, if anything, can be said of the "positive" side of this ambivalent position with regard to technology?
Just this: that the truth of God and man revealed in Christ can save us from this immanentism of our own making. In other words, the ambivalence has positive importance not because it assures us that technology is neutral and just has to be used well, but because it contains a counsel of hope that humanity, and human making or techne, can be delivered by truth from the hopeless immanentism of a technological understanding of reality. I would say, then, that what is really radical about this encyclical is that it holds up truth as a resistance to fate and encourages us to hope that the human project is not spent and that humanity is not necessarily destined to be dominated by the various Leviathans created in our libido dominandi.
In this sense, Caritas in Veritate is a continuation of the work of Spe Salvi, and I would not be surprised if this offer of hope is one day regarded as the defining characteristic of Benedict's pontificate.

What is the relationship between hope and the technological logic you spoke of earlier?
Caritas in Veritate attempts to counteract the prevailing sense of hopelessness that the political and economic orders encourage us to adopt. Signs of this hopelessness are everywhere, for instance, in the fact that so much of our cultural, political, and economic energy is devoted to various forms of escapism. It is also evident in the breakdown of our education system, which suffers above all from a dearth of any noble or desirable vision of life. No wonder our children are often so listless about education. The immanentism of technological society is curious. On the one hand, it commences in the desire to master nature and is therefore a kind of warped expression of our innate desire for transcendence. On the other hand, it really dampens this desire because it empties reality of anything great, of any transcendent meaning worth longing for. Convinced that nothing can fulfill this longing for transcendence, we determine that the desire itself is not really worth having. So the desire for beauty, for eternity, for God which characterizes even the pre-Christian centuries is blunted before it even starts. This is what is unique about the modern technological vision: its capacity to blunt the longing for eternity by darkening our vision of transcendent beauty and truth, which puts our very humanity at stake. Contemporary critics of hedonism and consumerism often argue that modern society is dominated by the quest for happiness. I don't think this is true or at least not the whole truth. I think modern society is dominated, alternatively, by obedience to necessity and the attempt to escape necessity. Where there is no vision of transcendence (and therefore truth), no hope in eternity, there can be no real or deep desire for happiness, much less real pursuit of it.

How do truth, hope, and love save us from domination by technology?
Partly through their connection to freedom, though to see this we have to realize that the Pope is not talking about "truth" in some abstract, logical sense. The truth in question here is the person of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus is the full revelation of both God and man, He is the Truth who satisfies our in-built longing for eternity. But our deepest truth and fulfillment are essentially a surprise, coming from beyond our resources or expectations. This surprising Truth liberates freedom from immanent necessity and makes it possible for us to really live. And it's why the faith has survived to be handed down to us.
The hope of the Resurrection broke the closed cycle of fate that dominated the ancient world, opening up what the Pope beautifully calls a "breathing space." It can happen again, even now: the human project isn't spent because Christ isn't spent.

How would Benedict see the relationship between technology and the "breathing space opened up by Truth's transcendent horizon" in the Liturgy?
Benedict's long-standing concern for the state of the Liturgy is deeply connected with these questions. Technological culture, of its inner logic, circumscribes a manufactured fate within a suffocating circle of immanence.
The "breathing space" which the Pope commends depends upon disrupting this closed circle of immanence and opening it up to the transcendent horizon of Truth. You might say that God perpetually interrupts our immanent self-enclosure in the sacraments by offering Himself to us, and taking up our life into His. The question, from our side, is whether we celebrate the Liturgy in a manner and in a spirit capable of acknowledging this.

Given the current state of affairs, are there any practical suggestions in Caritas in Veritate? In what should man focus his energies?
Again, our fundamentally technological society has erected political, economic, and technical systems of such massive scope that they resist human control. In the face of these systems, there is a prevailing sense of helplessness. No one knows how to fix a diffused economy that has no center.

Most people are uneasy about the brave new future of biotechnological "enhancement" but haven't the least idea how to delay it. When you feel impotent, the question naturally comes up: "What can we do?" This is wholly legitimate and appropriate. No doubt there are things we could do: craft regulations with respect to credit; pass laws that promote family life, etc. But if our deepest problem is an eclipse of truth by technology, then the solution of this problem cannot be fundamentally technological, a "doing." It must consist in restoring truth, which requires thought and contemplation. Discovering, knowing, and loving the truth is already a doing something. And witnessing patiently and defenselessly to the truth, even to the point of suffering for it, is doing something more. This is what Benedict has done these past many months. This, I think, is what Caritas in Veritate ultimately recommends: the quiet contemplation of truth over restless engineering. This is not a counsel of quietism, but the highest form of freedom, and the only mode left to us for resisting technological fate.