Thursday, May 26, 2016

Our Three Overlapping Contexts: Creation, Society, and Technology

In Perspectives on Our Age (pp. 59-84), Jacques Ellul speaks about the three interrelated contexts in which we now live: creation, society, and technology.
He begins briefly by describing our technological context: the city. He points out that it is a totally artificial context, composed of nothing but the products of technology, and practically devoid of life except for us human beings.
He then gives us a quick glimpse of how difficult it is for us humans to leave that context. Even when we find ourselves in a purely creational context, such as in a forest or at a lake, we quickly turn on a radio, TV, or, now, smartphone to reestablish our familiar technological context. Whew!

Ellul defines context, to begin with, as the place where we live. More importantly, it is the place which provides us with necessary ways of making a living but also confronts us with the greatest threats to our lives. Because our context is the place where we meet promises of life and threats of death, it is the place which most demands change of us if we are to attain those promises and avoid those threats.
It is possible that an individual, social group, or species will fail to adapt to their context. They may refuse to change. In that case, they will die. This is sadly true of so many churches today.
As human beings, we live in three distinct but overlapping contexts. The first was the creational context provided for us by God. Prehistoric societies, societies, that is, before cities and writing, lived in direct contact with creation. Creation provided such societies with all necessary means for living through hunting and gathering. That same creation, following the rupture of humankind’s relationship with God, also threatened those early societies with death by wild animals, famine, and disease.
We humans, however, were not content to remain in our creational context, so we created another. This was the context of society, complete with cities and writing. Cities expressed our desire to take advantage of the best promises of creation and protect ourselves from its worst threats. They expressed our desire to control creation. We succeeded in doing so by coordinating individual efforts through organized social groups.
With this change, society became our primary context and creation became secondary. Our immediate context became society which mediated our relationship to creation. Consequently, “[t]he great problems were those in the organization of society, the political form to choose, the distribution of labor and wealth, the circulation of information, and the maintenance of cohesion among groups” (61).
Or again, with the emergence of society as context, the challenges of living with one another began to far outweigh those of relating to creation. Our major challenges became political in nature: “the very organization of society, the relations between various societies, the growth of political power, and the control of political power” (63).
The primary promises of life came from society. So too did the new greatest threat of death: war. Creation remained a source of vital promises and lethal threats but these became secondary to those of society.
Now we live in a technological context. It now mediates between us and both society and creation; that is, it now determines our relationships both with other people as well as creation. Its promises and threats are now primary, with those of society secondary and of creation tertiary. Consequently, “today, it is more important…to solve…the dangers coming from technology, than to solve purely political issues, the problems of elections, the question of whether a system should be democratic or not” (63).
This is not to say that political problems no longer exist. Technology, in fact, worsens them. To respond creatively to them, however, we must address them at the technological rather than political level.
Jesus invites us today, as Christians and churches, to respond creatively to the challenges of our times. To do that, we must have a rigorously realistic understanding of reality. Sadly, we don’t. We continue to diagnose today’s ills as political problems in our societal context. This is a diagnosis made invalid by technological growth at least one hundred years ago. Jesus invites us to understand that the most significant challenges we face are the destructive consequences of our technological context.

Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.