Technology and Theology: Servant or Master?

By C. Don Jones

Steve Jobs, it is said, woke up every morning to make some new piece of technology. The truth is that technology and ways to improve it woke up Steve Jobs every morning. For those of us who believe God wakes us up each morning, the challenges of technology are enormous. Jacques Ellul warned that technology had an ideology with it. Artificial intelligence is the apex of that ideology. I am not a luddite. Nor am I a technophobe. I simply wish to be clear about what we are expecting. I do not believe we are prepared to consider the implication of technology for theology. In fact, I believe technology presents its own theology.

Technology As Servant

Churches began regular Sunday evening services when electric lights became affordable. Churches have used technology as a “draw” to bring people inside the buildings ever since. When the lights go out, many congregations do not hold scheduled worship times. It would be impractical for some worship spaces. In the same way, microphones and speakers are necessities for a church to be taken seriously. Add to these things the desire many churches in the West have for central heat and air conditioning. Electric instruments from organs to guitars require an investment of time and money. Every piece of equipment is “necessary” for the convenience, comfort, and enjoyment of the congregation.

Technology is a servant providing comfort, convenience, and enjoyment for audiences. The learning curve during the pandemic may not have been comfortable for everyone, but it kept many churches from closing their doors. Churches had to provide streaming, both live and recorded, of worship services. Why? Because they could. The tools were available (unless you lived in an area not served by broadband).  Did churches have to do this? Could we have found other ways to minister? Clergy and lay church leaders were required to learn to use the tools. We are taking courses on how to enhance our online presence…online.  Does the servant now train the user?. Has the technology taken over completely?

Theology as Why

Theology is practice. “As the church prays so the church believes,” says the Catholic catechism. The basic idea is that how the church worshiped determined what the church claimed was truth. If Jesus is worshiped as God, he must be God. The bread and wine not only represent the body and blood of Jesus, they are the body and blood.. The two must be present somehow with the bread and wine even if it is “we may be the body of Christ redeemed by his blood.” Technology will not change any of these doctrines, but it will change how we think of them. Did your church debate online communion? What did it mean to gather and pass the peace of Christ to one another when you could also be passing a virus? Community–virtual or physical– is an issue as well. My meditation app shows a “thank you” from someone who happens to be using the app at the same time. “Thank you for meditating with me today.” This is bizarre to my mind. It is like the tree falling in the woods. Only it turns out that someone heard it. My presence is affirmed because the app recognizes two people using it at the same time. Is this community? The app says it is. We once declared the community ourselves, when two or more are gathered in his name.

Theology either accepts all online communities or decides what level of interaction determines a community. And this leads to a consideration of social media and artificial intelligence.

The Technology of Why

Philosopher Daniel Dennett in his fun book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea compared evolution by natural selection to an algorithm. Roughly speaking, an algorithm is a process that takes many possibilities to make an outcome. Algorithms are predictive processes. They also determine what we see and hear via technology..

Why does an advertisement for something you were just thinking about pop up on your social media wall? If you “googled” it, then the reason is obvious. But what if you did not and got the ad anyway?  Global positioning information is being collected on your Internet-connected devices. If your android phone is in the presence of one belonging to someone else, that, too, is known. Where you are and who you are with are factored together. Not only that but the interests of the other person are known based on their viewing, search, and the places they frequent. The algorithm then compiles this information and pushes certain advertisements in your direction. When you notice the “coincidence,” you set yourself up for future advertising aimed at your interests.

Churches, like other businesses, rely on this algorithmic method to get viewers on our livestreams. Social media, like Facebook/Meta, also advertise ways to “boost your audience” with a “pay to play” feature making your page an ad on someone else’s personal feed. There is no getting around this capitalist manipulation. No room for dialogue exists because the algorithm is driven by this ideology. There is a why to the technology.

Technological Theology

Technology is always “improving” and becoming more complex. Technology makes surprise budget strains on congregations just to maintain it. It always has. Congregations use technology to grow ministries. But funding for the technology, as for the ministries, is drying up, as the “market share” in church attendance dwindles or moves to larger megachurch productions. This is the capitalist model of unrestrained expansion. Technology contributes to a theology of scarcity. The Kingdom of God, on the other hand, is about abundance.

Theological reflection on technology is still a new task. Steve Jobs did not wake up every morning to make something new just for the love of it. Apple and other tech companies need to keep innovating or else they fall behind.  The promised pay off for tech billionaires never happens. It is elusive. The pay off may be an illusion. But what do we believe about the world and our place in it because of it?

The reader does not have a print version of this blog. This is our first hint. We believe information is readily available.  We believe it should be. But what are we discovering? What are we learning? Are we like Dennett simply hoping a technological comparison is a means to understanding? Alternative religions and spiritualities attempt to avoid this technology, to return to a simpler time. But even my neo-pagan friends advertise on social media. They are building their brands.

We are becoming the servants of the tools. Is the creator less than human? Dennett’s creator is an algorithm just as in earlier times the creator was the person winding the clock of the world and stepping back. There is more to being human than that.

Don Jones is a United Methodist minister in East Tennessee and a lifetime DSA member. An earlier version of this article appeared in Patheos.

How has technology affected your faith community? Write about 200 words to [email protected], and if we get enough responses, we’ll publish a follow-up article.