Wednesday, April 20, 2011By Steven H. VanderLeest
During Holy Week I was thinking about some on-line acquaintances that have given up Facebook for Lent. This is an interesting twist on the ancient tradition of self-deprivation during this season, an expansion on the contemplative practice of fasting. Just as fasting does not imply there is anything wrong with food, so too I take it that a short break from a certain technology does not imply anything wrong with that technology. However, fasting from food or technology does imply that we might sometimes get our priorities wrong, putting too much emphasis on a good thing so that it displaces the ultimate good: God. Fasting can also help us to appreciate, by their absence, these good gifts that God has given us.
Technology that takes too high a place in our lives is then by definition an idol. Even good things can tempt us away from following God’s will, drawing us by their convenience, elegance, beauty, or other allures. This got me wondering if there might be specific aspects of our technical gadgets that might have an insidious aspect to lure us into other sins. I have explored certain virtues that technology ought to encourage or exhibit, so perhaps it is time to look at the dark side, perhaps appropriate as we contemplate the darkest day in history on this coming Friday that we ironically call Good.
No matter how novel and inventive, technology has not introduced any new sins, but merely a new twist on an old vice. The vice of lust (excessive desire, particularly of a sexual nature) is certainly easy to spot in modern technology: Internet pornography is well-known to be a common ill that tempts web surfers. Pornography is not a recently invented evil, but it appears to be more wide-spread now because of the ease of access over the Internet. Even more significant, the apparent anonymity of Internet access reduces the perceived threat of getting caught, which likely increases the temptation.
The vice of gluttony (wasteful overindulgence or excessive consumption, particularly of food) shows up in our societal predilection for rapid adoption of the latest gadget (and junking the previous device). We have amassed mountains of discarded cell phones in our drive to consume the latest and greatest phone that came out last week, making our year-old phone (supposedly) obsolete. Technology has made gluttony of food easier too, by pre-packaging foods that are hard to resist because of their carefully concocted compositions of sweet and fatty ingredients that give the perception of satisfaction but degrade our health over the long term.
Technology often aims for convenience, which easily translates into the vice of sloth. A TV remote that allows coach potatoes to control their gadgets without lifting more than a finger, or a microwave meal that can be prepared with the push of a button, or a power tool that reduces the job time from hours to seconds – all these devices could produce much good by allowing humans to express their creativity and direct their energies more productively. Too often, the convenience results in lazy, lethargic behaviors. Technology as tool should amplify our abilities, ambitions, and strivings, but the vice of sloth too easily tempts us to let the tool do the work so that we can rest and relax instead.
The vice of wrath (undue anger or rage) is an ancient sin, but technology can put too much power into the frail human who does not think through the consequences of angry actions. Road rage has become all too common, where a small offense (often more perceived than actual) becomes the occasion for rude gestures and then physical aggression. Without tools, such a brawl might come to blows, but likely the two combatants walk away (bruised, but not permanently injured). With tools, whether a gun or an automobile, the results can be devastating: a disproportionate response that often encompasses innocents. After the anger subsides, the perpetrator often experiences great guilt, wondering how they could have wrought such terrible vengeance for so small an affront.
We moderns are often quick to turn to technological fixes for our technological problems, and I do not fault this approach as part of a solution. But technology by itself is unlikely to solve a problem that is founded in our fallen nature. Vices are not technological at root, but rather a product of human sin. So when you fight that latest technological temptation, certainly use all means at your disposal to resist. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your computer causes you to sin, throw it out. The extreme measures that Jesus suggested were, I think, to clearly wake us to the danger of sin and to the need for intense resistance. If you keep your eye and your computer, then certainly also put special measures in place. For example, defy Internet porn through filter software but also through human accountability partners.
One final danger to consider is the vice of pride, which could arise if we think that our feeble efforts somehow will save us. We cannot save ourselves – only by grace do we resist our sinful nature. In this Holy Week, I look to Jesus Christ who stood against temptations and thus was our perfect sacrifice, fully human so that he could my place and fully divine so that he could bear the weight of God’s just anger against sin for us all. Blessed be his name.