I. No Strange Gods
Idolatry and Icons - Questions and Answers - Transparency and Opacity
I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt not have strange gods before me.
(Exodus 20:1-3, DRA)
Hang around technical competitions (like FRC, FSAE) for a while and you’ll really understand how much we worship technological development - I know because I’ve been there. People often jest about how “robotics is my religion”. An exaggeration, sure, but we know that man cannot help but be religious; primarily devoted to some thing or ideal. For the ancients, of course, the question was never about religion or non-religion, but right religion, and practicing it.
With that said, technology is a strange god.
Like any god that is dependent on the world (rather than above it), to the extent that it has true and timeless values, they must be ones that were inherent in the created firmament. Hm, created gods is the next few verses…
Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them: I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.
(Exodus 20:4-5, DRA)
Of course, iconoclasts modern and ancient object to traditional Christianity at reading this - haven’t we built houses of worship chock-full of statues, paintings, icons - aren’t these graven images? Actually, no. An icon is not an idol and in my opinion, this is made no clearer (at least while still being beautiful) than in eastern iconography.
A hint is found in the greek word for such icons: “Αγιογραφία”; “holy writing” - and for the same reason one does not merely ‘look at’ or ‘paint’ or ‘carve’ an icon. One reads an icon; one writes an icon. Especially in the traditional eastern style, these images are downright cryptic and unhuman. I was just in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where a couple was walking through and commented snarkily about how disfigured these were, incredulous that the ancients didn’t know what they were doing. The ancients knew exactly what they were doing: it wasn’t painting exact representations, it was highlighting the underlying reality of the situation.
In this way, a camera capturing the face of Jesus lies, whereas an icon of Christ tells the truth.
But, the iconoclasts object, we use these not as mere instructional aids, but as devotional aids, too. Fair, but we do not worship such icons: we worship through them. We do this in the same way that in looking through a window to wave at someone, we are not waving to the window - we wave through the window. This is in the same way that we learn of God through sacred scripture; we do not merely learn sacred scripture but Him as well. With these nuances, we avoid the idolatrous sin described in Exodus, instead using devotional aids as windows or portals into heaven, that if broken, we should be sad only insofar as the light cannot shine through them anymore, not because the window itself is broken.
Interestingly, scientific inquiry is doomed to take upon this windowlike behavior, as when we ask ‘why’, we inherently ‘see through’ the thing we are questioning.
Perhaps, in the nature of things, analytical understanding must always be a basilisk which kills what it sees and only sees by killing.
(C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man)
This is much the same reason why an atheist constantly asking ‘why’ eventually comes to a point of absurdity. A question’s answer (if it is any good) should satiate, not be questioned. You can indeed keep digging through the earth to reach the ‘core’ of truth, or you can keep going to the other side of the planet. It’s a matter of where you stop. If you don’t stop the whole line of questioning is transparent and leads nowhere. If you stop at the right point (God), you recieve enlightenment.
That’s science, though. Lots has been written on faith and reason and whether ‘science is compatible with religion’ - what we’re interested in here is how technology is compatible.
Every technology is an answer to a question: questions like, ‘how will I store grain for the winter months?’, ‘how will I keep from dying of heat stroke?’ The questions need not be ones of scarcity; ‘how can I enjoy the ocean?’ is just as much of a motivator. And sure, we often create for the pure joy of creation, but when this happens we still recognize that our technology has unlocked some answer to a question, perhaps unrealized at first.
You know how your teacher might often say “there are no wrong questions”? Well, that’s not true. ‘How do I kill my neighbor?’ isn’t a right question. It has some very bad pretenses. It has dug past the truth of God’s law, rejecting the thing we are trying to see, and is now on its way to a world devoid of meaning.
All skilled engineers I know take this truth to heart- and every time they are given a requirement, or asked a question, they question the question’s pretenses. ‘Why do you want to know this?’ ‘Why do you think you need this?’ It turns out, the desert fathers knew this before we started doing formal engineering; before requirement documents became a thing.
Take care of yourself, be the gatekeeper to your heart and don’t let any thought enter without questioning it.
When solving a problem, we must ask what pretenses led us to ask the particular question. The devil works primarially by questioning - making the appearance of lacking where there is plenty, of despair where there should be rejoicing. The problem comes when we accept the questions that cut through God’s reason and order. In the best case, our technologies are incomplete and lacking the fullness of revealed wisdom - in the worst case, they contradict divine law.
When [the developed Christian intellect] begins to reason over something, it reasons according to what it knows of the Christian truths, and would never make the slightest move without them.
(Theophan the Recluse, The Path to Salvation, p. 247)
So our questions spurring technology must be ordered, at some point intersecting with God’s divine will and stemming from it rather than clashing with it. Our best place to start, then, will be scripture. We shouldn’t force the answers to be technologies, but perhaps they will be components.
What does it mean to honor father and mother?
What would a world without usury be like?
What sort of food should I feed the hungry with?
How can I and those around me advance in virtue?
How can I more clearly see God’s glory in all things?
If these questions remain our primal focus, and remain the true aim of our creations, rather than succumbing to questions of this world (how will I make it profitable?), perhaps we can have hope in our creations that they may be pleasing since they are rooted only in love of Him, and not in love of our creations.
In all things we must strive to see God in them or reject them- to keep our technology as icon, not as idol.