We hear a great deal about progress today. Now that mankind is well into the twenty-first century, the notion is we can only go forward. Anything that is a departure with the past is seen as a good because progress is the main goal of humanity. But has anyone really stopped and thought for a moment what it is the human race is supposedly progressing towards?
For all our technology, advances in medicine, advances in comfortable living, and so on, has humanity really made good progress? The way people are hunched over their phones and computers in our present time makes one think that we’ve actually made some negative progress.
Even though we live in a very connected world with a twenty-four-hour news cycle, and even though we have the ability to instantaneously contact someone half a world away with the click of a button, can we honestly say we are as connected with the human person as our ancestors were one hundred, fifty, or even forty years ago?
Not only has our contact with each other eroded more and more, but so has our contact with God. If this is what is happening, can we really be calling this technological age we live in “progress?”
When Tech Replaces Relationships
With increasingly smarter smart phones, GPS following our every move and gadgets galore to help make our lives (supposedly) easier, you would think we’d be better at building relationships with other people. But it seems that the opposite has been happening. When people go out for dinner, or are just hanging out with each other, a screen is never too far as we start interacting with someone else while ignoring the person right in front of us.
Marriage, one of the deepest relationships a person can enter into, is in decline throughout the Western world. And as this relationship is the principal building block of the family, it goes without saying that less children are being born. So instead of seeking out real interactions and forming healthy relationships, we are seeing more and more people turn to a variety of new technologies to satisfy these desires. One would think with how connected we all are in this internet age, there should be no way that we are lonely. But artificial communication can never replace a real relationship.
And sadly, modern man’s relationship with God is in even more of a sorry state. Droves of people, both young and old, are increasingly identifying as “nones”, those unaffiliated with a religion. This has led to not only empty pews in Christian churches throughout the world, but it also has led to a decrease in vocations for pastors and ministers, both ordained and non-ordained.
In one Lutheran church in Germany, technology has tried to fill the gap. A “robot priest” named BlessU-2 has been installed in the church to give out blessings. The horrific looking android extends its hands over you after selecting a blessing on its touchscreen chest. It then raises its mechanical arms while shooting out rays of light as it “blesses” you. Yes, this sounds like some kind of sci-fi joke, but it’s all too real. (To be fair, the pastor of this church did say that the robot was designed to raise questions about technology and the direction of humanity, but to even suggest that people would be interested in such a robot reveals the dire spiritual condition of Western society). Does anyone really think that this is progress in the spiritual life?
Like the above picture, technological contraptions such as these are actually moving us backwards in human development, not forward. We don’t receive God’s blessing from robots. In trying to do so, we are actually turning inward to ourselves. What all this tells me, from the robots to our modern day obsession with handheld devices and being connected to the internet 24/7, is that modern man has fallen more and more in love with himself while falling away from God. Through it all, man still has a longing deep within himself to enter into loving relationships with others, but that longing has become obscured over the last half century or so. How can we combat this?
What We Can Do About It
As we can in all situations, we can look to Christ and the Church for an authentic answer. As Bruce Marshall wrote in his 1945 book The World, The Flesh, and Fr. Smith, “The young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” All human beings wish to be connected with one another, even those of us that might self-identify as “loners”. Our Lord is that “Divine Other”; a Person that we can connect with and that all of our souls long for in some way. It is through our Lord that we can also connect with others in purely human relationships. This is, of course, best done through meeting and talking with people, and by listening to their stories attentively so as to have a good rapport with the people we encounter.
But that doesn’t exclude the possibility of using technological means to proclaim the Word to others. Technology in and of itself is a neutral agent. It is neither good nor bad on its own, but we decide if technology can be used for our own good and the progress of the human race or not. As we’ve laid out above though, more often than not our encounters with modern technology lead to less encounters with people, be they human or divine. Although he was talking about “technical knowledge” concerning the advent of television and radio, Pope Pius XI acknowledged this delicate balance between the good and bad effects such modern progress can have on mankind in his 1957 encyclical Miranda prorsus:
“Just as very great advantages can arise from the wonderful advances which have been made in our day… so too can very great dangers.
“For these new possessions and new instruments which are within almost everyone’s grasp, introduce a most powerful influence into men’s minds, both because they can flood them with light, raise them to nobility, adorn them with beauty, and because they can disfigure them by dimming their lustre, dishonor them by a process of corruption, and make them subject to uncontrolled passions, according as the subjects presented to the senses in these shows are praiseworthy or reprehensible.”
It’s fascinating to see how Pius XI’s words can still be applied to our present situation. “New instruments” like smart phones are basically in everyone’s grasp, even small children. We surely become subject to uncontrolled passions if we are not careful when using these devices. The scourge of internet pornography immediately comes to mind, and this epidemic has only been magnified with handheld devices which are easily connected to the web. But the pope also realizes here that the influence these instruments have on us can also bring “light”. The Church certainly recognizes that we as Catholic Christians can turn the tide and use technology as a real good in the world.
In his message on the occasion of the 43rd World Communications Day in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI recognized that we have the opportunity to bring the witness of our faith into the digital sphere. He especially wanted to make the youth aware of this opportunity:
“It falls, in particular, to young people, who have an almost spontaneous affinity for the new means of communication, to take on the responsibility for the evangelization of this ‘digital continent’. Be sure to announce the Gospel to your contemporaries with enthusiasm.”
We who are recognized as millennials or Gen-Z’ers need to redirect our impulses to share random cat videos and silly memes into something much more worthwhile. Here in Pope Benedict, we have a call to channel our abilities in deftly navigating this technological world we live in to something higher. To something truly “progressive”, as it were. We can take this neutral agent, be it our smart phones, our tablets, or whatever the device is, and turn it into something that actually connects people with each other and with our Lord in a way that is not hollow and empty.
We might feel reservations about this though, because so often it is we ourselves that have fallen into the traps that modern technology has set before us. We may feel that because of our own deficiencies, there’s no way we can turn things around into something better. St. Francis de Sales disagrees with this dismal outlook on things and reminds us, “Do not be disturbed because of your imperfections; always rise bravely from a fall. … There is no better means of progress in the spiritual life than to be continually beginning afresh and never to think we have done enough.”
Pope Benedict also mentioned in his 2009 address that:
“[the] popularity [of new technologies] with users should not surprise us, as they respond to a fundamental desire of people to communicate and to relate to each other. This desire for communication and friendship is rooted in our very nature as human beings and cannot be adequately understood as a response to technical innovations. In the light of the biblical message, it should be seen primarily as a reflection of our participation in the communicative and unifying Love of God, who desires to make of all humanity one family. When we find ourselves drawn towards other people, when we want to know more about them and make ourselves known to them, we are responding to God’s call – a call that is imprinted in our nature as beings created in the image and likeness of God, the God of communication and communion.”
Technology helps us communicate. We can use it to foster real communication with others, or we can misuse it and turn it into something hollow and self-serving. If and when we do use our mobile devices and smart phones, we need to do so in moderation. It’s great for making a connection or setting up a date or meeting with someone. But once we find ourselves face to face with that person we’ve connected with, we need to put our fancy tech down and interact with that person in a real way. Whether that person is God or man, we need to give both our time. God first, and others second. And rightfully, we should be third. Let our will be at the service of God. If we do that, we’ll soon find out that his will is oftentimes that we then be at the service of others.