Because of his intense interest in the Soviet space program, my son Matt has become interested in the Soviet Union — how it came to be, and how it fell. One of his Christmas gifts was Francis Spufford’s acclaimed novel about the Soviet era, Red Plenty. It is set in the 1950s and 1960s, a time, the critic Dwight Garner said in his rave review, “when Russians really thought their version of Communism would make them the richest and happiest and most unfettered people in the world.”
Matt is halfway through it now. I asked him a couple of nights ago what he was learning from it. He said, “All the characters know that they are caught up in a doomed project. They’re starting to realize that it can’t succeed, but they can’t stop it either.” He later explained their predicament as, “like they are sailing across a sea in a boat they have to keep patching with duct tape, and eventually it dawns on them that the boat is made of cardboard.” I thought that was a great simile.
I thought about that just now while reading this essay on the spiritual condition of modern man, written by the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, in 1932. It is obviously dated, but there is a lesson for Christians about our century, I think. Here is a long passage, which I’ve broken up into paragraphs for easier reading:
For the contemporary European all faith has weakened. He is more free from optimistic illusions than the man of the XIX Century, set facing the bare, unadorned and severe realities. But in one regard modern man is optimistic and filled with faith, and this is his idol, to which everyone offers sacrifice. We herein come nigh to a very important moment in the spiritual condition of the contemporary world. Modern man believes in the might of technology, of the machine, and sometimes it would seem, that this is the one thing, in which he still believes.
And there seems to be a very serious basis for his optimism in this regard. The dizzying successes of technology in our epoch is a genuine marvel of the sinful natural world. Man is shaken and crushed by the might of technology, making all his life topsy-turvy. Man himself has created it, it is the product of his genius, of his reason, of his inventiveness, it is a child of the human spirit. Man has succeeded in unlocking secret powers of nature and using them for his own ends, of introducing a teleological principle into the activity of mechanical-physical-chemical powers.
But to master the results of his work man has not succeeded. Technology has come to seem more powerful than man himself, it subjugates him to itself. Technology is the sole sphere of the optimistic faith of man, his greatest achievement. But it brings man, however, much grief and disappointment, it enslaves man, it weakens his spiritualness, it threatens him with ruin.
The crisis of our time is to a remarkable degree begotten by technology, which man lacks the strength to deal with. And this crisis is first of all a spiritual one. It is important for our theme to emphasise that Christians have proven to be completely unprepared for an appraisal of technology and the machine, for an understanding of its place within life. The Christian consciousness does not know, how to relate to the tremendous worldwide event, connected with the introduction into human life of the machine and technology.
The natural world, in which man was accustomed to live in the past, no longer still seems to be in the eternal order of things. Man lives in a new world, altogether quite different from that in which the Christian revelation occurred, in which lived the apostles, the teachers of the Church, the saints, all with which the symbolism of Christianity is connected. Christianity was very representative of a connection with the land, with a patriarchal order of life.
But technology has torn man away from the soil, it has with finality destroyed the patriarchal order. Christians can live and act in this world, in which everything is incessantly changing, in which there is naught yet stable, by virtue of the customary Christian dualism. The Christian is accustomed to live in two rhythms, in the religious rhythm and in the worldly rhythm. In the worldly rhythm he participates in the technisation of life, religiously not sanctified, and in the religious rhythm however, on a few days and hours of his life, he withdraws from the world to God. But it remains unclear, what religiously this formed anew world signifies.
For a long time they regarded technology as a most neutral sphere, something religiously indifferent, something furthermost removed from spiritual questions and therefore something innocent. But this period has past, though not all have noticed it so. Technology has ceased to be neutral. The question about technology has become for us a spiritual question, a question about the fate of man, about his relationship to God.
Technology has immeasurably deeper a significance, than ordinarily is thought. It possesses a cosmogonic significance, it creates a completely new actuality. It is a mistake to think, that the actuality, engendered by technology, is the old actuality of the physical world, a reality, studied by mechanics, physics and chemistry. This is an actuality, which did not exist in the history of the world until the discoveries and inventions, made by man. Man has succeeded in creating a new world. Within the machine is present the reasoning power of man, within it operates a teleological principle. Technology creates an atmosphere, saturated with energies, which earlier were hidden within the depths of nature. And man has no assurance, that he is in a condition to breathe in the new atmosphere.
He was in the past accustomed to breathe a different air than this. It is still inexplicable, what this electric atmosphere, into which he is cast, will produce for the human organism. Into the hands of man technology puts a terrible and unprecedented power, a power which can be to the destroying of mankind. The first tools, found in the hands of man, were relatively playthings. And it would be possible to regard them still as neutral.
But when such a terrible power is given into the hands of man, then the fate of mankind depends upon the spiritual condition of man. One already destructive aspect of technology is war, threatening almost cosmic a catastrophe, and it posits the spiritual problem of technology quite acutely. Technology is not only the power of man over nature, but also the power of man over man, power over the life of people. Technology can be converted into service to the devil.
But therein especially it is not neutral. And especially in our materialistic times everything acquires a spiritual significance, everything is set beneathe the standard of the spirit. Technology, begotten by spirit, materialises life, but it can also indeed assist in the liberating of spirit, of liberation from the bounds of materio-organic life. It can enable also an in-spiriting.
Technology signifies the transfer of the whole of human existence from the organism to the organisation. Man no longer lives in an organic order. Man is accustomed to live in an organic connection with the soil, with plants and animals. The great cultures of the past were still surrounded by nature, they loved their gardens, flowers and animals, they had not yet broken asunder from the rhythm of nature. The sense of the land begat a tellurgic mysticism (Bachofen has remarkable thoughts about this). Man came from the soil and he returns to the soil. With this is connected a profound religious symbolism.
The vegetative cults have played a tremendous role. The organic life of man and of human societies presented itself as a life similar to that of plants. Organic was the life of the family, of the corporation, the state, the church. Society had resemblance to an organism.
The romantics at the beginning of the XIX Century ascribed an especial significance to the organism and the organic. From them comes the idealisation of everything organic and hostility towards the mechanical. The organism is born, and not made by man, it is begotten by nature, by cosmic life, in it the whole is not composed merely of parts, but rather precedes the parts and determines their life. Technology tears man apart from the soil, carries him across the expanses of the world, and gives man the sensation of earth as a mere planet.
Technology radically alters the attitude of man to space and to time. It is hostile to any organic embodiment. In the technological period of civilisation man ceases to live amidst animals and plants, he is flung into a coldly-metallic medium, in which there is no longer any animal warmth, no warm-bloodedness. The might of technology bears with it an enfeebling of cordiality within human life, of cordial warmth, coziness, lyricism, sorrows, always connected with the emotion of soul, and not with spirit. Technology kills everything organic in life and sets it under the standard of the organisation of the whole of human existence.
The inevitability of the transition from organism to organisation is one of the sources of the contemporary crisis of the world. It is not so easy to be torn asunder from the organic. The machine with a cold ferocity rips the spirit from its intertwined organic flesh, from vegetative-animate life. And this expresses itself first of all in the weakening of the soul-emotive element within human life, in the dissociation of integral human feelings.
We are entering upon an harsh epoch of spirit and technology. The soul, connected with organic life, has proven very fragile, it shrinks back from the fierce blows which the machine inflicts upon it, it flows with blood, and sometimes it seems, that it is dead. We perceive this as a fatal process of technisation, mechanisation, the materialisation of life.
But spirit can oppose this process, can master it, can enter into a new epoch of being victorious. This is the fundamental problem. The organisation, into which the world is passing over, the organisation of the enormous human masses, the organisation of technical life, the organisation of economics, the organisation of scientific operations etc, is very burdensome for the soul-emotive life of man, for the intimate life of the person, and it begets the inner religious crisis.
Elements of organisation have existed since the very dawn of human civilisation, just as always there have existed elements of technology, but never has the principle of technical organisation been so dominating and all-extensive, always there remained much of the organic and vegetative condition. The organisation, connected with technology, is a rationalisation of life.
But human life cannot be ultimately and without residue rationalised, always there remains an irrational element, always there remains a mystery. The universal principle of rationalisation receives its just reward. Rationalisation, bereft of any higher spiritual principle, begets irrational consequences. And thus in economic life we see, that rationalisation begets such an irrational manifestation, as unemployment.
In Soviet Russia the rationalisation of life assumes forms, reminiscent of collective madness. Universal rationalisation, technical organisation, the spurning of the mysterious foundations of life, beget a lost sense of the old meaning of life, and anguish, and the tendency towards suicide. Man is attracted by the technics created by him, but he himself cannot be transformed into a machine. Man — is the organiser of life, but he himself in his depths cannot be the object of organisation, within him himself there always remains an element of the organic, the irrational, the mysterious.
The rationalisation, the technisation, the machinisation of the whole of human life and of the human soul itself cannot but provoke a reaction against itself. This reaction existed during the XIX Century. The romantics always protested against the might of technology, the dissociating of the organic wholeness, and they appealed to nature, to the elemental foundation within man. A strident protest against technology was made by Ruskin. He did not want to reconcile even with the railroad and he journeyed in a carriage parallel to the rail tracks.
The romantic reaction against technology is understandable and even indispensible, but it is impotent, it either does not decide the problem or it resolves it too easily. To return to former times, to the organic lifestyle, to the patriarchal relationships, to the old forms of the familial economy and handicrafts, to the life with nature, with the land, with plants and animals, is impossible. And indeed this return would be undesirable, for it is connected with an exploitive use of people and animals. In this is the tragedy of the position.
And it remains but for spirit creatively to define its own relationship towards technology and towards the new epoch, to master technology in the name of its own ends. Christianity ought creatively to define an attitude towards the new actuality. It cannot be too optimistic. But it also cannot run away from the human reality. This presupposes an exertion of spirituality, an intensification of the inner spiritual life. Soul-emotive sentimentalism within Christianity has become already impossible. Soulful emotionality cannot bear up under the harsh reality. Indifference is possible only for the hardened, the obdurate spirit. Spirit can be an organiser, it can master the technical for its own spiritual ends, but it would have to resist itself being turned into a tool of the organising technical process. In this is the tragedy of spirit.
Heavy stuff. As I walk out the door for church this morning, I’m thinking not about how the domination of technology in our culture makes things of the spirit harder to live by — though it does, for obvious reasons. Rather, I’m wondering how technology makes the Christian religion harder to live by, in the cosmological sense of which Berdyaev speaks. If the Christian religion is constructed around an organic conception of the cosmos — that is, of man, and his place in it — then in what ways does a technological world undermine what is specifically Christian about the religion? It would seem to me that the relative disembodiment of Protestant Christianity (relative, I mean, to Catholic and Orthodox Christianity) makes it the form of Christianity most suited to a technological world, but I could be wrong.
Berdayev wrote this almost 100 years ago. Has Christianity risen to the challenge since then? Time to read some Ellul, Illich, and McLuhan, I know. But look, tell me what you think? Again, I’m not interested in how technology paves the way for agnosticism and atheism. I think that’s fairly clear. I’m interested in how Christianity may be — may be — ill-suited for the technological epoch, and how it may be able to change without losing its essence.