By Mark Clavier
I’ve a proposal that you may think is a bit mad. But please hear me out.
Our churches struggle because we’ve bought almost entirely into the same crazy delusion as the rest of our society. And because we’ve bought into that misconception, we’re trying to build the wrong kingdom.
The delusion is that our reality — that thing we’re all currently fighting about like a family of ugly malcontents — is the same as the actual world out there. Our reality is mostly a fantasy, a massive project to compel the world to be as we think it should be. And this so-called reality is built entirely on our will. Let’s call this strange new world Technopolis.
The existence of Technopolis is no accident, but rather the consequence of a conspiracy between largely white, affluent conservatives and progressives. Let’s call the conservatives Exploiters and call the progressives Tinkerers. They may not like each other, and they certainly don’t like what the other is doing or planning, but they need each other to maintain Technopolis. If either cease to play their part, the whole edifice will collapse.
Tenets of Technopolis
We citizens of Technopolis believe fervently in the supremacy of the will. What we will is how things are. Nothing is chiseled into sacred tablets, nothing has any meaning that we can’t change, nothing is beyond our self-interested exploitation and tinkering. If by an act of collective will we deem something good, then it must be good simply because we’ve deemed it so.
Citizens of Technopolis subscribe to three fundamental tenets:
First, humankind is master of all: the world and its resources (if you’re an Exploiter), God and meaning (if you’re a Tinkerer). Both amount to the same thing: individuals are free to do as they please, consume what they like, believe what they will. Both sides are equally ravenous, too, refusing to tolerate anyone or anything lying beyond its reach. Thus, Technopolis is fundamentally imperialistic and totalitarian, aiming to bring everything under its control.
The second is like unto the first: limits are bad. Anything that restricts us from doing as we please is oppressive and cruel. If the limits are legal, we’ll change the laws; if social, we’ll change the society; if familial, we’ll happily kick Mom and Dad to the curb; and if natural, we’ll develop new technologies to overcome them. Tinkerers object to anything that limits people’s capacity for self-creation; Exploiters oppose any limits to people’s capacity to amass wealth. The one rejects social and religious restrictions, the other financial and governmental. Both announce: “the world exists for us and for me.”
The final tenet is necessary for the first two: Technopolis floats free, drawing its life not from nature but from what we’ve fabricated: money, consumer goods, the Internet, mass media, fashion, and urban sprawl. All that really matters is what can be invented in our cities of consumption. Technopolis, therefore, reaches its pristine state on the Internet where we can exist totally unbounded by nature.
The Pillars of Technopolis
Exploiters and Tinkerers are like a married couple who keep their family together despite constantly fighting. Their arguments may be getting more heated, but both still believe in the marriage, in Technopolis. And we can see this in how each side does its part to support the two pillars on which Technopolis is built: industry and the media.
There would be no Technopolis without the mass uprooting of people from their homes to be used as industrial and commercial fodder. People had to be turned into cattle, dragged from their homes, and corralled into factories, sweatshops, bureaucracies, and over-crowded cities in order to build Technopolis.
That was the work of Modernity, when the world became a factory for producing goods enjoyed by an affluent few. Society and laws were changed to benefit industrialists as they hammered together their global industrial machine. That machine, aided by technology, now dominates creation for our economic advantage. Our affluence comes from the abuse of the earth, the destruction of communities, and the obliteration of traditional culture and heritage.
Industry provides the income for mass media to thrive. Because Technopolis inherently drains life of meaning, joy, stability, and neighborliness, we need distraction and entertainment. The Internet, television, film, music, and fashion draw from industrial might to expand their reach and fix our attention. If industry provides the Technopolis’s infrastructure, then mass media provides its culture, telling us who we should be, how we should live, what’s desirable and what’s taboo, in short: what’s real.
Generally, the Exploiters support the pillar of industry and the Tinkerers support mass media. Exploiters champion free trade, open markets, and the absurd idea of infinite economic growth. Tinkerers luxuriate in the prosperity this creates, relishing the personal freedom of those with the means to enjoy it and directing its production towards building a New Technopolis.
Ironically, though, each wants to topple the other’s pillar. The Tinkerers excoriate Exploitersfor destroying the planet and oppressing its population for the good of GDPs. But without that exploitation, mass-mediated consumer culture would quickly shrivel and Technopolis evaporate. Less prosperous places are invariably more conservative.
On the other hand, Exploiters denounce the influence of mass media as morally destructive but then create the financial conditions for it to thrive. Without the unsustainable prosperity created by factories, strip mining, industrialized farming, unregulated global corporations, the arms industry, and oil there would be no mass media. Exploiters and Tinkerers are locked in a perpetual battle that’s also a mutual embrace of desperation.
If Exploiters and Tinkerers are like bickering spouses, then advertising is their marriage ring, symbolizing their deep union. It’s how we know something meets approval in Technopolis. If it attracts the interest of advertisers, then it must be good. And whatever wishes to be deemed good must gain their attention. For through advertising, the wealth of industry is made available for the benefit of mass media, and vice versa. Its stamp of authenticity is publicity and profit. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be,” said Jesus. We reply, “Where advertising is, there will our hearts be also.”
Yet, we’ve now hit the hard fact of reality and are beginning to awaken to the consequences of our fantasy. Ecologically, we’re confronted by the immense cost of Technopolis: climate change, topsoil depletion, deforestation, and toxification. Politically, we’re experiencing an unexpected resurgence of populism that seeks both to push back against the rhetoric of Technopolis and gain more of its largesse for itself. Socially, we’re fragmenting into warring tribes of rootless, autonomous individuals. Ironically, these cracks have come just as Technopolis finds itself on the cusp of achieving its long-expected utopia: the domination of nature through robotics, AI, algorithms, genetics and the life sciences.
Consequently, Technopolis is torn in two opposite directions. The ecological crisis and the rise of populism are encouraging us to question ourselves. At the same time, we embrace a culture and way of life only possible through the combination of exaggerated affluence, technical ingenuity, and the Internet. As a result, almost everyone is dissatisfied and desires deep changes but also wants these to happen as they wish and without sacrifice. How could unbounded, masters of the world accustomed to living in places detached from nature think otherwise?
The Church of Technopolis
For generations now, the Church has applied itself mainly to three tasks, all related to Technopolis. The first is to salve the conscience of the Exploiters. The faith of wealthy industrialists, celebrities, financiers, and even conquerors has been and continues to be a powerful force in our world. The presence of their faith has given the Church permission to overlook, forgive, or even embrace those whose influence is unquestionably wicked.
The second is to help build a better Technopolis. Its ideals become the gospel’s ideal, which therefore means refitting our pulpits for the work of spreading Technopolis far and wide. The pulpit, in fact, becomes just another output for mass media like our TVs, concert venues, radios, and Internet. Those undertaking this task are often the best of people, but they rarely consider the impossibility of a utopia that necessarily destroys the planet, exploits the poor, and drains the world of truths beyond our willful tinkering.
These first two tasks are the work of colluders who mistake Technopolis for the Kingdom; the final is the work of saints. Recognizing Technopolis for what it is, some in the Church work tirelessly to alleviate those harmed or neglected by Exploiters and Tinkerers. Such people are like the nurses of World War I, powerless to stop the destructive horror but also unable to stand idly by. Their work is all the more noble for the despair that underpins it—the world is thus, they see no way of changing it, and yet they love.
Returning to Creatureliness
What then is to be done? God only knows and I suspect he won’t begin to show us until we start challenging the tenets of Technopolis. We can to do this by re-asserting four fundamental Christian beliefs: priesthood, limits, creatureliness, and neighborliness. We exist in order to be God’s image-bearing priests, offering God’s own creation back to him in praise and thanksgiving.
Of all the creatures both in sea and land
Onely to Man thou hast made known thy wayes,
And put the penne alone into his hand,
And made him Secretarie of thy praise. (George Herbert, “Providence”)
We begin to fulfill our priestly stewardship by acknowledging creation first and foremost as a gift of divine love: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created (Rev. 4.18).” We therefore shouldn’t seek to impose our will on creation but rather nurture, in Christ, whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable so that God’s Sabbath may rest on the earth (Phil. 4.8). This priestly task is rooted in gratitude and praise.
Because we aren’t God, we live within moral, physical and ecological bounds. These boundaries are part of our being and, therefore, are neither imposed nor oppressive. To flourish means to live maximally within those limits, the basis for harmonious existence. As Bonhoeffer states, “The human being’s limit is at the centre of human existence, not on the margin. … The boundary that is at the centre is the limit of human reality, of human existence as such.” To live obediently into God’s reality is to live within those limits; such obedience requires wisdom and deference towards God and his creation.
Humanity is part of creation and not above or apart from it. Our creatureliness is fundamental to our existence and determines what it means to be both priests and bounded. It establishes our obedience to God and our responsibility toward our fellow creatures. It also means that harming the community of creation results in harming ourselves as well. Conversely, to seek the flourishing of all created life leads to the flourishing of humanity. The necessary attitude for living into our creatureliness is a humility that places the good of creation above the short-term desires of humanity and the self.
Finally, we were created to live in fellowship with God, creation, and each other. We belong and by belonging discover the richness of God’s love. The old virtue that encapsulates this idea is neighborliness understood in light of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. To be neighborly is to live well with the God who created and redeemed us, the land from which we draw life and sustenance, the creatures who share that land, and the people in whose midst we have been placed. This requires a sense of conviviality that stands open to the other in a spirit of generosity, care, and delight.
In our own time, wherever we find such priestly communities that rejoice in their bounded creatureliness and seek to live convivially, there also we find the Kingdom of God. And only insofar as we seek to live into that reality will God bless our work. To embrace that reality at this time is our most urgent call.
The Rev. Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales