The Christian and Tech Minimalism
Words by Tony Reinke / Image by Dianne Jago
In a fallen world, man often feels helpless and dependent. Technology is his response, “a collective revolt against the limitations of the human condition,” a revolt against the unruliness of nature and a revolt “against the reality of our dependence on forces external to ourselves.” We are porous to forces outside of us; therefore we reach for technology as a protective buffer. We misuse technology when we wield it in the hopes of self-sufficiency and autonomous protection from nature. We should never be more cautious than with technologies that seal us off from the natural world, that noise-cancel nature from our electrified lives.
Over the past sixty years, Christians have called out worldliness in categories of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But in the tech age, worldliness sneaks in the back door, hooded in pragmatism and the desire for control. Lusting for sovereignty over life, through tech, is a prevailing manifestation of worldliness in our age. Tech “progress” is often driven forward by human lust for power. Man seeks “absolutized scientific-technological control.” Said another way, “Technicism is the pretension of humans, as self-declared lords and masters using the scientific- technical method of control, to bend all of reality to their will in order to solve all problems, old and new, and to guarantee increasing material prosperities and progress.” When we wield technology in unbelief, we display a Babel-like expression of the human desire for sovereignty.
In stark contrast, to be human is to be a human being, a creature ordered toward God himself. We find our bearings in orientation to him and to his will. Creaturely autonomy is a fantasy. God’s providence over the world, his church, and our lives is reality. In the words of John Webster, God’s providence is “that work of divine love for temporal creatures whereby God ordains and executes their fulfilment in fellowship with himself.” Out of his love, God orders our lives toward his glorious presence to enjoy forever. But this precious promise is lost very quickly in the age of innovation. “We don’t think that way today,” warns Webster, “because we generally take a technological image of ourselves. We are essentially what we manipulate, what we make of ourselves through the things we make and the choices we make and the patterns we make around ourselves.” As Christians we want more for our lives and our children’s lives than techno-manipulation. The Spirit must orient us toward God as our highest good, so that we not only believe it, but live from a conviction that he really is our supreme treasure, now and forever.
But another low-hanging fruit beckons us, a perpetual temptation to gain control over our bodies. No doubt the future of health will include more wearables as we attempt to quantify and data-fy everything from our heart rates, glucose levels, step counts, mood fluctuations, sleep patterns, and any manner of analytical readings for personal productivity. Anything we quantify into data we will try to optimize. Much of this will be good. And we will see new medical advances promising to end aging. But perhaps Western culture will become so infatuated with health that we will make ourselves ill. That’s the suggestion of Packer. “Dazzled by the marvels of modern medicine, the Western world dreams of abolishing ill health entirely, here and now,” he said. “We have grown health conscious in a way that is itself rather sick, and certainly has no precedent—not even in ancient Sparta. Why do we diet and jog and do all the other health-raising and health-sustaining things so passionately? Why are we so absorbed in pursuing bodily health? We are chasing a dream, the dream of never having to be ill. We are coming to regard a pain-free, disability-free existence as one of man’s natural rights.” This “natural right” is the bruised fruit of technological control culture.
J. I. Packer warns that in our attempts to stop aging and optimize health through all sorts of quantified tracking and body hacks, we may miss out on God’s bigger purpose and plan for our lives. “God uses chronic pain and weakness, along with other sorts of affliction, as his chisel for sculpting our souls,” he wrote. “Felt weakness deepens dependence on Christ for strength each day. The weaker we feel, the harder we lean. And the harder we lean, the stronger we grow spiritually, even while our bodies waste away.”
Obviously, we can escape from God’s providence like a fish can escape water for a life in outer space. But we resist God by thoughtlessly grabbing for more life control. This is idolatry. We’d rather have a god we can readily understand, easily appease, and instantly command. Idolatry is all about control. And tech, like in the age of handheld idols, puts in our hands tools and gadgets that give us the appearance of control. It’s a mirage. Any confidence we have about what we are going to do later today, tonight, or tomorrow is an idolatrous arrogance if we think that we ultimately decide. We don’t. Our lives are a spritz-mist in the desert that evaporates before hitting the ground. We are vapors.
We don’t control our lives because we don’t control the living God. He’s entirely other-than-us. We are creatures of clay. Our techno-control over the variables of this world is an idolatrous illusion. Instead, we affirm with the psalmist that God has governed my destiny until now, he is the source of all I need today, and he holds my future secure.
None of these tensions are new to the Amish people. Contrary to this age of technological control that governs so much of urban life, the Amish have retreated to the country with an intentional, self-limited “rightness of scale,” a manageability that restrains the size of their farms and their proximity to community, “an economy dependent upon limits strictly understood and observed.” They limit their dependence on “machine-developed energy,” and by it, says Wendell Berry, “have become the only true masters of technology.” Tech mastery requires self-limitation.
The Amish separate from the world into small communities, largely technologically isolated, adopting only a sparse number of tools that benefit (and do not harm) the local community. Kevin Kelly spent a lot of time with the Amish, studying their habits and convictions. He calls them “ingenious hackers and tinkerers, the ultimate makers and do-it-yourselfers.” The Amish are aware of iPhones and computers. But they are tech-adoption minimalists by clear convictions, particularly these four, in the words of Kelly:
- They are selective. They know how to say no and are not afraid to refuse new things. They ignore more than they adopt.
- They evaluate new things by experience instead of by theory. They let the early adopters get their jollies by pioneering new stuff under watchful eyes.
- They have criteria by which to make choices. Technologies must enhance family and community and distance themselves from the outside world.
- The choices are not individual but communal. The community shapes and enforces technological direction.
We can learn something from these four lessons, but something even more foundational is at work in this community. The Amish approach to life and technology includes intentional inaction— gelassenheit—a yieldedness, a serenity, a letting be, a relaxing from promises of techno-control over all of life, in order to submit to God’s will over whatever is to come. They seek to preserve one of the fundamental facts of humanness: we are creatures under the providence of God.
Likewise, Christians will help restrain the adoption of certain technologies based on dangers to creation, nature, and physical health (perceived from general revelation), and, most importantly, Christians will resist the adoption of technologies based on spiritual factors (learned from special revelation). Prudence will allow us to benefit from the best advances while limiting the misuse that often comes along with the false promises of tech control.
Here’s the challenge. The dilemma of the tech age is how to live minimally without innovating minimally. “To maximize our own contentment, we seek the minimum amount of technology in our lives,” writes Kelly, who learned this lesson while living inside an Amish community. “Yet,” he says, “to maximize the contentment of others, we must maximize the amount of technology in the world. Indeed, we can only find our own minimal tools if others have created a sufficient maximum pool of options we can choose from. The dilemma remains in how we can personally minimize stuff close to us while trying to expand it globally.” This is what the Amish have figured out: how to remain aware of the proliferation of innovations happening around them while adopting tech minimally and based on the health of the community.
The Amish have pulled off coordinated tech minimalism. We won’t. My minimalism will not look like your minimalism. This means we have warrant to innovate more broadly than any one of our personal adoption decisions. We are not called to stifle all new tech but to live with enough trust in God’s providential control to celebrate the tech wealth offered to us while also demonstrating God-centered contentment required for a life of tech minimalism.
Content generously provided from God, Technology, and the Christian Life by Tony Reinke, ©2022. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.