Hugh Baker and technologism

I have not wasted the time I’ve had away on Sabbatical: I’ve been reading writers who use words a yard long, one of whom, Jacques Ellul, a French philosopher, talks about ‘technologism’. Modern Western society, he claims, is unique. Every society, from the most primitive flint axe makers, has had a practical technology to deal with life. They did not, however, believe it solved everything. The people who invented the wheel, gave us our alphabet and mathematics, and the foundations of our our philosophy, literature and music, all considered it a necessary, practical thing to worship and relate to an unseen god or gods.

By contrast, we (and we alone) believe all our problems are solvable by the technology at our command. A friend of mine in the computer trade has a calendar hanging on his office wall with a monthly ‘thought for the day’ on it. Last time I visited him, Jean Jacques Rousseau was declaring ‘There is no problem which cannot be overcome by applied thought.’ We are the children of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment whose essence Rousseau encapsulates here. ‘We have no need’ he tells us ‘for God, prayer and religion. We can solve all our problems ourselves.’

Ellul, examining the effects of technologism, turns his attention on counselling. Counselling, he says, is technologism applied to the human soul. Are your crime rates soaring? Is your divorce rate going up? Are your young men committing suicide with disturbing frequency? Has a school caretaker (seemingly) murdered two little girls? ‘Do not worry!’ declares the technologist. ‘We have the means to deal with it! Let our counsellors tinker about with the innards of your soul, and we can make it all OK.’

Technique v transcendence

The recent dreadful events at Soham saw technologism and old time religion in competition for the allegiance of the nation. A veritable army of counsellors were drafted in for the use of every school child in Soham, of primary or secondary school age. I know not how many children used them, but it is evident that old time religion found abundant usage. I dare say attendance at Soham church is now returning to its usual levels, but for a time it was bulging at the seams. Ely Cathedral, with four times the capacity of Soham church, had to ration attendance by ticket to Holly and Jessica’s memorial service. I gather that people came from as far away as South Wales and Yorkshire to lay flowers in Soham church yard. Why? Because here, people sensed, was something they needed the help of a Greater Power to deal with. Five years ago, on my day off, I went walking in Derbyshire’s Manifold valley. Coming home through Ashbourne, I was mystified to see flowers laid at the gates of a public park. Arriving back here, I found more flowers laid at our church door. At this point I had one of my better ideas. I knocked out three rather shoddy posters advertising ‘Prayers in Memory of Lady Diana in Church this Sunday Night.’ This place was full. People turn to Something Beyond Themselves when they feel they cannot, of themselves, cope with life. Conversely, if we can cope, then God (if he exists) can be politely ignored.

When I was ordained just over thirty years ago, large parts of society, and the Church, assumed that technologism had won. Legions of theologians tried to give some importance to a God we could live without perfectly well, thank you. How hopelessly outdated that view seems now. On my shelves at home I have a glossy magazine, whose mast head promises ‘Secrets of Health, Wealth and Happiness’. Glancing at it quickly, you’d imagine it was, say, Vogue. It is, in fact, ‘Feng Shui for Modern Living’. Technologism, seemingly so invincible thirty years ago, is being challenged by a whole host of philosophies, overtly or covertly worshipping the gods of old. They will, in time, make a profound difference to how our children are educated. My good lady wife teaches at an independent school in Walsall. Like many such schools, its brochure declares it to be a Christian institution, as does the Head Master in his introductory talk to parents. This year, Muslim parents have asked for (and got) a Prayer Room on the premises for their children.

Compulsion to control

Technologism, even so, remains the official religion of our society, and has imprinted its beliefs on the very substance of our curriculum. One of the main planks of Enlightenment thought was that sin was nothing more than the invention of devious clerics, designed to keep the populace guilty and subservient. ‘Man’, declares Rousseau and friends ‘is essentially good. Human badness is the result of bad environment, solvable by the installation of public parks and good sanitation. Religious moral teaching, therefore, is unnecessary in the formation of happy people or healthy societies. If religion features at all on the curriculum, a cursory gallop through a medley of beliefs and practices will suffice. Things don’t get better, as predicted? We have the answer: bring on the counsellors.

When the wheels start falling off a technologist society, it continues to look, in ways practical or occultic, for ways of mending itself. It has to invent a new technology to help it deny the fact that there is an immovable, unchangeable moral order laid down by God which we break at the price of our own destruction. Whatever job you do, technologism is wrapping its coils around you. Tidal waves of legislation, regulation and paperwork are rolling your way. Now, you might say that legislation and paperwork are necessities of life and, indeed, one of the instruments of God at work in our world. Necessities indeed they are, but technologism goes beyond necessity. It has, of its nature, to compulsively legislate, to find the self-made Rainbow’s End it has promised itself and its believers.

It is no mystery that our present Government’s first concern was ‘Education, education, education’. Technologism’s belief is that education (by which it means the amassing of factual knowledge, rather than the development of moral adults) will usher in the New Eden. Teachers are seen by technologists as one of their main tools in their plan for the planet’s self-salvation: hence the continually expanding apparatus of centralized supervision by which Teachers are chivvied ever onwards, ever upwards. It could be an immense relief for them to realize that to be a teacher is actually a call from God; a holy thing, by which one person helps other, smaller, people find out the adventure of love and faith God wants them to set out on in life. ‘It was (God) who gave … some to be teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service…’ (Ephesians 4.11–12). A rebellion by teachers (or the rest of us, come to that) against unnecessary, intrusive paperwork could be more than just an attempt to actually concentrate on the real job. It could be striking a blow for the rulership of God over his own world.

Hugh Baker, Vicar of Fazeley and the Peel Parishes, Diocese of Lichfield