January 22, 1994

TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES

“…man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

I’m watching a big game on TV, it’s the final period, the game is on the line, and suddenly my screen goes blank.  Or I’m watching the news, and they’re interviewing somebody about a major happening.  The face comes on the screen, the mouth starts moving, but there’s no sound.  Then some announcer’s voice butts in:  “We are experiencing technical difficulties.”  You don’t say!  And here I thought it was part of the program.

Murphy’s Law says that if something can go wrong, it will.  The corollary to Murphy’s Law is that where there’s technology, there’ll be technical difficulties, and the more sophisticated the technology, the bigger the difficulties.  It’s great to have cars that are high-tech, but the more high-tech they get, the more impossible it is to fix yourself when something goes wrong.  It’s nice to have computers instead of old-fashioned typewriters, but when you’ve been working on something for hours and then it disappears in your computer without a trace.  As the saying goes,  “To err is human.  To really foul things up requires a computer.”

It’s irritating when our gadgets play tricks on us.  But there are technical difficulties of another sort, difficulties more serious than an interrupted a TV show or a lost computer file.  One major difficulty is that our ability to make discoveries often moves faster than our ability to think about how to use our discoveries.

Medical technology, for example, presents us with a host of problems both at the beginning and the end of life.  Without modern technology, we wouldn’t be asking moral questions about widespread abortion or experimentation with fetal tissue.  Without modern technology, we wouldn’t be asking questions about whether it is right to detach a person from a respirator or from intravenous feeding.  But once we have a new technical ability, we have to ask questions.  Once we reach the point where we can do something, we have to ask, should we?  And sometimes it’s hard to know.

Or take the whole area of gene mapping.  Every time scientists locate a gene that’s responsible for some disease, it’s hailed as a great scientific advance.  But then what?  Who should have access to that information?  Should insurance companies have the right to require a genetic test before they decide to insure someone?  Many people think it’s okay to do genetic testing on an unborn baby before we decide whether it should be born, but not many of us want insurance companies to look at our genetic code.

And what about gene therapy?  There are cases where it makes a lot of sense to repair defective genes to help someone enjoy a more normal life.  But once we start altering human DNA, once we start changing the very blueprint for our bodies, how do we know where to stop?

How do we prevent a new discovery from being misused?  When Einstein introduced his famous equation E=mc2, showing that small amounts of matter can be converted into mind-boggling amounts of energy, did he foresee a world bristling with nuclear missiles?  When the people of the Manhattan Project developed that first atomic bomb to give the U.S. the upper hand, did they foresee their formulas and designs falling into the hands of an enemy just a few years later?  Some things shouldn’t be invented at all, and even those that are helpful can have a darker side.

Take computers.  They’re helpful in all sorts of ways, but don’t forget the other side.  During the Vietnam War, computers played a big role in choosing bombing targets and free-fire zones where pilots were given the right to kill every living thing.  When the President decided to bomb Cambodia without telling Congress, the computers were programmed to produce false printouts so that congressional leaders wouldn’t find out.  Air strikes against Cambodia were entered into the Pentagon’s computer as strikes against South Vietnam, according to the testimony of Admiral Moorer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But sometimes the military fooled not only the U.S. Congress but themselves as well.  The officers themselves didn’t always know where their computer data came from, and pilots ended up bombing areas that were never intended.  Admiral Moorer said at one point, “It is unfortunate that we have become slaves to these [blankety blank] computers.”

What happened on the battlefield can also happen in the financial markets:  computers can lead to a situation that’s beyond the ability of humans to understand or control.  Just as computerized bombing created a military situation that was out of control, computerized buying and selling can create a market situation that’s out of control.

And then there’s the matter of developing computers that can recognize spoken language.  Wouldn’t it be nice to talk to the computer instead of having to type?  But consider the other side.  The renowned computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum points out that in many authoritarian countries, the only limit on surveillance is that a taped conversation must be listened to by someone, and it takes way too much manpower to listen to more than a few targeted people.  But speech-recognizing machines would change all that.  These computers could record all conversations, and since computers can process so much information so rapidly, they could delete conversations that are of no interest to the government, and print out transcripts of any conversations the government might want to know about.

Meanwhile, computers already support the bureaucracy that keeps track of so much of what we do.   We fill out countless forms, and the information always goes into some computer somewhere, giving people we’ve never met access to all sorts of stuff about us.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes:

As every man goes through life, he fills in a number of forms for the records, each containing a number of questions …  There are thus hundreds of little threads radiating from every man, millions of threads in all.  If these threads were suddenly to become visible, the whole sky would look like a spider’s web.

Now, I’m not saying all this to make you paranoid, and I’m not trying to condemn computers, or genetic research, or technology in general.  I know from the letters and phone calls we get here at the Back to God Hour that quite a number of scientists and professors and technicians of various kinds listen to this program, and I hope you understand that I’m not out to bash technology.  If you’ve listened to the program lately, you know I’ve been talking about the relationship between faith and technology, and you’ve heard me say that our technological ability is a gift from God.  According to the Bible, God is the one who blessed us with the power to be fruitful and subdue the earth, so we need to see technology in a positive light.

But that doesn’t mean technology has no dangers.  When we start pursuing technology for its own sake, or we don’t factor in the problem of sin–that’s when we get technical difficulties.

The Bible reminds us that our technological progress hasn’t been matched by spiritual progress.  In Genesis 4 the Bible tells about Lamech’s family.  They were innovators in producing livestock, in music and the arts, and in the use of advanced tools made of metal.  But what was Lamech like?  He murdered a young man who injured him slightly in a scuffle, and then he made up a poem to brag about his murderous vengefulness.  We’re a lot like Lamech and his family.  We’re not just inventive;  we’re also sinful.  Every time we invent a new technology, we also seem to invent new ways to sin.

In Genesis 11 the Bible describes another scene of technical excellence but spiritual bankruptcy:  the city of Babel.  The people of Babel developed a great metropolis, and they used all their technical know-how to start building a tower to signify their greatness without God.  But God stepped in and confused their languages.  Suddenly the project was experiencing technical difficulties that couldn’t be overcome, and the Tower of Babel was never completed.

It would be nice if Lamech and Babel were just stories from long ago.  But they really happened, and they keep on happening.  We keep making technical progress, but we still tend to be as arrogant and as far from God as ever.  We don’t take the Bible seriously when it warns us about our sin;  we do something just to show it can be done; and then we can’t understand why our technological achievements turn back on us like a boomerang and hurt us terribly.  When don’t ask how God wants us to use our technology, and instead use our technology to play God ourselves, then we’re in for disaster.

There are so many ways technology can be misused, and so many ways it can backfire.  The things I’ve mentioned are only a small sample.  The Bible says that in Jesus all things hold together.  The reverse of that is also true:  apart from Jesus, things fall apart.  Scientists and doctors and government officials and all of us need to keep asking ourselves of each new technology, Does Jesus want us to move ahead with developing it?  And if so, how does he want us to use it?  We need to be in touch with the Lord and with the truth of the Bible as we think about the moral implications of each new technology.

But there’s another kind of technical difficulty that’s even more basic than any I’ve already mentioned.  It’s not just a matter of sinning at this point or that, or of something backfiring on us here or there.  The biggest technical difficulty of all is this:  we become so technically-minded that we no longer think and live as spiritual creatures, and we lose all sense of the personal God whose love is meant to be the very meaning and substance of our lives.

In Psalm 27 the poet says, “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek:  that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord…  My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’  Your face, Lord, I will seek” (Psalm 27:4,8).  You and I are first of all spiritual and personal creatures, and our deepest meaning and our highest happiness are to be found in that most personal and spiritual being of all, God himself.  No technical achievement can replace spiritual aspirations.  No material plenty can satisfy our spiritual hunger.  As God told Moses, “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

You and I are not just machines, with bread as our fuel.  We are persons, spiritual beings, and we can’t live without the life-giving word of God.  Ironically, even scientific research shows that we don’t live on bread alone.  Many studies of orphanages have shown that a child needs more than his elementary physical needs to be met;  an infant will die if he is fed and cleaned but not fondled and caressed from the very beginning of his life.  You are I were created for love, and we can literally die when we’re cut off from love.  We need to the love of others, and we need the love of God.  Man does not live on bread alone.

But in a time when we’re surrounded by so much technology, we tend to forget that.  We see people as machines, as purely material creatures with purely material needs.  James Beniger, an acclaimed scholar, says in his award-winning book The Control Revolution, “The essence of a human society is the continuous processing of matter and energy.”  That’s just another way of saying that man does live on bread alone.  Now, of course human society involves the processing of matter and energy, but is that the essence of human society?  We need matter and energy, we need bread, but we do not live on bread alone.

John Dewey, one of the prime movers and direction-setters for the public education system, tended to see people in a mechanistic light.  Dewey wrote, “The greatest scientific revolution is still to come.  It will ensue when men systematically use scientific procedures for the control of human relationships.”  This mindset is reaching its logical conclusion.  Schools approach sex as just a technical matter, with technical safeguards against unwanted babies and unpleasant diseases.  Condoms are in;  commandments are out.  We pretend that our educational techniques can produce well-functioning children without reference to their spiritual identity.  It’s not working.

Or consider the field of psychiatry.  One famous therapist’s contribution to world peace was to prescribe tranquilizers for world leaders–and he was serious.  Bullies and tyrants don’t need to repent.  They just need a little Prozac.

Why do so many of us tend to see things in purely physical terms?  Well, just think of the old comedy routine.  A man is on his hands and knees, looking intently in a little circle of light.  A policeman comes up and says, “What’s the matter?”  The man says, “I lost my keys.”  The policeman starts looking along with him, but to no avail.  Finally he asks, “Are you sure this is where you lost them?”  “No,” says the man, shaking his head and pointing out into the darkness.  “I lost them over there.”  “Then why are you looking for them here.”  “Because,” says the man, “there’s no light over there.”

We’d like to pretend that whatever it is we’re looking for can be found in an area we can understand and control.  That’s why we like to think in mechanical terms.  A renowned scientist wrote, “I never satisfy myself until I can make a mechanical model of a thing.  If I can make a mechanical model, I can understand it.  As long as I cannot make a mechanical model all the way through, I cannot understand it.”  He looks for understanding only in the small circle of light that comes from mechanical and technical know-how.

But what if our greatest need is found somewhere else entirely?  What if the greatest Reality in the universe isn’t mechanical at all?  What if this Reality isn’t something we can understand or control?  What if this Reality is a Person, and what if the mystery of His Being and His Love are the real meaning of the universe and of our own lives?  What if–God!

Satan tempts us the same way he once tempted Jesus.  Jesus had been fasting and praying out in the wilderness, when the devil came to Jesus and urged him to end his fast and turn stones into bread.  “But Jesus answered, ‘It is written:  “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”‘” (Matthew 4:4).  Satan tempts us to think only in terms of bread, in terms of matter and energy.  But Jesus shows us that the essence of being human is to live on God–and not just God as the one who supplies our physical needs, but God as he truly is: mysterious, majestic, mighty, holy, loving, known and adored in his Word:  the Word written in Scripture and the Word living in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Some of the world’s greatest physicists are in search of what they call a T.O.E., a Theory of Everything, a theory that would unify and encompass all the formulas of physics.  If we ever had such a theory, says Stephen Hawking, “then we would understand the mind of God.”  What a colossal mistake!  The entire physical universe is just a tiny glimmer, a faint echo, of the might and majesty of God himself.  The Bible book of Job describes the wonders of the physical universe, and then it says,  “And these are but the outer fringe of his works;  how faint the whisper we hear of him!  Who then can understand the thunder of his power” (Job 26:14).

Before all things, beneath all things, beyond all things, there is God.  Time cannot measure him, space cannot contain him, technology cannot control him.  The only appropriate response to this infinite, eternal God is to believe what he says, marvel at what he does, and worship who he is.

To be awed and overwhelmed by God–this is the beginning of true wisdom.  As the Bible puts it, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).  The fear of the Lord–a deep and overwhelming sense that there is more to God than you will ever know or imagine;  a crushing sense of unworthiness that comes from knowing that you, with all your sin and imperfection, live in a universe that belongs to this God who is utterly pure and holy–only in the fear of the Lord do we truly understand that we live in a world full of wonder, and a world where morality matters.  That’s the beginning of wisdom.

You can’t find God with the Hubble telescope or with an electron microscope.  You can know God only as he chooses to reveal himself.  God is not a thing to be investigated by us.  He is a Person who communicates to us.

We live on every Word that comes from the mouth of God, and his final Word is Jesus.  The Bible says, “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).  To finite people overwhelmed by God’s infinity, Jesus reveals in human form what God is like.  For sinful people overwhelmed by God’s utter holiness, Jesus opens the way to pardon and cleansing and eternal life with God.  Your greatest need and mine is not for a technical solution to our latest technical difficulty, but for a spiritual solution to the problem of alienation from God.  That solution is called Jesus.

When we marvel at the mystery and majesty of God, when we delight in the warmth of his love in Christ, when the Spirit of God reveals to us a universe that is alive with wonder, it transforms everything.  The physical radiates the spiritual; each moment of time shines with eternity; the human is aglow with the divine.   The Bible says,  “‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’–but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10).

When you believe in Christ and you’re alive with his Spirit, you’re no longer just a body in need of bread, or a machine that goes through some technical difficulties from time to time.  You’re a spiritual person, a child of God, made in his image, renewed in the image of Christ.  And when you believe in Christ, you see people as persons, not as things.  You don’t classify them by IQ’s and numbers and all the other unspiritual baggage that can block your vision.  No, you see the image of God in them, and the flame of God’s love in your heart leaps up to share his warmth and light with those around you.

PRAYER

Lord our God, humble us before your majesty, and then lift us up by your love.  Share with us your glory and your salvation in Jesus Christ, and make us truly spiritual people.  Then help us, as spiritual people, to deal with the potentials and the problems of each new technology.  Help us live in your love, for your glory for for the good of others, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.