God in the Machine: Computers As Idols
This article originally appeared in Issue# 28
In discussions of church computerization, someone invariably points out that the church has survived for centuries without computers.
Then someone else will say, "These times are different. Look at the competition."
But what is seldom recognized is the true reason for this fear of computerization that forms the background of these arguments. It is a concern that should be particularly recognizable to Christians, for it is a very old fear that is basic to our beliefs: the fear of idols.
And by the same token, the proper use of computers by the church must examine computers as idols. Our first task as people who introduce computer technology into the church will be to destroy the idolatry of computers — to take away their power as images of God by making them into pieces of art.
Since this is a new way of looking at computers for most of us, the issue becomes a little clearer if we look at them in the context of earlier technological advances that have altered religious thought and practice as they changed the rest of society.
Indeed, such major advances as the invention of agriculture and the printing press not only transformed social patterns. they served as major determinants of the perceptions of theology and associated views of God and the universe.
These periods of transition have been analyzed by a number of social historians, most recently by Alvin Toffler in his bestseller The Third Wave.
Toffler's argument is perhaps most interesting where it focuses on the transformation of the agricultural civilizations which saw the growth of the major religions, including Christianity. Agriculture itself, of course, had utilized the knowledge of astronomy, tools and the planting cycle to supplant earlier hunting and gathering societies.
The second wave of industrialization, growing out of the invention of writing and metal-working technology and culminating in the printing press, the clock and the assembly line, was not powerful until the 17th or 18th century. By now it has almost entirely engulfed the earth.
It is crucial to remember that these waves do not simply change economic relationships. Each wave involves a system of perceptions about the world - a view of reality. The wave of telecommunications and computers, which Toffler calls the Third Wave, is now poised to sweep over the earth. With it will come changes in work patterns, altered values and changing social systems.
Impact on Theology
Toffler believes that a civilization develops its own super-ideology to explain reality and justify its own existence. He argues that industrial capitalism needed a rationale for individualism. But it makes just as much sense to say that individualism, growing out of changing theological perspectives, needed an economic and social system to support it.
It is my belief that Toffler's second wave of industrialization and the third wave of telecommunications and computers were both preceded and encouraged by the development of a dominant theological perspective which later came to support them as the super-ideology of those waves. "Dominant" means the theology was both the "official" teaching of the religious leaders and the "people's religion" theologian Harvey Cox writes about.
The theology that became dominant with the first wave of agricultural society was a theology based on a very mechanical God. Thomas Aquinas attempted to explain the laws of God. Worship followed a mechanical model. In the sacrament, bread and wine were changed into his body and blood by a God who controls all things. Grace was transmitted by the church through physical bread and wine.
This view — that God is predictable, understandable and mechanical — was the driving force behind the development of the second wave of mechanical industrialization. The development of machines was an attempt to produce God. To use Biblical language — the machine of the second wave was an idol of the God worshipped in the first wave.
Even before the wave of industrialization, Christians began to ask questions about a mechanical understanding of God. The Reformation and Counter Reformation that followed completely changed the dominant theology. As secular society was overcome by the wave of industrialization, the church established the position that to be a Christian meant to hold the correct view. Ideas were important, and an all-seeing, all-knowing and ever-present God would reward those who had the correct belief. Even in sacramental churches, preaching became very important because it was a representation of the "correct" view.
In this viewpoint, the roots of the Third Wave do not lie in the invention of the computer and telecommunications. Instead, they spring from the theology of the Reformation.
The idol of Reformation theology is an object that can know all things and be everywhere at once, which never forgets and can process all information. It is a sophisticated computer with a very large data base and a telecommunications capacity. Thus, as we enter the computer age, we must recognize the computer for what it is. It is an idol.
Destroying the Idol
Just as the people who began the Reformation looked back to the sources of church tradition, we must re-examine the computer age in the light of Christian traditions. Just as we might appreciate the beauty of the images of idol worshippers, so we must appreciate the computer as a beautiful and sophisticated product of the human mind. Thus it will lose its power as an idol, as does the image placed on the curio table or the mantelpiece in our living room.
Computers are designed to do only one thing — to manipulate symbols according to predetermined rules. They can do this in many different ways depending on the design of the computer and decisions made by the operator. But this is all they can do.
Computers and Churches
Once we view computers as tools, we can use them creatively by examining their role in furthering the purposes of the church. Remember that the nature of the church is determined by the people who work in it. At first, the person who memorized the sacraments was the most important person. Then this status passed to the person who delivered a good sermon. As we move into the computer age, the most important person in the church will be the person who manages information.
This person may be the minister, a secretary or a volunteer. But whoever he or she is, what happens in the office during the week sets the tone for the community as much as the worship experience on Sunday. The way the office is managed provides newcomers and members with information about what the church —as a local community of caring people — is really like. Computers are useful in building community because they do three things very well. They can update information to make sure it's accurate. They can sort through records to identify patterns or people who fall into a particular category (i.e., identifying all of the Sunday School children whose grandparents attend the church). They can help us produce accurate reports so we can know what is really happening. These accomplishments are particularly useful for an organization attempting to be a sensitive community.
Computers can also be used to streamline routine tasks ranging from computerized letters on baptismal information to reducing the time needed for sermon preparation. Any time saved becomes available for community building.
We can use computers to perform these tasks and help call the church back to the understanding that the Kingdom of God is community. We need to go back to our Biblical roots and remind ourselves that God is love and that love is the bond that holds the community together.
The church office has the resources to help with that task and computers and telecommunications technology can help perform these essential, office functions. Computers cannot bring salvation to the church. But they can be a tool to assist those who are working to help the church be faithful.