Secularization, technology and computers [0]

by Svein Sando, B.D. and B.S.


The German-American philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) tries to use gnosticism as a way to understand secularization. An important part of modern secularized society is technology. In what way can Voegelin's view help us to understand relations between technology and gnosticism, and thus between technology and secularization?

The classical gnosticism

Gnosticism in its classical form, is a "system of cosmic redemption"[1] . The created world is "a prison from which there is no escape, unless the liberating act of the transcendent God and his helpers opens up a way on which man (... the divine spark) can escape."[2] The world is evil and is often said to be created by an evil God [3] , the Demiurg. He is not the same as the transcendent God that sends us helpers and redeemers, who can guide us to the secret knowledge that can free our spirit from our bodily prison. In opposition to the Christian 'salvation by faith', gnosticism has 'salvation by knowledge (gnosis)'.[4] Since the creator is both evil and has not sent the redeemer, the Christian belief in bodily resurrection is denied in gnosticism.[5] Dualism is thus an important element of gnosticism: good vs. evil, light vs. darkness, soul/spirit vs. body:

"My mind which was in my body snatched me away from my race. It took me up to the top of the world, which is close to the light that shone upon the whole area there. I saw no earthly likeness, but there was light. And my mind separated from the body of darkness as though in sleep". [6]

Eric Voegelin's view on gnosticism and secularization

Voegelin's interpretation of the modernity as a Gnostic overcoming of the too ambitious Christian project of faith in the yet unseen world to come.

He seems to argue along following lines:

A linear view of history begs the question about the meaning of it

The early Christianity challenged the antiquity by abolishing the cyclic view of history and replacing it with a linear view. This raised the question about the meaning of history. The Christian answer is that God will make a new world, populated by those who are saved into this new world through faith in Jesus Christ. The disciples of Jesus expected this (the parousia) to happen in their time of living (Acta.1.11).

Faith is a too uncertain project for most people

When faith is the core of salvation, then uncertainty, at least psychologically viewed, will became a major challenge to the believers [7] (Hebr.11.1). In a society where Christianity is the only option, there will be at least some people who will judge this faith-project as too ambitious. Hence, ways of overcoming this uncertainty will be welcomed.

Gnosticism offers knowledge instead of faith

Gnosticism is one such way of replacing faith with knowledge. Historically it has probably existed alongside with Christianity all the time. There are a lot of points were Christianity and gnosticism coincide, or that some think they may coincide. There were made several attempts to merge Christianity and gnosticism, but the majority of the leaders in early church objected successfully to this mixture.

Augustine de-divinized society by means of the Incarnation

The biblical canon consists of some scriptures (e.g. the Revelation) that may be interpreted in support for a this-worldly realm reigned by God, the so called millennium (Rev.20). This was, however, by some influential church fathers (e.g. Augustine) condemned as heresy. The parousia was put into some distant future. The Incarnation was used to de-divinize the society in that respect that the only divine "points" in this world was Christ's pneumatic presence in the church. [8]

Joachim of Flora re-divinized society with Trinitarian symbolism

This Augustinian view seemed to dominate until the thirteenth century, when Joachim of Flora used Trinity to make a symbolism by which he could start re-divinization of the society. His concept of the three historical ages has governed "the self-interpretation of modern political society to this day." [9]

Re-divinization is a way to give profane history a meaning

Joachim's system is a way of finding the meaning of the history of a strongly growing Western civilization. A profane history has according to Augustine no direction and meaning at all. "It is waiting for the end ... of an age that grows old." [10] Re-divinization is a way to cope with this problem. If human society shall play a positive part in a divine setting, then one can speak about some meaning in what happens. It is aiming at some divine goal. Voegelin makes a point of the fact that these early attempts to re-divinize society - immanentization of meaning11 - had some positive meaning because the connection with Christianity was intact.

Re-divinization and immanentization without God destroys the meaning of history

As this process of immanentization of society continues into the renaissance and down to the enlightenment, the link to Christianity became weaker. When God vanished, the meaning of history was lost at the same time, Voegelin argues.[12] When the future is unknown, then the goal is lost, and any talking about meaning of history in nonsense. Why people nevertheless continue to speak about the meaning of history, has to do with a strong wish to overcome the uncertainty of the faith [13] , as mentioned above.

Secularization is Gnostic immanentization from enlightenment and to this day

Voegelin uses the word "secularization" of the second phase of immanentization that started with the enlightenment. At this stage, God has left all his divine attributes to human being, and He himself remains unreachable in his transcendence. Later, God is not only unreachable; he is dead. We have murdered him (Nietzsche) [14] . The Christian eschaton is replaced with a search for a this-worldly perfect society, like the Marxist's utopia or Hitler's Dritte Reich.[15]

Scientism and positivism is the strongest Gnostic movements today

Comte's positivism is also considered as a Gnostic immanent salvation.[16] Positivism matches scientism and the technology that (we think) controls the environment, the standard of living etc.[17] Scientism is regarded as "one of the strongest Gnostic movements in Western society".[18]

Six characteristics of the Gnostic attitude [19]

Voegelin gives six checkpoints to recognize Gnostic movements:

  1. Dissatisfaction with present situation.
  2. The reason for the dissatisfaction "is to be found in the wickedness of the worl"".
  3. "Salvation from the evil of the world is possible."
  4. The change to a better world must be a historical process.
  5. Man's own effort makes this change possible.
  6. The Gnostic knowledge will come out with "a formula for self and world salvation."

Comments on Voegelin's gnosticism

Voegelin's six characteristics of modern gnosticism is very wide. There is a question if not most attitudes in Western society that are not founded in Christianity (or some other transcendental world view) are caught up in this strainer. On the other hand, that is probably exactly his point. To call this gnosticism may, however, be a bit misleading, since the classical gnosticism in many respects is hostile to the created world. This world is wicked, and we should be delivered from it.[20] This original gnosticism is transcendental, but the modern Voegelian gnosticism is immanent. If this modern attitude deserves the name gnosticism, it is a secularized form of gnosticism since it has lost its connection with the transcendence. Voegelin, however, makes it quite clear that gnosticism has changed during the centuries. He claims that there is a continuity from the gnosticism in the antiquity to the present one [21] .

Technology and gnosticism

Technology as detachment from nature

A lot of technology can be viewed upon as man's way of conquering nature or making himself less dependent of nature. Two examples: Building houses can be looked upon as a way of controlling the weather in a limited space. After the opening of the mountainous Norwegian Bergen Railway in 1909, travelers were less dependent of time of the year and climatic variations (i.e. nature), than they were by earlier means of transportation between Oslo and Bergen. [22]

From a classical Gnostic position, where this created world is an enemy, the contemporary growth of nature-detaching and nature-overcoming technology might at first hand be considered at least as a step in the right direction. We seem to gain increasing control over our own situation. The human mankind takes part in its own salvation from the bonds of nature by collection of knowledge. On the other hand, even if we by technology increase the detachment from nature, we remain nature ourselves. The salvation through technology is thus bound to fail, even from a Gnostic position.

Can Voegelin's model be used on technology?

Voegelin's main interest in looking for gnosticism in modern society, is to understand political movements.[23] When we try to extend it into an understanding of technology, we think this is workable of two reasons. First, because Voegelin himself mentions scientism and technology as an important Gnostic movement (see above). Second, because modern society and politics are strongly shaped (determined?)[24] by technology.

Technology and science as gnosticism

As said earlier, most modern attitudes match this Voegelian concept of modern gnosticism. So does also technology, or rather, men's attitude towards technology. Most technologies are developed in order to make the daily life a little less hard. In this respect it matches the Gnostic frustration over things in this world (checkpoint #1). Technology (e.g. medical science) is often looked upon as a way to "repair" malfunctions in nature (checkpoint #2). Scientism combined with technology (a very common combination) will seek to find technological solutions to the evil in this world [25] (checkpoint #3). Science and technology do often work under a long horizon of time. A lot of people think that science and technology someday will solve the problems of today (checkpoint #4). Technology is completely man-driven. Any transcendental input or cause has been excluded since the time of Laplace [26] (checkpoint #5). The purpose of most(?) technologies is knowledge and means to overcome problems or tasks in the daily life in this world. For people without a transcendent eschaton, this may be called "a formula for self and world salvation" (checkpoint #6). We have thus shown that technology can fit into Voegelin's characteristics for modern gnosticism.

What does this tell us about technology and secularization? From the above checkpoints, it seems obvious that technology can serve as means for secularization. The very success of technology the last two centuries make people think that we are about to build a perfect society. On the other hand, the dark sides of technology have been a source for great distrust in the future. The traditional solution (or hope) to this problem, is to treat technological problems with more technology.

These, and other, problems within the modern positivist-like society, have brought a lot of people of the Western societies to seek solutions in revitalization of spirituality. A major part of this movement does not see the Christianity as an answer to the problems, at least not in the traditional forms within the established churches. From our point of view, it is interesting to notice that a return to classical gnosticism or similar sources, is a major part of this new spirituality, this "new age".[27] In Voegelin's view, this way of handling the problem will not work, since this is treating gnosticism with gnosticism.

It is also interesting to see that a part of this New Age movement tries to combine natural science with the new Gnostic like spirituality. The physicist Fritjof Capra's book "The Tao of Physics" from 1975 was a best-seller who promoted such ideas.[28] Even if the New Age movement is in opposition to the Western technical-materialized way of living and thinking, it finds it possible to take advantage of the very scientific foundation of the modern society. If this is either pure opportunism in order to gain disciples among science admirers, a misinterpretation of science, or there really exists a common core (a Gnostic one?), is beyond the scope of this essay. Most physicist however, seem to object to this link between nuclear science and mysticism.[29] In search for Gnostic elements in technology, we now turn to computer technology:

Computer technology

Technology as detachment from nature is very visible in computer technology. This is seen in at least two respects.

Computer programming is beyond nature

Computer programming is done on a nature-bound platform, namely the technology of electronics. Once this platform is working, the rest is completely detached from nature. The rule for making a workable program is solely guided by logic. There are in principle no unknown areas, as in other technology dealing with nature. There are no natural laws yet to unveil. Programming is beyond the natural sciences. The rules are made by those programmers who has made the compilers [30] .

Perhaps just because programming is beyond nature, which normally makes things more or less difficult for us, it is possible in a relatively short time to make programs that perform difficult, useful, interesting, timesaving or amusing tasks. A skilled programmer can nearly act god.

This fits well with the Gnostic concept in both Voegelin's secularized version (knowledge-heavy and self-made and "godded man" [31] ) and the classical gnosticism who is hostile to nature. This is hardly looked upon as salvation, but in effect, a lot of people have computing as something close to a complete lifestyle. Had it not been for the (sad?) fact that the "computist" have to take some actions on behalf of his body, he had probably stayed in front of his computer 24 hours a day.

Cyberspace as the mind's detachment from body

The world wide network of computers makes it possible for people everywhere to communicate with each other. This cyberspace is a space for minds only. You can communicate your thoughts and ideas, but not your body. Even if you can communicate very effectively over vast distances on line, the communication lacks the visual language of your body. You can choose to be frank and open, but you are concealed at the same time. The Gnostic detachment from the body is made possible through cyberspace.

The freelance philosopher Michael Heim [32] sees this in view of Leibnitz's postulation about reality as a network of minds: "The [leibnitzian] mind / body split not longer seems abstract but erupts in the ergonomics of backaches and in the irresponsible flames of online chat."

Conclusion and outlook

So far, we have seen that science and technology are used as means of secularization and even as means of Gnostic return to non-Christian spirituality. This begs the following questions: Is all technology Gnostic? If we will fight secularization, should we then fight technology as well? Is modern technology unthinkable without a Gnostic basis or core?

Exhaustive answers to these big questions are not possible in this short essay. Some hints in which direction an answer could be given, will be given to the first question, if all technology Gnostic:

With regard to my view on technology as detachment from nature, there are of course examples of technology that should not be regarded as detachment from or control over nature. Instruments used in scientific research may as well serve the purpose of achieving a better understanding of nature. Knowledge about nature may of course in the next course be used to control nature, but may as well be used to admire nature or even to honor the transcendent Creator of the nature. In this respect, technology does not at all serve gnosticism.

But even if a technology is detachment from or control over nature, is it Gnostic? Isn't technology in itself rather neutral? To answer this question, we must be able to judge a technology from an ethical point of view. We have to ask questions about intention and effect; about values of the designers, the manufacturers and the users, just to mention some elements such an evaluation of a specific technology ought to content.

Take for example the purpose of the users of two technologies. Why do we build houses? To survive in a harsh nature (as in Norway) or to build a memorial over human glory and self-management (as the tower of Babel in Gen.11)? Why do we use the Internet? To get information in a quick way that we otherwise would have spent much more effort to get, or as a unresponsible flight into an "as-if community" [33] ?

In his essay "Do artifacts have politics " [34] , Langdon Winner gives an example about some bridges near New York which with purpose were built so low, that busses for public transportation could not pass. The reason was to keep out people that could not afford their own cars. In this example we see that the technology of bridgebuilding, was used to make artifacts that during their lifetime promoted some specific, and in this case controversial, values. Even artifacts are not always (ever?) neutral.

Some technologies may perhaps be judged as more "Gnostic" than others in its ability to fulfill Gnostic characteristics. Gene-technology may be an example of this. It can be used both to "repair" defects in a malfunctioning nature, and it can be used to perfect or create new organic species in a god-like manner. That this self-salvation activity is Gnostic, is however not obvious. One can defend this from a Christian point of view as well. The position of human beings as created in Gods image and as a ruler over the earth (Gen.1.27-28) and made little lower that God (Ps.8.6), gives support to a view of human beings as both able to and allowed to take part in creating themselves. This however, demands a positive view of the matter and nature, and is far away from a Gnostic world-escape and should also be far away from human hybris. This positive Christian view of nature is however not always obvious within Christianity. There is a lot of superspirituality that are almost Gnostic in its hostility to the created world. They confuse the "world" as a theological entity that should be forsaken, with the "world" as God's creation. They also seem to forget that the Christian eschaton contains a materialized new world [35] and the waiting for a Christ in flesh [36] to return. This Gnostic tendency in parts if Christianity is hardly the reason for secularization, but it may have contributed to it.

Does Voegelin contribute to the understanding of technology and secularization? If he is right in his description of gnostic charachteristics in modernity, then we know what to look for when judging a technology. The difficulty of determining Gnostic-like elements as genuine gnosticism is however demonstrated in the above paragraph.


© Svein Sando, førstelektor (associate professor) DMMH  - tlf. 73 80 52 26 - fax: 73 80 52 52 - e-post: seserstatt dette bildet med tegnet krø
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