We participated in a conference sponsored by the Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville last weekend—“Contemplation in a Technological Era: Thomas Merton’s Insight for the Twenty-First Century.” I am still trying to digest what was presented at the conference. The papers will be in the next edition of the Merton Annual which comes out next spring. In the meantime, it will be back to the drawing board with study of what Merton has to say about the topic.
The title of the conference frames a perpetual dilemma. Faced with the fact of human progress, how do we deal with the things, structures, and systems which are technology? Most of us do not want to be Luddites; however, technology can drive wedges between us and the cosmos.
Presenters at the conference supported the middle ground—technology is neither bad nor good but we must be wary of what it is doing and can do to us. Merton gets it:
If technology really represented the rule of reason, there would be much less to regret about our present situation. Actually, technology represents the rule of quantity, not the rule of reason (quality=value=relation of means to authentic human ends). It is by means of technology that man the person, the subject of qualified and perfectible freedom, becomes quantified, that is, becomes part of a mass–mass man–whose only function is to enter anonymously into the process of production and consumption. He becomes on one side an implement, a ‘hand,’ or better, a ‘biophysical link’ between machines: on the other side he is a mouth, a digestive system, and an anus, something through which pass the products of his technological world, leaving a transient and meaningless sense of enjoyment. The effect of a totally emancipated technology is the regression of man to a climate of moral infancy, in total dependence not on ‘mother nature’ (such a dependence would be partly tolerable and human) but on the pseudonature of technology, which has replaced nature by a closed system of mechanisms with no purpose but that of keeping themselves going.
If technology remained in the service of what is higher than itself–reason, man, God–it might indeed fulfill some of the functions that are now mythically attributed to it. But becoming autonomous, existing only for itself, it imposes upon man its own irrational demands, and threatens to destroy him. Let us hope it is not too late for man to regain control.” (From Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander) (Retrieved from http://new-wood.blogspot.com/2011/09/thomas-merton-on-tyranny-of-modern.html)
Keynote presenter Arthur Borgmann gave us the example of a monk plowing with a mule and a monk plowing tractor with an air conditioned cab. The advantages of the tractor in terms of productivity are enormous; however, the operator is much removed from contact with the soil. I think of how mega agrifarms have swallowed up the mom and pop farms of the past. I think of how we have no relationship to our food as it is being grown and processed. Then, I think of our Saturday morning excursions to the Blairsville farmers’ market to buy vegetables directly from the people who grew them. Somehow, I fell much more comfortable with eating the food I buy there.
I think of how Merton longed to go back to the woods and fields. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton wrote:
The mechanization of monastic life leads to a deadening of the spirit and sensibility, a blunting of perception, a loss of awareness, a lowering of tone, a general fatigue and lassitude, a proneness to unrest and guilt which we light be less likely to suffer if we simply went out and worked with our hands in the woods and fields. (25)
Merton eschewed the commodification of monastic life and business for a profit:
I think that we should never freeze
Such lively assets as our cheese.
The sucker’s hungry mouth is pressed
Against the cheese’s caraway breast.
A cheese, whose scent like sweet perfume
Pervades the house through every room.
A cheese that will at Christmas wear
A suit of cellophane underwear,
Upon whose bosom is a label.
Whose habitat: —
The Tower of Babel.
Poems are nought but warmed-up breeze.
DOLLARS are made by Trappist Cheese.
Merton was also very critical of the technology that leads to commodification in secular life:
Last time I was in town—we had to drop something at the G.E. plant—Appliance Park. We came to an enormous place from the wrong side and had to drive miles around it. Surrounded by open fields with nothing whatever in them, not even thistles, marked “Property of General Electric. No Trespassing.” The buildings were huge and go on forever and ever, out in the midst of their own wilderness.
Stopped by the guards we signed in at the appropriate gate and promptly got lost in the maze of empty streets and buildings. What struck me most was the seriousness of the place—as if at last I had found what America takes seriously. Not churches. Not libraries. Not even movies but THIS! This is it. The manufacturer of refrigerators, of washing machines, of tape recorders, of light fixtures [jet engines, drones and missiles]. This is the real thing. This is America.
YTM 271/September 26, 1958, III. 218-19 [I added the jet engines, drones, and missiles.]
I cannot help but wonder what Merton would say about GE today especially when it paid no taxes in 2010.
No doubt most of us enjoy the fruits of technological progress and many do not even stop to question what technology is doing to the human spirit. The Christian Scriptures have much to say about greed but we do not heed it. One pundit confessor said that he had never had anyone confess to coveting (greed driven behavior) another’s property. Yet our government with our approval and complicity daily covets the resources of other peoples and nations. We, as a nation, have been hard at this for well over a hundred years. (see Stephen Kinzers’ book—Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change). We have coveted everything from bananas in Guatemala to oil in Iraq.
Eisenhower warned us about the military-industrial complex which has now sprouted wings and morphed into the military-industrial-congressional-multinational complex. Ike originally included but then scratched the congressional component from the warning. I wonder why Republicans always cite Reagan and never Eisenhower.
Greed-driven behavior is necessary to maintain our comfortable lifestyles often at the expense of others. To live more contemplatively, you can go to http://free2work.org/ and download a barcode that let’s you scan products and see whether it is produced by slave labor. Note how here technology helps us be more intentional and thereby more contemplative.
One solution in this morass is to develop contemplative sensitivities. Contemplation is about union with the Living One. The cosmos is still flaring forth from the Living One and we breathe the very stardust of creation. Contemplation tells us that we are one—one with the Living One, one with others, one with God and one with the cosmos.
People who live contemplatively are protesting the oil sands project pipeline because of the vast devastation of Alberta’s natural woodlands. Many have been and will be arrested for protesting a greed-driven project to extract the oil from the sands in Alberta. A contemplative would never say, “Drill now.” Watch a feature on this project from YouTube– http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYwHR9yb0IM.
Our reconnection with the Living One comes through personal practice. Meditation and reading sacred texts can help us develop contemplative sensitivities. One thing which helps me reconnect is the daily practice of Centering Prayer (http://www.centeringprayer.com/). Another is participation in Sr. Joan Chittister’s Monasteries of the Heart (http://monasteriesoftheheart.org/) MOH provides the resources people need to live contemplatively in the world today.