Thinking about God in an Age of Technology. By George Pattison
Article first published online: 7 APR 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 3, pages 565–566, May 2009
How to Cite
Lewin, D. (2009), Thinking about God in an Age of Technology. By George Pattison. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 565–566. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00484_51.x
- Issue published online: 7 APR 2009
- Article first published online: 7 APR 2009
Pp. 278 , Oxford , Oxford University Press , 2005 , £50.00.
The notion that the theoretical reflections of theology have little to do with the practical concerns of technology appears increasingly anachronistic. George Pattison's account of the relation between theology and technology contributes to a growing concern for their relation and interaction that goes beyond the impasse of the science and religion debate. There is clearly a great debt to Heidegger in the attempt to raise the question concerning technology, particularly as Pattison seeks to show how technology circumscribes our freedom to think. It is technological thinking that most seriously challenges our capacity to think freely in the modern age, a concern that Heidegger elaborates throughout much of his later thought. Pattison navigates Heidegger's later work with consummate skill. We are in the hands of someone able to think with and from rather than simply about Heidegger. And yet Pattison raises the rather lukewarm question of how we might think about God in this technological age. What he means by this is not entirely clear and only towards the end of the book is this directly addressed: ‘thinking about God is not, simply, thinking God, that is to say, it is not a mental event’. Nor is it a ‘cognitive act’ but ‘thinking that circles its subject matter’ (p. 243).
That theological thinking must in some sense circle its subject rather than take it on directly is related to the absolute (unthinkable) nature of its referent. As the complexities of theological dialectic testify, thinking about God has always been fundamentally problematic. But modern theology has particular difficulties. These difficulties are reflected not only in Bultmann's provocative statement that we can no longer simultaneously use a light switch and believe in the New Testament world of demons and miracles, but also from the more general rise of secularism and atheism. Pattison provides an excellent overview of the varied theological responses to technology but goes on to point out the general shortcomings of theology's response to the question of technological thinking. It is the ubiquity of technological thinking that precludes the possibility of theological thinking. While Heidegger's role in raising this problem is significant, Pattison introduces many other voices – for example Habermas, Mumford and Kierkegaard – who enrich the debate.
The second part of the book develops some responses to the univocity of technological thinking by raising, for example, the role of negativity in cultural discourse. Many critical theorists lament the displacement of negative thinking by an essentially technological rationality. Negation has always formed an important part of theological discourse as the negative tradition shows. If the discourse of negation becomes marginalised then it is little wonder that much theology appears marginal, irrelevant or anachronistic. But Pattison does not paint such a bleak view. He holds to the possibility of thinking as a responding to what calls for thought. It is the free possibility of our thought to be given over to thought itself which escapes the circularity of technological thinking.
But, in an interesting turn, free thinking is never presented as overcoming technological thinking, but somehow fulfilling it. Technology is here to stay and it is Pattison's concern that we might attain what Heidegger called a ‘free relation’ to technology in which technology is an important though not exclusive manner of being. However pathological technology becomes, epiphany always remains a possibility. The fact and meaning of our mortality, for example, will always exceed technological enframing. Yet it is unclear whether this is meant to reassure us, call us to act, or both.
This theological consideration of technological thinking is long overdue. It is well researched and presented in a surprisingly accessible style. It does not reach for easy practical solutions and is in this respect satisfyingly frustrating. The questioning nature of the inquiry is generally proper to its subject matter and yet I find myself questioning this questioning.
At times the discussion is weighed down by a questioning that seems more evasive than instructive. To be sure dialectic is often employed to ensure an openness to mystery that is essential to thinking, yet Pattison's openness occasionally seems more about non-commitment than mediating mystery. Perhaps this is the reason why Pattison is at his best speaking about God as opposed to speaking God, why his discussion of important thinkers is that much more convincing than his own elaborations in part three of the book. Nevertheless, Pattison is able to bring such an impressive range of ideas to this central question that every page of the book is pertinent and goes beyond many other attempts to think the question of the relation between theology and technology. Ultimately, the danger of technological thinking seems more a threat to thinking as such and only consequently to thinking about God. Why this book raises the question of thinking about God rather than thinking as such in the technological age is not always quite clear. And yet the unique capacity of something other – something divine – to initiate a counter-movement to technological thinking is a vital and profound insight which will require further elaboration as technology continues its advance.