Some years ago (I believe I was about fifteen years old at the time), my family spent the night at a minister’s house during a trip out of state. Following an evening meal, we spent the rest of the night until bedtime in extended conversation with our host and several other guests. Though I had made a beginning in my faith and was awaiting baptism, I was still a teenager in a room full of vastly older adults, so I listened as best I could while contributing little to the conversations around me.
As is sometimes wont to occur in such atmospheres, the topics drifted toward current events as well as recent historical ones. I still don’t remember exactly how this particular subject came up, but at one point our host mentioned the first moon landing – and then went on to relate how his grandmother could never believe that God allowed men to go to the moon. He further stated that he never tried to convince her otherwise – to this day he himself will only state “they say we’ve been to the moon.”
Almost anyone with a remotely similar interest to my own in both fictional and real-life human space travel can imagine what I felt inside at hearing that statement. But I kept those feelings to myself (and even tried to forget them). I was, again, a teenager in a room full of adults (none of whom were invested enough in this topic to back me up had I said anything) and was still finding my way after the great Change that had occurred in my life. In many ways, I was still unsure in many ways as to what exactly I believed – or rather, should have believed – when it came to applying Biblical precepts to my life and thought. For all I knew at the time, this minister’s opinion was more scripturally-based than my own.
Several years after that, I recall listening to a sermon by another minister during yet another trip. His topic concerned what he regarded as the “signs of the times” pointing to the immanent return of Christ. He spoke on this for some time. Then he concluded with this opinion: if Christ chooses to delay His Coming for any significant length of time “He will annihilate all our technology.”
These are extreme and isolated examples. The opinions of these two individuals hardly represent those of most Christians (including, I would add, those within their own denomination). But they do speak to a certain unconscious mindset among many sincere believers. That is, an instinctive view that God’s plan for mankind involves constricted horizons. Technological aspirations (and sometimes, human creativity itself) are often seen as something inherently prideful and idolatrous, corrupting the mind from the simplicity that is in Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3).
Technology in Genesis
This trend of thinking has a long tradition, even dating back to early Christianity. The apocryphal book of Enoch, praised by Church Fathers such as Tertullian but ultimately excluded from biblical canon on grounds of authenticity, features the demon Azazel teaching pre-Flood Man the “forbidden” arts of mining and weapon-making (see The Book of Enoch, Chapter VIII). The first-century Jewish historian Josephus (not a Christian himself, of course, but whose works have been highly influential within Christianity) censures Cain as the inventor of weights and measures (“whereas [men] lived innocently and generously while they knew nothing of such arts, he changed the world into cunning craftiness”) as well as for being the first city builder. Significantly, Josephus contradicts himself in the same chapter by praising the first generations after Noah for “the good use they made of [their lives] in astronomical and geometrical discoveries” (see Antiquities of the Jews, Chapter 3). Does not geometry necessarily involve the use of “weights and measures?”
Some other Christian thinkers (both contemporary and historical) have made much of the fact that the Genesis account mentions Cain’s (presumably sinful) descendants as the innovators and inventors of the pre-Flood world. The (righteous) descendants of Seth, by contrast, are never mentioned to be responsible for any such achievements. The implication is that a focus on technological development implies a lack of focus on spirituality – this was the opinion of one Christian author that I had a chance to exchange personal emails with. For those interested, his book on ancient technological achievements is available here.
I would point out, however, that the description of Seth’s line in Genesis has an explicitly genealogical focus that is lacking for Cain’s. It’s purpose is to provide contemporary readers (those for whom Moses first composed it) with a clear picture of how God’s revelation was handed down to Adam and preserved over the generations until their own day. Those mentioned by name in the Sethite line likely occupied a “priestly” role more significant than whatever secular activities they would have been known for. Incidentally, some clues in this regard can be derived from the very meaning of their names: “Cainan”, for example, means “craftsman”, and “Methusaleh” can be translated to mean “man of the flying dart” (see Rene Noorbergen’s Secrets of the Lost Races). And, of course, at least one especially well-known Sethite was directed by God to become a Shipbuilder (Genesis 6).
The fact is, the Genesis account, taken on its own, assigns no moral judgment one way or another to the inventions of Cain’s descendants. Extra-biblical traditions and texts are the only source of moral analysis on this topic. While useful to the student of biblical history, they must always be taken with a grain of salt in comparison to the canon of Scripture. In fact, Jubal, inventor of the harp and lyre, held a place of honor in the ancient Israelite religion. The word “Jubilee” is actually derived from his name (see link here). I also hardly need mention the use these inventions were put to by the righteous Hebrew kings such as David.
The Tower of Babel
Many others, however, point to the Confusion of Tongues at Babel as proof that God takes a fundamentally dim view of human advancement. The supposed “proof” of this is the reason given for why building of the Tower had to be stopped: “nothing will be restrained from them which they shall imagine to do.” (Genesis 11:6)
But is that really a blanket statement applying to all forms of human progress? An interpretative lens I’ve found useful comes from Donald E. Chittick’s The Puzzle of Ancient Man:
“By having a bent toward evil and assisted technologically, man in rebellion against his Creator can turn his habitat into a living Hell. I was born before World War II and remember how technology was used to torture and murder and mutilate human beings. The Nazis in Germany performed horrible ‘scientific’ experiments on people. Philosophical justification for these atrocities came from their naturalistic, atheistic view of origins.” (p. 150)
Considered from this perspective, the Confusion of Tongues was as much an act of mercy as of punishment. Most traditions (largely derived from Josephus) tell us that the building of the Tower was an effort to establish a unified world government in direct defiance of God’s command to send out independent colonies to resettle the earth. Such a regime – dominated by a false religious (or “scientific”) philosophy – may indeed have achieved great technological feats, but its “accomplishments” would likely have included mass surveillance, centralized social and economic planning, eugenics, organized mass murder and (perhaps) mind control. In short, it would have permanently extinguished human freedom (thereby destroying, incidentally, the basis for any continued scientific progress).
Image: The Liberty Conservative
A world where the Tower stood?
The fact is, competing, individual nations – with all their trade-offs – ensure an “exit option” when conditions in one nation (or group of nations) becoming unendurable. By extension, if you believe in the ideals of democratic self-governance, you almost by definition have to believe in individual nations as a matter of principle. These are, after all, the concrete structures that come into existence when people end existing political ties in order to erect others more suited to their needs. In a long-term sense, we could even say the dispersal from Babel actually galvanized human development by bringing these imperfect but necessary entities into being.
Progress vs. Decadence
With all this being said, there are still many seemingly cogent arguments within church circles about the supposed link between “technology” and moral decline. There is merit in all of them. But they miss an important element of the big picture. Almost all of the social ills we associate with technology today don’t come from its advancement but rather the illusion of advancement. The innovation we’ve seen over the past forty years has been exclusively in computing (the mostly entertainment-oriented “time-wasting” areas that receive so much censure in religious circles). Progress has been virtually stagnant in the aviation field and most engineering fields (chemical, nuclear, mechanical, electrical, etc) (see the following article here). Many of today’s generation are retreating into cyberspace due to modern culture’s overwhelming focus on “safety” and the growth of a bloated regulatory state to enforce this unattainable ideal. They simply do not have the opportunity to experience the “real world” in the way their recent ancestors did or pursue the same entrepreneurial channels. The result is a widespread feeling of “unreality” that pervades Western societies (which meet virtually all their citizens’ physical needs while neglecting higher ones). It doesn’t take much imagination to grasp that a life spent entirely in the “protected zone” can quickly become unbearable – with purely escapist fantasies being the most immediate coping mechanism. The fact that online virtual worlds such as Second Life are now so popular should be grounds for a massive societal wake-up call: they are the only place left where many people can experience the sense of accomplishment and adventure denied to them in the real world.
We can expect these social trends to only continue and accelerate as the world becomes ever more inter-connected and bureaucratically regimented. And the avenues for continued human freedom will steadily vanish. Considerations like these, are – perhaps more than anything else – part of the basis for my own support for human space colonization. If – God forbid – the trends around us culminated in a single world-wide government, it would be a virtual imperative. There has to be some means of establishing new nations and the “exit option” they present to anyone suffering under a tyrannical regime – or wasting away under a more insidious despotism that provides complete satisfaction of all sensual desires but no avenues for one’s God-given talents. Any place on Earth, no matter how remote (the oceans, Antarctica, etc), simply would not be enough. As Robert Zubrin points out in The Case for Mars:
“… at this point in history such terrestrial developments cannot meet an essential requirement for a frontier – to wit, they are insufficiently remote to allow for the free development of a new society. In this day and age, with modern terrestrial communication and transportation systems, no matter how remote or hostile the spot on Earth, the cops are too close. If people are to have the dignity that comes with making their own world, they must be free of the old.” (p. 325)
The Final Lesson of the Tower
Many Christians, even those who become writers in the speculative genre, automatically focus on the negative side of technological discoveries. Both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, for example, suffused their writings with an underlying critique of industrialism and the modern age. As a writer myself, I am no stranger to this – most of my planned works have the abuse of certain technologies as an essential plot element. But we will be doing a great disservice to ourselves – and the gifts God has given us as human beings – should we ever carry this to the point of a generalized retreat from knowledge and creation. We should continue to remember Babel as a symbol – not just of warning, but of the life of freedom, exploration and discovery the Creator intended for us as beings in His image. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of what the Tower’s builders would have imposed upon the human race.
Image: 10 spice
I invite you all to join me next week as we continue our journey through the uncharted corners of Heaven and Earth.