The National Catholic Review

During the French Revolution, a bishop was brought to the guillotine for execution. But when the blade flew down, it stopped an inch short of cutting off his head. “It’s a miracle,” cried the crowd, and the bishop was released. Next, a philosopher was brought forward; but again, the blade stopped one inch before decapitation. “Another miracle!” cried the crowd, who released the philosopher. Then an engineer was brought forward to be executed. They strapped him in too and pulled up the blade; but just before it was released, the engineer cried, “Wait a minute! I think I see the problem!”

 

Once we were a church of laborers and factory workers. But the economy of our world has become dominated by computers, information processing and other high-tech businesses. How has the church responded to the needs of laboring techies?

A techie—an engineer, a scientist, a computer maven—is someone whose orientation toward the world is extremely pragmatic, logical and, most of all, functional. An artist might ask, “Is it beautiful?” or a philosopher, “Is it true?” The question behind a techie’s worldview is invariably, “How does it work?”

Too many people still think that a technical worldview is somehow antithetical to religious belief. The cliché supposes that all technical people are hard-nosed materialists with little interest in religion. In fact, religion is a frequent and volatile topic of conversation among scientists and engineers, though it is rarely discussed in a way that makes sense to a technically oriented person.

It is not merely a problem of finding the right vocabulary. The questions a techie would ask, and the manner of asking them, can often sound threatening or dismissive to people who do not understand the technical mind-set. And the answers the techies get are often misinterpreted by them in unexpected ways.

Rules

To the function-oriented techie, religion is what religion does; and often the only thing the techie sees religion doing is presenting a rigid set of rules and regulations. Some techies then reject religion, because they are not able to see beyond its “rules.”

There is also an opposite problem. Many techies are all too enthusiastic rule-followers. A computer is completely unforgiving of the slightest mis-stroke of a key; the laws of nature make no exceptions for scientists with pure hearts or good intentions. Rules, in the techie’s experience, are to be obeyed exactly if the desired outcome is to be achieved.

Someone with this mind-set might well embrace the “rules,” assuming that salvation can be earned simply by a strict following of the rules, as if they were a kind of operator’s manual for living. This in turn can lead to intolerance, not only of the faults of others but also one’s own. From there the path is short to either denial or despair.

Yet the temptation of many church ministers to respond to these problems by downplaying the importance of rules or norms is not the answer. Any attempt to reduce religion to a set of feel-good emotions in place of rules suggests to the techie that religion has no serious content, and therefore no value.

Authority

Likewise, one often finds ministers of the church who tend to fear coming across as too “authoritarian,” with a tendency to downplay their own training or ordained status. This “we’re just one of you” attitude can be exactly the wrong tack to take with a techie.

Authority enjoys enormous importance and respect in the technological world. Every techie is an expert in his or her own field. Like the centurion in the Gospel of Luke (7:2-10), techies understand what authority means, because within their own fields they exercise it regularly themselves. A techie knows to respect expertise. Ministers who do not assert their own credentials not only give the techie no reason to respect or listen to them; they also implicitly express disrespect for the techie, whose own sense of worth is directly tied to his or her own sense of competence and authority.

Finally, a church draws its strength from being a community of worshipers. But since childhood, most technically oriented people have been systematically excluded from the communities of their peers. Pegged with abusive labels like “geek” and “nerd” and facing hostility born of being different (academically more successful, for instance, but often physically less adept), many technical people simply assume that while the world at large may lust after their technological goodies, no one is interested in them as people. Alienation is a powerful and universal techie experience.

For many technical people, the years of study and work that have gone into developing their professional abilities have caused them to delay or even abandon any idea of participating in the traditional lifestyle of marriage and family. Yet there is no scope for activity given to single adults in a typical parish; parishes are oriented around families.

Thus, all too often, typical church responses to the daily problems and concerns of techies are generally unhelpful, and often repellent. The irony is that it should not be so. After all, Jesus himself was a kind of techie.

Jesus the Techie

This is not to say simply that Jesus was male, single, smarter than everyone around him, and that when he tried improving the world (“I think I see the problem!”), he was crucified for his efforts. Consider: the term technology comes from the Greek techne, which to the ancients meant the mere mechanical fashioning of the physical world, as opposed to the more exalted vocation of philosopher or priest. No wonder Jesus the carpenter was as welcome among the scribes and Pharisees as a plumber at a philosophers’ convention.

What’s more, in today’s world technology is a social justice issue. Curiosity about the world is a basic human trait. To deny that curiosity is to deny one’s personhood. The ability to understand the world in a scientific way empowers an individual, providing the mind-set that looks for cause and effect (a worldview often lacking among the poor). It gives people the power to understand the difference between forces they can do something about and those that are beyond their immediate control. And it shows how “impossibly big” problems can be broken down into smaller, solvable ones.

Yes, the “mechanical” view of the world is clearly incomplete. What world view isn’t? But seeing the universe in terms of cause and effect can give us the courage to attack problems like poverty, disease and social injustice with the expectation that solutions can be found.

Ultimately, the techie viewpoint enriches our own understanding of our relationship to the God who created us as physical beings, the God who since the beginning has revealed himself, as St. Paul reminds us, in the things he has made.

Guy Consolmagno, S.J., an astronomer, is curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory and the author of Brother Astronomer (McGraw Hill).