The advance of technology has outpaced our morality. It’s a grim assessment, but it’s hard to argue against. In some ways it’s an inevitability — technology is always more potent with possibilities than we can initially conceive of. Who would have ever thought the advent of television, for instance, would one day lead to the moral dilemmas the television industry has delivered to us? Or, maybe a bit closer to home, who would have thought the iPhone could have ushered in such a temptation toward narcissism? Technology opens new worlds of possibility that we must respond to morally. With respect to much of today’s technology, we are proving ourselves morally ill-equipped to handle it.
With technology advancing at such a dizzying pace, how can we keep up? How can we maintain our moral bearings when the tech world has cracked open so many new frontiers of possibility, so many gray areas, so many moral dilemmas? In short, we must rebuild what we’ve so casually let fall into disrepair: our moral infrastructure.
What is our moral infrastructure?
There are two foundational components of what I’m calling our moral infrastructure. First, for believers and non-believers alike, our God-given conscience serves as a foundation upon which the tracks of our moral-ethical lives are built. Secondly, the Holy Spirit, himself, functions as a kind of moral underpinning in the lives of believers. Or, to extend the metaphor, he is the superintendent who razes our morally hazardous foundations, lays new ones in their place, and anchors them in the sure footing of Christ. The whole of our moral-ethical lives is lived (or not) out of one or both of these two moral components.
But there are other infrastructural components to our moral-ethical lives as well, which we might equate with the roads, guardrails, and road signs built on the foundations mentioned above. These teach us how to behave and guide us in the right direction. While the following is not an exhaustive list, I’ll highlight two crucial components of our moral infrastructure, one fueled by the properly formed conscience and one born of the Spirit.
Cardinal virtues: Prudence (wisdom), justice (righteousness), fortitude (courage), and temperance (self-control) have historically been known as the cardinal virtues. Dating back to the writings of Plato, the cardinal virtues were eventually recognized and adapted by the likes of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and are widely acknowledged, most notably within the Catholic Church, to this day.
While some may squirm at their arguably Platonic origins (though I would contend that these virtues preceded Plato) and Protestants, in particular, may be uncomfortable with their association with Catholicism, it is indisputable that the cardinal virtues are morally virtuous ways of being. Objectively, wise and just living, for instance, contributes to people’s flourishing, as opposed to foolish and unjust living, which contributes to misfortune and ruin. The cardinal virtues are “naturally revealed,” we might say, to be good. Add to these the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (love), and what we have is a fundamental component of our moral fabric as human beings.
Fruit of the Spirit: In the life of the Christian, the Spirit of God builds up our moral infrastructure by bearing his fruit in us: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23, CSB). These are the road signs guiding us, saying “This is the way, walk in it” (Isa. 30:21, NASB). And, Paul goes on to say in Galatians, “If we live by the Spirit [build our lives on his moral footing], let us also keep in step with the Spirit [walk with him on the road he’s laid for us]” (v. 25). The Spirit gives us the raw material — the moral-ethical equipment — and the power we need to live lives that go with the grain of the kingdom.
So, as the tech age leads to ever more frontiers of possibility and yet-to-be-conceived moral-ethical dilemmas, it is imperative that we maintain and, where necessary, rebuild these and other components of our moral infrastructure.
Why does our moral infrastructure need to be “rebuilt?”
Have you logged on to social media lately? Watched the news? While American culture as a whole could easily be critiqued, what’s often most discouraging and confounding is the behavior of many Christians. Technology, as it has repeatedly done throughout our history, has put new tools in our hands that we are noticeably unprepared for morally.
But, why are we unprepared? Why must we rebuild our moral infrastructure? Because we’ve let it fall into disrepair. What’s becoming clear by our very public misbehavior is that, by our own moral neglect, we’ve seared our consciences, collectively and individually, and we’ve quenched the Holy Spirit. In our interactions with others, we have publicly traded the fruit of the Spirit for “enmities, strife, outbursts of anger, dissensions, and factions,” which Paul calls the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:20).
Considering our public, moral-ethical behavior in the technological age, I can’t help but think of the famous exchange between G.K. Chesterton and The Times, a London newspaper, which reportedly sent out an inquiry to Chesterton and other authors asking, “What’s wrong with the world today?” “I am,” he said, abruptly. We would do well to join the likes of Chesterton, and confess our own moral neglect.
How do we rebuild it?
The natural follow-up to “why,” is “how” do we rebuild our moral infrastructure? The fruit of the Spirit, after all, is not ours to produce; it is the fruit of the Spirit. The cardinal (and Christian) virtues, as well, are not virtues that we can simply muster up; we are entirely dependent on God to work these virtues into us. So what do we do? Here are three steps we can take to begin this much-needed rebuild.
1. Posture: In A.D. 410, Saint Augustine wrote a letter replying to a young man named Dioscorus, who, in a previous letter, sent to him (Augustine) “a countless multitude of questions” inquiring about the Christian religion. Near the end of Augustine’s response, he said this: “if you were to ask me, however often you might repeat the question, what are the instructions of the Christian religion, I would be disposed to answer always and only, Humility . . .”
In the same vein, the beginning, middle, and end of rebuilding our moral infrastructure is humility. Recognizing our need to have our moral-ethical foundations shored up, step one is clear: we are to fall on our faces before God in absolute humility. There is no other place to begin.
2. Prayer: “Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God—who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly—and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith without doubting” (James 1:5–6, CSB). When God’s people are in need of something, James’ instruction is for us to ask God. To pray.
In our tech age, we need wisdom because of the world’s new and unexplored gray areas; we need kindness and gentleness because anger and outrage are so richly rewarded; we need self-control because excess has never been more attainable; we need courage because Christianity in our society has never been less palatable. And how do we get these crucial components of our moral infrastructure? We ask. We receive from the God who gives generously.
3. Practice: In James’ letter, he tells us to “be doers of the word” (James 1:22). And though Paul uses the language of fruit to describe what the Spirit produces in our lives (Gal. 5:22–23), he contrasts the Spirit’s “fruit” against the “works of the flesh” and warns us “that those who practice such things [works of the flesh] will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:21, CSB). In each case, James and Paul — along with the entirety of the biblical witness — are telling us to “put these things into practice” (1 Tim. 4:15, NRSV).
One of the unsettling truths about asking God for something is that, often, he not only provides us with the thing we’re asking for, but he also puts us in situations where it’s needed. And he expects us to exercise what he’s given us. All of our asking is for nothing if we don’t actually practice the virtues and ethics of the kingdom. After all, “Faith without works” — without the exercise of virtue, without Spirit-born fruit — “is dead” (James 2:26).
The way forward
As the technological age marches forward, we might assume that we need to discover an equally innovative path forward to ready us for the “brave new world” the tech age promises. That would be a mistake. All the tools we need to rebuild our moral infrastructure lie within our sacred text, the sacred community, and our Triune God. To go forward faithfully, we need only to rediscover the “ancient paths” (Jer. 6:16).
For the people of God, the way forward may seem counterintuitive, for it is both down, to the way of humility, and back, to the cross of Christ, time and time and time again. And it is up, looking lovingly upon God with our whole selves, and around, loving our neighbor as ourselves. This way is “narrow and difficult” (Matt. 7:14), but it “leads to life,” to blessing, to flourishing. Though “few find it,” we have found it, and now we have the joy of showing this dizzied and disoriented world what life with God looks like. But they won’t be allured by Jesus and his kingdom, and we won’t thrive in the tech age, if we let our moral infrastructure crumble away piece by piece.
So may we take seriously God’s command to be a set-apart people. And may this culture that has gone so far astray know us and God’s kingdom by our fruit (Matt. 7:17–18). And through our faithful witness, may they find the ancient path that leads to life.