Book Review

What is a Christian’s responsibility in a technological age?

February 15, 2021

When we experience a new technology or innovation, we often believe the ethical challenges we encounter are brand new and may even require a novel way of doing ethics. While the certain challenges posed by these technologies may be new and at times can be overwhelming, the Christian ethic is more than adequate to address the core issues at stake and provide a path forward through the confusion. Dr. Brian Brock writes Christian Ethics in a Technological Age to remind Christians that our ethic is grounded in the life of the church and is robust enough for even the toughest challenges of this age. Brock seeks to define a Christian ethic for technology that allows the church to live out its calling as the body of Christ through the worship of God and take responsibility for how these innovations will naturally alter our society for both good and ill. As technology breaks humanity down and seeks to reformulate us, Christ’s transformation heals both humanity and the world around us (27). A distinctly Christian ethic will reorient humans to God and to creation as God’s creatures who dwell secure in him.

Brian Brock is a professor of practical and moral theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and also serves as the managing editor of the Journal of Religion and Disability. In Christian Ethics in a Technological Age, Brock has written one of the most substantive volumes on Christian ethics and technology to date. He argues that the deepest challenge to Christian faith in a technological age is its questioning of modern certainties about the relation of knowledge to belief and activity (4). To him, Christian ethics is not a derivation of moral claims from creedal affirmations, but rather a formed faith that reveals creation as it really is, as described by the creeds (4-5). In this volume, he also seeks to define technology as “a mode of human action into which we are born, an idiom of relation to creation and the neighbor,” as he provides a path forward for the church to engage in the pressing challenges and questions being posed about the nature of technology today (193). This definition ties into his emphasis throughout the work on the relational nature and understanding of technology in the life of human beings.

Need for a Christian ethic

It is important to note that Brock casts his vision of Christian ethics in a technological age, rather than the technological age–addressing the obvious temptation for each generation to think of their time as the technological. This subtle shift in rhetoric and titling seems to be an intentional move given Brock’s emphasis on an ethic flowing out of the church into this technological age rather than something to be recreated in order to address the pressing questions of technology in society. Often when technology and ethics are discussed, the assumption is that modern technology poses some type of existential threat to humanity and that our ethical systems must be updated in order to engage effectively. But as Brock builds out his case for Christian ethics, there is a noticeable peace and confidence in his tone, which speaks to how and where he is grounding his engagement on these issues.

Through his initial exploration into the thoughts of Martin Heidegger, George Grant, and Michel Foucault, Brock exposes our often-myopic understandings of technology and its influence in society. Alongside this analysis, he breaks down the instrumentalist and humanistic views of technology, arguing in the second section for a value-laden approach that functions similar to a deterministic view but with some important caveats. He argues that the deterministic view helps to diagnose the role of technology in society and culture but sharpens this view in light of Christian doctrine in order to help humanity break the hold of technology on society and help restore true freedom to humanity as morally responsible actors before God (169). His inclusion of these three figures in the history and philosophy of technology is interesting given that Heidegger and Grant wrote extensively on ethics, philosophy, and technology, while Foucault initially seems to be the outlier to the conversation. But Brock’s inclusion of Foucault in this discussion helps to tie together his emphasis on the experiential nature of technology and the habits formed through its continual use. He concludes by suggesting that “responsible moral deliberation about new technologies is the fruit of concerted attempts to see technology as the socially-embedded activity it actually is” (162).

In part two, Brock lays out his vision for Christian ethics in a technological age as he describes his alternative determinist approach to technology centered in the life and worship of the church. His approach focuses primarily on the calling of the local church to follow after Christ as the model for Christian ethics (172). Here Brock also casts his vision for Christian ethics not as a virtue-based approach or a narrative ethic, but rather focusing on an ethic flowing out of the church into this technological age. He forcefully and wisely shows that technology must not become an idol or god for humanity, but rather should be used (or more accurately used by God) to form a people under the banner of Christ’s redemption (235, 374-375). For Brock, Christian ethics is also “not a subsidiary discipline to dogmatics,” as some see the field of ethics in relation to theology (174).

The role of humanity in the world

As Brock casts a rich vision for Christian ethics in this age of technology, one element of his argument that seems to be lacking is substantive interaction with the imago Dei as the defining aspect of humanity in creation. With his emphasis on Christ as the focal point and the role of the ecclesia in Christian ethics, this crucial doctrine of Christian dogmatics and ethics garners little attention outside of his interaction with Karl Barth and the image of God, in which Barth intentionally focuses on humanity as a “single group” with the animals (337-339). Brock then shifts the discussion of the imago Dei to focus on how Christ is the very image of God and Israel’s Christ as head of the community of faith (337). This shifting of the imago Dei to focus solely on Christ, rather than those made in that image is a striking omission given his insistence on the redemption and transformation of the people of God. The imago Dei informs the relationship of humanity not only to God, but to the rest of creation including to the things that humanity makes in the technological age. Without this foundation, it can be difficult to engage many of the arguments being made in light of sophisticated emerging technologies that challenge the concept of human exceptionalism.

Being a 400-page volume, it seems odd that he doesn’t address many specific ethical issues surrounding the use of technology in society, given the depth of study in other areas of technological and philosophical inquiry. This is a weakness of the volume but not Brock’s actual intent in writing given his focus on defining a distinctly Christian ethic through his exploration of worship, work, and listening to God’s voice through the material creation (320). His recasting of technology under a new Christian ethical vision is one of the strongest elements of the entire work, and one might wish he had space to play that out more by addressing some specific ethical dilemmas of humanity with technology, outside of the singular inclusion of a discussion of the ethics of chicken farms and animal welfare (348-355). Though, this odd discussion does tie back to his emphasis on Barth’s exposition of the connection between humanity and animals earlier.

Overall, Brock’s volume is a significant contribution to Christian ethical engagement with technology and helps to define this field of study for the church. Brock ends with two major claims for Christian ethics in this technological age. First, “Our actions take place in a world still being redeemed and our work is alongside God’s work of redemption,” which speaks to his call for Christian engagement in the issues of ethics and technology (380). Second, Brock argues that “The ambiguity of this life breeds not fear but humble faith that embraces our role as followers and reminds us of God’s ultimate triumph” (381). This emphasis on God’s ultimate triumph should breed a humble confidence in the church to step up and into the pressing ethical concerns posed by the technological age, as the church maintains our responsibility and agency as God’s people in creation.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as a research fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. He is the author or editor of several books including The Age of AI, Following Jesus in a Digital Age, and The Digital Public Square. In addition to his … Read More