Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Gadgets and God:
What's a Disciple to do?

Father John J. Lombardi

"One cannot lessen, nor increase, nor penetrate the wonders of the Lord"  Sirach 18:4

Are you a multi-tasking machine lover? Do you think we Americans are "liberated" because of all the techno-gimmicks and garrulous-gadgets we've acquired? And your TV screen-is there too much going on in it?

I've been pondering these questions frequently, and, repeatedly, while recently setting up my Mom's new computer, I asked my technologically-suspicious Dad for advice. His reply: "No compute."…Feel the same?...

Sometimes the daily newspaper can deliver wisdom and answer profound questions, as when I recently enjoyed a seductively-entitled article, "Just Say 'No' to Gadgets and Gizmos: An Easy Guide to reclaiming Our Humanity and Simple Ways." (The Washington Post: Dec. 29, 2002- by Ken Ringle), on a striking, new book, by Nichols Fox, "Against The Machine: The Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art and Individual Lives".

Don't let the title intimidate you. Bottom line: We've underestimated the downside of technology and modern conveniences, which have denigrated some of our healthy, human customs and traditions: family time is blocked by the t.v.; electronic games control children; constant communications entice thru ubiquitous media devices; modernizing machinery replaces man-power; the Sabbath is clouded out by non-stop entertainment and sports events. Fox says a healthy lifestyle can be reclaimed thru step-by-step simplification; but we have to want to. Over the past two centuries, according to Fox's studies, many have. Ned Ludd began the "revolution" when, around 1811 and following, he protested the massive changes wrought by the de-personalizing Industrial Revolution. Thus the term "luddites" has basically been a "derogatory dinosaur" paralyzing those who decry the loss of the dignity of human beings.

Fox's analysis of television, is simple and needed: "It's a deity"… a religious monitor which seduces with its "beams of light," and is like a "tribal storyteller". (Full disclosure: she and her husband have a TV. but keep it in a closet only for emergencies: sound like a good idea?) Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian Catholic and commentator, likewise stressed in his seminal book, "The Medium is the Massage," that television has virtually replaced reality…But the Bible counsels us away from human folly to divine reality: "Come, therefore, let us enjoy the things that are real, and use the freshness of creation avidly" (Wisd. 2:6).

Fox admits we can't naively reject machines and technology altogether. But, contrariwise, she confesses (for us all): "There's obviously a lot of stress in the way most of us live, and its getting worse.

People think they can't live without three cars, two jobs and we spend half of our waking hours watching television that isn't even real entertainment, but just people screaming at us to buy more things. We literally spend more time charging the batteries of our cell phones and computers than we do talking to our children." Thanks for the brutal honesty! Remember Our Lord's tough loving words: "Unless you renounce all of your possessions you cannot be My disciple" (Lk. 17.33)

Our Catholic tradition encourages people to strive for balance: between using goods and technologies, without abusing them: cell phones and pagers ringing at Mass; the multiplicity of t.v. channels and programs; an increasing strangulating-stimulation of children thru interactive media devices Whatever happened to "Lassie"?

Pope John Paul himself encourages us to use modern conveniences without becoming mastered by them. For instance, he has persistently and lovingly critiqued biomedical technologies which show promise, but which also denigrate us-in vitro fertilization, cloning, amniocentesis which leads to abortions. These "biological gadgets" have become a Frankensteinian replay of unharnesed invention dehumanizing us, manipulating our harmony with Nature-we are in danger of becoming machines. The Holy Father stresses that, just because we can do something doesn't always mean we should do it. .."Be not conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewal of your spirit" (Rm. 12:2).

Serious Catholics today really have to discern what is helping us become holier, more Christ-centered disciples, and what is hindering us. Let's face it: many are being overpowered by the world. Ask yourself: Are we Catholics that different from anyone else?..."Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world the love of the Father is not in him" (I Jn. 2:15).

Perhaps you saw the "dark side" of technologies' tenaciousness recently, when a famous English rock star was charged with purchasing internet child pornography. This shows us something we fear: some things, and even some forms of technology and entertainment are destructive because of their inherent instability (severed from God) and because of our sinful nature. Although we are afraid to admit it-because of the "intimidating steamroller of so-called progress, free speech and unlimited access, anyone, like that musician, is vulnerable to seductive secularism: pre-school children, teens, adults, priests-"Watch out, your adversary, the Devil, is roaring about like a lion looking for someone to devour" (I Pt. 5:8) Like drugs, alcohol, the sensual body divorced from God, we need admit that, in a fallen world, the revolution in information technologies, including television, video media, can be explosively manipulative for searching and navie souls. There are not enough prophets like Pope John Paul decrying the "savage capitalism" which destroys lives and dehumanizes.

Fox quotes Neil Postman, in defining the dangerous state of modern secularism, as Technopoly-" as a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology…this requires a new kind of social order…" There is hope though, there is an opposite to the strangulation of secularism: God not only allows a balance wherein we use things rightly, without affecting or spiritual lives, He also helps us to purify our very need, inner appetites and wayward desires for the "newest thing," for what is "technologically savvy" and seemingly a liberating possession. "Technopoly" operates in the opposite fashion by capitalizing upon this whole dizzying process capturing souls.

Fox says we can climb out of coagulating consumerism, and de-throne dizzying devices: "The key is figuring out which machines help you to live in a more humane way, in harmony with the world around us. And which we've allowed to rob us of that humanity and intrude on that harmony …"

She encourages steps we might take: increased interaction with family members (ever hear of a family meal?!); simpler toys for children (less noisy/more imaginative); fewer electronic toys and computer games; taking a walk with children; listening to, and talking with them… And some we add: read by the fireside; watch the snow fall (esp. at the Grotto!); listen to a creek babble; study a book of the Bible; really live the Sabbath and spend more time in Church, helping the poor, visiting the sick, praying; visit with friends and family: slow down!

Some Catholic pioneers in simple and spiritual living include: Romano Guardini: a favorite theologian of Pope John Paul, he saw the beginning--way back in the 1950's--of the dislocation of European traditions, spiritual and religious customs, which anchored the West, and the overtaking by unquestioned secularist progress, thus de-linking Man's "spiritual side" from the world and operation in it.

Dorothy Day (of New York-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and convert), and Mother Teresa of Calcutta both emphasized the practice of focusing on God first, and, secondly, serving Jesus Christ in the poor and impoverished ( the Pope calls this a "solidarity with the poor"), thus judging one's possessions and lifestyle by these biblical sources of morality and inspiration.

Otherwise, our lives will become "Me-centered" (I, me, mine-vs.: "Deny yourself and pick up your cross daily"-Lk 9:23), and Mammon-dominated --embracing idolatry of the world and money .The choice is ours: "Yet the world and its enticements are passing away. But whoever does the will of God remains forever" (I Jn. 2:15)… Further, Dorothy Day and philosopher-friend Peter Maurin, emphasized the need for cultivating a relationship which preserves and promotes a God-given plan of our harmony with the world, thru agrarian and simple living, harmony with the land.

The Catholic and Christian homesteading movement shows promise this way. The opposite way of life-complete acceptance of modernity via being ripped from it by a techno-industrial-modernism which divorces us from God's creation. You don't have to be a tree-hugger to enjoy a good hike in the Catoctin Mountains or around a local lake-to see, hear and feel how much God has richly blessed us thru the created world. Like anything else, overemphasizing a fabricated (man-made) world of gadgets and gizmos only-will harm us, sooner or later. Mother Seton, mountain climber, creek crosser, horse rider--and our patron in Heaven--described a veritable Grotto situation: "We are half in the sky, the height of our situation is incredible." Yours can be too, if you want it.

Catholic philosopher Joseph Pieper wrote a famous, little-known book, badly needed today, "The Decline of Leisure". It basically says: we are loosing our re-creation time because we emphasize doing over being, and we cultivate a manic propensity for acquiring things. The Catholic tradition stresses, rather, the need for contemplation and meditative conversation with God and world. Great Frenchman, St Bernard of Clairvaux, learned the holy leisure of prayer and simplicity, for instance, and this fructified into seventy beautiful Commentaries on the Song of Songs-studied to this day and still memorizing souls. It came from within, by God's translucent grace, not thru undue external manipulations. We all can learn a liberating way of life-if we seek the wisdom of our religion and the saints, and really want to be free.

In what sounds like the radical Desert Fathers of fourth-century Egypt, with their cunning psychology and alleviating asceticism, Fox writes in her book: "There is an urgency, then, to acting now: to assuming some control over our lives before it is too late; to re-exerting the authority of the individual to make real decisions. It will begin with self-discipline. It will begin with the ability to say no, by individuals examining their lives and determining their personal set of values… Applying them can be challenging." ….Some Maxims To Live By:

  • Simplifying Spirituality: "The Spiritual life is not one of addition, but one of subtraction" (Meister Eckhart). Don't unnecessarily multiply your religious devotions or objects in pursuing the spiritual life. St John of the Cross calls this tendency spiritual gluttony. Decreasing self and increasing your love, intensity and purity for God will make you more like the Virgin: capable of holding God himself. Focus on studying the classics of our Catholic and Christian tradition, the saints, the Bible, and thereby simplify your spirituality. Depth is important, not volume.
  • Complication Complex: This means we are all either seduced by, or addicted to, constant stimulation. So, whenever we actually have time to enjoy silence or simplicity, it's difficult. The heightened threshold of stimulation "demands" more: more images, thoughts, activities, interactions, gadgets…Overcome this by waging one battle at a time: fast, pray, sacrifice . Forego what you think you want and trust in God to fulfill you in all situations-even in bare simplicity. If not now, when? "All things work together for those who love God " (Rm. 8:28).
  • Less is more. The Dutch architect Mies van der Rohe coined this helpful phrase. Think of it when purchasing clothes, cars and other products; when reviewing your lifestyle; and when trying to become holier. Ask yourself: Do I really need this product, or do I simply want it.

Look: we are being bombarded by so many seductive-and sometimes good-products, as Fox says, and our lifestyles have changed. So--1) see the need for change-increase the perception of alienation and need for liberation. 2)Take positive, constant steps for simplification which will increase your relationship with God, man and your own soul. 3)Repeat steps #1 and #2-interminably!...Quote of the Week--apply this to your own life: "The peculiar task of the monk in the present-day world consists in keeping the contemplative experience alive and in keeping open the way by which modern man can recover the integrity of his inner depth. The mystical necessity of a personal encounter with transcendence seems to have greater meaning in an era dominated by technology." ( Juan María Laboa, Zenit News Service: 12:19-02 )

Briefly Noted

Missionary and Retired Priests: Thanks to Fr. Edward Bayer, celebrant of today's Sunday Mass, who returns to us as a "missionary priest" of sorts. At seventy-something (mandatory retirement age for Balt. priests), he heard about the need for teachers of moral theology for seminarians in New Guinea! Instead of retiring totally, and after the Cardinal agreed, he went! This example of courage and endurance shows elderly persons that they can keep trying to be holy, excel in following Jesus even while advancing in age, pursue heroic virtue, and help the Church-never slack off! So, please help priests retire and enjoy rest as they are able and donate to: 320 Cathedral St. Balt. MD, 21201.

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi