Creation | Opinion | Science & Technology

In control?

Faced with rough roads and a pandemic the illusion created by technology falls apart.

Just over a year ago, I was traveling in a large, air-conditioned, four-wheel-drive vehicle over rough roads in rural Zambia. I was sitting securely in the passenger seat, comfortably watching the scenery and villages pass by, when suddenly the steering rod failed. The vehicle veered into a field next to the road and abruptly ground to a halt in the soft soil. We stumbled out into the intense afternoon sunshine. Unable to budge the vehicle, it did not take long before we felt vulnerable to the heat, sun, insects and thirst. The dirt road stretched for miles into the distance and we realized that we were no longer in control of our circumstances.

Living in the modern world can foster the illusion of being in control. We live in climate-controlled houses, which insulate us from the elements; we travel effortlessly across the country by road or by air, select any movie or show on demand, and order anything our hearts desire from our couches with a few clicks of a mouse or a simple Alexa voice command. Such conveniences can give us an illusion of control over our circumstances, sheltered from harm and able to summon whatever we need.

At the dawn of modernity, Francis Bacon talked about “putting nature to the rack” to subject it to our wishes. A common element of the engineering mindset is the desire to make the world controllable. The consequences of this mindset are a technological approach to nature, treating it like an elaborate mechanism to be manipulated. The result is that the world is reduced to an object to be conquered, mastered and utilized.

We are as mist

C.S. Lewis observes that “man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to nature in return for power.” Thinking about the world as a mechanism has extended to our bodies, which are also regarded as machines to be manipulated. Many are seeking technological ways to enhance their bodies in a philosophical movement called transhumanism. Even death is perceived as a technological problem that will eventually be conquered when our bodies can be replaced by more reliable machines. Behind this movement is a desire for control by using technology to enhance or change the body in any way desired.

The philosopher George Grant wrote that “most of us have forgotten our true status. We do not have complete control of ourselves; we are not independent of others; at birth and death we are helpless, and never at any time are we autonomous.” Grant reminds us that “we are creatures, dependent on God’s love, and not simply our own masters.”

One of the by-products of the global pandemic has been a reminder that we are not in control. Despite all our advances, a microscopic virus brought the world to a standstill. In times such as these we are forced to acknowledge the plain truth described in James 4:13-15: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’”

I am thankful for technology, but regularly need to be reminded that I am not in control. As I learned in Zambia, even when we have our hands on the steering wheel, we don’t really have control. “As followers of Jesus Christ, living in this world – which some seek to control . . . we declare with joy and trust: Our world belongs to God!” (Contemporary Testimony, part 1). Thanks be to God – he is in control.

  • Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin he taught for many years at Redeemer University College and was a visiting professor at Dordt University. He currently holds the William Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar-in-Residence chair at Calvin. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013).

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