The Technological Civilization and Christianity – Augusto Del Noce
I have been reading a lot of Augusto Del Noce lately. He was an Italian, Catholic philosopher of the mid-twentieth century best known for his critique of modernity, secularization, and Marxism. He is a master of the history of philosophy, particularly in the revolutionary developments since the Enlightenment. His specialty seems to be in Marxism, and one of the dominant themes of the two books I have had the pleasure to read is the sublation of Marxism into the “affluent society” or the “technological civilization.” His writing is incisive and prescient of our own age, as he saw, with great clarity, the inevitable march of Western society toward material affluence and spiritual despair.
In this post I’m going to quote a substantial passage from his profound essay, Technological Civilization and Christianity, found in his book The Age of Secularization. This essay attempts to answer the question of how the Church ought to approach the rapidly developing technological civilization of the mid to late twentieth century. Of course, in our own day, the growth of technology has only accelerated, so that now we have unthinkable computing power at our fingertips. Our civilization, therefore, is only become more technological, even as we are, as I argued anecdotally here, becoming less human.
The essay’s argument begins with the section titled “The Primacy of Doing,” in which Del Noce states, “the technological civilization can only be defined in terms of the suppression of…the religious dimension.” By religious dimension he does not mean Christianity in particular, but rather “an eternal and unchangeable order of truths and values, which we can come in contact with through intellectual intuition.” Del Noce argues that there is a fundamental discord between the technological civilization and the religious civilization because the former denies (or suppresses) the foundation of the latter. There is no place for transcendent truth or supreme values in the technological civilization. Everything is plastic, subject to the will of mankind, bending the universe to fit his desires.
“In this form, the light of reason – the organ that perceives the absolute, the necessary, the objective and eternal – is replaced by man’s reason, individual and subjective, contingent and changeable. In other words, in the traditional view primacy belongs to the contemplation of an ideal order to which our action must conform. The technological civilization replaces it by the primacy of action, in the sense that human knowledge takes value only to the extent that it can serve practical purposes: transforming matter so that sensitive man may use it and exercise dominion over things.”
We believe in individualism and relativism not because our technological civilization has proven them, but simply because it demands that we believe and behave in these ways.
It’s not simply that the absolute has been replaced by the relative; it is that our very way of thinking and reasoning has shifted from the objective to the subjective, from the necessary to the contingent. We believe in individualism and relativism not because our technological civilization has proven them, but simply because it demands that we believe and behave in these ways. The suppression of the religious dimension is the suppression of contemplation, intuition, and introspection – those vital aspects of the mind that separate us from the animals. Now, with the advent of emoji, we have even forfeited language, the most distinctive characteristic of humanity. By suppressing the religious dimension, the technological civilization suppresses our humanity, molding us into the image of animals by elevating practical knowledge above all else.
“Of course, this attitude toward knowledge also affects practical values. From the thesis that knowledge is limited to the sensible world, it follows that the only reality that counts for man is material reality. And because matter is a principle of multiplicity and division, the consequence for man as a practical attitude will be a form of individualism which will imply the negation of every principle higher than the individual. The ‘creation’ of values will be set in opposition to their authority, but since the word creation is meaningless in reference to man, this formula will take the meaning of negation and radical destruction of tradition.”
A pragmatic attitude toward knowledge leads to a pragmatic attitude toward values. If the only knowledge that truly matters is material knowledge, then the good, true, and beautiful can only be found in material reality. There is no transcendence. There is no tradition. There is nothing higher than the individual. In fact, if there is nothing higher than the individual, and value and knowledge are limited to the material world and relative to the individual, then all words of value and truth lose their meaning.
“The progressive diffusion of the technological mentality has been accompanied by the disappearance of the words true and false, good and bad, even beautiful and ugly – also, or above all, in common language. They have been replaced by the words ‘original,’ ‘authentic,’ ‘fruitful,’ ‘efficient,’ ‘meaningful,’ ‘work in progress,’ and so on. …Affirming the primacy of action…means that there is nothing beyond the human. And if the truth is not something higher than man, it is destined to grow old, and in this situation an old truth will have no more power to attract attention than, for example, an old woman. Hence the worship of the ‘new’ and the correlative spirit of destruction.”
The last half of this quote is striking. If the truth is lower than man, then it, like man, will grow old, and old truths are unattractive. This is the heart of the progressive vision – that we are discovering new truth, new values, new knowledge, and it is all leading to an inevitable utopia. But we cannot reach our destiny unless we discard the old, unattractive truths, values, and knowledge. It is here that Christianity and the technological civilization must part ways.
Christianity is both a received and revealed tradition.
Christianity is both a received and revealed tradition. The Gospel is the eye-witness account of the works of God in Jesus Christ that has been passed down from generation to generation. Paul began his retelling of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 with these words: “For what I received I passed on to you.” The religious dimension to which Del Noce alludes, what we would call tradition, necessitates a connection to the past. We are connected to those who have gone before us, and to those who will come after us, because the truth of God, fully revealed in Jesus Christ, transcends each one of us. We are not above the Gospel and the truths of Christianity. Rather, they are the roof of the multi-generational house in which countless people, from almost every tribe and language on the earth, have found refuge for two thousand years. The Gospel was new once; it is not new now. It may grow old, but its beauty never fades.
This, perhaps more than anything else, is why I am not a progressive. Progress has already been made, but not through scientific discovery or the utiopianic vision of the technological society. The progress that progresses mankind toward our ultimate end was plowed by Jesus as he carried his cross from Jerusalem to Golgotha. There is no new truth that will outshine this story. There is no new knowledge we could discover that could work a better salvation than what God offers us in Christ. All that remains is for us to orient ourselves to his progressivism, which was to set us free from the bonds of sin and death by dying and rising again. The progress of God is the salvation of humanity, the redemption of our blood-stained history, and the restoration to our original place as God’s co-regents on the earth. There is no technological civilization that can outshine this religious dimension. Therefore, do not forfeit the glory that awaits you in God’s new creation for the subhuman future that the technological civilization promises.