Among the numerous critics of human industry in recent years, one held a particularly noteworthy place in the headlines: the Unabomber. In part of his manifesto attempting to justify his acts of violence, the man who sent bombs by mail over a period of 20 years suggests: “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” Kirkpatrick Sale, a Neo-Luddite critical of modern technology, was quoted as saying that the Unabomber represents “a rational man and his principal beliefs are, if hardly mainstream, entirely reasonable.”
Dubious personalities and actions notwithstanding, critics of industrialism often point a finger at Christian theology as a major culprit for the failures of modern society to anticipate and address issues such as pollution, natural resource exploitation, consumerism, and waste. The idea was perhaps most famously put in a 1967 article by the historian of technology Lynn White Jr., titled “The historical roots of our ecologic crisis.” While White offers a complicated historical argument, it tends to get replicated in a simpler form today, i.e. the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) offers a mandate for humanity to subdue the earth and dominate its creatures, and this is a key inspiration for the undiscerning modern love for industry.
Indeed, some Neo-Luddites suggest even that we need to abandon our technological society (and in some cases, our religious faith) in order to recapture a sort of pre-modern harmony. Yet, as a quick trip to a natural history museum will reveal, from the earliest record, humans have been making and improving tools. As I suspect many folks sense on an intuitive level, too extreme a version of this anti-technological vision really asks us to stop being human at a basic level.
But we’re not off the hook, as the recent gulf oil disaster reminds us. Yet in contrast to the idea that Christianity is the source of the problems of industrialism, and counter to the suggestion that a secular answer is the best solution, I’d like to briefly suggest that Christian faith actually offers some of the best resources in navigating our way out of the troubles that society finds itself in. Perhaps there is some truth in what Sale suggests, in that the Unabomber’s criticism and violence are rational actions for a world which consistently denies its creator and consequently denies its own created-ness. But what if we began not with the concern for self-preservation, which seems a common mantra for so much of both radical and conservative movements today, but rather by a another starting point: “the earth is the LORD’S and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it…” (Psalms 24:1 NRSV). This seems to call for a radically different economy. One which, begins by affirming that we have a good creator, and then proceeds to affirm that love should determine our response to industry and its consequences. We are left with recourse not to violence or inaction, but rather to the peculiar way of Christ. This calls instead for repentance and willingness to sacrifice when we learn that we are implicated in issues of injustice and an economy which treats the creation as if it were a commodity to be used and not the creation of God.
As we watch the news and are reminded of the many ills and obsessions of modern society, maybe it is worth considering how the affirmation and worship of a creator – indeed one who receives and absorbs our violence – might shape a different, redemptive response.