Technological Prometheanism

Now, that’s a mouthful! It’s nothing new, but Pope Benedict XVI is giving warnings of terrible dangers of “technological prometheanism”, meaning something like the message of Mary Shelley in 1816 when she wrote Frankenstein.

It has been a big concern ever since the beginnings of post-Renaissance science and the Industrial Revolution, the fear of the machine and a dystopian future as described by H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and just about every science fiction author of our own time. We see the facts in our world. Whether or not we believe in global warming caused by mankind, we do see extreme weather and the effects of pollution, the continuing rape of our planet to profit the few. We are surrounded by noise and we are made to need ever increasing amounts of money to live. Despite being a high-technology user (I’m typing on a computer at this very moment), I have Luddite tendencies. I prefer to be away from the cities and use as little technology as possible, but it can’t be avoided altogether. At least it can’t without some very radical decisions being made in life.

Well the Pope is adopting a strange kind of language that hasn’t been heard since the days of the Popes Pius from the heady days of La Tradizione son’io to the anti-Modernism of the early 1910’s and the post-World War II period. He means well, but we haven’t to forget that he has no personal experience in the world of science and technology. Yes, He’s had a go with Twitter – big deal! I doubt he has used it more than once. I don’t blame him, as Twitter and Facebook belong to a philosophy of communication that it foreign to anyone over the age of some of our kids with little more intelligence than a computer of the 1980’s with its hard disk and RAM measured in kilobytes! Benedict XVI is a priest, someone who has studied theology to a very high level, and who has a small amount of experience administering a diocese before he became a Vatican bureaucrat. Most of us clergy tend to be attracted to the humanities rather than the sciences – and so we are natural Luddites.

I am wary about clergy making judgements about aspects of human society with which they have little knowledge and experience. People often make this observation, as with celibate men making judgements about marriage, family and sexuality.

Little has changed since 1816 and the idea of sewing together pieces of dead bodies, the best bits from each and bringing the creation to life with lightning bolts during a thunderstorm. Sixty years ago, it was nuclear energy and atomic bombs. Now it is genetic engineering, cloning and enhancing human bodies with machines. We also have quantum physics and enormous underground machines that can create “God particles”, matter from pure energy, and antimatter. I admit it is frightening, especially the biological revolution.

The Pope brings the philosophy of gender into the discussion. The problem of men and women is as old as humanity itself. There have been times when men oppressed women as today in fundamentalist Islam and certain periods of Christian history. At other times, it has almost been the other way around. Extremes oscillate, and sometimes society finds the happy medium for brief periods of time. Perhaps our own time is unique in the question of some people wanting to change their gender by surgical and chemical means. There must be statistics somewhere. I don’t think I have met more than one or two “transgendered” people in my whole life.

Short of this grotesque surgical procedure, some of us can have passing ideas and fancies about the opposite gender. Years ago, little boys were not discouraged from growing long hair and dressing up as girls to play in the house. I have seen a portrait of my wife’s grandfather dating from the 1900’s with beautiful locks of long hair. This is a part of the discovery of life. Jung’s psychology describes the animus and the anima in man, his masculinity and femininity, the primitive androgynous state of man. I think that the exaggeration of masculinity presents a danger to boys, just like the opposite for girls. A part of our individuation is to discover the balance of masculine and feminine within ourselves. There are no simple answers, but the danger is certainly found in extremes.

The surgical procedure involving making a person appear to be of the opposite gender is something I find quite revolting, because it is no more than a change of appearance, however convincing in cosmetic terms. The person remains his or her self, and the gender is not truly changed. If it were, then I would find the idea less abhorrent. But, as I say, it seems to concern a low proportion of human individuals.  The Pope doesn’t seem to be very clear about specifics.

What does the Pope want in the place of modernity and our problems of society? Does he want the old Altar and Throne Alliance, the Third Temptation by which he can “correct Christ’s work”? I doubt it as his theology and philosophy are more sophisticated than those of Torquemada and Bernard Gui, but the underlying temptation is there. We are all concerned with the idea of a return of men like Hitler, Stalin and big bankers who would hoard billions and leave the rest of us to starve. We live in fear like in the 1940’s and 50’s – or some of us do.

It is also true that we are faced with the fundamental choice between God and Satan, but without human freedom, God becomes his nemesis, the Demiurge of the Gnostics and the tyrant of the Old Testament. With unbridled freedom, man becomes rebellious and refuses to serve, because sin enters the picture. What is the Pope proposing, a return to the late eighteenth century – powdered wigs and Gucci sunglasses?

I am often criticised for upholding freedom, but there is freedom and freedom. Freedom is limited by the freedom of other people and the common good. Our rights are limited by the rights of others. Here is an essay on freedom by Nicholas Berdyaev – The Metaphysical Problem of Freedom, and it will be seen that true freedom is not simply being allowed to do anything you want. Freedom is a really tough concept to deal with, but you don’t solve it by eliminating it.

Yes Wahrheit macht frei, as our German Pope would say in his own language. Yes, Wahrheit and not Arbeit. The former means truth and the latter means work, the cruel distortion the Nazis introduced and set up over the gates of their concentration camps. As Jesus told us, the truth makes us free, but which truth? That is the question.

I have always been impressed with many beautiful philosophical and theological ideas from this Pope, as from many books in Fribourg University Library I read in the 1980’s (and I bought copies of them since). There is so much inspiration, but the reality is that words will have little effect until there are profound reforms in the clerical system of the Roman Catholic Church.

The sex abuse crisis is getting hackneyed, but it can’t be swept under the carpet. The clerical system in the Church is accountable to society.

Another hammer blow came this morning: How the Vatican built a secret property empire using Mussolini’s millions. Now who is being Promethean? Where is the credibility in this? From whom was all that money stolen from in the first place? Well, journalism is journalism – but there is never smoke without fire.

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