Saturday, April 30, 2022


Is there a relationship between technology and theology. Technology has come to dominate some aspects of life, after all. Social media creates and destroys reputations, for example. The Internet allows many windows for their ideas (including me) but the ideas which can be shared are, in some cases, extreme and dangerous to the functioning of society and democracy. It could be suggested that in the Twentieth Century the God of traditional monotheism was abandoned and replaced by the gods of science and technology. Theology, on this view, would be totally squeezed out.

There are further views around as well. Technology, in the form of artificial intelligence is predicted to become more intelligent than humans in the next decade, or fifty years, or century, or whenever, depending on how optimistic the commentator is. Furthermore, being the intelligent species we are we can use our technology to enhance ourselves, becoming computer – human hybrids with some sorts of superpowers, such as amazing sight, memory and reasoning skills.

Maybe, and then again, maybe not. Sometimes it seems that such commentators have rather forgotten themselves in their excitement. Some of the claims, after all, are a bit contradictory and, as we all know, predicting the future is rather tricky. It may also be that, given a lot of the authors of these sorts of ideas refer a lot to science fiction, they have rather blurred the line between what is possible and what is simply a good story.

Technology has changed aspects of the world beyond recognition in, say, the last thirty years, since the advent of the Internet and World Wide Web. That does not mean the world has changed out of all recognition, nor, in fact, that computers are taking over the world. After all, computers can and will only do what they are programmed to do, and ultimately that is a question of human decision. This is where theology might sneak back into the picture. How do humans decide?

This is at heart an ethical and metaphysical decision. What do I, or we as a society, want from our computing networks, from artificial intelligence and other sorts of technology (for example, cloning)? There is a debate here. Two sides are frequently drawn in rather stark contrast to each other. Firstly those who argue that, essentially, if we can do something we should. These writers often seem to relish the idea that we can create technology that will make us superfluous. This is a bit odd, perhaps, but it is a point of view.

The other side of the conversation is among those who are skeptical of the claims that technology is going to do a great deal more than it already has, and, probably, that technology has already done significant harm. This side point to, for example, cyberbullying, people’s addiction to their mobile phones, the widespread availability of internet pornography, the spread of extremist ideas and the control of news by authoritarian regimes, among other issues. Technology has already advanced beyond our capability to control it, they suggest, and perhaps we need to adjust our societies and expectations to make due regard for that.

Creating computer software, say, an application (‘app’) for a mobile device is an application of the human mind to a perceived problem. The human mind identifies it and creates a solution using tools which are around, say, a programming language, a platform and a few other tools. In some senses, then, this is little different than a caveman chipping bits of flint to butcher the antelope he has just killed to feed his family. Humanity has been, historically, quite good a creating tools to solve problems.

In a post-industrial society we have a few other problems than the cave dwellers had. Mostly, these relate to relative boredom. We do not have to spend our days hunting and gathering, so we find other amusements and distractions, many of which are, these days, on the internet. We have more leisure time, on average, than we used to. We can suggest that perhaps we do not make the best use of it, but that, again, comes back to human choice.

There are limits to what computers can do for us. They might be able to amuse us, but we have to engage with them (even if it is a mindless game) to allow them. These sorts of things have probably been moral panics since newspaper crosswords were invented, if not before. I recall a television program called ‘Why don’t you just switch off your television set and do something more interesting instead?’, latter abbreviated to ‘Why don’t you?’.

Could computers become more intelligent than us? Well, there are artificial intelligence experiments where the AI can learn. Famously, Microsoft launched an internet ‘chatbot’ called Tay which could add things said to it to its memory and use them in future responses. It had to be removed after a few hours as it had been taught to use racist and antisemitic language.

Perhaps here is the lesson for both technology and theology. Yes, we can create technology to do all sorts of things, both good and evil. Technology itself is neutral. The same person can code, and the same computer can run, an application which enables disabled people to communicate easily, and one which encourages people to commit suicide. Which is deployed is a matter of human choice.

It is at this point that a technologically informed theology can help. Theology is concerned about transcendence and what it means to be human, after all. Being human is not just about the mechanical and physical sides of life. Most humans have dreams and aspirations which are not simply about money and stuff (although increasingly it does not seem like it, admittedly). Theology can inform the sorts of decisions which go into writing software: is this a good idea? Should this be done? What impact will this have on people’s lives. A knowledge of how software (for example) is created can inform how theology responds to technology. A knowledge of theological themes, such as the meanings of being human, can inform the inputs to creating applications.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Control of Religious Printing

I suppose we have all got alarmingly used to governments and other organisations attempting to control the media. A while ago this was concealed under the rather innocuous sounding term ‘spin-doctor’, with the advent of social media and 24 hours news coverage, the control of media has become a bit more complicated and rather more threatening to freedoms and democracy.

This is not a new idea, of course. George Orwell, after all, predicting something which looks alarmingly similar in 1984. With the extensive use of mobile phones for surveillance of people of interest to the authorities, the present world has gone a step beyond Orwell’s dystopia.

Even longer ago, the authorities were concerned to control the output of the presses. A case in point is that of early Stuart England, that is, from around 1603 – 1640. I have been reading:

Mutchow Towers, S., (2003), Control of Printing in Early Stuart England, Boydell: Woodbridge.

I confess to being a bit concerned about picking this work up. It does look a bit dull on the face of it after all. However, it turned out to be a surprisingly good read. The subject turns into one which touches on the nature of Anglicanism and how it works.

In brief, the Elizabethan Church was, mostly, Calvinist in theology. Thus most religious publication before James I came to the throne was Calvinist and hence included double predestination as a doctrine. This was more or less uncontroversial in the first year the study covers in detail, 1607. There was some control of religious printing, inherited from the Elizabethan period, and titles were entered in the register of the stationer’s company. As this this entry ensured that the ownership of the work was established by the stationer who printed it, it was generally in their best interests to register it.

The other characteristic of religious publishing at the time was anti-Catholicism. This was particularly true of the period just after the Gunpowder Plot. We perhaps underestimate the potency of the plot in the period; it was not just a failed attempt to murder the body politic, but was, or at least was perceived as, an existential threat to the protestant nation and people.

The licencers of publications were the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of London, who usually deputed the responsibility to their chaplains. This list is not exhaustive, because Ireland and Scotland had their own arrangements, as did the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. However, as most printing was done in London, much of it came under the jurisdiction of the Bishop. While the bishops were, on the whole, Calvinist in theology and the titles submitted were similar, there was not much difficulty in publishing popular religious works, or works of predestinarian theology and anti-Catholic polemic.

Things started to shift slowly during the reign of James I and more quickly under Charles I. The arguments over Arminianism quickly stirred the presses, and the Synod of Dort did little, in England at least, to quell the controversy. The appointment of bishops sympathetic to Arminianism meant that anti-Calvinist, or at least non-Calvinist works were occasionally permitted. This trend accelerated in the later 1620s and 1630s as William Laud was promoted, first to London and the to Canterbury.

By 1637, the last year examined in the book, Arminian works, properly licenced and approved predominated. Not just predominated, it should be said, but among authorised works Arminian works were exclusive. Not every work was theological, of course, but the others were non-controversial, such as works of prayer and spirituality.

As Mutchow Towers notes, it was very hard, at the time, to separate religion and politics. The authorised works represented the religious policy of the government, which is usually summarised as ‘the beauty of holiness’ – conformity, reverence and the dignity of worship. The opposition to this, with its perceived Romish overtones, was forced underground.

Anti-Catholicism was at least partly, frowned upon. The policy of the government, with respect to the Thirty Years War raging in Europe, was to negotiate and form alliances with the Catholic powers, mostly Spain (which needed to cooperation of England to keep the sea route to the Low Countries open, particularly after the early 1630s when the overland route from Italy was partially blocked). This was highly unpopular with the Protestant Puritan end of the political spectrum and those (often the same people) who looked back to the ‘golden age’ of Elizabeth and the Armada.

Thus by 1637 the government was getting its religious policy into print, while the opposition was largely, officially anyway, suppressed. Other issues also drove a wedge between the Laudian Church and the Puritans. Charles I in 1633 re-issued and enforced the Book of Sports. Clergy were supposed to read it in church and those who did not could be disciplined. The Book outlined activities which were permitted on a Sunday; more Puritan opinion argued that only worship was permitted. There was also the controversy over the position of the altar: at the east end (with rails) or table wise in the chancel. The former was the Laudian position aiming at decorum (so people did not place their hats on it during the rest of the service, for example), the latter the more Puritan position, as people gathered around the table for communion.

None of these things, of course, in and of themselves, caused the civil wars. Charles I’s religious policy certainly had a bearing, and the attempted enforcement of a new Prayer Book on Scotland in 1637 was the proximate cause of the political breakdown there and outbreak of the Bishop’s Wars. But if Charles and his advisors had been a bit more subtle and less sure of their power, as James had been, the breakdowns might have been avoided.

Modern historical opinion suggests that much more of the blame for the civil wars rests on Charles than has hitherto been assigned. Religious policy, it is suggested, originated from the King and Laud was the implementer, not the author of it. It probably cannot be finally established whether this is the case. The flood of Arminian publishing in the late 1630s did little to change opinion. Puritan printing was simply done surreptitiously until censorship collapsed in1641.

As Mutchow Towers notes, what was published does not reflect what people believed. It does reflect what the authorities permitted, and that changed, particularly in the 1630s. That there was a reaction against this policy should perhaps not surprise us. That is was a violent one indicates the importance of religious opinion at the time.

Contemporary Theology

What, you might well ask, is contemporary theology and why does it matter? I have been reading MacGregor, K. R., Contemporary Theology: A ...