Christianity and the History of Technology

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Michael Sacasas:


"Since the mid-twentieth century, there has been a sustained, if modest, scholarly conversation about the relationship between technology and religion. Among scholars who have specifically addressed the nature of this relationship, research has focused on the following set of concerns: religion’s role in determining Western society’s posture toward the natural world, religions’s role in abetting technological development, religion’s role in shaping Western attitudes toward “labor and labor’s tools,” and, more recently, the use of religious language and categories to describe technology. The majority of these studies focus almost exclusively on European and North American context and so “religion” amounts to Christianity. Jacques Ellul, Lynn White, George Ovitt, Susan White, David Noble, and Bronislaw Szerszynski have been among the more notable contributors to this conversation.

Jacques Ellul’s comments are the earliest, but they do not set the terms of the debate. That honor falls to Lynn White who in his 1968 essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” first proposed that Europe’s relationship to technology had been distinctly shaped by the Christian worldview. Scholars have repeatedly returned to further scrutinize this thesis and its ecological frame.

George Ovitt’s The Restoration of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture remains the most thorough treatment of the nexus of questions generated by White’s essay. Ovitt concludes that there is good reason to significantly qualify White’s claims.

Susan White’s study, Christian Worship and Technological Change, stands apart as a consideration of technology’s influence on Christian liturgy.

David Noble builds on the work of White and Ovitt to offer an account of what he terms “the religion of technology” which amounts to a pervasive intermingling of religious concerns with the project of technology as a well as a tendency to link the quest for transcendence to technology.

Finally, Bronislaw Szerszynski’s Nature, Technology, and the Sacred offers a theoretically sophisticated reconsideration of White’s argument which, with respect to the technological character of contemporary society, embraces Ellul’s diagnosis of technological society. Szerszynski also moves the argument out of the medieval period to argue that the really decisive transformations in the intellectual and religious context of Europe’s technological history should be located in the Protestant Reformation.

Ellul’s The Technological Society was first published in French in 1954 and the first English translation appeared in 1964. Within the brief historical sketch Ellul provides of the evolution of technique, he examines the relationship between Christianity and technology. In Ellul’s estimation, Christianity as it was practiced through the late Medieval period was at best ambivalent to the advance of technology. He recognizes that received opinion contrasts the Eastern religions, which were supposedly “passive, fatalist, contemptuous of life and action” with Christianity, the religion of the West, which was supposedly “active, conquering, turning nature to profit.”

Although this characterization was widely accepted, Ellul believed it to be in error. It both ignored the real technical advances of Eastern civilizations and misunderstood the posture of Christianity to technical development.

According to Ellul, the emergence of Christianity marked the “breakdown of Roman technique in every area — on the level of organization as well as in the construction of cities, in industry, and in transport.” In his view, Julian the Apostate, and later Gibbon, were not altogether mistaken in attributing the withering of the Empire to rise of the Church. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, a society emerged under the tutelage of Christianity, which Ellul characterized as “‘a-capitalistic’ as well as ‘a-technical.’” In every sphere of Medieval culture save architecture Ellul sees “the same nearly total absence of technique.”

Ellul goes on to challenge the two historical arguments employed by those who believed that Christianity “paved the way for technical development.” According to the first, Christianity’s suppression of slavery gave impetus to the development of technology to relieve the miseries of manual labor. According to the second, Christianity’s disenchantment of the natural world removed metaphysical and psychological obstacles to its technologically enabled exploitation. The former fails to account for the impressive technical achievements of slave societies, and the latter, while valid to a certain extent, ignores the other strictures Christian faith placed on technical activity, namely its other-worldly and ascetic tendencies. Additionally, Christianity subjected all activity to moral judgment. Accordingly, technical activity was bounded by non-technical considerations. It is within this “narrow compass” that certain technical advances were achieved and propagated by the monasteries." (

2. Lynn White Jr. and the roots of our ecological crisis.

"In his classic essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Lynn White, Jr. staked out a position that departed from Ellul at almost every conceivable point. White begins by describing the gap in technical achievement that opened up between Western Europe and both Islamic and Byzantine civilizations to the the east. This gap predated the “Scientific Revolution” of the sixteenth century and was already evident by the late Middle Ages. Consequently, White turns to the Middle Ages to understand the nature of Western technology.

Although White is at this stage in his career moving from the single-factor approach to technological change, elements of the approach are still evident in the “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” in which he points to the introduction of the heavy plow as catalyst for changing attitudes about humanity’s relationship to nature. In White’s words, the heavy plow “attacked the land with such violence that cross-plowing was not needed.” White also notes that this new attitude of domination was soon given pictorial expression in Frankish calendars which depicted man and nature in opposition with man as master.

At this juncture in the essay, however, White shifts from a single technological factor analysis of social change to a consideration of the cultural influences that conditioned the development and deployment of technology in adversarial relationship to nature. White finds the Christian religion, as practiced in Western Europe, to be the chief culprit. “Especially in its Western form,” White concludes, “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” After briefly recalling the well known plot points and language of the creation narrative in the opening chapter of the book of Genesis, White contrasts Christianity to ancient paganism and the Eastern religions and finds that Christianity “not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.” Christianity accomplished this “psychic revolution” by disenchanting nature, making it “possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”

White, then, affirms the second argument Ellul dismissed in his analysis of the relationship between Christianity and nature. He surmounts one of Ellul’s criticisms — that eastern branches of Christianity did not yield the same relationship to nature and thus religion is not the key factor — by pointing to the significant differences in theological outlook that characterized the activist Latin churches in the West and the contemplative Greek churches of the East. Ellull had noted the difference, taking the Russian Orthodox Church as his case in point, but he concluded that the difference must be cultural and not religious. While the cultural shaping of ancient Christianity should not be overlooked, the fact remains that by the Middle Ages both Eastern and Western Christianity had taken on their distinct shape and were now, as culturally inflected variations of the same religion, shaping the intellectual climate of their respective societies.

Furthermore, White also strengthens the argument by pointing to the sacramental vision of eastern Christianity. Nature existed as a system of signs to be read and through which God spoke to humanity. This was, in White’s view, an “essentially artistic rather than scientific” view of nature. While the West initially shared this sacramental vision, by the late Medieval period it had given way to a natural theology more inclined to “read” nature by understanding the workings of nature rather than merely contemplating its appearance. (Bronislaw Szerszynsk will later take up this semiotic argument in depth.)

The rhetorical frame of White’s article concerns itself with the sources of “the present ecological crisis,” but the body of his argument addresses itself to another question: What accounts for the advance of Western technology beyond its civilizational rivals? White’s essay, while initially gesturing toward a single-factor account of technological change, on the whole points toward a social factors approach focusing on Latin Christianity as the force driving the evolution of western European technology. By so doing, it set the terms and became a key point of departure for subsequent discussion of religion’s relationship to technology. Most notably, it anchored the debate in the Middle Ages, it pointed to the cultural significance of seemingly arcane theological distinctions, it identified Christianity as the most important cultural factor driving technological activity in the West, and it linked the historical question to environmental concerns." (

3. Lynn White on cultural climates and technological change

"Lynn White further developed his thesis in a long 1971 article, “Cultural Climates and Technological Advance in the Middle Ages,” in which he directly set out to identify the sources of the unprecedented “technological thrust of the medieval West.”

White begins by discussing medieval Europe’s propensity for borrowing and elaborating on technologies initially developed in other societies. The culture of medieval Europe “was unique in the receptivity of its climate to transplants” and this accounts in part for the vigor of medieval technological output. However, this receptivity is itself in need of explanation and in response White reaffirms the logic of “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”:

“What a society does about technology is influenced by casual borrowings from other cultures, although the extent and uses of these borrowings are reciprocally affected by attitudes toward technological change. Fundamentally, however, such attitudes depend upon what people in a society think about their personal relation to nature, their destiny, and how it is good to act. These are religious questions.”

In what follows, White amplifies and augments the lines of argument adumbrated in the earlier essay while also drawing out additional lines of evidence in support of his thesis. The seminal work of medieval historian Ernst Benz, whose writing on the subject had appeared in Italian in 1964 and was presented in English in 1966, is introduced into White’s argument for the first time. Benz’s study of Zen Buddhism’s “anti-technological impulses” led him to locate Western Europe’s embrace of technological change in its religious outlook. He pointed to Christianity’s linear conception of history, its presentation of God as architect and potter, its theological affirmation of the goodness of material creation, and its presupposition of the “intelligent craftsmanship” of the created order — all in his view unique to Christianity — as the components of what White terms a “cultural climate” remarkably hospitable to technological advance.

White affirms the contours of Benz analysis, but he finds room for improvement. Drawing on two articles independently published in 1956, White once again points to the disenchantment of nature supposedly accomplished by Christianity’s cultural triumph over ancient paganism. He also reaffirms and further develops the importance of the distinction between Latin and Eastern Christianity. Here White strengthens his earlier observations by drawing on iconographic and textual evidence.

Beginning shortly after the turn of the first Christian millennium, Western iconography depicts God in the act of creation as a builder, master craftsman, and later a mechanic — it was a visual tradition never adopted in the Eastern churches. Exegetically, White points to the Western and Eastern interpretations of the story of Martha and Mary in Luke’s gospel. While a surface reading suggests an endorsement of contemplation over activism, Latin interpreters, beginning with Augustine, go out of their way to soften and even reverse the apparent critique of activism and labor.

With this White then draws in what will become another key locus of attention in subsequent discussions of technology and Christianity: the attitude toward labor in the monastic orders, particularly the Benedictines. White notes that in the Byzantine world, which, unlike the West, did not suffer a general collapse of culture, the religious orders were not forced to bear the burden of sustaining all aspects of civilization, secular and religious. In the West, however, following the collapse of Roman authority, the religious orders, notably the Benedictines, found themselves in the position of performing both religious and secular duties, of uniting worship and labor. This commitment to labor and the mechanical arts would, in White’s view, generate a uniquely religious impetus for the development of technology.

White supports his contention by drawing on the work of the pseudonymous Theophilus and Hugh of Saint Victor. Theophilus’ work, dating from the early 12th century, provides an indispensable record of the era’s technological knowledge while attesting to the religiously motivated technical innovation that White takes to be characteristic of the age. Meanwhile, Theophilus’ contemporary, Hugh of Saint Victor incorporated the mechanical arts into his influential classification of knowledge and the arts. While the mechanical arts were accorded the lowest place in the hierarchical ranking of the arts, they were nonetheless included and this was no small thing. Together, the work of Theophilus and Hugh supported White’s thesis regarding Western Christianity’s role in shaping Europe’s technological surge in the Middle Ages.

White concludes with one more corroborating piece of iconographic evidence. An illustration of Psalm 63 in the Utrecht Psalter dating from the mid-ninth century features a confrontation by between King David and the Righteous and a much larger force of the ungodly. While the ungodly use a whetstone to sharpen their sword, the godly employ “the first crank recorded outside China to rotate the first grindstone known anywhere.” Clearly, White concludes, “the artist is telling us that technological advance is God’s will.”

While “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” is cited more often and is more frequently taken as a point of departure, it is in “Cultural Climates and Technological Advance in the Middle Ages” that White most persuasively argues the case for Christianity’s formative influence on the history of technology in Western society. With its inclusion of Ernst Benz’ research and its discussion of Benedictine spirituality, this essay frames the research agenda for subsequent research and discussion." (

4. George Ovitt’s challenge to White’s thesis.