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Looking beyond technology to see the hand of God


By Richard R. Gaillardetz
Crossroad, 158 pages, $15.95


There has been a recent shift in research studying the impact of media violence on viewers, especially youth. Instead of trying to prove this viewing causes violent behavior, researchers now argue that media violence desensitizes us -- making us less conscious of how much violence permeates our culture.

This concept parallels the argument of Richard Gaillardetz in this thoughtful volume about how our technological tools often replace the moments of active engagement in our lives, or glide us past them. Conscious meal preparation and sharing, for example, are often zapped by our instant microwave action. This book will help readers reflect more thoughtfully on this reality -- and is enormously practical, also. If you are harried by the technological tools that were supposed to give us all more leisure, I recommend this volume as tonic.

Gaillardetz admits that cell phones and video games have invaded his family and he does not suggest eliminating them. However, building upon Albert Borgmann’s philosophy of technology, the author argues that it is not the technology that is problematic. Instead, we as consumers must see beyond the commodity (even religion as a commodity, dispensing grace), to preserve zones of conscious awareness in our daily lives.

Furthermore, he says that from the church’s own heritage we can find rich resources like relational Trinitarian theology or truly communal liturgies. This allows the “dailiness” of our lives to be transformed by God’s grace. The author wisely urges lifestyle discernment rather than a condemnation of particular technological tools.

Gaillardetz is a respected theologian who has written authoritatively and clearly about the magisterium (in the 1997 book, Teaching With Authority). And he represents a growing number of competent lay theologians speaking from personal experience as a spouse or parent.

Evoking Karl Rahner’s theology of a graced universe, Gaillardetz reminds us throughout the book that within mundane moments (like changing diapers), we are touched by a loving God. He worries that the almost invisible ease of technology desensitizes us to these redemptive moments, or “focal points” as Borgmann calls them.

Another helpful reflection by the author is that “one of the characteristics of modern society is the effective anesthetization of humanity” by technical tools that make our life “unproblematic.” He urges constraints and deprivations (a new asceticism) that demand the use of memory and imagination. He reminds us that in the Christian life, “we must embrace emptiness.”

It is clear from both text and footnotes that, along with Borgmann, the author has studied the major analysts of the topic -- from Rahner and Catherine Mowry LaCugna to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholar Sherry Turkle, whose research over the past decade have helped us understand “the second self” that emerges as we interact with computers. (Incidentally, because this work is full of rich ideas, an index would be helpful. It is sometimes hard to find specific topics when you want to return to them.)

Gaillardetz does offer a practical but profound analysis of the intersection of religious thought and practice in an electronic culture. This book, along with some of his other work, enriches an emerging body of thought identified by some as “communication theology.” For example, he is beginning to articulate a model of theological reception that integrates today’s more interactive (two-way) communicative culture. Gaillardetz, and others like him, will contribute to the re-thinking required by theologians in an electronic age. This task is challenging and of great importance.

Building upon this helpful volume, Gaillardetz and others can probe some issues not explored fully here. For example, we can consciously think of computers not as computation but as community. Then technologies themselves can be redemptive. We can utilize contemplative prayer practices -- along with liturgy -- to help us balance our hi-tech overload.

Another topic related to ideas in the book is recent work in communication studies showing how we do mediate or transform technological tools and media messages as we interact with them. In other words, we are not just manipulated by these items; we respond and transform them.

As I studied the Gaillardetz work, an incident occurred that helped me reflect upon the book’s argument. I was on my way to a cello concert and as I parked I noticed a van ahead of me with a handicapped license plate. I watched a platform extend from the van and a man in a motorized wheelchair drive off the lowered platform onto the sidewalk. With a remote-control unit, he directed the mechanism back into the van and “drove” off to the concert.

As I returned to my car after the concert this gentleman in his wheelchair came up behind me. I said to him: “I noticed you are very self-sufficient, but is there anything I can do to help?” He replied, humorously: “Would you go out dancing with me?” As we chuckled, he added: “Korea did this to me. But at least I’m mobile.”

This unique and graced interaction -- like a focal point -- reminded me, as this book does, that we do need to preserve moments of caring, connecting humanity in the midst of our useful tools. And we need the gifts of skilled analysts like Gaillardetz who can help us be church-in-communion consciously. He helps us become more aware of “the vital web of interactions and relationships that constitute one’s daily way of life.”

Frances Forde Plude teaches communication theology at Notre Dame College in Cleveland and is co-editor of the Communication, Culture, and Theology book series of Sheed and Ward. Her e-mail address is fplude@ndc.edu

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000