Stephen Ames

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Le voyage alchimique Michel Schmid flickr cc

The Church shares in God’s mission in and for the world. This mission includes giving an account of the kind of world in which we live, not just in the terms the world gives, but also in terms of the kind of God revealed in Christ. The Church’s task is to identify the dissonances and resonances between these accounts, and to act accordingly: to acclaim the resonances and redeem the dissonances in the light of the divine economy for the whole creation lately revealed in Christ.

What kind of world are we living in? Near where I live, Telstra has a huge billboard facing Nicholson Street, Carlton. It reads, ‘Let us explain the NBN in the old fashioned way – face to face’. What is the latest fashion? Digital communication to the absent other. Of course, even Telecom (prior to Telstra) promoted this with its vision of a phone in every home. But the difference now is that digital communication is becoming the dominant form of communication, and it renders the face-to-face old-fashioned.

New fundamental themes

The billboard shows us a culture saturated by the natural sciences, the ever new digital technologies and the global market. From these many people distil some fundamental themes which have become widely taken for granted about the kind of world in which we live.

First, from the natural sciences many people have absorbed the message that the universe has no objective purpose or value.

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Nature & Technology Theophilos Papadopoulos flickr cc

Secondly, digital technology functions as the new lingua franca–the common language of our day and the way we are to think and talk about what is real, about how things work, about what is possible and the power to make it happen.

Thirdly, it is widely taken for granted that the personal arises wholly from impersonal natural processes (biological and neurological) and is shaped in and by society.

Fourthly, ‘value’ or ‘worth’ is predominantly ‘instrumental value’. Something has worth or value as a means to a desired end, until the next latest object of restless desire comes to light. This form of worth becomes our daily wor(th)ship represented by the market. The ideas of unconditional value, intrinsic value or irreplaceable value fade.

These four themes indicate something of the human world we have produced from the good gifts of God the creator of the universe and of humankind as the image of God on earth. There are many resonances and dissonances between the life to which God calls human beings and the kind of life we have produced.

Church and science

The mission of the Church includes acclaiming the resonances and redeeming the dissonances. What does that mean for the four themes just identified?

The natural sciences are indeed one of the resonances between the gift of the universe created freely and rationally by God and human responses. This is shown both by the historical origins of the natural sciences, first under Islam and then afresh in Christian Europe. It is also shown in the coherence between various key themes in Christian theology and the doing of science.

There is a dissonance, not with the natural sciences, but with turning them into a philosophy–scientific naturalism (scientism), which says: all there is, is what the natural sciences say there is. Since the natural sciences rightly speak about the natural universe, not about God, this philosophy entails atheism. This is a deep dissonance.

The widespread confusion between this philosophy and the natural sciences as sciences is another dissonance. A redeeming move would be a review of educational practice in secondary schools that asked to what extent this confusion is hidden or brought to light, and even criticised–there are substantial philosophical criticisms.

Two more dissonances

With very few exceptions, scientists do not see evidence for any purpose in the natural processes of our universe. Neither Fine Tuning nor Intelligent Design are convincing. This appears to be a powerful dissonance against the belief that God creates this universe for a purpose. Likewise the strongly felt dissonance between natural evil (tsunamis, genetic disorders) and the gospel that God is love.

Possibilities for redemption? It is possible to back-engineer technology with its blind natural processes to identify the purpose for which it has been constructed. A similar possibility is available using the work of atheist physicist, Victor Stenger, on the laws of physics. Surprisingly, it turns out the universe is structured according to these laws in order to be knowable by empirical inquiry. Redeeming the dissonance of ‘natural evil’ begins by answering the question, ‘Why would God use evolution?’ (click here for a paper on this theme).

The deployment of digital technology in a way that helps render face-to-face communication ‘old fashioned’ is a deep dissonance for humankind created in the image of the triune God. It can be redeemed by the practice of communities attending to personal, co-present communications as essential to our humanity. Christians work promoting faith communities as a resonance with the reality of the triune God and the flourishing of humankind across the planet.

Digital technology is used to re-write the construal of what is really real. Here it merges with the scientific naturalism mentioned earlier. It is seductive because of the power it gives us to open many possibilities to transform our relationship with nature, and to engineer genetic transformations taking us beyond anything recognisably human.

Markets and people

The next two themes concern the human person and the market. Here I can only note that at some point they intersect. Economists and marketers all make assumptions about human beings in a properly functioning market. The economy in which we live and move and have our being is a social movement ordering itself to better make people fit its assumptions. The economy has to go on growing endlessly. We all have to be consumers who consume ever more goods and services, without ever having enough.

A condition for us ‘wearing’ this construction of the person is that we have spiritual needs that are turbo-charged by the conditions of contemporary life; I mean the diminishment of satisfying face-to-face communication, the pace of life, the fading of unconditional values noted above, and the loss of transcendence in daily life. These spiritual needs are misinterpreted as material needs which can be met by the latest goods and services provided by the market. In fact they cannot. This produces consumers who can never have enough without really knowing why. Basically this is the exacerbated restlessness of the human heart that cannot find its rest in God. This is what the market needs.

This is a deep dissonance, with many consequences, including the increasing gap between rich and poor and the reality of climate change. Many point to the resonance that many millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. That is indeed a good, but it points to how many more might be lifted out of poverty by a no-less-productive economy whose benefits are differently distributed, or indeed by a different economy, as for example the inclusive growth promoted by the Brotherhood of St Laurence or possibly Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth. Jackson is Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey.

A redemptive move would be to make central reducing the danger of climate change and ensuring the equitable production and distribution of food for the world. In both, Australia could take the lead supported by the churches’ prayer for daily bread and concerted action.

There are many more themes which cannot be pursued here. But one concerns the sense of lived time as accelerating. The ‘touch and go’ facility for financial transactions is just part of the ‘accelerating’ life style, in which the metaphor of ‘acceleration’ refers to our experience of cramming more and more events into every day, and being subject to turbulent change across our society. Inevitably this means we must attend more to the ‘surface’ of life and relationships, for in 24/7 there is no time to go deeper.

The ‘spirit of the age’ becomes the taken-for-granted spirituality informing our lives, whether we are religious or secular. This is a dissonance that intersects the other dissonances. Its redemption calls for a diagnosis of what drives the accelerating pace of life and will also surely draw on the riches of Christian spirituality translated into a liveable practice of being still and knowing God. A simple ‘rule of life’ would be a start.

Stephen Ames lectures in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne, and is a priest at St Paul’s Cathedral. He is one of the founders of Social Policy Connections, and chair of the Yarra Institute for Religion & Social Policy.


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