MARS HILL AUDIO Journal
Guests on Volume 150: David I. Smith on how Christian schools can make wise decisions about the use of educational technologies; Eric O. Jacobsen on how living in a world mediated by screens encourages loneliness; Matthew Crawford on how the “promise” of self-driving cars threatens the capacities of agency enabled by driving; Andrew Davison on how the metaphysical concept of participation helps us understand God’s relationship with Creation (and with us); Joseph E. Davis on the medicalization of suffering and the reductionism promoted by neuroscience; and Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung on the wisdom of the tradition of understanding faithfulness and morality in the framework of virtues, vices, and spiritual disciplines.
[Click on the plus sign next to each segment description below to read a full summary of each interview.]
David I. Smith on how Christian schools can make wise decisions about the use of educational technologies
“So many technology books . . . are either . . . ‘Technology, digital devices will save us and transform our future; there’s no going back, etc. etc.’ or ‘Digital devices are going to ruin us and destroy civilization and render us all mute’ and so on. Reality just seems to be in a more complex middle space than either of those stories — where there are always gains and losses, where when we change our technologies . . . they challenge us to figure out those gains and losses, and how to respond, and what choices to make.”
— David I. Smith
Educator David I. Smith articulates the difficulties Christian schools face as they seek to use technology in a faithful way. The book he co-authored, Digital Life Together: The Challenge of Technology for Christian Schools, was the result of a multi-year project in which the authors meticulously analyzed the technological philosophies and artifacts of several Christian schools. Smith warns that technology, mixed with modern priorities of efficiency and productivity, can lead to an unfortunate alchemy, impoverishing a rich education into “getting things done by the deadlines.” However, he wants to avoid an all-out condemnation of technology, believing that wisdom calls for a careful assessment of the gains and losses that all new technologies bring. Smith encourages school administrators to keep their first principles before them as they make each decision about whether to incorporate a new technology into the life of their school.
Eric O. Jacobsen on how living in a world mediated by screens encourages loneliness
“[Jane] Jacobs said that the city itself was a problem of organized complexity. It works, but it works in such a complex way that it defies our complete understanding. So, you make small interventions, but you pay attention to what is happening outside of your understanding. So, I say that with belonging as well. It’s not simply a matter of ‘Oh, people need a few more friendships.’ It’s not something that we’re going to solve with a really clear program like that. We need to create environments where friendship and connection are going to happen organically. It’s just really hard to engineer, it’s hard to engineer belonging. It grows in the right kind of soil.”
— Eric O. Jacobsen
Pastor Eric O. Jacobsen addresses modern isolation and how to foster belonging in his book Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens. The title “three pieces of glass” refers to the car windshield, the television, and the cell phone. Jacobsen structures his argument around these emblematic items to illustrate how modern priorities have led to alienation from people and the places where we live. Applying his previous work on the importance of place, Jacobsen explains how urbanist Jane Jacobs argued for respectful attentiveness to “organized complexity” in the city. Jacobsen applies her ideas to what he calls “kingdom-belonging,” arguing that it’s not possible to straightforwardly engineer, but only organically cultivate. The belonging that grows in this way, he believes, is the subjective experience of “shalom:” the goodness and beauty of right relationships in the Kingdom of God.
Matthew Crawford on how the “promise” of self-driving cars threatens the capacities of agency enabled by driving
“Urban driving . . . looks chaotic. It’s messy, but we’re basically improvising; we’re working it out on the fly; we’re solving problems together; we’re cooperating. For Tocqueville, that was really an important part of the democratic personality: The ability to cooperate in some practical activity, without having to be supervised (whether by some bureaucracy, or by some technology that does everything for us). So now we’re getting into the realm of political culture and sensibility. So the big worry here is that as the space for intelligent human action and skill and cooperation gets colonized by machines, our skills atrophy and I think our social intelligence is likely to atrophy — which of course leads to demands for further automation to replace trust with machine generated certainty.”
— Matthew Crawford
Philosopher and mechanic Matthew Crawford argues for the renewal of manual competence through the lens of modern driving in his book Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road. Provoked by the specter of self-driving cars, Crawford laments the losses of human skill that correspond with gains in mechanical automation. For him, more automation means submitting to more bureaucracy as the car becomes a “device” comparable to a smartphone. Quoting Nietzche’s axiom that “Joy is the feeling of your powers expanding,” Crawford argues that we miss out on fundamental aspects of human experience the further we move toward automation and away from skill and responsibility. Drawing from Tocqueville’s insights into the democratic personality, Crawford ultimately holds that cultivating everyday skill (like the ability to drive well) is necessary for the “messy” realities of self-government.
Andrew Davison on how the metaphysical concept of participation helps us understand God’s relationship with Creation (and with us)
“One helpful distinction that we get from theological writing is the distinction between cause in being and a cause in coming to be, initially. So, I think it would be a mistake to say that God is only cause of the world as if that were a past event; but rather . . . God is the cause of the being of the world every moment. So I think it is useful to think that there is a kind of freshness to God’s gift to us at every moment, really as fresh as the first moment of the existence of the world. We can continually see the world as given to us.”
Theologian and priest Andrew Davison believes that retrieving the historic doctrine of participation in God is vital to help Christians escape from the default philosophy of the age. In his recent book Participation in God: A Study in Christian Doctrine and Metaphysics, Davison undertakes a systematic treatment of the doctrine, approaching it from two angles: Creation (all things — whether the justice of man or the greenness of trees — find their being in God) and Redemption (God has saved us in order that we may become partakers in his very nature). The doctrine of participation means reckoning with the nature of being as ongoing gift of God and with the awareness that God’s transcendence does not mean God is distant from the world — “in Him and through Him and to Him are all things.”
Joseph E. Davis on the medicalization of suffering and the reductionism promoted by neuroscience
“These older concepts and language implicate us in a way that the neurobiological seems to let us . . . not implicate our own history, our own life, our own experience. . . . That kind of stuff suggests either that the story I’m telling about myself might be wrong in some fundamental way, or that I might have to really do some painful soul searching. Psychotherapy can often be quite painful, if it’s good — or counseling . . . or broader kind of dialogical thinking about our suffering and shared experience and so on. If that’s done well, it’s going to force us to confront aspects of ourselves.”
— Joseph E. Davis
Sociologist Joseph Davis investigates the modern “healthscape” in his book Chemically Imbalanced: Everyday Suffering, Medication, and Our Troubled Quest for Self-Mastery. He traces how the language of psychiatry entered the popular realm around 1980, providing a new neurobiological vocabulary that was socially validated. While Davis doesn’t dismiss the neurobiological, he wants to push back on reductionist explanations which don’t account for factors like personality, history, vices, or choices. Neurobiological language isolates the problem within an individual’s (merely material) existence, rather than situating persons within a larger social and spiritual context. Recovering older language (like “alienation” or “acedia”) may help to recontextualize experience. Nonetheless, coming to terms with factors beyond the neurobiological takes courage because of the way that we are implicated and may have to confront unattractive aspects of ourselves.
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung on the wisdom of the tradition of understanding faithfulness and morality in the framework of virtues, vices, and spiritual disciplines
“What I often tell my students is ‘It’s very important to ask yourself, “Is this right thing to do?”’ That’s an important ethical question no doubt. But, it’s at least as important an ethical question to ask yourself, ‘If I do this thing today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and over and over again for the next five years, what kind of person will I become?’ And that’s a character question. So, I don’t want to reduce ethics to act-centric-only kind of thinking. . . . So, I think the vice lens is important because it narrates your ethical character over time. It says this is a life-long project of character building.”
— Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung
Philosophy professor Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung illuminates how the seven deadly sins work to malform the heart in her book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies. Instead of “deadly sins,” DeYoung argues that we should recover an older term, the “capital vices,” because it connotes how these sins are the principal underlying sources behind sinful actions. DeYoung situates the capital vices in the territory of habits, of accumulated patterns that become part of our ethical character through time. Explaining the need for a second edition of her book, DeYoung explains that she wrote the first edition from a philosophical perspective, not anticipating the broad audience who would read and be convicted by the book. In this edition, she focuses more explicitly on the healing and wholeness that come when we are able to name the roots of sin in our lives.