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Brett Robinson: Technology changes how we do things, but what becomes of our spirituality?

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Plowing the earth. Getty Images

What’s wrong with the world? A London newspaper once asked G.K. Chesterton to submit an essay on the topic and he responded with two words, “I am.”

Chesterton’s humble admission came with a heavy burden. To change the world for the better doesn’t require heroic conquest or great invention. First, we have to overcome our own complex and stubborn nature.

Brett Robinson
Brett Robinson writes “The Theology of Technology” column for Catholic News Service. He is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life. (CNS photo/courtesy Brett Robinson)

One of the things I’ve tried to pay attention to in this column is the ways that technology shapes our interior lives. We are well aware of the external benefits and conveniences afforded by technology but it’s not as clear what’s happening internally. A story from the Middle Ages might help illustrate.

Imagine being a medieval peasant, literally scratching out an existence with a small plow to feed your family. Contrary to popular belief, many medieval farmers were still pagan in practice. They implored the nature gods to look favorably on their crops so that they would yield a fruitful harvest.

According to historian Lynn White Jr., the invention of the heavy plow changed the face of Northern Europe in the Middle Ages. Populations boomed and urban centers took shape. Economists and historians tend to pay attention to these large scale changes but something else was happening just beneath the surface that had a profound impact on popular faith.

The formerly pagan peasants were being converted by Christian missionaries making their way across the rural territories of Northern Europe preaching repentance. The radical focus on the soul and self-examination was a shock to pagan consciousness. A God that dwelt interiorly, and not just in nature, was a radical idea. No longer subject to the whims of capricious pagan gods, the Christian could focus on interior growth.

It is no coincidence (what Chesterton called a spiritual pun) that the new spiritual awareness coincided with the invention of the heavy plow. In fact, it was providential that the new invention created some distance between the laborer and his crop.

Because farmers had to share horses and time on the plow, their yield was now determined by how much they contributed to the communal effort. This act of self-examination with respect to labor coincided with the spiritual self-examination being taught by the missionaries of that time.

The heavy plow also cut deeper in the ground and provided, pardon the pun, fertile soil for the spiritual imagination when considering the way that the soul must be well-tilled to receive the word of God as in the parable of the sower.

The growth of cities around more productive farmland in the Middle Ages is well-documented by historians. What gets lost is the quieter transformation that took place in the hearts of Catholics alongside their new contrivances.

This story means even more today as we grapple with the social and psychological effects of new technologies.

Economists point to the way wealth has shifted to places like Silicon Valley in the digital era. Historians recount the heady days of the internet when computer programmers were experimenting with the tools that would allow us to download the world’s information from our sofas.

But what of our interior lives? How are we being changed? Or more important, as Chesterton aptly asked, in what ways do we need to change to cooperate with God’s unfolding plan?

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Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.