Technology, Lutheranism, and the Proclamation

[1] An essay in a journal about Lutheran ethics must do two things by my view, it must say something practical about how we live together, and it must speak from a particular theological vantage point. This is a big target, too big. Fortunately, I have been graciously asked to tie this all together using Martin Heidegger as a sort of intellectual lens, and using AKM Adam’s essay “The Question Concerning Technology and Religion”1 as a springboard to look at the religious practices of Lutherans in relation to technology. In this essay, I will argue that technology itself is neither good nor bad, it is neutral, and the moral responsibility lands on us and how we use it. For Lutherans, it is how we use technology in service of the neighbor, and in terms of Lutheran religious practices, it is how it is used in relation to the Proclamation.

[2] Ethics is a normative field formally covered by a larger field of inquiry, philosophy. Lutheranism is a particular form of Christianity covered by a larger field of inquiry, religion. As such, working in two specific sub-fields can be very rewarding and very tricky. I studied philosophical ethics at the University of Kansas. I studied Lutheran ethics under Dr. James Burtness at Luther Seminary, and I still hold that his view of the intersection between the secular study of ethics and the theological study of Lutheranism is a relationship between two fields that must inform each other and cross-fertilize. Neither can be the dominant voice in the conversation. If theology reigns it can become an exercise in stacking up Bible verses in a failed attempt to construct an argument. If philosophy reigns, Christ the center can be lost or outright rejected from the conversation.

[3] The use of technology in the hands of Lutherans follows the course of history like any other intellectual movement in the West. Lutherans gained the advantage in printing press technology early in the Reformation. They used transportation technology to bring the Word to the world outside Europe. In a more contemporary setting, they used The Lutheran Hour on radio starting in the 1930s, I recall a card catalog at Luther Seminary in the 1990s, and this very journal being transmitted and published as a digital journal is a current example of technology in the hands of Lutherans. The ELCA has become pro-active on this front with the formation of the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology which publishes the newsletter Covalence. The ELCA has even developed its own definition of technology; “…the use of knowledge through the mechanical arts and applied sciences to fulfill the human desire and disposition rationally to understand, order, predict, and (ultimately) control the events and workings of nature….”2

[4] In short, Lutherans do not recoil from technology. They thoughtfully consider the role of technology in the creation, have successfully adopted technology in the past, and continue to do so.

[5] Now, what about this Heidegger character? Martin Heidegger, a philosopher that lived from 1889 to 1976, was born into a Roman Catholic family in south-west Germany and has been described as both a “genius” and a “criminal”, with few having a tepid reaction to his life. Heidegger taught in various universities in Germany and had a colorful life including a convoluted relationship with Nazism – at best, he ignored the issue, and at worst he actively engaged in their evil work. This relationship, surprisingly, does not taint his philosophy as his most important work, Being and Time (1927), is void of all political theory and does not contribute to the Nazi cause. However, it is his thought that is most important and what we must focus on for this essay.3 Heidegger’s work has had a tremendous impact on philosophical thought in the 20th century and to a lesser, but significant extent, on theology. Heidegger had a solid understanding of Luther and Lutheranism. He taught courses on Luther from 1919-1924, he worked directly with Rudolph Bultmann at Marburg, and held a sustained interest in Luther throughout his life, thus he holds a strong intellectual debt to Luther’s thought. This makes his work curiously compatible with Lutheran theology.4

[6] Given the constraints of this essay, I cannot outline Heidegger’s entire philosophical work in any manageable way. Therefore I must focus on his work on technology, and thankfully it does have the ability to stand alone. Heidegger took an active interest in the rise of technology by way of his lifelong study of Ancient Greek philosophy. His interest is strongly influenced by Aristotle, thus for Heidegger, technology pre-dates the Industrial Revolution. His primary essay regarding technology is “The Question Concerning Technology” (1953).5 In sum, he argues that technology reveals things to us; it is not a form of making things. Technology also acts as an “enframing” for humans; this framing orders the natural creation. This framing action comes to us externally, from technology, not internally as Kant argued with his manifolds of perception, and it is not related to natural law as in Aquinas. For example, retail production items like iPods are placed in an order, the forest is organized as a natural park and we come to understand it through that particular framework. The danger, and the normative claim for Heidegger, is that this action of enframing and “laying upon of an order to things” by technology, makes everything in creation a “ready reserve” or a standing stockpile of things at our disposal. The iPods manufactured in China are ordered and are ready to go to a Target store in Fargo, ND. They are the “ready reserve” of iPod stock for the store. The forest is ready for us to experience as a park, or to be organized as timber, harvested, produced, and sold as lumber at a Menards store in Springfield, IL. Either way (any way for Heidegger), the forest is standing in ready reserve for us. My concern in this essay is the framing action of technology and its impact on the proclamation, especially in the digital age with the rise of the on-line church and the increased presence of most churches on various social media platforms.

[7] As the owner of a Facebook account, and as one having many “friends” that are Lutheran pastors, I am also a “friend” of their churches’ Facebook page. This is anecdotal evidence, but the Lutheran Church already has a strong presence on social medial sites and will continue to be active in the public digital world. As of this publication, I cannot find any ELCA Lutheran churches that are holding on-line services, but I did quickly locate several non-denominational churches that offer worship on-line.

[8] A.K.M. Adam’s essay, “The Question Concerning Technology and Religion” is the springboard for this essay, and in fact, for this issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. The essay itself is a foundational work in this growing area, and like my treatment of Heidegger, I am only going to illuminate the central features that will contribute to my final position regarding technology, Lutheranism, and the Proclamation.

[9] Adam makes a number of claims in the essay that I agree with, including his good starter: “There is no single question of technology and religion, but a myriad of related questions.”6 It is hard to disagree with this claim. However, it provides us with a systematic approach to the question, i.e. to consider a single question at a time, but also serves as a warning not to let that question stand alone. Lutherans are no different from other religious traditions regarding his claim that, “religious traditions rely on some technologies and repudiate others, they have always done so, and will presumably continue to do so.”7 As a short example, Lutherans have always been long on the printed word and short on electronic enhancement of worship. He also introduces a normative claim that I agree with: “Technology bears neither positive nor negative intrinsic characteristics.”8 With this claim we can go into a long argument about intentions and actions. Let it be the case for this essay, though actions are good or bad and people initiate those actions, specifically, using technology. Technology itself is neutral; praise and blame should be assigned to humans. In tracing the context of the religion (Lutheranism) and the developments that it finds in society today- without speculation about the future- a normative approach to the question of technology can be explored in a fruitful way.

[10] Let me put all the above pieces together and press home the final conclusion. Heidegger makes the descriptive case that technology is not a means of production but a means of revealing. It reveals the ontological to us by the action, or mode, of enframing. This enframing sets an order on the world. This order tends toward placing things in “ready reserve” for us. Adam’s essay argues that religions find themselves in a world filled with technology, and their context drives their interaction with technology. We can’t say much about the future of technology, but we can access the current situation for a particular religion. Technology itself is neither good nor bad. Lutheranism is a religion that interacts with technology in a specific way driven by context (history, confessions, hermeneutics, tradition, seminary policies and curriculum, bishops, specific church mission, etc). The normative responsibility of how Lutherans use technology is on the Lutherans. A central feature of the Lutheran tradition is the sermon or the Word of God as delivered in the Proclamation. Typically, until the late 20th century, the Word was proclaimed in a church or a specific religious setting that was face-to-face, with some formal setting involved. With the rise of radio and television Lutherans had to grapple with the preached word delivered with an electronic device. They allowed it, but demonstrated a strong preference for the face-to-face setting. The responsibility of preaching is enormous as demonstrated throughout the confessions, and can be quickly demonstrated from The Small Catechism. From the section on baptism (many readers will have memorized this entire book more than once): “For the water, without the Word of God, is simply water and no baptism.”9 Very good things can happen, and in contrast, very bad things (moralizing, politics, therapy) can happen when humans preach. As with the use of technology, when bad things happen we are on the hook. Unlike with the use of technology, when good things happen, Christ is at the center, and we are an instrument of that work.

[11] Can technology facilitate the Proclamation? That metaphysical question cannot be answered in this space nor given the framework of this essay. Whether it can facilitate it or not, it is part of the Church today and given Heidegger’s notion of technology, it will frame all Church activities, including preaching. The fundamental question is how do we use technology in the Church?

[12] Several key normative statements become clear:

  • The Church must be aware of the platform that it is using and what it will attempt to do if employed in ministry.
  • Technology must not be painted as inherently evil or good.
  • The Church must not allow technology to take the central stage; the Word must occupy that position.
  • Technology must promote the speaking of the Promise in a secondary, supporting role.
  • Technology must not be used as a tool to enframe the abstract God.
  • The Church must recognize the limits of technology.
  • Technology must not place humanity into “ready reserve” as a commodity; the Proclamation must remain personal, concrete, and delivered “Christ to you”.

[13] The last sentence, on the last page, in the last chapter, of a powerful text by Gerhard Forde gives us a normative theological compass to guide us into this new world of technology: “As the ‘outpost’ of the new age, the kingdom of God, the church must proclaim this gospel so that all, including the world, may be saved.”10


1. See Introduction to Religious Studies, (Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2009) 163-175.

2. President’s Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness (Washington, D.C.: October 2003), 2.

3. For an accurate and accessible introduction to Martin Heidegger and his work, see Michael Inwood’s Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

4. For a more advanced look at this relationship please see my article “Martin Heidegger’s Debt to Martin Luther” in Kinesis, Fall, 2006.

5. Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, Edited by David Farrell Krell, (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1977).

6. Ibid., 21

7. Ibid., 20

8. Ibid., 18

9. Martin Luther, Small Catechism with Explanation, (Rock Island, IL: Augustana Book Concern, 1958).20.

10. Gerhard Forde, Theology is for Proclamation, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1990) 190.

Eric Berg

Eric Berg is Associate Professor of Philosophy at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois.