The Question Concerning Metriopathic Technophilia

When assessing technology with a view to religion, one ought not simply adopt the claims of gadget lovers or dystopians, but should attend thoughtfully to the broader system of affordances, perils, advantages, and costs (and to the probability that we will not identify those considerations correctly when we first deploy a particular technology) (para. 39).

[1] A.K.M. Adam is a religion and technology innovator and avid user of digitally mediated environments. Given his habits and interests, one might assume he is radically in favor of the early adoption of new technologies and that his published work would represent a perspective encouraging exuberant appropriations of technology in the religious domain. His essay for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics is in this sense surprising for its moderate and measured manner. His approach is gentle rationality. He employs the strategy of early Greek philosophers like Sextus and Alcinous, and later Christian theologians like Clement and the author of the pastoral epistles, in encouraging metriopatheia.1

[2] What is metriopatheia? It is the moderate, middle way. Quite a few, though not all, of the New Testament texts encourage some form of it. It is best exemplified in the pastoral epistles, especially 1 Timothy, in the many instances where the author encourages measured speech.2 By comparison, there is the temptation in much of the Christian tradition to encourage complete apatheia, eradication of emotion or desire, as the Christian ideal. One sees this especially in the patristic and monastic traditions,although there are hints of it in Paul and the gospels. Risto Saarinen, in his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, shows that the New Testament ideal is not apatheia per se, but rather metriopatheia, the moderation of emotion, the gentle, middle, rational approach. He writes, “Theologically, it is important to see that the New Testament contains the idea of virtue as a mean.”3 On the question concerning technology and religion, this means the virtuous course is the middle way between the neo-Luddite position (opposing most modern technologies—apatheia) and the technophilic course (avid adoption of all things technological—patheia). 4

[3] Since almost all reflection on technology, and perhaps especially digital technology, seems to run to the extremes, A.K.M Adam’s refreshing and important contribution to the genre is his metriopathic technophilia. His love of technology is “measured.” Consider his core thesis in the second paragraph of his essay:

Many of the crises that provoke anxiety and exuberance today demonstrate our unfamiliarity with certain modes of technology and our comfortable familiarity with other modes, more than they engage questions about ‘technology’ itself… The question concerning technology and religion challenges us to recall and interrogate our involvement with digital technology in the context of our other technological dependencies (and aversions), and to proceed thoughtfully out of coherent sense of the grounds for our discernments.

[4] Or consider this piece of advice, which Adam offered in correspondence as I was preparing to write my dissertation on the question concerning technology and religion5 :

the Web itself is not very old, and it didn’t become a mass phenomenon until relatively recently. . . Under the circumstances, it would be a great surprise if we yet knew what the digital sensorium turns out to be like, or what effects it might have on us. Results of studies right now might, for instance, be picking up only (or “mostly”) the effect of switching from a mostly-physical ecology to a largely-digital ecology. We don’t have a lot of perspective on the changes in which we’re participating.6

[5] In other words, a metriophatic approach is not only virtuous because it avoids the extremes of servile adoption of technology or closed-minded shunning; it also happens to be prudent, because truly when technologies are in transition we are not able to gain enough perspective to know completely their ethical and practical import.

[6] The strength of Adam’s approach is in its consistent ability to step just far enough out of the debates raging around the question concerning religion and technology to gain a bit of perspective. It is the objective observer, non-anxious presence approach. It is an approach illustrated preeminently in the middle of his essay, when he writes, “Thus exercising our capacities to draw out the best, most beneficial religious aspects of technology, and the most pernicious aspects, we will be better equipped to arrive at well-reasoned responses to challenges that religious practice encounters in a technologically-shaped environment” (21).

[7] Certainly, even encouragement to metriopatheia itself needs to be measured. Within this overall approach, there may be appropriate moments to call out shrill warning, the dangers of some new technologies being what they are. At other times, true apatheia may be warranted, complete disregard for the technology altogether as simply incongruent with the faith tradition considering engagement.7 But for most situations, a measured approach to religion and technology, the kind modeled by Adam, is not only appropriate but also ethically robust.8

[8] So we do not yet know the full implications of the effects of new technologies in religion, because we are at this point simply observing the effects of the transition itself. What kinds of practices can religious communities engage in faithfully in this stage? What should be avoided? We might take the adoption of the codex as a communication medium by Paul and the early Christian community as an example. Clearly, Christians were early adopters of this technology. In 2 Timothy 4:13, Paul asks for his cloak, some books, and above all his parchments. These technologies—the first to keep him warm, the second from which to read, the third on which to write—are implicitly connected to his faith and religious life, but he neither trumpets them as the only means to Christian mission nor denigrates them as distractions from “real” religion. Paul, in this sense, is an “early adopter,” because not all, and even not many, used letter-writing and book-making technology at quite the level Paul did regularly.

[9] It would not be a stretch to consider Paul a metriopathic technophile. Taking this as a model, perhaps the most basic rule for religious communities would be to feel free to make use of new technologies while avoiding making the use of the new technology the point or goal. Paul didn’t go around saying, “Hey look at me! I’m writing a letter.” Instead, he simply wrote letters, some of the most influential letters ever written.

[10] In what terms does the ethos of Christian faith evaluate the products of human ingenuity? Are material products a snare and delusion? Or, are they a reflection of a distinctive human capacity for constructive innovation? Let’s use Paul as an example one more time. Consider perhaps the most wonderful exercise in media studies in all of Scripture: “We don’t need letters of introduction to you or from you like other people, do we? You are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are Christ’s letter, delivered by us. You weren’t written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God. You weren’t written on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:1-3, Common English Bible). Paul’s riff on letters and tablets and believers as living Christ letters illustrates the wedding of media and message in precisely the theological format under consideration. Here religion and technology are married.

[11] In this early part of the letter, he uses the metaphor as a rhetorical flourish to win over his readers. Later, however, he mentions his own letter literally, and makes this argument, “I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying to intimidate you with my letters. I know what some people are saying: ‘His letters are severe and powerful, but in person he is weak and his speech is worth nothing.’ These people need to think about this—that when we are with you, our actions will show that we are the same as the words we wrote when we were away from you” (2 Cor 10:9-11, Common English Bible). Paul argues that his letters themselves are extensions of himself, and representative of him, so that the distinction between the media he sends and himself as the messenger authoring the message is a relative one—and he makes this argument in the context of a letter, while he himself is absent physically. This last point is especially important, if often overlooked.

[12] Paul’s example should guide us to consider something about his ministry worth emulating, namely, that a letter or other media we make use of to extend ourselves is not “about” religious life accomplished elsewhere but is itself religiously formative. Religious communities that “get” this use digital media as faith formation, rather than as tools to communicate about formative opportunities.9 Perhaps this is an easier concept to embrace when speaking of social media, but still worth noting, since in the adoption of new technologies, especially new media, it is often the tendency to focus on the media itself rather than embrace the media as an extension of the message and messenger. New technologies are self-referential until they cease to be. Or, as Adam has it in his excellent summary, “Since human religious awareness—as indeed human existence—has always relied on technology of one sort or another, religious traditions were born into technologically-mediated worlds. They will thus find in their own history and identity their most profound guidance for negotiating the coming digital transformation” (22). All I add is, “and vice versa.”

1. See Risto Saarinen in his Brazos Theological Commentary, The Pastoral Epistles with Philemon and Jude, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 233-241.

2. 1Tim. 2.2 for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity; 1Tim. 4.12 Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity; 1Tim. 5.1 Do not speak harshly to an older man, but speak to him as to a father, to younger men as brothers; 1Tim. 5.13 Besides that, they learn to be idle, gadding about from house to house; and they are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say; 1Tim. 5.19 Never accept any accusation against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.

3. Saarinen, 241; emphasis added.

4. Perhaps list two books or authors that are neo-Luddite, two authors that are technophilic, and two authors that are metriopathic.

5. Clint Schnekloth, After the Book: Faith Formation in a Trans-media Culture, (forthcoming).

6. A K M Adam, private correspondence, May 19, 2011.

7. The fact that the Amish community is one of the fastest growing religious groups in America offers an excellent example, see

8. Readers are in all likelihood quite familiar with the noisier books on the market either celebrating or denigrating the effects of technology on religious life. For two examples of a more measured approach, consider Jana Bennett’s Aquinas on the Web?: Doing Theology In An Internet Age (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2012), or Brian Brock’s Christian Ethics in a Technological Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).

9. Or conversely, more “technophobic” communities on the opposite end, who oppose many new technologies, are also in tune with media’s formative power, inasmuch as they often evince concern that the use of new technologies is re-shaping the church – and individual Christians – in significant ways.