Rev Dr Simon Perry
25th January, 2015
Driving my children to school this week, I was interrogated by my second son who has been reading Sophie’s World. And he asked me, "Dad – is there like a name for a philosophy where if you don’t see things, they don’t exist? Because, like, there are fields I will never see – and they might not really be there until I like see them. So is there a philosophy where nothing exists unless you like know about it?" My fifteen year old cut in quickly – “Yeh,” he said with his thumb in his mouth, “the philosophy where there’s like nothing outside your little world is called Fox News.” I suppose, the Olympian Ideology I’ve tried to portray last term and this term, is pretty much how Fox news would sound if it were magically translated into an Archaic Hellenistic setting. We might like to think that Homer is slightly more poetic, and slightly less shouty than Sean Hannity – but the ideologies they represent are remarkably similar. Hephaestus is a key component of this ideology where nothing exists outside my little world.
Hephaestus is the Leonard Hoffstadter of Olympus. He is the techno-wizard. He was born defective, thrown away by his mother – which was standard practice at the time. He was then saved by Thetis, a non Olympian sea-god who also happens to be the mother of Achilles. Saving defective babies was not standard practice at the time, and only became standard practice with the advent of Christianity – but that is another story.
Hephaestus did not tick the boxes of Olympian gods – he was not beautiful, he was ugly. He was not a perfect physical specimin – Fox news might have described him as a Dweeb, a Geek, a Nerd, or a Cambridge Undergraduate. But worship of Hephaestus took place across the Hellenistic world at a time when the Bronze Age was giving way to the iron age – that is – in a time where life or death depended upon having the most up to date technology. As the new era of technology was born – then those with technological know-how were much higher up the food chain than the muscle-bound grunt monkeys of a previous epoch. Hephaestuts becomes a supernatural weapon-smith, and with his technological know-how is accepted by Olympians because they want his weapons, his help, his technology. Once again, Achilles, the thrower of cosmic tantrums, wining whenever he can’t have divine help and has to face another mortal in a fair fight – Achilles, has somehow become the archetypal warrior. And yet, in the Iliad he has all kinds of divine help in his battles, and towards the end Hephaestus intervened to save his life twice. And he is the one, of course, who provides Achilles with the best armour any mortal has ever worn.
So there he is: Hephaestus, the god of technology. From the Trident Missiles we need in order to combat terrorists from council estates, through the roar of the Typhoon fighter, to the illuminated apple on the back of your lap top – obsession with technology is worship of Hephaestus. Of course, at this point, it’s very tempting to go on a Christian rant about the evils of technology.
You could begin, I suppose, complaining about cheeky teenagers who need to be surgically removed from their smartphones. And you could cite the reports and studies that frequently warn us that human beings are evolving into technological beings. That smartphones have now become an extension not simply of the human body, but of the human psyche. If you’re left without your iphone, you feel naked, insecure, incomplete, unable to function. And of course, it is not only teenagers. What has google done to knowledge, in an age where – so long as you’re not sitting in the Senior Common Room – you can end any dispute by producing your iphone and consulting google? Of course we complain about what technology is doing to knowledge. And we can laugh at those who camp outside an Apple Store the night before they release a new version of their phone, so that they can be among the first tens of thousands to possess a phone which is destined to be obsolete before its battery gives out. At a deeper level, yes, we can lament the pitiable state of those who feel they have to have the latest gadget for fear of being left behind, out-of-date, obsolete themselves.
So – the standard ethical, holier-than-thou approach might be to remind people that technology is simply a tool, and we have to take it intelligently in hand. Or we could spout some high-sounded shallow-minded guff about having to educate people. Or maybe some kind of abstainance from technology. But none of this really gets to grips with the challenges presented by technology. The most incisive assessment of what technology does to human being comes from a German Philosopher writing in the 1950s.
Martin Heidegger, described technology not as bunch of stuff in our hand. And he did not suggest that we should oppose it like Luddites. Nor did he say we should fear it, as though artificial intelligence will soon be developed and the world will be ruled by food blenders, washing machines and electric toothbrushes. No – Heidegger thought the dangers of technology went much deeper. If contemporary studies are telling us that human beings are evolving to the point where technologies are becoming like new, add-on prosthetic limbs, Heidegger warned that with technology humans beings are devolving: that we become a tool in the hand of our technology; that we become a high-tech extension of our machines, that we become a flesh-and-blood app for the iphone; that we start to understand ourselves, and feel ourselves and believe ourselves to be pieces of technology. Or, as the bursar laments, we might become Human resources – a living, breathing battery. That our technology shapes us rather than us shaping our technology: to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We see the world, and ourselves, and our lives through the lens of the technology that dominates us.
Of course, we would never consciously describe ourselves that way, says Heidegger. But the point of the technological mindset is that human beings come to see themselves as being a cog in a wheel, a disposable unit of human labour, an item with a purpose, a thing. This is certainly how lower mortals are cast in Homer. People are valued by the extent to which they serve the purpose of their masters. But – the craftsmanship of Hephaestus, the elaborate shield and greaves and breastplate, all intricately designed, all telling stories of their own, all things to be admired, adored, loved. And if I were a preacher – I would want to say that the God of Scripture created us to love people and use stuff; and Hephaestus entreats us to use people and love stuff. And if I were a preacher, I would want to ask which picture of humanity sounds more authentic, and which picture of humanity is more dominant in our world today.
The technological mindset, keeps the worshippers of the technology obsessed with the next product, on a treadmill, carrot and stick, whirlygig existence. Even if we want to withdraw, it’s virtually impossible. Even if you want to rest or relax – how do we do it? Listening to our headphones, or some speakers, or watching the same screen that we use for working on! Resting is now called, Chilling, Vegging, or Down time. But we’re still plugged in – Hephaestus must keep us concerned with the immediate, the close-at-hand, hurrying through life without ever stopping to realise why we came into it.
And the biblical alternative to all this, is called Sabbath. Sabbath is not simply closing shops on a Sunday – it is from the Hebrew verb to stop. As in the psalm, it says, Cease Striving, Stop Faffing – and know that I am God. And in the letter to Hebrews – it is a daily activity. To celebrate Sabbath, is not simply to have a rest at the end of a busy week. Adam’s first day on planet earth was a Sabbath, not his last day – but the first, when he gets his bearings in relation to God, to others and to the world. As we approach easter – we are told that Jesus died and rose again on the third day. That means, two nights. That means Jesus was only dead for one full day – and what was that Day? It was the Sabbath - in Christian terms, that Sabbath is the epicentre of human history, the day of radical reorientation.
And to celebrate Sabbath brings us very close to a means of Salvation from Technology that Heidegger recommends. That is, Sabbath is when we experience some form of otherness- to meditate on some form of Other. To give ourselves to some form of other, in order that we might receive ourselves back differently. Of course, we are all children of our time, we all have a worldview, we all treasure ideologies, we all inhabit myths – and there is no escape from that. We are all tuned into a particular channel that tells us what the world is. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth, tells us that Sabbath celebration alerts us to the reality of our worldview, and our assumptions, and our mindset, and our ideologies – not so that we ditch them necessarily, but so that we see what they are.
And Heidegger simply says that the moment we become attuned, that is, the moment we become aware that there are other frequencies, other ways of being, other worldviews, that is where we find hope. The realisation that there might be an alternative to Fox News, that there might be a story where there is a world beyond our knowledge and experience, and that we might find a place in that other story. Sabbath is the doorway to another worldview, a doorway that Hephaestus has done his best to conceal, to lock and to bar.