Trappists, Technology, and the Dictatorship of Relativism

Part seven in our Lenten series on technology and spirituality.

trappists, technology, and dictatorship of relativism

This past weekend, I had the opportunity of leaving home for a retreat at a Trappist monastery, Mepkin Abbey. The monks, though they haven’t taken a vow of silence, speak only when necessary. They spend their time praying the liturgy of the hours, practicing lectio divina, and working on the mushroom farm.

I certainly enjoyed the quiet of the monastery, which lent itself well to reflection and a restfulness that is often hard to find in the course of everyday life. As I reflected on the quiet and solitude of the monastery, I was struck by the power of the community the monks had created. Their life is centered around the values laid out in St. Benedict’s Rule, which gives them concrete ways to evaluate whether changes to their community bring them closer to those values or hold them away from those values.

Of course, one of the things that would be a powerful agent of change for the monks is communications technology. With their commitment to the Rule of St. Benedict, the monks’ ultimate goal in limiting speech is to maximizing each disciple’s quietude and receptivity to the will of God. As a result, the question of whether or not to have constant internet access or a smart phone is really quite simple for them. ‘Will it help to maximize our quietude and receptivity to God?’ If no, then what is the point?

The challenge for us lay people is that we don’t have as strong a community bond or communal values to be able evaluate these technologies for the benefit/harm that they really bring. In fact, the values that we do hear are largely corporate values, driving us towards always-on status so that we are more productive or don’t miss any revenue opportunity. In our churches and in our families, do we set up competing values?

Pope Benedict spoke often about the dangers of a secular society that impose a “dictatorship of relativism.” When we accept a secular worldview–even when it claims it has no intrinsic ‘values’–we accept a value system that may or may not cohere with our Christian life. Addressing this problem in America, Pope Benedict said:

Perhaps America’s brand of secularism poses a particular problem: it allows for professing belief in God, and respects the public role of religion and the Churches, but at the same time it can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator. Faith becomes a passive acceptance that certain things “out there” are true, but without practical relevance for everyday life. The result is a growing separation of faith from life: living “as if God did not exist”. This is aggravated by an individualistic and eclectic approach to faith and religion: far from a Catholic approach to “thinking with the Church”, each person believes he or she has a right to pick and choose, maintaining external social bonds but without an integral, interior conversion to the law of Christ. Consequently, rather than being transformed and renewed in mind, Christians are easily tempted to conform themselves to the spirit of this age (cf. Rom 12:3).

This weekend, among the Trappists, I saw the beauty of a life lived in community with shared values about the best way to live. The Trappist brothers are committed to living a life that fosters communion with God in every minute of the day. I think those of us not called to be monks can learn a valuable lesson from their life. We need to protect our faith from becoming the “passive acceptance” of things being true and let it be something that informs all that we do: even such little things as what time we’ll check our email or when we will turn our phones off or whether we will own smartphones at all.

Without an external set of values to those set up for us in a secular society, we’ll get tossed about on the winds of constant technological change and will suffer all the more for it. I think we all agree that all Christians–not just monks–should protect quietude and a receptivity to the will of God. We just need to make sure that we have a strong set of competing values to help protect us from the dictatorship of technological relativism.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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About the Contributor

Benjamin Robertson

Benjamin Robertson
Benjamin Robertson is a founding editor at Second Nature. He has worked in advertising for the Chicago Tribune and Gannett, and now is a web developer at Mediacurrent. He studied Communications and Media Studies under Dr. Read Schuchardt at Wheaton College in Illinois. He has presented papers on Marshall McLuhan, media ecology, and Christianity at the Media Ecology Association, National Communication Association, and the McLuhan's Philosophy of Media Centennial Conference in Brussels. He lives with his wife, Ruth, in Greenville, SC. His personal website is benrobertson.io

Comments

  1. How do you think text messaging might have influenced Thomas Merton’s relationship with Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy?

    • Benjamin Robertson says:

      That’s an interesting question Justin. Given that Merton was a Trappist monk, I doubt texting would have had much of an impact on any correspondence between him, Percy and O’Connor. I didn’t see any of the monks at Mepkin texting, but I guess they could have kept their phones hidden under their habits.

      But it certainly would have changed the dynamic between Percy and O’Connor. Can you imagine Percy on Twitter?

  2. Silence provides a distance from the overwhelming conceptual and social opacity of language and media culture, and encourages preverbal rewiring in another direction. Neuroplasticity always ‘reaches toward’ or ‘imagines’ an accommodation for connection and influence with its environment. This in no way implies that the action is merely imaginary; it only signifies that reason and science alone cannot explain the mind’s changes. This is faith of sorts; sense, name, and seek God, and it becomes Faith. And if you attend well, you may find God seeking you, or Grace.

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