A Parable on Technology

An Indian Tale quoted in Nouwen’s Wounded Healer:

Four royal sons were questioning what specialty they should master.  They said to one another, “Let us search the earth and learn a special science.”  So they decided, and after they had agreed on a place where they would meet again, the four brothers started off, each in a different direction.  Time went by, and the brothers met again at the appointed meeting place, and they asked one another what they had learned.  “I have mastered a science,” said the first, “which makes it possible for me, if I have nothing but a piece of bone of some creature, to create straightaway the flesh that goes with it.”  “I,” said the second, “know how to grow that creature’s skin and hair if there is flesh on its bones.”  The third said, “I am able to create its limbs if I have the flesh, the skin, and the hair.”  “And I,” concluded the fourth, “know how to give life to that creature if its form is complete with limbs.”

Thereupon the four brothers went into the jungle to find a piece of bone so that they could demonstrate their specialities.  As fate would have it, the bone they found was a lion’s, but they did not know that and picked up the bone.  One added flesh to the bone, the second grew hide and hair,the third completed it with matching limbs, and the fourth gave the lion life.  Shaking its heavy mane, the ferocious beast arose with its menacing mouth, sharp teeth, and merciless claws and jumped on his creators.  He killed them all and vanished contentedly into the jungle.

From: Tales of Ancient India, translated from the Sanskrit by J.A.B van Buitenen

Nouwen uses this parable as a way of pointing to the simultaneous creative power and destructive potential inherent in our technological advances.  In characterizing our predicament he refers to us as “nuclear man,” as in people living in a post-nuclear bomb society, which he describes as:

Nuclear man is a man who has lost naive faith in the possibilities of technology and is painfully aware that the same powers that enable man to create new life styles carry the potential for self-destruction pg. 5

Ultimately, this produces a sort of despondency.  There is skepticism about our own creative endeavors because we no longer can believe in the promise of technology to bring about a brighter future and inevitable progress as a result of innovation.  Why create?  Why innovate?  Why labor for advance when there is such a potential for our efforts to be used for our own destruction?

Nouwen is not making an argument against technology or innovation, he’s just describing a psychological state of contemporary society.  Hopelessness and a lack of faith in the future pervades our culture.  Progress and change are words that are viewed with deep skepticism.  We feel disconnected from our ancestors because of our radical dissimilarity of life experience and hopeless about our future because of the destruction technological advances have wrought.  What we need, according to Nouwen, is “experiential transcendence.”  We need to connect with something outside of ourselves, something bigger than us, something transcendent.

Nouwen says we find this in Jesus.  He is both a mystic and a revolutionary and we become both as well when we follow him.  As a mystic we experience the transcendent as we share in the common realities of the human experience.  “The most personal is the most universal.”  We become more in touch with our own existential reality thereby growing in our awareness of others.  As a revolutionary, the transcendent comes in the form of a vision for a different world that Jesus promises is coming to pass.  But its not just an improved world, a world post human progress.  It is a new world founded on the new man.  It is a world where “the life of this man is not ruled by manipulation and supported by weapons, but is ruled by love and supported by new ways of interpersonal communication.”

My thoughts

I think the loss of hope for the future is a pervasive.  Americans have excessive wealth, the ability to travel the world, and rarely if ever have to deal with issues of scarcity as people throughout time have had to.  And yet we are depressed, anxious and bored.  Experiential transcendence seems like a good solution.  In the mystical and the revolutionary way of Jesus, we can connect with something bigger than ourselves.  My only comment would be that this is not an individual endeavor.  This is something that is meant to happen in the context of community.