"Ambiguity In Our Technical Society"

J. Mark Thomas

A Texas rancher on vacation in Wisconsin stops at a farm to ask directions.

"Have you lived here all your life?" the rancher asks.

"Not yet," the farmer answers.

The same must be said for the twentieth century. We have not yet lived here all our lives. We have exhausted neither the themes of modernity nor postmodernity. We have hardly agreed upon the questions much less the answers concerning individualism and communalism, technical progress and moral digression, equality and excellence, pluralism and unity.

What, then, is the spiritual situation at the turn of the millennium? Is there anything more than the calendar that marks this moment as different in meaning and being from that which has come before? And what would this new situation demand of us?

Paul Tillich’s 1954 lecture sponsored by the Wesley Foundation at the University of Mississippi was titled, "The Spiritual Situation In Our Technical Society."" It seems to exist now only in the form of handwritten notes. What did Tillich identify as the marks of the situation then, and would his analysis hold today?

The spiritual situation is not static, said Tillich. Structures change, as do the meanings attached to them. Today one might note the fall of the Berlin wall, the rise of Serbian nationalism, or Ruwandan massacres. Maps change.

But as important as these elements of flux might be, they were not themselves the characteristics of the situation that Tillich found fundamental. The task of interpretation was not to catalogue change in the particulars, but to "describe determining structures and decisive trends." The great analysts of our time who had used this risky method overlooked many things, Tillich confessed, "but they hit essential structures and influenced spiritual and political realities." (2)

What makes a structure "determinative," or a trend "decisive" Tillich does not discuss in his notes. Perhaps these concepts refer to the stuff of history as he described it in other contexts. If so, they would not designate the infinite variety of things that people do or think in an age, but the elements of social structure and cultural interpretation that are historically causative rather than derivative.

So, what did Tillich believe to be the spiritual situation in our technical society? His answer is implicit in the title of his lecture: the determining structures and decisive trends of our time are those of an "industrially determined society." This is not to say that our civilization is produced by industry as such, he cautioned. The presence of the factories cannot make us what we are. Homo faber is resident in all societies and in every time. It is our destiny, rather, to be determined by the "methods and organization of industry." We live in a society ordered for the production of means, a "world of tools above the given world." (3)

The sociological implications of this are not further drawn in Tillich’s notes, but they can be extrapolated. What does it mean for a society to be determined by the methods and organization of industry? It means that all institutions, including religion no less than economics, are bent to the service of the creation of means. They are organized and measured by economic or technical efficiency, which is to say by their instrumental capacity. Inefficient or irrational or otherwise undesirable elements are purged, such as the feeling for a particular place, or the nepotistic attachment to friends and family.

The dominance of this trend remains apparent in economic life as, for instance, the weak attachment the market allows to one’s birthplace scatters succeeding generations into a national and international labor pool. But the "methods and organization of industry" Tillich identifies may be manifest just as well in the work of theologians who, accepting the social construction of reality, work to design gods to achieve the rational or moral goals they have in mind.

In another context, Tillich identified this trend as the result of the "bourgeois principle," the "radical dissolution of all conditions, bonds, and forms related to the origin into elements that are to be rationally mastered, and the rational assemblage of these elements into structures serving the aims of thought and action."

He spells out the implications of the bourgeois principle in a number of directions. The soil, for instance, becomes "a means for the production of goods." The sense of belonging to a particular place is lost. If anything, this trend has exacerbated since Tillich’s time as agribusiness replaces agriculture and as globalization standardizes production and distribution. Lecturing at McGill University in Quebec a few years ago, I looked in vain through the Hudson Bay Company for Canadian products to bring home to my family. Just as in the United States, the commodities I found were produced worldwide and collected on the shelves for mass marketing.

The particularity and portentousness of place are reduced by advances in transportation, Tillich says. Today one finds Michael Jackson posters on the walls of huts in the most remote regions of Africa. The power and grandeur of wild nature recedes as one soars above the Amazon. The "potency of animal existence disappears before the power of rational efficiency," Tillich explains. The internet makes China as close in many ways as Akron, Ohio, and arguably makes China more and more like Akron, Ohio. "Traditions," says Tillich, "cannot withstand the demands for a rational structuring of existence."

So, this was the situation as Tillich understood it in 1954: our society is determined by the organization and methods of industry, making people, natural structures, groups and ideas into means to some unspecified ends.

What, then, is the "spiritual problem" arising from this situation? Tillich lists three answers to this question. First was the problem brought about by the "disproportion between means and ends." It is a "perversion," said Tillich, to make means into ends. Such ends as the "conquest of nature, economic abundance," or the "well-being of the masses," are ultimately made into means again. The "question of the ultimate end disappears from the center of consciousness," he said, "even if traditional religious or philosophical answers are given. They are not a matter of ultimate concern." (4-5)

The perversion of means and ends also both produces and covers emptiness, Tillich charged. Emptiness is not hidden for long, however, in that existentialist literature addresses "the anxiety of meaninglessness as an expression of it."

The second problem identified by Tillich was that of the "transformation of reality into objects." Of the two kinds of encounter of with reality, one seeks to unite and one to control. It is the latter that is decisive in the industrial domination of the world. Serving this purpose is the "cognitive transformation of things into their elements, in order to compose them for purposes." The result of this transformation is to remove "the inner quality from things, their depth and independent meaning. Knowing becomes unexistential." Truth becomes "scientific, manageable truth." The "realms which reveal the inner quality of things (artistic, ethical, religious) [are] surrendered to emotion." In this circumstance, "doubt about any meaning in reality increases the experience of emptiness." In reaction, the world is either pressed to provide adequate pleasure to cover this emptiness, or is cynically rejected. (6) Since Tillich’s time, the sheer number and quality of gadgets that have been produced for diversion has been exponential. Our children, for instance, can lose themselves indefinitely in more and more sophisticated computer games. And television now boasts hundreds of channels and choices, but without greater demands for participation and decision, as Robert Bellah has observed.

Even more telling may be the revolution in biotechnology that has resulted in the cloning of desirable animals and the patenting of designer genes. Objectification seems complete in this trend.

The third spiritual problem arising from the situation of our technical society is the "transformation of the person into a thing." Here Tillich noted the two seemingly contradictory trends in industrial society: that toward competition and that toward conformity. Competition has changed from its more person-determined form in the period of early economic liberalism, he hints. "Now," Tillich said, "it is a matter of the expert." Competition is functionally determined, he remarked, bringing about anxiety, for instance, for the employee. Robert Jackall’s more recent sociological study of moral decision-making in bureaucratic organizations leads us to believe that the intensity of conformity and competition in bureaucracies has, if anything, increased since Tillich’s time. Universities no less than businesses have replaced the Protestant ethic with a more Machiavellian bureaucratic ethic.

Conformity is manifest in the demand to adapt "to the patterns of production and consumption," wrote Tillich. Both mass communication and the desire to be accepted are symptoms of this drive to conformity. (7) With the recent Telecommunications Act surrendering the public ownership of the digital spectrum to a relatively few interlocking communications giants, Tillich’s point seems to have been made a fortiori in contemporary America. How are plural voices to be heard in such a "market"? Who in the media will object to this powerful act of public generosity to private interests?

The spiritual situation in our technical society that Tillich identified in 1954, was one of humankind organized for the production of means. Lost in this process was any real sense of ultimate ends and an emptiness that arises from that absence. All of reality is objectified, with the consequence that an existential relation to things and ideas is absent, while persons are themselves reduced to competitive and conforming things.

What was the reaction to this situation in the United States? Tillich lists four items. The first was the moral reaction of the younger generation who longed for "more definite forms of life." The second was an aesthetic reaction of the desire for more classical forms. The third was a religious reaction, with church membership increasing, religious studies departments in demand, and "answers from religion passionately sought." Lastly, he identified the danger: religion itself might contribute to the "sacrifice of spirit and person in authoritarian and collectivistic form." Against this, Tillich appealed to the "Protestant principle," perhaps, he said, to be directed against Protestantism. (8) No form of life can be identified unambiguously with the ultimate.

When Tillich addressed "The World Situation" in 1945, he looked beyond the American content to the great ideological systems of liberalism, communism, and fascism. Each formed a quasi-religious answer to the problem of modernity. Each of these was an ambiguous response to an ambiguous reality: the creative and destructive remained mixed within them. Today, of course, fascism and communism are restricted to very limited spheres both sociologically and intellectually. The relatively narrow spectrum between the ideas and structures of laissez-faire liberalism and democratic liberalism seem to dominate the situation today, with some more mediated forms in the European context such as democratic socialism or the Green Party.

What is the spiritual situation at the turn of the millennium? In America, and perhaps by analogy elsewhere, I see a new struggle between two quasi-religious systems. The older liberal form, emerging from modernity, still finds personal identity in competitive and expressive individualism. Sociologically, it is manifest in the various forms of structural functionalism. Its laissez-faire form has been sweeping the competition for two decades, now in Latin America and Asia no less than in Washington, D.C.

But a second quasi-religion is emerging to address the world situation. From its birthplace in higher education, it has trickled down to the public schools and public life. It finds authentic human identity not in individual expressiveness or entrepreneurship, but in race and ethnicity and gender. Its ideas are rooted generally in postmodernism, being more at home in post-structuralims than in classical structures, more steeped in deconstruction than in logos. I believe it forms a matrix of the sociological schools of symbolic interactionism and social conflict. It finds its power in identity politics. While racial and ethnic politics themselves are not new, multiculturalism has developed since Tillich wrote of the spiritual situation in our technical society.

Liberalism upholds the rights of individuals while multiculturalism recognizes the power of ethnic or racial origins. But liberalism also continues to atomize society while multiculturalism tends to balkanize it. In either case, the ambiguities of life and of technological civilization that were flagged by Tillich are virtually absent.

Perhaps Communitarianism today functions like the religious socialism of Tillich’s era, to protest against both the sins of individualism and of collectivism, against both technocratic development and romantic revulsion. Communitarianism seems to mediate individual moral responsibility and the need for just social structures.

But this, and similar movements, remains yet the minority voice. The question is whether any movment of the next millenium, much less humankind in general, can address creatively the ambiguities of our technological civilization.