Quentin Broughall reflects on Thomas Merton’s relationship with technology and the internet
Always a thoughtful and perceptive observer, the American monk and mystic Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was keenly aware that humans’ relationship with technology represented something that could draw them closer to God or push them farther away: “When it comes to those taking sides, I am not with [those] who are open-mouthed in awe at the ‘new holiness’ of a technological cosmos in which man condescends to be God’s collaborator, and improve everything for him.”
Believing that such an attitude to technology was fundamentally ‘impious’, he argued that humans “gain nothing by surrendering to technology as if it were a ritual, a worship, a liturgy…”. In this, he agreed with the American thinker Henry David Thoreau, who had written over a century before that he feared men were increasingly becoming “the tools of their tools”.
In his own youth, Thomas Merton was no Luddite. He enjoyed jazz records, movies and travel. But, for two decades after joining the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1941, he had little or no access to technology. Only in the 1960s, having become a hermit in the grounds of his monastery, did he make some concessions to the modern world, acquiring a camera and a tape recorder.
Indeed, he became a talented photographer, and said that the tape machine’s usefulness made him “take back some of the things [he had] said about technology”.
But Merton’s reflections on the subject were chiefly defined by caution and concern. He lamented that technology was being transformed into a secular idol: “If technology remained in the service of what is higher than itself – reason, man, God –, it might indeed fulfil some of the functions that are now mythically attributed to it.
“But, becoming autonomous, existing only for itself, it imposes upon man its own irrational demands and threatens to destroy him. Let us hope it is not too late for man to regain control.”
He believed that the central issue facing the modern world was how to square the remarkable possibilities created by science and technology with the eternal certainties of the human heart and mind. As he put it, technology was made for man, not man for technology: “It does us no good to make fantastic progress if we do not know how to live with it, if we cannot make good use of it, and if, in fact, our technology becomes nothing more than an expensive and complicated way of cultural disintegration.”
His thoughts were shaped by works such as Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society (1954). In it, the French sociologist suggested that ‘technique’ represented the essential feature of modern technological society, embodying the collection of activities that aimed to create the most scientific form of efficiency. He was also influenced by an open letter entitled ‘The Triple Revolution’ sent to President Lyndon B Johnson in 1964 by a group of prominent activists and academics.
‘Cybernation’, the first of these revolutions, referred to the increasing automation that, even then, was replacing humans with computers. Having read the pamphlet, Merton predicted the future development of a “collectivist, cybernated mass culture” in which we might spend our lives behind a screen.
Although he never owned one, he understood the potential power of television in this regard. In 1961, he wrote that it left “an individual helpless to liberate himself from the images that society fills him with”, sometimes creating “a very fine picture of Hell”. He might as well have been discussing the internet today.
Writing about culture in his own time, Thomas Merton also presciently captured some of the triviality of social-media content nowadays, which often demands our attention, but rarely rewards it: “How tragic it is that they who have nothing to express are continually expressing themselves, like nervous gunners, firing burst after burst of ammunition into the dark where there is no enemy…they confound their lives with noise. They stun their own ears with meaningless words, never discovering that their hearts are rooted in a silence that is not death but life. They chatter themselves to death, fearing life as if it were death.”
Thomas Merton’s reflections on technological progress urge us to adopt approaches to it that engage the heart, as well as the mind and the hand”
He may just as easily have been speaking of today’s ‘selfie’ culture, too, when, writing about photography’s shortcomings, he referred to “the awful instantaneous snapshot of pose, of falsity eternalised”. In fact, many of Merton’s thoughts on technology have proved remarkably durable.
But there are plenty of aspects of the internet that Merton would have relished: the notion of communicating with others thousands of miles away at the press of a key; the opportunity of having so much information at one’s fingertips; the ability to exchange opinions and debate issues as a truly global community.
Nor did he deny that there were times where he cherished a desire for publicity that is comprehensible in terms of today’s social-media celebrities, writing in The Seven Storey Mountain (1948): “My chief concern was…to see myself in print. It was as if I could not quite be satisfied that I was real until I could feed my ambition with these trivial glories, and my ancient selfishness was now matured and concentrated in this desire to see myself externalized in a public and printed and official self which I could admire at my ease…I wanted to live in the eyes and the mouths and the minds of men.”
Yet one can see Thomas Merton being online. Twitter would have made a perfect platform for his lapidary reflections on life and faith in poetry and prose. Indeed, it still does, even in his absence. Extracts from his diary are tweeted by the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University as @mertonsjournals.
What I am against is a complacent and naïve progressivism which pays no attention to anything but the fact that wonderful things can be done with machinery and with electronics”
Nowadays, we say that someone must be a hermit if they don’t have access to the internet. So, what can we learn about technology from an actual hermit? Thomas Merton did not believe that technology was inherently bad; only the ends to which it was sometimes put. Agriculture and healthcare, for instance, were two areas from which he personally benefitted from developments, as his monastery gradually invested in each. In 1965, he wrote that “one thing [being a hermit] is making me see [is] that the universe is my home and I am nothing if not part of it”, which included accepting “nature and even technology as my true habitat”.
Two years later, Merton examined his opinions again, asking himself if he was ‘against technology?’ He explained that, though he did not want humans to go back to rubbing sticks together to make fire, he was conscious of the ambiguous face of progress: “Technology could indeed make a better world for millions of human beings. It not only can do this, but it must do it. What I am against then is a complacent and naïve progressivism which pays no attention to anything but the fact that wonderful things can be done with machinery and with electronics.”
He realised that science had provided the means both to keep more people alive and to kill them more efficiently than ever before. In the end, he concluded: “What is my answer? I don’t have one, except to suggest that technology could be used entirely differently,” arguing that it must be divorced from corporate profit and military misuse alike.
It is sometimes said that monks live in the world, but in a way that is not of it. In the opposite way, our addiction to the internet and social media can sometimes leave us in our own self-centred realm; so distracted by the virtual world that we no longer inhabit the real one beyond our screens. Nor is it any small irony that the plethora of technologies developed over the 20th-Century to make us more efficient have culminated in the 21st in a system of devices and platforms that occasion arguably more distraction than ever in history.
Providing a rejoinder to these challenges, Thomas Merton’s reflections on technological progress urge us to adopt approaches to it that engage the heart, as well as the mind and the hand: “Science and technology are indeed admirable in many respects, and if they can fulfil their promises they can do much for man.
There are plenty of aspects of the internet that Merton would have relished, like the notion of communicating with others thousands of miles away at the press of a key…”
“But they can never solve his deepest problems. On the contrary, without wisdom, without the intuition and freedom that enable man to return to the root of his being, science can only precipitate him still further into the centrifugal flight that flings him…into the darkness of outer space…”
On Christmas Eve 1968, a fortnight after Merton’s accidental death from electrocution, the astronauts of Apollo 8 became the first humans to reach and orbit the moon. In a festive message broadcast back to earth, the three men on board took it in turns to recite the first ten verses of the Book of Genesis.
Even though we are still struggling with the relationship between faith and technology 50 years later, Thomas Merton would have appreciated that his message had at least made it to the moon and back.