The Liturgical Critique of Technological Culture


Over the past twenty years, rapid technological developments have completely transformed our social environment, leaving no doubt about the adequacy of Jacques Ellul’s earlier prognostications: ours is surely a “technological society.”[1] Such widespread integration of technology into culture raises a number of important questions for Christians and their calling to be “in the world, but not of the world” (See: John 17:14-17; Rom. 12:2).  I am specifically concerned with the following: how does Christian participation in technological culture affect our perception of, and participation in, the sacramental life of the church? Vice versa: how does our participation in the liturgy and the sacraments affect our perception of the technological society in which we are more and more involved?

Such questions can be tackled by turning to the research of Walter Ong (d. 2003) and Yves Congar (d. 1995). By extending and synthesizing Ong’s sociological approach to technology along with Congar’s theological interpretation of Church and culture, I will argue: the liturgy of the Eucharist intrinsically orders the relative goods of all human technologies, for it is itself a particular kind of technological activity, in which “the work of the people” enfolds and transforms humanity’s deepest impulses of creativity and ingenuity. Of course, it is ultimately because of what Christ does with what we make that the liturgy of the Eucharist represents the highest form of human techne. In light of such an event—when our technology is received back by grace—the liturgy of the Eucharist not only reorders our technologies, but also reorders our technological ambitions, broadly speaking, bringing us to a vision of human making that seeks not to dominate “nature” for the sake of our own self-constructed goals, but to elevate “creation” for the sake of divine and social communion, in however limited a way we can.[2]

After explaining how Ong helps us reframe the problem of modern technology with respect to the liturgy, we will move on to Congar’s theological and pastoral guidance, extrapolating how the Church can faithfully exist “in, but not of” our ever-expanding technological milieu.

1. Walter Ong: Reframing the Problem of Modern Technology

As both a Jesuit priest and a media theorist, Ong approaches the liturgy from a sociological perspective as much as a theological perspective. This means that, for Ong, the liturgy is undoubtedly a fully-transcendent encounter between the finite and the infinite, yet the context of this encounter is always and necessarily socially situated. The ecclesial celebration is dialectically related to the cultural milieu in which it takes place.

More generally, Ong insists that there is, and has always been, a dialectical relationship between the tools we use and the phenomenon of human perception, including spiritual perception. The material conditions of culture necessarily affect what we think about the natural world, our place within it, and even our sense for the divine. While this may sound dangerously close to technological determinism, Ong doesn’t actually go this direction. Rather, for him, divine providence has seen to it that we receive precisely what we need of divine revelation at exactly the time we are capable of perceiving it.[3] There may be twists and turns in the story of human receptivity to God, but technology is ultimately the handmaid of God’s own means of communication.

In this way, Ong is a thoroughgoing optimist when it comes to technological development. He urges us to be suspicious of any suggestion that modern forms of scientific and technical knowledge have put humanity in any worse a condition vis-à-vis divine revelation than any other age.[4] Again, he is a dialectician; so, for instance, he loves to point out that it was actually the Industrial Revolution that provoked the philosophical turn towards personalism: faced with a growing sense of human isolation in the new world of mechanical industry, philosophical questions about the depth and significance of the human person had to be addressed in new and unprecedented ways.[5] “As a matter of fact,” Ong writes,

Mechanized, technological society has placed the conditions for the encounter of man on a basis more intimate than ever before.  Society has not, of course, created this encounter, and it can even be perverted so as to prevent it. Only love can create a genuine encounter between man and man. But there can be no doubt that technology has made possible an enlargement of the range of love.[6]

As should be clear, Ong disregards a commonly held secularization thesis, according to which modernity and its machines have apparently eroded the capacity for religious faith and exalted the supremacy of technology, as if, as he puts it, “Faith and the machine are antagonistic to one another—we must choose between them.”[7] Against such a dichotomy, Ong asserts that the Incarnation itself invites us to appreciate how all materiality “matters” to God. Therefore, we ought to be inspired to “extend” the Incarnation, into all spheres of life, which necessarily means engaging technology.[8] In so doing, Ong suggests we actually come into greater and greater possession of divine revelation. He writes at one point that if theologians failed “to appreciate the technological age as an age which . . . forms a definite part of the mysterious evolution of the universe devised by God, they would be failing to develop decently the fuller meaning of the Incarnation as this can be developed today.”[9]

In terms of my own assessment of Ong’s work in light of my thesis, I have to admit that, while I do take several cues from Ong, I am not as optimistic about the opportunities for “extending” the Incarnation technologically. Theologians do need to engage the problem of technology for the sake of faithful Christian witness—and it remains the case that few seem to have done so adequately—nevertheless, it is not clear that our ecclesial engagement with new technology necessarily promises greater access to revelation.[10] Rather, the Church already possesses the means by which to actively judge and discern the world’s own “natural” tools and patterns of thought. That is, through the Holy Spirit, we can say yes or no to this or that particular technology, so as to invite the world to join us in the proper worship of God. This need for discernment is what prompts a later turn to Congar.

Here, suffice it to say that Ong’s research goes a long way to help us reframe the problem of modern technology. Optimistically or pessimistically interpreted, it is useful to recognize that there has always been a mutually reciprocal relationship between the history of technology and our faculties of perception, broadly speaking.[11] Yes, we use technology for the sake of certain goals. But in every case, from the alphabet to the Internet, the tools we use necessarily change us, as a matter of course. Reflexively, they re-orient us to the world in which we live, in one way as opposed to another. As Neil Postman put it so memorably, “To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”[12]

The relevance of this point to questions about the liturgy should be obvious, for there has already been a quite vocal “liturgical critique of technology” running throughout 20th century Catholicism, which has been marked by a rather unfortunate technological pessimism. In the early- to mid-20th century, for instance, theologians concerned about the spiritual effects of modern technology frequently asserted a rather romantic return to the liturgy, almost as if it were a ready-made, divine prescription for the modern malaise. Dietrich von Hildebrand described modernity and its “lack of reverence” as a “specific defect,” which was owed largely to technological ambition.[13] Romano Guardini complained that modern technology was inherently structured so as to pose “a hindrance to our ability to have immediate religious experience or to our receptivity to religious motivation.”[14] Then there are Kierkegaard’s rather humorous words also in this context: “God’s word cannot be heard,” he wrote, “and if in order to be heard in the hullabaloo it must be shouted deafeningly with noisy instruments, then it is not God’s Word; create silence!”[15] In short, many theologians have supposed modern technology itself is to blame for having obscured our sense of the divine.

While I have gleaned much from this type of critique, it remains the case that wholesale condemnations of technology are as unconvincing as bald assertions about what a “return to liturgy” will effect in terms of our cultural sense of the divine. Ong’s research suggests that liturgical reformers are often beset by blind spots about this dialectical path by which the liturgy, at every stage in the history of the Church, has developed in tangent with broader cultural developments in media and technology. It would seem we cannot draw such a firm line between technology and our celebration of the liturgy. Consequently, proponents on both sides of the liturgical wars of the past 50 years—i.e., those who call for a more traditional (Tridentine) liturgy, stripped of all the post-conciliar meddling, and those who are all-to-eager to appropriate any and every cultural form—inevitably find their efforts frustrated. Simply put, Ong reminds both camps that, at the end of the day, “we cannot control the liturgy completely in rational fashion.”[16]

By extending Ong on this point, I argue that perhaps rejuvenating our liturgical sensibility in our present technological culture requires, first, that the Church come to appreciate the liturgy itself as a kind of technology, as a technological activity. Or in the least, we need to be reminded that the liturgy has always depended upon technology for the sake of its performance, even in its most essential and simplest form: somebody had to bake the bread. It goes without saying that the entire historical and cultural development surrounding the “work of the people” is ultimately aimed at rendering proper worship to God, which means that the liturgy is nothing if not an invitation to genuine encounter with the divine. And thus, Christ himself is undoubtedly the primary agent of the liturgical action. Through the ministry of his priest, the humblest element of our collective offering comes to be seen no longer as just “the work of human hands,” but as the work of human hands, substantively transformed. By Christ’s own activity in the Eucharist, technology becomes grace.

Some important implications follow from this, which will lead us to consider the contributions of Yves Congar. First and foremost, in keeping with Ong’s comments about the way technologies alter our perceptual faculties, it should be said that Eucharistic participation, in the way described here, itself should inculcate a new kind of perception in us, a new way of seeing, according to which all other, “merely human” technologies become relativized, because they are seen as subordinate to this one threshold event, again, when technology becomes grace. That is to say, in comparison to this one instance in which we can see our faithful and obedient action with matter becoming the very means of divine communion, all other “secular” technologies pale in comparison.

A second implication: if the liturgy of the Eucharist discloses to us the limit, if you will, of every other merely human technology, it also goes further, for it reveals what “should be” the spiritual ambition of our technological aspirations: not the dominance of “nature” for the sake of our own autonomous control, but the elevation of “creation” for the sake of communion. That is to say, the liturgy intrinsically animates a new sense for what the practice of technology actually means in the realm of God’s creation. In a remarkable treatment of the same themes dealt with in this essay, Michael Hanby explains that the liturgy “is the form and end, ‘the source and summit’ of the human way of being in the world.”[17] Hanby calls for a “restoration of the mystery of the liturgy,” which in this case, means embracing the intrinsically contemplative dimension of liturgical participation, thereby to recover “the contemplative humanity of téchnê as the truth of human making.”[18]

Along this same line, finally, I conclude somewhat paradoxically that the perceptual effects of Eucharistic participation ought to compel the Church towards deeper engagement with technological culture, for the sake of its mission, rather than lead it into some kind of self-imposed exile from the technological milieu.  The liturgy resuscitates our vision in such a way that we can include rather than exclude our cultural forms, for promoting the cause of God’s glory.

But how do we do this with wisdom and discernment? Are all forms of technology equally suited for such a task?  Are we supposed to appropriate these new devices in the liturgical worship of God, or merely approach them evangelistically?

Ong is actually less helpful in dealing with these questions. His untrammeled optimism almost makes it sound at times as if any and every technology is equally disposed to the Church’s mission.  To be fair, he does acknowledge that “no viable liturgical usage [of secular technology] can merely ape secular practice: it must both assimilate secular practice and judge it . . . ”[19] But on the whole, he does not supply the Church with much theological guidance when it comes to how we are to assimilate and judge the world’s tools.  For this, I suggest we give Yves Congar a hearing.

2. Yves Congar: Retrieving Opportunities and Limits of “Engagement” With the World

Admittedly, the Dominican historian does not have a whole lot to say about technology and media per se, yet he was keenly concerned with guiding the Church pastorally into greater engagement with the world. And in this effort, he walked the proverbial knife edge. Despite his formative influence at the Second Vatican Council, and his deep desire for the Church to turn a “fresh face” to modern, secular culture, Congar is insistent: although there are always opportunities for the Church to bless the world’s own ambitions, we must never allow the Church’s mission to devolve into the rather banal task of, as he put it, simply “revealing the meaning of the world.”[20] Rather, there is a genuine confrontation between the kingdom of God and the world, in which the Church occupies a medial position. On the one hand, it is called to confront the world in its sinfulness, but on the other hand, it is also called to do as Christ did—to meet the world on its own terms and lead it to conversion, which requires taking up its activities and symbols, and transforming them into “signs” of God’s grace. In this section, I take some liberties in extending and applying Congar’s theological framework to the questions guiding this essay.

In 1967, Congar edited a series of reflections treating the liturgical developments surrounding Vatican II.[21] In one of his own contributions to this volume, he reflects on the role of the “sacred” in the Christian worldview.[22] The essay is especially interesting for its prescriptive approach to this difficult question of how the Church should and should not appropriate the new cultural forms being developed in the world at large.

He begins by insisting that the world is not sacred in itself. While many of his contemporaries were, quite rightly, enthused with this new spirit of aggorniamento, Congar nonetheless wants to issue a word of caution against an uncritical embrace of the world and its patterns of thought and action. Without denying the genuine goods proffered by modern science and technology, there still remains an important difference between acknowledging “the good” and discerning “the sacred.” Hence, Congar draws a firm line in the sand: for Christians, the body of Christ is the only sacred reality.[23] And in keeping with early tradition, the “body of Christ” here includes not just Christ’s physical body of flesh, but also his ecclesial body and his Eucharistic body.[24]

If this theological keystone is held secure, then Congar goes on in his essay to suggest that the world can “become” sacred, in the sense that all of God’s creation, including the fruits of culture, can be seen as signs of God’s presence. But notice: this is not an ontological transformation as much as it is a perceptual transformation on our part.[25] That is to say, through the eyes of faith and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, this-worldly realities can be taken up by the Church, and re-presented in such a way that ultimately leads the world to the grace of Christ. Congar calls this process “sacred pedagogy.”[26] Yet the functional-ontological distinction between the world as such (including its own autonomously created technologies) and the truly “sacred” body of Christ is very important. As we have seen, Ong is fuzzy on this point, because he sees the Church’s mission as a process of “extending the Incarnation” precisely by way of technology. By contrast, Congar is very clear. Apart from the Eucharist, he writes elsewhere, the Church “does not transform the physical structures of the world.”[27]

By extending Congar’s idea about “sacred pedagogy” as an active and critical form of mediating between Church and world, I would reiterate the conclusions already drawn. However much we may try and appropriate modern technology, taking a creative posture of progressive “engagement” with the culture at large, we must suffer no illusions about the fact that the Eucharist remains the one singular event where we can perceive a genuine, ontological transformation of matter into the means of grace. This means we must reserve the right to pass judgment on the spiritual significance of any other human inventions. Not every form of technology will be equally conducive to the Church’s mission; in fact, some may pose a rather nefarious distraction to our genuine participation in the liturgy. And as Congar insists in The Meaning of Tradition, the liturgy is the guardian of the Church’s shared culture, but this culture is not firstly our own, for it stretches far beyond our own particular historical moment. Without squelching the opportunities for liturgical development, such a reminder should at least induce a certain measure of caution when it comes to tampering with this “inmost nucleus of tradition.”[28] Indeed, “Nothing is more educative for man in his totality than the liturgy,”[29] for it is here that we learn “the Church’s language: her language of faith, love, hope and fidelity.”[30]

With this in mind, I hope to have shown how Congar’s theological project helps to orient my suggestion about the liturgy as technology within a deeper Eucharistic theology and a sense for tradition and its continuity. The liturgy is necessarily incomplete if it is not crowned by this real distinction between what we can do with our own tools, and what Christ will do, and always has done, with a humble piece of bread. With this distinction in hand, however, there is much opportunity for incorporating rather than excluding the “ways of the world,” as we strive to worship God fully and make him known in the world.

3. Conclusion: The Ontological Significance of the Eucharistic Transformation

I have sought to deal with the way Christian participation in technological society affects our perception of, and our participation in, the sacramental life of the church—and vice versa. Following Ong, I have suggested that liturgical theology ought to adopt an approach that is far more inclusive, including in its ken both secular and religious fields of perception, relating such phenomena to the material and cultural conditions in which perception itself takes place. Seeing the liturgy as a technology enables us to go beyond bald assertions about its significance, over and against movements in broader technological culture. Instead, we can fruitfully compare its practical consequences upon human perception vis-à-vis other patterns of technological activity.

Such exploration, I argue, will emphasize rather than threaten the transcendent significance of liturgical participation, opening up new opportunities for how the Church can include, rather than exclude, certain aspects of technological culture. On this score, I also follow Congar’s wise warnings, that the Church ought not become so enamored with the world that it loses its sense of just how different from the world it is, and that this difference is rooted in the ontological significance of the Eucharistic transformation, by which we ourselves become the body of Christ in the world today.

Editorial Note: This essay is part of a developing series on media studies.

Featured Image:  Pormenor de um leitor de cartuchos [8 track player], 2 June 2012, Author: Tagido; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

[1] Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Vintage Books, 1964 [1954]).

[2] See: Michael Hanby, “Homo Faber and/or Homo Adorans: On the Place of Human Making in a Sacramental Cosmos,” Communio 38 (2011): 198-236.

[3] Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1970), 190-91. For Ong, Scripture’s comment that the Incarnation took place in the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4) means that God entered human history at precisely the moment when his “maximum presence” could be preserved in this material world, that is, “after the alphabet was devised but before print had overgrown major oral structures and before our electronic culture further obscured the basic nature of the word.”

[4] Walter J. Ong, In the Human Grain: Further Explorations of Contemporary Culture (New York: Macmillan Company, 1967), xi: “The God of Judaeo-Christian revelation manifests himself in what men know of the universe, not in what they do not know. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, far from being a religious liability, increase in knowledge over the ages, including knowledge of material and secular actuality, is a boon to religion.”

[5] Ong, “Religion, Scholarship, and the Resituation of Man,” in In the Human Grain, 135: “[A]s technology has become more and more dominant, personalist philosophies, philosophies of ‘presence,’ of encounter, and of dialogue come more and more to the fore.”

[6] Ibid., 132.

[7] Walter J. Ong, “The Challenge of Technical Excellence to the Catholic Intellect,” an address to the Advanced Workshop for the Improvement of Catholic Schools of Medical Technology, St. Louis, Missouri, 30 January 1961.  Mimeograph 1-8: 1.

[8] Walter J. Ong, American Catholic Crossroads: Religious-Secular Encounters in the Modern World (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959), 88-89.”

[9] Ibid., 89-90.

[10] Consider Marshall McLuhan’s comment: “Electric man has no bodily being. He is literally dis­-carnate. But a discarnate world, like the one we now live in, is a tremendous menace to an incarnate Church, and its theologians haven’t even deemed it worthwhile to examine the fact” (Marshall McLuhan and Pierre Babin, Autre homme, autre chrétien à l’âge électronique [Lyone: Editions du Chalet, 1977], trans. by Wayne Constantineau; cited in Marshall McLuhan, The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, eds. Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek [Toronto: Stoddard Publishing, 1999], 50).

[11] Walter J. Ong, Frontiers in American Catholicism: Essays on Ideology and Culture (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957), 23.

[12] Neil Postman, Technopoly (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 14.

[13] “The lack of reverence is a specific defect of our modern age.  On the one hand, the feeling of reverence is undermined by the increasing technicalization and instrumentalization of the world wherein everything is considered only as a means for the attainment of practical aims, and being is not allowed to be taken seriously. On the other hand, the attitude of self-glorification is increased in man by progress in the knowledge of secondary causes and by the conquest of the physical world” (Dietrich von Hildebrand, Liturgy and Personality [n.p.], New York: Longmans, Green, 1947 [1933], 63).

[14] Romano Guardini, Letters from Lake Como, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 110-11.  See: The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. Ada Lane (New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 1998 [1921]).

[15] Søren Kierkegaard, For Self-Examination/Judge for Yourself, translated by Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990 [1848]), 47-48.

[16] Walter J. Ong, “Worship at the End of the Age of Literacy,” Worship 44 (1969): 474-87, at 486.

[17] Michael Hanby, op. cit., 233.

[18] Ibid., 236; see also: the comments of Joseph Ratzinger about the liturgy inculcating a “new kind of seeing” (Joseph Ratzinger, [Benedict XVI], The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001]).

[19] Walter J. Ong, Contribution to “Let us Pray . . . But How?  State of the Question.” America 115 (1966): 745-46; a response to Gareth Edwards, “Modern English in the Mass,” idem., 483-86.

[20] Yves Congar, “Where Does the ‘Sacred’ Fit into a Christian Worldview?” in At the Heart of Christian Worship: Liturgical Essays of Yves Congar, trans. Paul Philibert (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2010), 107-32.

[21] Vatican II: La Liturgie après Vatican II—Unam Sanctam 66 (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1967).

[22] Yves Congar, “Situation du ‘sacré’ en régime chrétien,” in Vatican II: La Liturgie après Vatican II—Unam Sanctam 66, 385-403; published in English translation as “Where Does the ‘Sacred’ Fit into a Christian Worldview?” in At the Heart of Christian Worship: Liturgical Essays of Yves Congar, 107-32.

[23] Ibid., 123.

[24] Henri de Lubac, Corpus mysticum: l’eucharistie et l’Église au Moyen Âge, etude historique (Paris: Aubier, 1949).

[25] Congar, “Where does the ‘Sacred’ Fit,” op. cit., 130.

[26] Ibid., 126.

[27] Yves Congar, Jesus Christ, trans. Luke O’Neill (New York: Herder and Herder, 1966 [1965]), 203 and 203 n.63: “The Church has not received the cosmic kingship of Christ, even though she participates in it to some degree. She does not transform the physical structures of the world;” “A single exception: the gift which is the Eucharist. . .”

[28] Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, trans. A. N. Woodrow (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004 [1964]), 89.

[29] Ibid., 138.

[30] Ibid.


Alec Arnold

Alec Arnold is a PhD candidate at Saint Louis University in Theology and Health Care Ethics. His dissertation will offer a theological critique and constructive response to transhumanism, with particular focus on the convergence of technology and sexuality.

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