Articles

Technology and the Mystical After Auschwitz

Introduction

Technology has accompanied the evolution of human beings from time out of mind. The use of simple instruments to attain food or construct shelter can be considered as elementary forms of technology. Relatively more complex forms, such as a lifter or a shadoof, reflect the more articulate awareness of the importance of technology in the accomplishment of simple tasks. Technology has become ever more complex throughout the centuries, though the growth of complexity was not very obvious before the modern technological revolution in the 18th century. However, not only military equipment was developed nearly constantly before that time, not only construction technologies evolved in the entire known history of civilization, but, most importantly, a complicated technical knowledge was present even at the beginning of the human epoch. Such technology was probably kept as knowledge reserved for the few for a long time. This is clearly shown by the technological contrast we find between the popular work on machines written about by Hero of Alexandria in the 1st century CE on the one hand, and the technological sophistication shown by the so-called Antikythera mechanism, produced before that period, on the other hand. The mechanism of Antikythera immensely surpasses any instance of technology we are aware of up to the 18th century.

The explosion-like progress of technology in modernity has reached a level that forces us to think about the nature of technology in a thoroughgoing way. This rethinking is not the task of some superficial anti-technological rhetoric which has recurred in modernity in the form of destructive ideologies—from the Luddite movement in England to the various protest movements in the 1970’s—of alternative communities trying to avoid using technology in their lives.[1] Beyond these populist endeavors there is a more robust re-thinking of technology’s nature in the work of preeminent philosophers such as Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.

In Husserl the nature of technology is not only understood as a secondary kind of knowledge but rather as a kind of knowledge very far from genuine science. Science is based upon apodictic evidence and that can be reached by the rigorous application of the phenomenological method in the attitude of self-reflection. Technology appears to him to be a substitute for genuine knowledge. In turn, its spread in human culture endangers the fundamental hierarchy between genuine knowledge and applied or practical knowledge. Technology is practical knowledge and inasmuch as it emerges as the exclusive form of human existence, it destroys basic human structures.[2]

Heidegger’s well-known criticism of technology goes even deeper. To put it as simply as possible, his point is that technology is the basic expression of the forgetfulness of Being. Heidegger’s term for the essence of technology is techne and it refers not only to an organization of human life in terms of equipment but rather to a dimension of existence in which the awareness of Being is lost and substituted by the idols of Machenschaft, machination. Machines are only the extreme forms of the underlying machination by which human beings systematically cover up their need for, and dependency on, Being. The end of machination is catastrophe, according to Heidegger, because of which a renewed attempt at becoming aware of Being may become possible.[3]

In all these criticisms, the expressions technology, technique, and procedure hang together. For even if a technique is just a well-formed procedure to reach a certain, often non-material goal, such well-formed procedures are at the heart of the more external forms of technologies in well-defined know-how kinds of structures. Thus, I use these expressions as related to one another in a pyramid form.

Basically, all technology is rooted in know-how as opposed to know-what. While it may be important to add the realm of know-how to that of know-what, know-how (or, technology) may overwrite the substance, the real content of relevant procedures. This complicated process is rooted in the process of realizing content in time, a fundamental characteristic of our situation in reality. Such a situation makes it complicated to find the fine balance between form and content, know-how and know-what.

Here is the structure of the relationship between know-what and know-how:

Mystical Technology

There is a dimension of technology which is rarely reflected upon, that is, spiritual techniques. In many religious forms the use of such techniques is more than obvious; it is sufficient to refer to the meditation practices in which the organization of life is based on a precisely elaborated technology of the maintaining of the human body, especially its feeding, emptying, washing, including breathing and controlling its various inner and outer parts. The point in such techniques is the control of the mind and this control is especially worked out in the form of meditation techniques. It is important point out here that such techniques become a technology inasmuch as they are applied in a life-forming fashion and under a well-formed and institutionally objectified form.

No wonder that in our society ruled by industrial technologies the spiritual techniques of meditation have become popular. It is often stated that the main disadvantage of Christianity is the lack of well-developed spiritual procedures. This is, however, not true. Christianity also developed a sophisticated system of spiritual techniques but it mainly kept it behind the walls of various religious orders. Adolphe Tanquerey, for instance, summarized the history and the main features of Christian spirituality with a strong emphasis on asceticism, that is, the technique of spirituality. Other examples abound: Ignatian examen techniques, Quaker methods, and some forms of transcendental meditation used in Christian spirituality.[4]

The Bible already offers a number of examples for the use of spiritual procedures. When JHWH appears to Moses for the first time and wants to kill him, Moses’s wife, Zipporah applies a certain procedure to stop him, namely, circumcision (Ex 4:24-26). Or, in the New Testament (Jn 9:6-7) we read that Jesus uses a certain technique to cure the blind, namely spitting on the ground and preparing some material with which he covered the blind person’s eyes to cure them. Or again, as Jesus said, there are devils which can be expelled only by fasting and prayer (Mk 9, 29). Perhaps even the teaching of the right payer, the Our Father, can be seen as a form of spiritual technique.

On the other hand, the liturgy at first blush appears to be very clearly the most monumental technical device of spirituality. Especially in its original form worked out by John Chrysostom, which originally lasted 24 hours, the Christian liturgy can be interpreted by some as a complex, many-layered, spiritual device, which reaches its apex in the ever-renewable event of transubstantiation. But even if we follow the Protestant interpretation of the liturgy, it still can be seen as a complex spiritual device, mostly scriptural, to enhance the spiritual life of the believer through techniques of re-reading and interpreting texts.

Technology and Auschwitz

At this point I offer a sharp turn in the argument. So far my argument may have suggested that technology is inevitable in human life and spiritual technique is equally inevitable in the life of the soul. However, there are arguments to the effect that the technological tendency of Western civilization has a kind of bias that has led to mass murder throughout history. The paramount expression of this tendency towards technically organized mass-murder is the event of Auschwitz. Auschwitz is considered not only as the concrete catastrophe of the Chosen People, but, on a more general level, as the catastrophe of Christianity in particular and the West in general. The essence of the West is technology, according to a number of important thinkers, and thus also its catastrophe; Auschwitz, according to them, is the ultimate expression of technology. This is the argument we find in the works of Hans Jonas and some other recent Jewish philosophers.[5] The “technological man,” as Robert Gordis puts it, is above all responsible for Auschwitz.[6]

Auschwitz stands out, then, as the turning point against the optimism surrounding the evolution of Western civilization. This point is an event preparing us for accepting a much darker view of progress. Because, as it can be forcefully argued, if the technological development assisted the horror of Auschwitz, as it did, then such development earlier contained an unknown level of darkness, danger, and overall destruction which must be taken into consideration in any evaluation of technology. Starting from this approach we may conclude with a rejection of technology, at least technology in the sense of the positive fulfillment of Western civilization. On the other hand, if we take into consideration the blessings of technology, for instance in medicine, we may conclude that there is a necessity for technological development with a heavy dose of caution.

The Mystical after Auschwitz: With or Without Technology?

Before I offer my own standpoint with respect to this dilemma, let me outline the consequences of this line of thought for the spiritual realm. As I tried to explain in my piece “The Mystical after Auschwitz,”[7] the overall effect of Auschwitz on the understanding of the mystical can be summarized as follows: we have become aware of the loss of earlier categories and realized the need to find a new approach to the mystical.[8] In other words, we now undeniably see that we need to find a new approach to what is traditionally called the spiritual. In our context, this new approach entails a criticism of technology, spiritual technique, and technology as well. There are a few things here I need to outline more clearly.

I use the expression “the mystical” as the proper translation of the German Mystik, which has the peculiar dimension of being aware of the source and effects of the transcendental source of any human experience. Thus, even spirituality is included in the mystical as its expression in individual and collective life.[9] The mystical is spiritual and vice versa. In the history of the mystical, however, Auschwitz—both in the concrete and the symbolic sense—creates a caesura after which we cannot continue to maintain our earlier beliefs in the same way as if nothing had happened in immanent human history.

Most importantly, it is the one-sidedly optimistic evaluation of the development of technology, as the very expression of human progress, which needs to be called into question. Similarly, in an understanding of the mystical “after Auschwitz,” it is the role and significance of spiritual technology which needs to be questioned. Because traditional spiritual techniques were part and parcel of the scientific technology developed in various domains of human knowledge. More concretely we can even say that the development of spiritual technology was the precondition of the development of scientific technology in the history of our civilization and, at the same time, the development of scientific technologies paralleled the development of spiritual techniques.

 

I suggest that the new way to spirituality “after Auschwitz” needs, first of all, the developing of an understanding of the technological background of our history. In other words, we need to understand the essence of technology. Jonas, Heidegger, and others can help the process of understanding. There is nevertheless a more important task, namely the understanding of the problem of a new spirituality. Is this spirituality to be conceived with or without technology? Let me answer this question in the last section of my presentation.

Christian Answers

One of the consequences of the above position is that we need to reconsider our traditions and see the role technologies played in history. This means a critical evaluation of Christianity in terms of technology. I am offering here three considerations.

The Non-Technological Mystical

The mystical is understood as the framework in which the spiritual is enfolded, yet it does not mean that the mystical necessarily entails technology. In our history, however, the technological side of religion and spirituality has received a strong emphasis. As pointed out above, this tendency is rooted in some aspects of the Bible as well as the liturgy, yet it is not the Bible or the liturgy in themselves that led to the emergence of the modern technological revolution. Rather, a certain emphasis on the technological side, on know-how made this revolution possible.

It has been claimed that the ultimate basis of modern technology lies in the very notion of the Trinity. The Trinity is a functional unity, an absolute unity which is defined as an eternally ongoing activity, actus purus. Yet, there is a great gap between the understanding of the Trinity as a functional unity on the one hand, and the idea of a perpetuum mobile, the archetype of the modern technological revolution, on the other hand. The reason behind this difference is theological: divine unity is infinite an uncreated; the world, however, is finite and created. It follows that in the framework of creation no infinite machine can be built. We may add that the second law of thermodynamics excludes the possibility of any eternally functioning machine.

The other very important reason of the impossibility to ground the modern technological revolution in the idea of the Trinity is that the Trinity, while plural in a certain sense, is infinitely unified. The inner relations of the Trinity possess an infinite simplicity. There is an infinite number of Trinitarian relations which are all united in the basic relation of plurality in unity and unity in plurality. One may say that a certain misinterpretation of this simple and absolute relation could have served as the principle of technology (especially the technology of machine building), but in fact that would only be a misinterpretation. The Trinity in itself is the clear expression of the non-technological nature of the mystical. It must be admitted, though, that in a work of a historic clarification we need to reconsider our traditions and deprive them of certain misinterpretations.

The Non-Technological Spiritual

The same is valid for the notion of spiritual techniques. The Christian liturgy, as noted, is often seen as the spiritual technique par excellence. However, the liturgy ought to be seen instead as the description and realization of Trinitarian relations. Thus, it must be considered as the expression of simplicity. Again, so much must be admitted that the simple character of the liturgy should be better seen and emphasized in our current circumstances when, for instance, the Catholic Mass is still considered sometimes as a magical-technological procedure.

Devicelessness

The most important notion I want to emphasize in this regard is devicelessness. The mystical is simple absoluteness realized in the eternally realized apocalyptic setting of the Trinity. The spiritual, if properly understood, is the simple directness of self-giving along the lines of the Trinitarian self-giving of the divine persons to one another in an eternal circle of sacrifice.[10] Spirituality is simplicity in an absolute sense, or rather in the sense proportional to our situation and circumstances. More importantly, spirituality uses no device: it does not need a machine, a bodily posture, a certain rhythm of breathing, it does not need instruments, music, or any other kind of technology. Spirituality is the simple participation in the absolute simplicity of the Trinitarian reality.

Here again a certain work of clarification is needed, because for centuries spirituality has been seen as the realm of spiritual techniques. It may be acknowledged that we may indeed need procedures, signs, materials, forms, i.e. some rudimentary techniques in spirituality, but it is a mistake to give a priority to all these forms at the expense of the core of spirituality: the simple participation. It is a mistake, to put it in this way, to emphasize the know-how over the know-what.

Indeed, we may recall here an important biblical concept: love. Love is put into the context of faith and hope, but love is the greatest and it gives the entire spiritual world the unity of simplicity. We all know the famous hymn of love in 1 Corinthians in which, according to St. Paul, without love we are “only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Paul is referring to the technical side of spirituality which is empty if love is missing. We also read that “love never fails,” and the meaning of this is that love possess an ultimate simplicity that cannot decompose. Spirituality, in its core, has no device. It is deviceless.

On the basis of what I said above the tasks of a non-technological spirituality can be clearly outlined:

  • We need to reconsider the entire history of technology, spiritual techniques included, and point out the danger of an ever more complicated technological civilization.
  • Similarly, we need to point out the one-sidedness and even suffocating nature of a spirituality with a strong emphasis on techniques, procedures, methodologies, but also on devices, external symbols, material or spiritual means.
  • We have to find the way to simplicity. This simplicity of participation in the reality of the Trinity may be called “love.”
  • Simplicity is the only way we may follow in order to reconsider, continue, and renew our traditions. Newness is needed, but this newness cannot be anything like a diplomatic procedure. God’s eternal and concrete self-sacrifice in the person of Christ avoided all diplomacy.

Conclusion: Hypocrisy?

One may ask if there is some hypocrisy here. Am I not using a computer to compose this text? Do I not use the Bible, the Church Fathers, theologians, and philosophers to articulate my thoughts?

One can multiply this list, but let me reflect on such questions very briefly right now. If I use a radio, a CD, or the internet to listen to a beautiful symphony, I do that not because I want to listen to the radio or use the internet, but because I want to hear the symphony itself. Indeed, the commonplace phrase is: I am listening to the radio etc. However, this proposition is misleading. There is a great difference between the form and the content, and we are primarily interested not in the form but in the content. If the form, the medium is used with respect to the content, the priority of the content can be safeguarded. Similarly, the priority of spirituality can be maintained even if we apply some procedure, technologies, or techniques.

Here, however, we directly see that just a little technology is able to avert our attention from the important thing. To use a distinction elaborated by Jean-Luc Marion, we have the tendency to create an idol out of the icon. The icon is the essence of spirituality, but we have the tendency of transforming it into an idol.[11]

Similarly, we have the inborn tendency (radical evil) to misuse anything we have: food, drink, sex, cars, internet and so on. We tend to idolize them instead of just using them with respect to the simple spiritual core we need. But this bias is not necessary; we are always free to turn this tendency around and focus on the content instead of the medium.

That is to say, even if technology endangers the contents we need, even if technology may permeate our attitudes and destroy our best intentions, we are able to counter such a temptation. It is the know-what that must prevail so that the know-how may not dominate. As opposed to the temptation of technology, a temptation grounded in our being, we have the freedom to overcome this temptation and open ourselves to the perennial core of the mystical.

This core is liberty (ἐλευθερία). As St. Paul says, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor 3:17). Through Christ, the entire creation is “delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). Thus, we are free to oppose the pressure of technology’s power to mistake the know-how for the know-what and we can freely choose the simple know-what available for us: participation in the reality of the Trinity.[12]

Editorial Note: A version of this essay was delivered in 2017 at the annual conference of L’association Internationale pour L’enseignement Social Chrétien in Sainte Garde, France.

SEE ALSO:

The Postmodern Search for a Noble Simplicity in Church Architecture

Featured Image: Auschwitz-Birkenau tracks, Taken on: 6 April 2015, Author: Lajos Gál; Source: Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

[1] M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 movie The Village presents a thoughtful consideration of the attempt of discarding modern technology and returning to the form of life of earlier ages.

[2] “Like arithmetic itself, in technically developing its methodology it is drawn into a process of transformation, through which it becomes a sort of technique; that is, it becomes a mere art of achieving, through a calculating technique according to technical rules, results the genuine sense of whose truth can be attained only by concretely intuitive thinking actually directed at the subject matter itself. But now [only] those modes of thought, those types of clarity which are indispensable for a technique as such, are in action.” Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, trans. David Carr (Evanston, IL: Northwestern, 1970), 46.

[3] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Basic Writings¸ trans. David Farell Krell (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 307-43.

[4] Adolphe Tanquerey, TheSpiritualLife: ATreatiseonAsceticalandMysticalTheology (Tournai: Desclée, 1930).

[5] “From the viewpoint of humanity in general, the Shoah also demonstrated an entirely new combination involving the use of advanced technological methods which were among the magnificent achievements of modernity, together with nefarious characters with abysmally evil intentions and a capacity for cruelty such as we have never known nor have wanted to know.” Pinchas Peli, “Borderline: Searching for a Religious Language of the Shoah,” in: Steven Katz, Shlomo Biderman, Gershon Greenberg (eds.), Wrestling with God: Jewish Theological Responses during and after the Holocaust (Oxford: OUP, 2007), 245.

[6]Ibid., 495.

[7] “The Mystical After Auschwitz,” in: Miklós Vassányi and Enikő Sepsi (eds.), The Immediacy of Mystical Experience in the European Tradition (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2017), 215-229.

[8] Cf. Balázs M. Mezei, Religion and Revelation after Auschwitz (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).

[9] In English, “mysticism” may involve such dimensions as the paranormal, but in the German Mystik (and for that matter in French mysticisme) the spiritual and the mystical are equally present.

[10] According to the Book of Revelation, the Lamb is “slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8). This intra-Trinitarian slaughter does not cross the limits of pure simpleness.

[11] “The antagonism between the idol and the icon, between a ‘work of art’ and the image of God, is not a category of conventional aesthetics; it is much more a self-disclosure of reality itself, the revelation of religion in the radical sense of the word. It is through this antagonism that the true nature of religion is expressed. The contemporary disaster of the image—in the age of “audiovisual civilization”—is only a particular aspect of the barbarism of technology. This barbarism, however, has its ultimate meaning in the economy of salvation offered by religion.” Jean-Luc Marion, In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena, trans. Robyn Horner and Vincent Berraud (New York: Fordham, 2002).

[12] For more details see: Mezei, “The Mystical After Auschwitz.”

Balázs M. Mezei

Balázs M. Mezei is Professor of Philosophy at Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Hungary. He was formerly a visiting scholar at the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown University, Loyola University in Maryland, the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, the Husserl Archives in Leuven, and the Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. His books in English include Religion and Revelation after Auschwitz and Radical Revelation: A Philosophical Approach.