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Celia Deane-Drummond et al., Technofutures, Nature and the Sacred. Transdisciplinary Perspectives, 2015

This book gathers some of the papers presented at the fourth biennial conference of the European Forum for the Study of Religion and Environment (Sweden, May 2013). As the title already suggests and the introduction underlines, the distinctive feature of this work lies in trying to relate three thematic areas of huge interest at present: philosophy of technology in a broad sense, environmental studies and religious studies. While joint treatments of any two of them are common in the literature, efforts to intertwine all three of them are quite rare, although such an approach brings considerable gains both in analytical refinement and in critical potential.
This transdisciplinary vocation extends also to cultural and social studies, since culture and social relations are aspects that necessarily modulate all three above-mentioned disciplines. Another outstanding feature is the interreligious or at least non-exclusively Christian character of this initiative. Being so ambitious and gathering such a wide range of authors (13), it is no wonder that the present volume shows a marked heterogeneity; in spite of that, it has more unity than one would expect and offers as a whole a useful summary of the state of play of the running discussions in this extraordinarily important issue.
An informative introduction (offering relevant summaries of all chap- ters) gives way to three parts: Theories, Religious Narratives, Practices, each one containing four papers. A contemporary mythological narrative written  by Bronislaw Szerczynski  as  an  evocative  synthesis  rounds  the book, which also includes a comprehensive bibliography, up.
Part I establishes the theoretical framework for the discussion. Walther C.  Zimmerli  reflects  on  the  historical  evolution  of  technology  (which should be understood as culture), as well as on the impact of technological innovations on our understanding of responsibility and on the challenges this poses to ethics. He considers it necessary to move from a principled ethics to an applied ethics and encourages the reader to develop a pragmatic model of applied procedural ethics of responsibility towards extra-human nature.
Maria Antonaccio strives to give a new orientation to the discussion on technology and humanisation of nature, which she considers detrimentally dominated by the issue of the independence of nature from human action. She draws on M. J. Radin’s analysis of commodification as a social process in order to highlight the question of whether a specific technology respects or suppresses (either destroying or making inaccessible) certain goods associated with human experience of nature which have become an integral part of our horizon of meaning. Humanisation through technology represents a threat not only for non-human nature, but for human flourishing as well. Fionn Bennett tries to vindicate M. Heidegger’s hermeneutical philosophy of technology, exploring the way in which some extra- technological aspects of Heideggerian thought inform his discourse on technology. He underlines Heidegger’s enigmatic, Hölderlin-like statement that technology is “supremely perilous” but, for the same reason, also a “source of salvation”. Finally, Peter Scott insists on how important is to un- derstand technology as culture. His aim is to develop a theology of technology. As a first step in this direction he analyses the difficulties that such an enterprise encounters in the three spheres that structure any theological anthropology: self-relatedness, wholeness and world-relatedness. This allows him to make some suggestions for a critical reconstruction of these theological ideas, for which purpose he draws on a differentiated concept of God.
In Part II several theological or religious motives gain prominence, although narrative character is not paramount in all chapters. Nor is the difference in approach from the papers of Part I always clear enough. Lisa Sideris examines the way in which some of the most prominent scientists involved in the Manhattan Project used religious and mythological narratives about innocence, hubris, fall and wonder to describe, rationalise and legitimate a research that culminated in such a human and environmental catastrophe. Sideris pays special attention to the motive of wonder, which she evaluate from a moral point of view, and warns against a too-literal understanding of the statements of the scientists about their innocence and ignorance of the consequences of their work. Basing on ideas of Maximus the Confessor and some modern Orthodox theologians such as Ware and Zizioulas, Francis van der Noortgaete tries to outline an iconic-liturgical approach to human technology in nature. The notion of the “iconicity” of nature and a priestly anthropology lead him to propose that technology must be seen and implemented not as deployment of an autonomous power over nature, but as a call to a non-hierarchic relation and collaboration between humans and non- human nature by being creative in God’s likeness. Sigurd Bergmann criticises the thesis of the value-neutrality of technological innovations and contends that they must be conceived of as physical outcomes of complex social processes about the production and sharing of power between humans, but also between human and non-human life forms.  This allows him to carry out an extension to technology of the Marxian concept of “fetish”. A historical examination shows that it was precisely through fetishisation that Modernity incorporated classical animism, transforming it simultaneously. But since this process has led to a sort of life-denying idolatry, it must be resisted  and  overcome.  A  possible  way  to  achieve  this  aim  would  be through a neoanimism which understands technology as a life-enhancing gift instead of as a tool to have dominion over life. This would allow to connect with the Christian experience of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of life and to develop an ecological pneumatology. Finally, Celia Deane- Drummond ponders on the effects of technologisation of life, focusing on transhumanist projects to enhance human abilities and indefinitely extend human lifespan. Such projects not only presuppose a distorted, reductive view of human condition; they also foster a merely instrumental consideration of animals, which ignores any limit to the transformation of their nature, opening the door to a post-animal, even trans-animal society. The author sees in Hans Jonas’ metaphysical philosophy of life a possible corrective to transhumanism. Completed with practical wisdom or prudential reasoning it could form the basis of a theological anthropology abreast of the times.
Part III introduces different practices aiming to prevent the risks associated with technology and set its huge positive potentialities free. David Gormley-O’Brien starts from the fact that the consumption of the average suburban home in the English-speaking world today is unsustainable both for economic and ecological reasons. He argues that there is a need to recover certain aspects of homemaking prior to the industrial era and update them in the light of technological innovation. Rehabilitating homemaking both requires and lays the ethical and theological basis for a global cultural change. Forrest Clingermann and Matthew Kearnes, in two independent chapters, deal with the challenge of geoengineering, that is, the deliberate and large-scale modification of climatic systems in response to anthropogenic climatic change. Both papers are very critical of geoengineering. The first one adopts an obvious theological approach and considers that geoengineering lacks the humility to fulfil the aspiration to a material salvation building on human ability to balance individual and social flourishing in the atmosphere. Its inability to listen to nature in meaningful ways makes it distort or invert the sacred. The second paper starts from a sociological perspective, but it arrives at theological conclusions too. Following Milbank, the author questions any fundamental separation between the secular and the theological when trying to understand science and technology sociologically. From here he moves forward to an archeological analysis of religious roots of economy, much along Agambes’ lines, which allows him to explore how geoengineering is situated in a biopolitical project that seeks to extend  forms  of  economic  valuation  to  the  Earth  as  a  whole.  Finally, Zemfira Inogamova-Hanbury examines spiritual and economical practices among Kyrgyz, Kurdish, Turkish and Uzbeks farmers and how such practices contribute to their identity and resilience.

This last part has great interest, even though the range of presented practices is necessarily limited. It is only natural that the stress lies on “eco- logical” issues, but it might have been enriching to pay attention as well to bioengineering, to the problem of energy production and consumption or even to artificial intelligence (in its medical applications, for example). Criticism is important, but not enough; positive, alternative practices are much needed. Papers presenting practices of this kind (homemaking, Central Asian farmers) suffer perhaps from some romanticism. However, that is in essence the key question when facing these matters: how can we really bring it about that current technology, inserted in a thick net of economic, social and cultural interests, should be truly life-enhancing? In order to go beyond a mere desideratum, it is no doubt necessary to work out illuminating theoretical frames, motivating religious narratives and transformative practices. The book edited by Bergmann, Deane-Drummond y Szerszynski is a valuable contribution to this goal, a useful set of suggestions to keep moving forward along this track.

José Manuel Lozano

Independent Scholar

Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 26:3 (September 2016), pp. 28-32.