Intersections

Peter Lawler’s Stuck with Virtue—and Technology

by: 
Michael Shafer, PhD

I was sad to hear of the recent passing of a well-respected political philosopher, Peter Augustine Lawler. I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Lawler several years ago at a meeting for the President’s Council on Bioethics in Chicago. I had just finished reading his book Stuck with Virtue, so during one of the breaks I approached him and struck up a conversation. I do not recall the exact questions I asked, but what impressed me most was that while standing in a room with some of the brightest ethical minds in America (he was not at a loss for great conversations) he was still incredibly gracious and attentive to a young doctoral student asking lots of questions.

Now, roughly a decade later, I serve as a pastor to a local church outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Lawler’s book may not be topping any charts among pastors, but I advise my fellow pastors and ministry leaders to engage with his ideas. Those who venture in will find lucid insights about our technology-addicted culture as Lawler reveals a critical flaw in our contemporary pursuit of happiness.

All too many of us (both those outside the church and sadly too many within as well) look to technology as a kind of savior, believing it will alleviate all our pain and afflictions, leaving us with nothing but happiness. Such an idea, Lawler says, is futile. Not that happiness is wholly elusive; rather it “is more than a chemical problem that has a technological or biotechnological solution.”[1] Even if these means can solve some of our ailments, they will undoubtedly introduce new problems. Lawler points out, “we will never live in a world without the reality of catastrophes, without sin, suffering, loneliness, profound disorientation, dementia, and death.”[2]

As a pastor, I regularly counsel people struggling with all forms of the aforementioned realities. The world is a messy place and people are seeking means of relief and comfort. Sometimes their search leads them to biotechnology. Yet it is the forms of technology common to our everyday lives that often create a more subtle and widespread pattern of behavioral addictions.

The vast majority of us have become addicts. What makes this even more concerning is that few are aware of their addiction to technology as a kind of electronic drug promising every kind of fix for happiness. Look at how quickly things that did not exist just a few years ago have become indispensable parts of our lives. We became hooked on TVs, smartphones, and tablets, often without even realizing it. (If you don’t believe it, try leaving your phone at home this week. Ten years ago, it wouldn’t have crossed your mind. Today, it’s likely to be all you’d think about). Adam Alter’s recent book, Irresistible, brings attention to this phenomena.[3]

We regularly put everything on hold to binge watch entire seasons on Netflix. Nearly 25% of our waking hours are spent staring at the screen of a device we hold in our hand. We are constantly tethered to our email (70% of all emails are read within 6 seconds).[4] The more time we spend gazing into the world on the other side of the screen, the easier it becomes to avoid the reality around us.

I think there is a connection between Alter’s statistics and Lawler’s concern. Our behavioral patterns and increasing dependence upon technology are the results of our inclination to make life easier for the individual. We create products (both technological and biotechnological) designed to distance who we feel we truly are from those aspects of our lives we find unpleasant. Our social lives now have less to do with physical proximity and more to do with online posts, likes, and shares. Filters make it that much easier to highlight only the parts that we want everyone to see.

I certainly am not opposed to these technologies. There are some genuinely good reasons for time spent with our devices, including both productivity and entertainment, but I am growing conscious of how much time is spent, why I am spending it there, and what I’m sacrificing in so doing. Oftentimes it is an escape from reality: play one more game so I don’t think about that stressful situation at work. Watch one more episode because I don’t feel like working on that project. Keep looking at my phone and maybe the people around me won’t bother me.

Test this theory next time you are at a church service. Arrive a few minutes early and watch the people in the room. It is very common to see people silently sitting in rows with heads bowed. Curiously, their smartphones, not prayer, have them in this posture. This time for corporate worship and community is plagued with silence as we respond to one more email or like one more Instagram post before the service begins (and in many instances during the service as well!). Opportunities to invest in people sitting next to us slip by as we comb social networks for followers we likely will never meet.

Though these technologies do help us become more productive and are great outlets for mental recreation, we have connected them with our pursuit of happiness. Again, this isn’t inherently wrong, but there is a sense that we can never again be happy without them. Half of the population says they wouldn’t be able to function in life without their devices. Nearly sixty percent of us claim to be dependent on social media. Yet, those same statistics reveal, “their reliance on these sites ultimately makes them unhappy.”[5]

Of course, Lawler had anticipated this even before Facebook and iPhones were household names. “We will not become so content, so happy, that virtue, love, friendship, and God are no longer necessary.”[6] Our devices will not replace genuine, unfiltered friendship. Technology can never fulfill promises of utopia. As Christians, we should be alert to this reality and guard our time with (and for) others. We will always have to face the complicated, disturbing, heart-rending facts of life. Our technology cannot save us from all things. This applies as much to medical technology as it does to everyday technology. Learning to navigate well the unique challenges of each requires us to look beyond the technology itself. We must look elsewhere to learn—among other things—character, love, and friendship. Not only are we (as his title suggests) stuck with virtue, but we are also stuck with the church. So this weekend when you walk into your place of worship, look up from your screen and talk with a person.



[1] Peter Lawler, Stuck with Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), xxxvii.

[2] Ibid., xxxviii.                                                                         

[3] Adam Alter, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (New York: Penguin Books, 2017).

[4] Ibid., 109.

[5] Ibid., 28.

[6] Lawler, Stuck With Virtue, xxxviii.

 

Michael Shafer, PhD

Michael Shafer, PhD

Michael Shafer, PhD (Theology, Durham University) is a pastor with theChurch.at in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is also the founder of The Christian Bookshelf. Find him online at www.TheChristianBookshelf.com or connect on social media @MrDrShafer.