The Theology of the Horse

November 4, 2006 | 23 comments
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How big of a deal is technology theologically speaking? This is not a question that I have an good answer to, but I suspect that it may end up being less of an issue that we think that it is.

Take the example of reproductive technology. Technology allows us to radically redefine the method by which we create offspring. So far you still need an identifiable biological father and mother, but sexual intercourse between the two is no longer necessary. Cloning suggests that in theory, it may be possible to create a child without one of either a biological father or a biological mother. Is this a theologically big deal?

It might be, but I am actually pretty skeptical. In the 1990s as the Internet took off, lawyers, judges, and legal scholars started speculating about what “Internet law� would look like. A number of manifestos were written suggesting that the Internet presented a fundamental challenge to our previous ideas of law and would spark nothing less than a jurisprudential revolution.

Judge Frank Easterbrook of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit was not convinced. In an article entitled, “The Law of the Horse� he suggested that actually the Internet would probably end up being governed by the same basic concepts – property, tort, and contract – that governed the non-Internet world. Imagine, he said, the problems that jurists faced when they first discovered horses. Here were animals that made possible a huge number of things that had not previously been possible for human beings. Surely a new theory of law would be needed to accommodate them. Yet, Judge Easterbrook, pointed out, several millennia later there is no identifiable law of the horse in our jurisprudence. There is simply property, tort, and contract law that gets applied to the unique situations where horses show up. No jurisprudential revolution was necessary.

There is something bracing about imagining that technology presents radical new challenges for Mormon theology. After all, Mormon doctrine has changed or evolved in the past to deal with new circumstances. Perhaps the revolutions currently working their way through the life sciences and medicine will require another reconstruction of Mormon doctrine. The imagined inadequacies of LDS theology for the new problems might be a source of anxiety (or triumph) for some, and the possibility of imagining radical new theologies may present an exciting opportunity to others.

For myself, I am skeptical. To be sure, I expect that technology will require that we think anew about some old doctrinal concepts, and their application in a new situation may turn out to be novel or unexpected. But I doubt that we are on the threshold of a theological revolution.

There is no theology of the horse.

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23 Responses to The Theology of the Horse

  1. StealthBomber on November 4, 2006 at 9:21 pm

    Nate,

    But hasn’t one of the reasons we claim a necessity for latter-day prophets been to develop a theology of the horse? Or is it simply to apply familiar doctrinal concepts to new problems? –Just asking, I haven’t really thought this one through.

  2. Nate Oman on November 4, 2006 at 9:51 pm

    Stealthbomber: I don’t really know. Obviously, one of the points of continuing revelation is to get new revelation. It is a question, I suppose, of what constitutes a situation requiring new revelation and what does not. Also, at times it seems to me that new revelation is more of an authoritative reinterpretation of old concepts as much as anything else.

  3. Nate Oman on November 4, 2006 at 10:41 pm

    Stealthy: I’ve been thinking a little bit more about your question. It occurs to me that I can’t think of a single instance in which technological innovation has resulted in a cannonized revelation. Can anyone think of an example of this?

  4. MLU on November 4, 2006 at 11:15 pm

    I think technology increases our power and thus tends to clarify why the governing principles matter so much. That is, technology doesn’t demand new theological principles so much as it makes more clear the wisdom of the old ones. I am speaking here of true theology and correct principles. One of the signs of incorrect principles, I imagine, is that they become adequate to govern new realities. . .

    Our technology (and our wealth) is bringing us nearer all the time to being worldmakers–or at least it’s allowing better glimpses of what that might mean. Digital tools allow movie and game makers to create synthetic worlds that have many of the features of real ones. Theme park designers and, increasingly, community development planners, create themed “worlds” that exist in actuality.

    Some of these “worlds” are somewhat sublime and others are quite hellish. I think we will learn quite a lot–most of it available through the study of literature and history and, yes, the law–in a way that is more compelling and vivid and accessible about what happens when various principles are “operationalized” in various communities, actual and digital.

    My expectation is that more of us will understand what it means to create worlds according to the principles of, for example, Sparta, and how those worlds vary from communities built according to the principles articulated by Paul.

    I think we’ll learn better the timelessness of such principles as the ten commandments, and the way new machines only make them more urgently needed.

  5. MLU on November 4, 2006 at 11:23 pm

    One of the signs of incorrect principles, I imagine, is that they become adequate to govern new realities. . .

    I meant to say: “they become inadequate to govern new realities. . .

  6. Susan on November 4, 2006 at 11:42 pm

    Technology in many ways is about tools. Not metaphysics. But tools can transform a world, and then metaphysics must respond to the changes, to this new world, with new tools. Not sure what that means in terms of the present. Certainly I can find traces of what it meant in the 19th century as culture, life responded to biology, for example.

    One thing i’ve been thinking about recently is attention. There’s less patience in our world. Things are much more about the individual–what YOU say in a conversation. Much less about listening to what the others or saying, or what was said in the past. Authority is about lots of links and lots of comments on the internet. What does that mean? Lots of comments are generated by agon–either/or. I personally find that troubling. Lots of links–what’s popular. And what makes something popular? Striking? Feisty? Controversial? I often find myself worrying about what counts for points on the internet, in the blogosphere, in this world I find myself living in. Technology enabled this. Technology. Hard to find anything theological about computers, software, vonage, mobile devices. But the ripple effects into the culture. That seems to be something that should ripple into how we think about what matters, about how we make decisions, about morality, about metaphysics, about religion, about the universe, about God.

  7. TrailerTrash on November 5, 2006 at 12:09 am

    Hello Nate,
    I recently posted on the topic of reproductive technology and LDS doctrine here:
    http://urbanmormonism.blogspot.com/2006/10/sex-reproductive-technology-and-mormon.html

  8. TrailerTrash on November 5, 2006 at 12:17 am

    “It occurs to me that I can’t think of a single instance in which technological innovation has resulted in a cannonized revelation. Can anyone think of an example of this?”

    I suppose that since there haven’t really been many “canonized” revelations since the days of the early church that you may be right, but this doesn’t mean that technology hasn’t drastically affected Mormonism. Easy global travel, satellite, print and internet media, and family history databases have all hugely impacted the church as a whole. Additionally, birth control is one area where there have been major shifts in doctrine/policy. As birth control technology became increasingly available and accepted in wider culture, it became increasingly accepted in LDS culture.

  9. Ardis Parshall on November 5, 2006 at 12:56 am

    I can’t think of a kind of technology that would require a radical new revelation, although we could easily need clarification and guidance on how known doctrines apply to new situations. The principles are already there: Reproductive technology?–How does the outcome relate to the Proclamation on the Family? Energy or agricultural or other technologies affecting the natural world?–How do their effects relate to our obligation to take care of this world? Weapons technology?–How does it relate to our duty to our fellowman?

    On the other hand, technologies have caused struggles for church members, even general authorities, while we’ve thought through how they affect doctrines (or assumptions about doctrines). Birth control made us think about multiplying and eternal increase and spirits waiting for bodies. Technologies that allow us to realize how many innocent people are executed may cause us to think through our ideals of mercy and justice. The ever-extending possibilities of “heroic measures” and potential embryo-related technology might force us to think through our doctrines on sanctity of life and the moments life begins and ends. What if technology allowed us to learn beyond question that there is life, even intelligence, “out there”?

    The clarification and adaptation that might be required by new technology would probably be considered revelation (just as we consider the concept of smaller temples to be revelation), but would anything radically new be required? It’s hard to imagine that — but of course, the situation calling for such is probably beyond my imagination too!

  10. a random John on November 5, 2006 at 1:23 am

    Writing is a technology. Anything in the canon requiring a something to be written down would qualify.

  11. Herodotus on November 5, 2006 at 2:48 am

    My two cents:

    While the original poster asks the question of if “technology� will require new revelation, I actually think this is somewhat misleading. It isn’t talk of a faster microprocessor or a new internal combustion engine that polarizes people. It is things like stem cells, face transplants, cloning, and gene tailoring. We are talking about *biosciences.* As such I don’t think it is helpful to suggest that the lack of revelation regarding “technology� to date portends anything for the future. These fields are in their infancy.

    I have thoughts on these fields as some touch on my own area of expertise, but I’m going to restrain myself. I’ll instead only say that I personally find the amount of hype and misinformation in the popular press regarding them (from both sides of the political spectrum) to be mind-boggling.

  12. Herodotus on November 5, 2006 at 3:33 am

    As a final clarifying note:

    I know that there is sometimes a desire to lump together anything involving science or higher mathematics under the umbrella of, “technology” but I personally think that in the end, it isn’t particularly helpful.

  13. Jonathan Green on November 5, 2006 at 12:09 pm

    But…but…what about prohibitions on eating horse meat in early canon law, perhaps as an indication of residual paganism? Doesn’t that count as law AND theology of the horse?

    Other than that, though, I think you’re right.

  14. sm on November 5, 2006 at 5:56 pm

    maybe you\’re just a little late, esq. oman. though we should of course pause to separate technological artifacts from the advance of scientific naturalism–it\’s unlikely that another idiotic talking phone will change theology in any meaningful way–there is some reasonable historical evidence for the accommodation by theology of developments in the scientific naturalistic view. in my area of secondary expertise, this \”technological\” view did influence the shape of mainline Protestantism in the late 19th-early 20th cent.
    Further, many critical tenets of theology were framed by antecedent \”scientific\” theories of the universe–the Great Chain of Being is an example of that phenomenon.

    We\’re just days late and dollars short.

  15. ed johnson on November 5, 2006 at 7:33 pm

    What about the science and technology involved in diagnosing and treating mental illnesses? We don’t hear much about being possessed by evil spirits anymore. We’ve also changed how we talk about depression.

  16. queuno on November 5, 2006 at 8:06 pm

    Sidebar: Frank Easterbrook may be intelligent, but his brother is the true genius. He should immediately be hired to do FNIA. And anyone who actually understands what I’m talking about knows that they suffer from the same disease I do.

    :)

  17. greenfrog on November 6, 2006 at 12:52 am

    It occurs to me that I can’t think of a single instance in which technological innovation has resulted in a cannonized revelation. Can anyone think of an example of this?

    Aside from writing, as a random John noted in #10, one might consider the Word of Wisdom’s non-commandment elements to be based upon nutritional understandings of the time when it was adopted, and the absence of enforcement of those aspects to be tacit withdrawal in the face of agricultural technologies.

    But still, your basic point remains. But might it speak more to the decreasing relevance of religious tenets in a technological society than to the impressive resilience of existing paradigms to address tek advancements?

  18. sr on November 6, 2006 at 1:08 am

    In the past, Mormon theology has been seriously shaken up by technological ability to
    1. Carbon date fossils.
    2. See other planets with telescopes.
    3. Create and destroy matter.

    Currently, it is challenged by our technological ability to
    1. Change a person’s gender
    2. Medically change a person’s personality (remove and add memories, alter moral character, etc.)

    In the distant future, new questions may arise due to
    1. Ability to induce any ordinary skin cell to become an egg cell (and viable fetus) in a petri dish
    2. Brain transplants
    3. Partial brain transplants
    4. Thinking robots
    5. Communication with aliens

    The questions raised by these technologies are complex and fascinating. Correct answers might indeed radically alter our view of the universe. But, realistically, it will be probably hundreds of years before the church gets around to providing them. There are, simply, far more pressing needs, and the current church leaders are not nearly as theologically curious/ambitious as Joseph Smith.

    When Nate says we are unlikely to I see a “reconstruction of Mormon doctrine” or a “theological revolution” due to technology, I would go further and say that we are unlikely to hear ANY kind of surprising addition to the canon of Mormon theology in the next decade for any reason. But this is not because the big questions can be easily answered within existing theology. It is because the most interesting puzzles will simply remain unanswered.

    The church has long gone out of the business of providing new startling theological revelations of any kind. And the current trend is quite the opposite — we are increasingly admitting that we do not understand the startling revelations that we already have (see, e.g., Hinckley’s public comments on humans becoming Gods).

  19. Herodotus on November 6, 2006 at 3:52 am

    I have a few more thoughts – pardon my intrusion. I sometimes tease my wife for “talking in subpoints� at me, but I’m going to do it here.

    1. As this thread progresses it increases to illustrate my reservations about this category of “technology.� By way of illustration, let me postulate the existence of another set of gold plates. These plates await only the development of a super-technologically-advanced “golden-plate-o-meter� to be discovered. When discovered it can be placed in the Smithsonian and carbon dated to our collective heart’s content. Unfortunately, this set of plates describes the Nephites as villains and the Lamanites as heroes. In this case, what would be challenging to our faith? The “golden-plate-o-meter� or the content of the plates? If we accept the existence of aliens as post 18 suggests, would we be theologically challenged by our ability to speak with aliens or what they had to say? Shifting gears, what is the commonality between these challenges and the challenges presented by gender reassignment surgery? Admittedly, their emergence all involve people who studied something other than Humanities in college, but do we really think that they represent a *special category of challenge* to which God could not or would not provide revelation? I understand the desire to categorize and generalize, but do we really think it is helpful here?

    2. One of the most fundamental tenets of our faith is that the canon is open. This is a contrast to most of the Christian world. But as lay members of our faith we are not always privy to the revelations received by our leaders. We are sometimes left to wonder if, when, and how our leaders receive revelation. Do we think that God would fail to provide us with needed revelation because of a lack of “theological curiosity/ambition� relative to previous leaders? Do we consider our leaders’ directives to be revelation only if they are included in the D&C? Do we think that all revelation received by our leaders is publicly released?

    Most importantly, how much does it really help us to define limits and categories to which we think God can not or will not provide revelation?

    3. I personally have no idea what God’s plans are for his next public revelation. I do think that there is currently a set of challenges arising from the broad category of biosciences which has received a great deal of hype and attention in the popular press. I don’t know if God intends to give us guidance regarding them, but I wouldn’t be surprised either way.

    (My wife is laughing at me as I post this.)

  20. Nate Oman on November 6, 2006 at 7:57 am

    Herodotus: How would you carbon date gold plates? Doesn’t it necessarily involve carbon?

  21. Herodotus on November 6, 2006 at 8:40 am

    Drat! Exposed as a fraud!

    I have to confess that I don’t personally perform carbon dating. I hope this doesn’t dejustify my treatise on alien life. I can however assure you that carbon dating of metallic artifacts and meteorites is common. Carbon is much more ubiquitous than you might guess. And a set of golden plates of a consistency to retain text would have to be an alloy, unfortunately ruling out the possibility of pure gold.

    A quick internet search turns up an impressive list of substances that have been carbon dated:
    http://www.c14dating.com/int.html

  22. Nate Oman on November 6, 2006 at 11:54 am

    I think you should also know that I have figured out that your real name is not Herodotus.

  23. Herodotus on November 6, 2006 at 1:06 pm

    And I on the other hand have decided that the development of a “golden-plate-o-meter” would in fact be a frightening thing for my faith.

    O, I am spoil’d,
    undone by villains!

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