01/03/2013 01:28 pm ET | Updated Mar 05, 2013

Would Thomas Merton Use an iPad? Contemplation, Technology and Discernment

"Men have become the tools of their tools," wrote Henry David Thoreau in "Walden." He went on to say, "While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings." A century and a half later, these words seem both prophetic and apt: our cultural fascination (some might say obsession) with ever-improving technology makes for rising standards of convenience and entertainment (for those who can afford it), nestled within ever-increasing systems of security -- but leaving human beings as susceptible as ever to our own brutality and rage, as events from the Sandy Hook massacre to the unceasing hostilities in places like Syria make all too clear.

The business cliché of "thinking outside the box" points to how sometimes we need a new or different perspective, in order to see possible solutions to a problem. In trying to make sense of the disconnect between ever-expansive technological achievement and how humanity as a whole continues to suffer, sometimes as a direct consequence of our technology, perhaps taking a step back can offer us new insight. In this case, "a step back" could mean considering the wisdom of the past and how it can shed light on the issues of the present.

This is why I turned to Thoreau for his thoughts on technology, as a way of introducing an even richer exploration of this question. In "Returning to Reality: Thomas Merton's Wisdom for a Technological World" (Cascade Books), Phillip M. Thompson, director of the Aquinas Center at Emory University, offers a brief summary of the 20th century Trappist monk Thomas Merton's thought regarding technology, and then applies Merton's ideas to three contemporary issues: the threat of nuclear apocalypse, the revolution in communication technologies, and the "transhuman" implications of biotechnologies used for healing, enhancing or prolonging life.

Thompson describes Merton's thought as a "contemplative critique," highlighting how Merton approached his philosophy of technology by considering the relationship between the machine and contemplation. Merton's understanding of contemplation can be discerned in this line from his journal: "our technological society no longer has any place in it for wisdom that seeks truth for its own sake, that seeks the fullness of being." Technology is fundamentally utilitarian: The question that drives all technological innovation is, "Will it work?" By contrast, contemplation is concerned with meaning, with relationship, and with community. A contemplative approach to technology will not ask, "Will it work?" but, "Is it good?" or "Is it just?"

With this in mind, it is easy to see why nuclear proliferation alarmed Merton. Such weapons might "work" as technology for deterrence or aggression, but they violate the Christian imperative to love the enemy (and could "work" so well that using them amounts to suicide). Likewise, the revolution in communications technology seems linked to increasing social isolation and falling literacy rates, and the promise of technologically managed life and health appears to emerge from the same kind of domination mentality that has led to widespread environmental degradation.

In short, in our rush to employ technology in ways to make life better (at least for some people), are we not inadvertently also making life worse (for others, or perhaps for all of us?). It's not a fashionable question, and perhaps never has been, but it's the type of question that informs Merton's ambivalence toward the technological progress of his day. Before he died in 1968, Merton not only wrote about the morality of weapons of mass destruction, but also commented on the social impact of television, telephones and advances in farming technology. Of course, he died long before the advent of the personal computer, mobile devices, smart bombs, combat drones, cloning and the rapid explosion of biotechnology over the last 40 years.

But the kinds of questions that Merton asked from behind the cloistered walls of his Trappist monastery a half-century ago remain profoundly relevant even in today's rapidly changing technological environment, precisely because Merton's thought kept returning to universal and ethical questions and concerns that remain relevant precisely because they concern virtue before utility, regardless of how many new gadgets we invent and how they impact our lives.

Merton was not a Luddite, and Thompson is careful to avoid portraying him as one: "While he would not eliminate technologies, Merton knew that they must be constrained within the goals and ideals of a fully human community." As we continue to face persistent problems related to human violence, economic inequality and technologically created threats to the biosphere, we need to acknowledge that technology alone cannot solve our problems. In an essay called "The Angel and the Machine," Merton envisions the task before us as involving a return to a contemplative way of discerning wisdom, as symbolized by a new appeal to angels -- the mythic messengers of the divine who were, in effect, banished by the rise of modern technology -- "not to replace our machines but to teach us how to live with them."

What would such celestial heralds teach us? Thompson offers a few ideas, all derived from Merton: the necessity of true contemplative discernment, which can only arise out of a commitment to Sabbath days and periods of retreat, regular time for silence and solitude, appreciation of nature and beauty, the restoration of civic and communal responsibility, and cultivation of a rich and meaningful inner life. These commitments would lead to further benefits, such as a revival of domestic and family life as a sign of divine love, and a reordering of both individual and collective economic interests where the unrestrained accumulation of wealth is subordinated below a modest commitment to the welfare of all.

"Returning to Reality" demonstrates how the wisdom of a contemplative master from the past can remain surprisingly relevant to the concerns of the present. G. K. Chesterton playfully argued for a "democracy of the dead," where efforts to solve the problems of today will rely, at least in part, on the insights of yesterday. Merton's perspective on technology -- that it must serve us, and not the other way around -- echoes not only Thoreau, but even Christ's assessment of the religious customs of his day. It is incumbent on us, of course, how we shall seek to apply such wisdom in our individual and collective lives.