Technology, Religion and Human Security in the 21st Century

Time to publish a lecture I gave ten years ago as part of the 40th Anniversary Lecture Series at the University of Winnipeg:

(November 22, 2007)

I want to thank the Alumni Association for the invitation to be part of the 40th Anniversary Lecture series. Since I began my studies here thirty-one years ago, I have accumulated a number of debts to this institution and its faculty, staff and students.

As a student, I experienced the best of a challenging and rewarding liberal arts education. Over the intervening years, as I wandered through the academy, I always found a welcome back at the University of Winnipeg as my professors became both mentors and friends.

Ten years ago, when I returned to Winnipeg to teach and my professors became colleagues, the courses I taught in the departments of History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies and in the Faculty of Theology enabled me to work in a multi-disciplinary way that I had always felt important.

Other responsibilities made it impossible for me to attend Bob Young’s wonderful first lecture in this series, but he was entirely correct in identifying the significance of interested students in the creation of good teachers.

Under the hot lights of the television studio, broadcasting live in prime time to the whole city in a way that brought the university into the community in a truly remarkable fashion, I thrived on the ideas and passion of hundreds of intelligent, articulate and concerned students, while the staff of the Centre for Distributed/Distance Learning filed away some of my rougher edges and diplomatically challenged any inconsistencies that the students might have missed.

So, when I considered what to present to you this afternoon, I was reminded of an intriguing course I inherited and taught in Religious Studies, called “Images of Power: The Religious and Technological Imaginations.” If I were teaching it now, this lecture would have been part of our conversation.

I want to start by offering a conclusion about technology, religion and human security in the 21st century, and then will spend the rest of the lecture unpacking what it means, and why I would reach such a conclusion.

Human security is clearly one of the most compelling and troubling issues of our time. However human security is construed or constructed, the tendency of globalized western scientific culture is to use technological means to maintain security, or at least to minimize insecurity. In a post 9/11 environment, moreover, religion – all religion and not just Islam – seems to be regarded as a negative or destabilizing force.

I argue, however, that the reverse is actually more accurate – we will never achieve any significant measure of human security in the 21st century by technological means alone. Further, the uncritical reliance on technology – and the marginalizing of religion – is more likely to decrease such security.

Only a better understanding of our own technology, and a willingness to acknowledge and incorporate existing religious beliefs in the context of human security on a global scale, will make it possible for the 21st century to be less bloody at its end than it has been to this point.

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Universities should focus on people

(May 18, 2017)

We are entering the season of graduations and commencements, where speakers will applaud the graduates and exhort them to work hard to overcome the challenges that lie ahead.

No one will mention that these students are graduating into a future made difficult, if not impossible, by the lifestyle choices of their parents and grandparents. Nor will they be told they are unlikely to enjoy either the environmental or economic benefits of their elders, whose enterprises have cut down or polluted what they didn’t use up or destroy.

Those would be facts, not the usual flannel that characterizes the commencement address people expect to hear.

Avoiding the subject does not change the situation, however.

Ninety years ago, Raymond Fosdick compiled a book of commencement addresses he had been asked to give: The Old Savage in the New Civilization. His point was simple: humanity’s technological abilities had developed far faster than its moral capacity. We are using dangerous new tools the same way our ancestors used clubs, thousands of years ago, and risk self-destruction.

The key to moral development, he said, was education. New moral and ethical abilities are needed throughout society to manage the amazing possibilities reflected in the new civilization we have created. We must deliberately educate citizens to think in new ways, with a kind of wisdom and maturity that was lacking in the society that self-destructed during the Great War of 1914-1918 and which was threatening to do so again.

In the midst of the Roaring Twenties, Fosdick must have sounded like an old, unwelcome crow. Two years later, however, as the stock market crash of 1929 led into the Great Depression and the rise of fascism that preceded the Second World War, his audience likely changed their minds about him and his speech.

At the risk of sounding like an old crow myself, our post-secondary institutions here in Manitoba have failed their graduates and the society in which we live. They have not focused on educating citizens to make better choices than their parents and grandparents did. Instead, they have focused on churning out replacement parts for the machine civilization, whose further development threatens the existence of global society and much of life on Earth.

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Remembering Grandma

Evelyn Nellie Powell Denton behind the wheel of the new family McLaughlin Buick, 1917, when she was nine years old.

Eulogy for Evelyn Nellie Powell Denton (November 12, 1908-March 30, 2017), delivered at First Baptist Church, Halifax, on April 27, 2017.

Before my grandmother celebrated her 100th birthday at Victoria Hall, she claimed the frailty of great age would not allow her to say much. When the day came, of course, she delivered a pithy speech, brandishing the white gloves she wore when she met the King and Queen in 1939.

She summed up the lessons of that first century by noting the importance of the “three F’s – Faith, Family and Friends.” She would be pleased to see everyone here today, family and friends, in this church that meant so much to her.

I will follow Grandma’s lead this afternoon and reflect on her life in terms of the “four R’s – Resilience, Relationship, Roles, and Humour.”

Resilience is obvious. At 108 years, 4 months and 18 days, she set a family record, something she was very pleased to do. Living through the complications of a badly-broken arm at age eight, surviving the Spanish flu at age ten, and then recovering from tuberculosis (in an age without antibiotics) in her early twenties, she epitomized resilience.

Diagnosed when she was 80 with an inoperable brain aneurysm that could burst anytime, she likely out-lived the doctor who gave her the news. When she signed her letters “Old Never Die,” it was hard not to agree. After all, she was born the year Henry Ford launched his Model T and “Iron Nellie” died 90 years after the “Tin Lizzie” stopped being built.

To anyone who spent time with grandma, Relationship is just as obvious. She would never tire of telling stories about her family, often with interesting new variations. The details were not as important as the relationships that those stories identified and cherished.

As her Western family, we did not see her as often as we would have liked, but the quavering hello with which the telephone conversation started quickly became animated and strong, whether talking to her children, grand-children or great-grand-children.

As for the third “R,” Grandma liked playing roles. She relished the role of “frail old lady,” long before she was. It was not just the English teacher in her, with a fondness for drama. Anyone who has lived in the home of a preacher understands public performance. She played the role of pastor’s wife and mother until Harvey’s death in 1965, and then stepped into new roles as teacher and matriarch as the grandchildren appeared.

We would regularly hear, at a distance, how she was all by herself, blind and unaware of what was going on in the world. Of course, drilling down to the details, we would discover all sorts of visitors, continuing relationships started years before, and get a variety of opinions, often pungent, on current politics and world affairs. As for her eyesight, Grandma still saw what she wanted to see.

She was our family historian, cheerfully writing thousands of words based on her research in cemeteries and archives all over the Maritimes, without a single footnote to record where anything was found. As for being frail, when she was interviewed for her 100th birthday, she asked if the reporter had brought a suitcase, because she intended to talk for a week!

The last “R,” for humour, comes with a rolling Maritime “r” at the end. We would miss something important if we did not celebrate Evelyn Nellie Powell Denton for the unique character lurking behind the various roles she played so well and for so long.

Yes, her middle name was always Nellie. In her teens, she decided that was a cow’s name and Natalie sounded more high class, so she changed it herself and then outlived everyone who knew different. She finally ‘fessed up in time for her 100th birthday.

Past 100, she was relieved of her meal-time duties operating the elevator in Victoria Hall for upsetting the other old ladies by continually announcing the second floor stop as “Death Row.”

Asked to say grace at a short-staffed holiday meal, the hostess emerged from the kitchen, aghast to hear a prayer manifesto imploring divine protection for the helpless residents left to fend for themselves by a chiseling administration.

Angered by the local public health decision not to vaccinate residents during the flu epidemic a few years ago, having had a flu shot every year since she started teaching, she somehow got through to the provincial minister of health on the phone to complain – and was first in line when the vaccination team arrived.

Her own sharp humour could be delivered with devastating timing. I remember one Thanksgiving family dinner at our home, Twin Oaks, when a guest remarked on all the family portraits hanging around the room, especially the one of Rev. I. D. Harvey. That one also had a small inset picture of him seated, with his wife, Belle Bagley, my aboriginal great-great grandmother, standing behind him, in the traditional pose.

Grandma announced she knew why that portrait pose was so common.

Asked to say more, before calmly continuing to eat her meal amid the uproar that followed, she said: “They always took that picture on the morning after the wedding. The man was too tired to stand up and the woman was too sore to sit down.”

As we say goodbye to Evelyn Nellie Powell Denton today, we all have our own roles to play, here in this magnificent church, under the stained glass window dedicated to my grandfather.

But the picture in my mind of my grandmother right now is from another Baptist church, a small one in Maccan, Nova Scotia, where her father was a deacon, on the Sunday she returned from her first term at Acadia University.

Hand on one hip, in true flapper fashion, she swayed back and forth as she marched down the aisle to the deacon’s family pew, her stylishly unlaced, open galoshes, clanking as she went.

After a long and fruitful life, that’s how I will see her leading us out of this place today, waving off our tears, as with her own eyes bright once again, she triumphantly swaggers home.