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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Vimy Ridge a reminder of war’s futility

Main-a-Dieu, Cape Breton, looking out to sea. “D” Company (85th Nova Scotia Highlanders, Capt. Percy Anderson) was from Cape Breton. “C” Company (Capt. Harvey Crowell) was from the Halifax area.

(April 7, 2017)

As the sun rises on Vimy Ridge on Sunday, thousands of Canadians will be there to commemorate the centenary of the assault that some say forged a nation. The soaring marble statuary that dominates the skyline, just as the ridge dominated the battlefield, has come to mean more than its creators intended.

Or so the story goes. Debates rage among historians about the actual importance of the battle, or about how the memorial (and its significance) have grown over time to serve less noble purposes in the propaganda wars of another era.

For me, the battle for Vimy Ridge is personal. The unit that — without the promised artillery barrage — climbed out of their trenches and took the summit of the ridge on Hill 145 was the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders). Its second-in-command was my grandmother’s cousin, Major James Layton Ralston, a lawyer and politician from Amherst, Nova Scotia. The officer commanding “C” Company, who made the decision to go forward, according to Pierre Berton’s book Vimy, was Captain Harvey Crowell, a friend of my grandparents whom I met once, when I was 12. A small man, he was an accountant.

For me, the mythology of Vimy Ridge is thus not about its importance as a battle or the magnificent monument to the sacrifice of a nation. It is about a small group of ordinary Canadians — miners, loggers, fishermen — understrength because of illness, inexperienced in battle and used to fetch, carry and dig, led by lawyers and bookkeepers — and sneered at as “the Highlanders without kilts” — who simply got the job done when the professional soldiers could not.

No doubt my Nova Scotian roots are showing, but it is the same attitude that the young nation demonstrated throughout the Great War of 1914-1918, during the Depression and in the darkest days of the Second World War, too. Scattered across the Canadian countryside are small churches with large memorial plaques, showing how many men went to war. The stars next to the names of those who did not come back are silent memorials to the sacrifices made by those who sent them, too.

The futility of such a sacrifice was not something that people realized only afterward. Everyone who was there knew exactly how little it all meant. They fought to end the war, not to win it.

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A tweet, full of sound and fury, signifying…

(January 25, 2017)

It is not entirely a misquote of Polonius, in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to say “brevity is the soul of (t)wit.” Certainly this vain, false and generally unpleasant character — who uses these words to tell the king and queen their son is “mad” when he is not — would have enjoyed spewing his opinions on Twitter.

Profound ideas can be expressed in few words (as in Japanese haiku), but “profound” is not usually an adjective applied to the transient wisdom of a tweet. It used to be said that “today’s news is tomorrow’s fish wrap.” In comparison, much of what passes for social media today is instead more easily depicted as breaking electronic wind.

We could blame Marshall McLuhan for this problem, as misquoting him to conclude that “the medium is the message” excuses a lack of content in the Twitterverse. But when 140 characters describe the policies and intentions of political leaders, nothing good comes of it.

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