Humans need a sense of place in the world and a feeling of belonging to a community in order to flourish. Connectivity can engender that. But if Marshall McLuhan’s dictum “the medium is the message” is true, then when technology mediates our messages, do they necessarily become media-shaped?
Technology innovation disrupts in ways which are good: My 95-year-old tech-savvy mother in Wales now messages four generations of her family daily, alleviating the limitations of her physical existence. But we are more aware now of the limitations of “virtual communities.” Endless and knee-jerk “reply-all” emails do not correlate to quality communication. Serious thought requires rather more characters (as well as more character) than a tweet. Decrying the influence of communications technology stretches back to the invention of the moveable-type printing press. Yet a neo-Luddism that rejects digital culture is definitively not a Jesuit value: If we propose seeking and finding God’s will in all things, then God is to be found and justice promoted in STEM just as much as any other academic endeavor.
Core curricula exist in Jesuit higher education to make “educating the whole person” more than words. They are there to help STEM majors answer questions: What kind of world do you want to help build? Where are you going to find meaning in your life and resources for the times of crisis and change you will inevitably experience? Liberal arts students need to study science and technology to become literate citizens of an emerging world. Good core curricula are relevant and tailored, and include the history of math and science, and studying the philosophy of technology that includes ethical concerns but goes beyond that.
The estrangement between religion and science was a long, slow process, in which many voices, currents of thought, and historical experiences coincided. In contemporary university terms, it manifests itself structurally as well as personally. I graduated from high school fluent in four modern languages, but I fled mathematics at age 16 after an unhappy encounter with calculus, and most American high schoolers could best me in physics. My elder brother trained as a chemical engineer, and you would not be finding him visiting an art exhibition or reading poetry. The Renaissance pioneers of Jesuit education, Santa Clara’s deep DNA, would have abhorred this family split.
Historians of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering note that all these endeavors are rooted in the search for ultimate meaning. Pythagorean math is a mystical quest and Pythagoras’ children, today’s mathematicians, often continue to approach their craft with reverence and awe. Mathematics was central to the curriculum of the medieval Catholic universities of Europe. Newton, although hardly conventionally religious, carried out his research and made his discoveries in classical mechanics within a religious framework. What we now refer to as “science” was once called “natural philosophy.”
Jesuits, for much of our existence, have been itchily inquisitive about all things. The almost 500-year-old roll call of Jesuit mathematicians and scientists of all stripes is impressive, and none of these, I am guessing, found any intrinsic contradiction between the humanities and science, or faith and reason. Philosophy, according to Socrates, begins in wonder; and that sense of wonder is common to all of us who love our art—engineers and social scientists, venture capitalists and poets.
And for the Catholic mind, that wonder is at some mysterious level an experience of the divine.