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Plumbline Author: Ethan Brue
Date: November 26, 2002
Topic: Wishful Tinkering

A religious weekly published the following statement by a Chicago area writer. And I quote…
“Not a man but felt that this was the beginning of such a mighty era that no tongue could tell of its import, and those who gazed felt awestruck, as though they had torn aside the veil of the future and looked into the very Holy of Holies…We bowed our heads before the mystery of it and then lifted our eyes with a new feeling in our souls that seemed to link us with the great dome of heaven, stretching above and over all, and hope sprang eternal for the great new future of the world” (Corn 30)

Another witness of the same phenomena responded with the following exclamation…
“Hearts leaped to meet a future wherein unfenced realms of air have mingled all earth’s peoples into one and banished war forever from the world.” (Corn 38)

Another dedicated a song. One verse sounds like this:
And as upon your homeward course you fare
Bring heavenly treasure. Neither gold nor steel,
Nor gross and earthly wealth weight your light keel;
Man’s Brotherhood, bring that as Golden Fleece
On sun-blessed wings, bright harbingers of peace (Corn, 38)

What was this event, this deity, this phenomena that for so many people embodied hope and joy and peace for the entire world? It may surprise you that the object that inspired all these writers was nothing more than an airplane. Just an airplane making its way across the sky. The year was 1909.

I expect as contemporary North Americans we find these statements not only naïve, but entirely absurd. Only a little over a year ago we witnessed two airplanes that brought not tidings of peace, but rather tidings of terror that were soon answered by destructive retaliation from the skies. The heavenly treasures of brotherly peace that the airplane was supposed to bring are now buried even deeper beneath the ruble of 20th century warfare. This is a bitter reminder of the diabolical risk that accompanies anything shaped by human hands in this world. The tentacles of sin so quickly mutate and deform even those things created with the best intentions. Beyond this sobering reality, there is a second reason we must avoid the technology worship that leads to utopian drunkenness. Let me explain by example.
This may sound odd to us in the 21st century, but the early automobile was the solution to the problem of pollution in metropolitan areas. In New York City during the early 1900s a city activist estimated that every day 2.5 million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine were deposited by carriages in the days before they were horseless. In that same year, 15,000 dead horses had to be pulled off the streets before they rotted. People had a very strong reason to be enthusiastic about making carriages horseless. No one foresaw an automobile culture that would become the largest contributor to urban pollution today. In the area of biotechnology, a depression era advertisement by the DeKalb Seed Company optimistically proclaimed “Let…hybrids be your mortgage lifter”. And while hybrid seed corn did substantially increase farm production, no one foresaw that in the long run it helped to create a farm economy of high input costs and low commodity prices that rather than lifting mortgages, introduced for some farmers the never ending mortgage. Or take for example the miracle drug penicillin. For fighting infections in the mid-20 th century, nothing proved more effective. Nonetheless, no one foresaw the possibility that someday it might lose its effectiveness as bacteria adapt and become anti-biotic resistant. The lesson learned in all these examples is this. Unknown risks always accompany technological development. Humans have always been quite adept at innovation, but rather inept at long term forecasting. (Cowan 234, 301-318)

Even today, proponents of biotechnology rewrite the familiar songs of technological praise and boast that their human genome project will offer to us the keys to a glorious future. The Christian however should hear in these songs the echoes of unkept promises of the past. And while the shaping and forming of the creation is a God-ordained activity (even in areas such as biotechnology), the Christian will be keenly aware of our fallen condition and the inherent risks of development. Christians take risks. But the risks they take are the ones that have been carefully measured against the underlying motivations and justifications for a development project. Against the background of a culture that so often believes that everything that can be done should be done, a Christian will see that some risks simply aren’t worth taking.

For Plumbline, this is Ethan Brue

Corn, J.J. The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, 1900-1950; Oxford University Press: New York, 1983.
Cowan, R. S. A Social History of American Technology; Oxford University Press: New York, 1997.

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