Jon Askonas’s lecture at the Christianity & National Security Conference 2022.

Jon Askonas discusses emerging technologies, deterrence strategies, and Christian realism. The following is a transcript of the lecture.

So this, uh, you can consider this talk an extended advertisement for the talk on Saturday. I’m giving a… a sort of preview of that…. of that, and I’ll also try not to keep it too long. I know this room gets rather stuffy after a full day. And so, um, you know, I’ll talk for ten or fifteen minutes, maybe and then we can have some questions. Um, so I gather from the, uh, the… the lineup and what I know about my… my friends and colleagues who’ve already spoken that you have heard a lot today about what Christianity might have to say about national security, right? The way that the Christian tradition, the just war tradition, Christian values, uh, might inform the conduct of national security in general, uh, and of American national security in particular. 

Uh, I want to talk to you today about something of the opposite. Uh, the challenge that national security presents to Christianity, and how Christianity, Christians, uh, might adapt. And one strategy of adaptation that, uh, uh, is underrated perhaps, but I think it’s something that will be of increasing discussion and importance going forward. 

Um, in 1943, the world was in the midst of the Second World War, right? The United States, uh, had entered, uh, after the attack on Pearl Harbor December 7 1941. Uh, it had taken much of 1942 to really respond to mobilize for war, but by the middle of 1943, it was clear that one way or another the war would end. And it would end with an allied victory. At what cost remained unclear, what the world after, uh, would look like remained unclear. But that much was clear. It was also clear that this victory would be won, uh on… on the strength of American weapons, right? This was why, uh, Churchill when he first heard of Pearl Harbor, uh, had basically um, uh, said you know, it’s over. We’ve one. I mean not those exact words, but that exact sentiment, right, that the entry of the United States into the war, the mobilization of the American war economy ensured ally victory as of course came to pass.  

It was in 1943, according to, uh, in a discussion that began a little bit earlier but was concluded in 1943, according to Stephen Verdheim that, um, the kind of senior layer of American policy makers and foreign policy thinkers concluded that whatever the post-world war looked like, it needed to involve an active American presence, right? That, um, the lesson from the First, Second World War and from the First World War was that, uh, with the end of the European Empire, there was too much anarchy in the world. If the United States did not demonstrate leadership, that there was a threat of… there was a threat that a totalitarian or authoritarian regime or system or empire, like the Germans had sought to build, like the Soviets would seek to build, um, uh, could in fact take over what Mackinder had called the World Island, leaving the United States alone.  

Uh, the specter of 1940 loomed in their minds when the only American ally in the world was England. That was, you know, on its back haunches, so to speak. And so they resolved it never again would… this be allowed to happen. It was 1943 according to Alan Jacobs in a book I recommend, the Year of Our Lord 1943, um, that a number of Christian thinkers took up the question of, uh, the world after the warm. Um, Jacques Marathon Auden, poets Auden and Elliot, and of particular interest to me today, C.S. Lewis – the series of lectures that would become the book the Abolition of Man were given in 1943.  

But maybe most interesting and most important in 1943 was none of these events. Um, it was something that hung over the minds of all these Christian thinkers. Simone Vassey, not the other one, um, and of a fellow by the name of Jacques Luol who in 1943 was a, uh, a protestant pastor in Vichy France, um, where he passed his exams, uh, academic exams, but was forbidden to teach because of his opposition to the Nazis in 1943, was the first year of full operation of the Chicago One nuclear reactor, the very first fission reactor system that led to, contributed to the development of nuclear power, but also of course, and this was his purpose, the development of the atomic bomb, uh which was first tested in 1945, and then used over Hiroshima and Nagasaki uh to con… definitively end the Second World War. 

And this is the challenge that I want to talk to you today… talk to you about today. Those thinkers, they – Lewis and others, I’m going to talk about George Grant, uh, the Anglican Canadian, Anglican thinker on Saturday. I’m not really enough time to talk about him today – they recognize that, uh, the victory in the Second World War had not ultimately, even though they believed in, uh, they believed in, in, uh, democracy, they believed in liberty and the tradition of liberty, um, they did not believe that they had won the Second World War on the strength of those values. They believe they’d won them on the strength of weapons that they had been able to produce in addition to this value in some relationship to those values, right, um, regardless of merits. 

Uh, the way that… that the United States and its allies won the Second World War, the way the United States conducts its national security policy today, the liberal international order, and there are many merits and many benefits to that which you’ve heard about today. Uh, the… what it has taken to achieve those benefits is the unleashing of, uh, technological power over the world and a global transformation ungirded by this technological system, right? The reason we have a Department of Defense, and after 1947, is not in order to run the army. We had a department of war that did that quite competently, to run the navy or this new air force. It’s to manage a, uh, the production of war material and research and development technologies, the investment of tens… hundreds of billions of dollars in new weapons. Technologies beginning, of course, with the Manhattan Project but not, anyway, ending there.  

And then, of course the uh… uh, diffusion of these technologies and the uptake of these technologies by the private sector, right? Almost every, uh, every element of our, uh, technological society, including of course the computer and the smartphone, uh, is chock full of patents, most of which began uh, or the basic research of which began in military applications, right? This is not ana argument against the benefits of those technologies, but this fact of technological transformation, of the social transformation under girded by new technology is one that we must address. 

Uh, there are… So what I want to talk to you about today is… is what you might call Christian technopolitics. What is the Christian response to the problem of technology? Um, and I want to… I’m going to argue that there are basically three categories of responses, and I want to talk about the third and least obvious, especially to us Americans, category response. Um, so, and this echoes in some way I could talk last year on Anglican statecraft. Um, we can see this… these kinds of responses, um, in the from of, uh the Christian responses to two kinds of technologies: nuclear technology, uh, and uh, what I’m gonna… we can call the technology of the worship, which is exactly what it sounds like, right?  

The technology of the worship, I think, is easier for us to immediately get our heads around. Um, looking over the… looking over Western Christianity and it is Western Christianity that brought forth in the 18th and 19th century and then 20th this sort of technological revolution, you can see two of these traditions are on the one hand, a kind of creedal tradition mostly associated with what you could call low-charge Protestantism, non-denominationalism. If you look at… if you survey the world of worship of non-denominational, evangelical, uh, Pentecostal, etc. Churches, what you’ll find is a… a huge diversity of forms of worship, of forms of liturgy, and a huge diversity of the technologies that are used in worship, right? Ranging from, um, you know, Churches that uh, you know, won’t you know, only sing the Psalms with… without instruments, uh, to the much large, much more, uh, numerous churches which… which have… whose relationship to the technology of worship is that it is just a neutral tool, even uh, and that what matters is what we preach, right? What matters is what we believe, um, and so you’ll see, you know, uh, you know, guitars and projectors and you know, the uh, every once in a while the fog machine or smoke machine.  

From a, from a theological standpoint, the position is, um, what we… the way that we worship is just a tool for how, for… for uh, for worshipping God and what matters is what we believe. The opposite camp you see in the Roman Catholic Church. The Unity of creed, liturgy, and authority, right? So, uh, you’ll see much less of the diversity that you’ll see in the kind of low Church Protestant world. Um, at the same time, and a belief that Alexa Rand likes, credenti, the way that we worship is that we believe the law of worship is the law… sorry. The law… the law of prayer is the law of belief, right? So the way that you worship actually changes the kinds of beliefs that are plausible, but there’s not a connection to authority, right? 

So in the Second Vatican Council, the uh, Roman Catholic Church, uh, you know, it doesn’t disavow in any way uh, the earlier forms of liturgy, but it instantiates a new form of liturgy, right? When Benedict the 16- 16th is the Pope, he um, makes it a lot easier to use those older liturgical forms. He encourages, uh, the redevelopment of, rediscovery of the, uh, of the choral tradition and beautiful pipe organs. And then when Pope Francis comes in he has… he has different ideas about these things. Most recently, um, nearly banning the widespread use of the Latin Mass, right? 

So this unity of creed, liturgy, and authority… When I… when I said I was going to talk about an Anglican technopolitics, um, the first question I got from my theologically informed friends is, can Anglicans say anything at all, right? This is, like the most obvious thing about Anglicanism is that there’s very little unity of believe, and I won’t… for those not in England, because the room… I won’t bore you, but there’s a… a huge spectrum of disagreement about, uh, what it is to be an Anglican and/or a disagreement about what Anglicans believe, ranging from uh, evangelicals, for whom the sacraments are… are a symbol of uh… of… of the Christian faith, to Anglo-Catholics which have essentially a Catholic view on the sacrament, to mainline Churches, many of which, uh, um, are functionally forms of, of Christian atheism, right? But actually, there is an agreement about what it means to be an Anglican. Um, it’s just not what we usually think of when it comes to doctrinal agreement, which is… 

An Anglican believes in the use of the book of common prayer and the 39 articles. We don’t agree about what those articles mean and we don’t often agree. We don’t even always agree with the book of common prayer means. But we do all agree that that is what it defines being an Anglican. Um, to the point where there are, you know, you can find within hours drive of the city, um churches from the pretty far left to the pretty, uh, pretty conservative, uh, on the theological spectrum, uh, Anglican and Episcopalian Churches that both use the same form of the book of common prayer, that both… the exact same words, so what is this third position? 

Well I think to understand this position you need to understand what is the effect of a technology, right? There’s two ways of thinking about what defective technology is. The first is the obvious way, and the effect of the technology is what it does, right? The effect of a nuclear bomb is that it explodes and unleashes such and such amount of energy, measured in megatonnage with this X amount of radiation and whatnot. The effect of a phone is that I can make… I can talk to someone very far away, etc. Et cetera. 

Marshall McLuhan, the great student of, uh, C.S. Lewis, uh, draws our attention to another way of thinking about what the effect of a technology is Which is the effective technology? Is the change in scale pattern and tempo, that index on… on human life, right? The effect of technology is what happens when it is widely adopted and the way that it changes our assumptions and beliefs and practices, right? 

So going back to a nuclear weapon, we just heard from Matt Kroenig, this is something that – he studies international relations – the effect of a nuclear weapon is not its, uh, properties as a weapon. In fact, since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no nuclear weapon has ever been used. Would we say that nuclear weapons have had no effect on international relations? Hardly. The effect of nuclear weapons is… the overall effect they have… once they are adopted, once we learn to anticipate the reactions of others, etc., right?  

You can view this, you can study this through the study of… Deterrence is a study of the effects of the effects of what these weapons that come from their non-use, effectively. So what does it mean to think about technology in general this way? 

Uh, I don’t have the time go get in deep into kind of McClunian theory about this, but the long and short of it is that, um, the biggest effects of technology are these formal effects. Now critically, underlying those formal effects, underling the way that say, the automobile creates traffic, the way that, uh, the birth control pill creates a secular revolution, the way that the smartphone, uh, massively changes patterns of dating and mating and child rearing, right? Uh, underlying that is… is, uh, the sort of rescillary notion of formal cause, and one of the things that gives it its power is its ability to change not what you think but what you do and what you are incentivized to do. 

In other words, the practices and liturgies by which you live your life, right? Anglicanism is unique in its focus because of this doctrinal disagreement in its focus on shaping and reshaping practices and liturgies and the formative effects of… of… of these practices on our attention, on our beliefs, and on our desires. Right now, uh, I’m… I’m… already running to the end of my time, and so I want to sum up briefly on what C.S. Lewis has to teach us about this. 

Um, I think I though in preparing this talk, I found it very interesting. I want to draw attention to three brief observations about Lewis. The first is that, in the Space Trilogy, which is Lewis’s kind of answer through fiction to the rise of technological society, the rise of a scientific society. I think it’s interesting the profession that he chooses for his adventurer, who is to be the kind of archetype of the… the… the opposite, the anti-type of Western… the sort of brave adventurer or scientist who goes forth to conquer, right?  

Does anyone know what the… the, uh, profession of Ransom is? He’s a philologist. You ask a question like, what kind of effect does a philologist have in anything? And of course, the philologist is someone who studies the form and grammar of words, and you can see, and rants—the way Ransom encounters these societies that he’s analyzing them with a completely different set of tools than Ransom is… He’s looking at them not through the lens of, sort of scientific calculation, but through the way that understanding their language allows him to observe and understand their, uh, their society, their beliefs, the way that… their way of being in the world, so to speak, so the formative power of language itself, right? 

Um, the second observation is that, um, for Lewis the… Lewis was a convinced Anglican, lifelong… not lifelong. After his conversion became an Anglican, um, how does this shape his thinking? This is… this is a kind of under… yeah. It’s… it’s well studied. Lewis as a Christian, but not as well studied, Lewis as an Anglican. Well I think his… his being steeped in this tradition drew his eye to the power of liturgy and the power of formation of liturgy and the power of formation. 

The subtitle of the Abolition of Man, which is about… becomes technological. Man is about, um, I’m gonna forget the exact words, but it relates to changes in upper… upper school education. The upper school education of English, or whatever, all of… many of these great thinkers of technology, the 20th Century Lewis, McLuhan, Postman, uh, Grant, um, Allele, one could go on… they were all either actually, like, professors of English or education or, um, notably interested in education, right? Education is the word that we use. When we think of education, we often think about sort of K-12, college or whatever, but that’s not the sense in which they are thinking of the… thinking about in terms of practices of formation, right? Practices of shaping the norm, terms, the virtues, the way that we inhibit our bodies to achieve particular ends, right? Um, you know, the… to participate.  

And this gets to the third claim, which is actually Lewis’s response to the atomic weapon, which is what I’ll leave off with, right? To participate in a liturgy is to not participate in another liturgy, right? We’re all… all our… you know, every day, we spend our day, you know, drawing sigils over obsidian screens, right? And we think this is no spiritual significance, right, to participate in the liturgy of prayer and evensong, whatever. To abandon that even for a moment, to do something else and to focus one’s attention in another way, and the more one devotes oneself to these other liturgies, and more one is reshaped by those.  

I want to read a quote from Lewis. It is his response to the atomic weapon, to the problem of the atomic weapon. Lewis is thinking with formal cause. He says, you know, he understands that the effect of the atomic weapon is not its… um, well, I’ll just read whatever in here. Quoting Lewis, “if we are all to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things.”  

And then he lists off a number of these practices, and the very first one he lists is praying. The first, most sensible, most human thing the effect of the atomic bomb on the social environment for Lewis, is the fear that it gives rise to. Prayer, along with other sensible human things are the solution, as it were, they are the solution because they are formative of our desires and limiting of our ambitions. To exercise our fear through more technological control so that, quote, “among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may be surely fixed where true joys are to be found, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” 

As Lewis would have heard in the collect on the fourth Sunday after Easter, um, so I think as, you know, without, um, casting aspersions onto, uh, onto the importance of studying that, what Christianity has to say to national security, I think it’s important to recognize as well the effect that it has on us of living in a society characterized by certain kinds of fear. Certain ways of taking into our own hands, power of our destinies through the use or arms, through technology, um… and so I think it can’t be more fitting on a Christian Conference on National Security to leave off with a payer and specifically the collect for peace: “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom, defend us, thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies, that we surely trusting in thy defense may not fear the power of any adversaries through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” 

Q&A 

So I haven’t taken any questions. Challenges, responses, etc.? Sure. 

Question: Hi. Uh, my name is Sage Yasa, and I study both international studies and great texts at Baylor University. And so, I wanted to ask if you could speak more specifically to how you see those United, how you see them affecting each other and how, perhaps, a decline in Liberal Arts education is affecting the way that we see the world. 

Answer: Yeah, I mean it’s… it’s… and again, you know Alan Jacobs, you’re maybe… your professor at Baylor is… is someone who I’m leaning a lot on as I think through these things, but um, it’s notable that all of these Christian humanists took the, you know, the problem, the Second World War, to be the problem of miseducation, right? The way that mass society had not developed any kind of bulwark against what they saw as basically a pagan or even satanic totalitarianism, right? And uh, you know they… and someone’s responding to the dislocations of the first and second industrial revolutions, to the rise of new forms of mass media, right? And we are not living in a very different, uh, through different sets of problems, uh, with new forms of authoritarianism very evidently on the horizon and at home. 

Um, so I… I don’t know if I want to say that there’s like, some eternal way in which those two questions relate to each other, but I do think studying great texts forces you to discern what are enduring problems and what are actually true, novel problems. I think that many times, many cases the way we teach, uh, the great text books emphasizes those eternal questions. And I think it’s actually… The other inverse is just as interesting what are actually the new novel challenges that we are encountering. Um, uh, so I think there’s a lot of… there’s a lot of wisdom. There is also, does… it gives you a sense of perspective, um. I could probably go on, but I think that’s… that’s my first blush response, you know? Yet another question here, or someone trying to sneak off to the bathroom? Yeah, okay.  

Question: Nazar from Regent University, studying National Security. So you talked about how the nuclear weapons influence the foreign policy and international relations in general. To what extent cyber methods can also have an impact… Especially knowing how dependent we are on technology? Internet, so a country can shut down infrastructure as well as steal personal data, which can be used to influence politicians. So to what extent we can talk about the use of cyber threats in the future. 

Answer: Yeah I mean, I think it’s… it’s… you know, from a… for my military operational standpoint, um, you know, I think we have to… we assume now that, uh, the enemy at the very least has the ability to deprive us of the use of those technologies, although I will say you know, the… we have a very interesting live experiment going on in Ukraine and Russia and the… the discrete effect of cyber attack seems very limited. Part of that is due to the fact that there was a kind of low-grade cyber war going on between Russia and Ukraine for eight years before 2022, and so the Russians didn’t have a lot of, like, new tricks up their sleeve. But I think… I think the kind of perceived anxiety around the potential of… of being deprived of… of these tools is maybe more interesting to me than the like, the actual military effective things, right? 

We aren’t… we aren’t anxious about, um, you know, our TV’s satellite being, uh, jammed, even though that’s… you know, actually way easier than cyber, you know? So what is it about? The way that we are relying on computer technologies that generate so much anxiety. Yeah, which is kind of a non-answer but that’s what I’m giving today.  

Any further questions? Disagreements? If not we can leave it off. Maybe a lot of people get a little break. All right? All right. Thank you.