Mar 14

Redeeming the Gift of Power

The recent “World and Our Calling” lecture series at Redeemer University College hosted author Andy Crouch. He delivered several engaging talks, including one based on his most recent book, Playing God. His primary thesis is that power is a gift from God, something intended to bring flourishing. In a similar way, one might say that technology is also a gift from God, one also intended for flourishing.


Many people view power with suspicion. The old adage “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is often cited. Crouch quotes from Friedrich Nietzsche’s book Will to Power, which suggests that everyone is on a quest for power to “become master over all space.” Such a view sees power as a “zero-sum” game, a competition in which power is gained at the expense of someone else.

But Crouch makes a startling claim: that power is intended for flourishing. Crouch uses cello lessons as an example of how power can be a positive-sum game. After a cello lesson, a student gains a little more cello playing power, while the instructor’s power is not diminished. As Crouch puts it, “the total amount of power in the world to play the cello has increased.” In such a way, true power multiplies when it is shared, and it leads to further flourishing.

Crouch goes on to explain how distortions in power lead to idolatry and injustice. He suggests that every idol makes essentially two promises: 1) you shall be like God and 2) you shall not surely die. Idols appear to work at first, but over time they deliver less and less while demanding more and more. Ultimately, in the end, idols deliver nothing but demand everything. This becomes clear when one observes the cycle of addiction. Injustice is another outcome when power is misused, as is the case with slavery and exploitative money-lending. Both idolatry and injustice reduce image bearing.

In an era when people have become more jaded about institutions, Crouch makes a startling claim: institutions are essential for flourishing. Institutions bring lasting flourishing that can be transmitted to our children’s children. This includes institutions like the family, but it extends to institutions like local schools, the church, Redeemer University College and print media like Christian Courier. But Crouch also discusses unhealthy institutions. He describes so-called “zombie institutions” who stubbornly persist, dedicated to their own flourishing without contributing to others. At their worst, institutions abuse their power and perpetuate patterns of injustice and idolatry.

I appreciated how Crouch’s book ends with highlighting the importance of the spiritual disciplines. As we exercise power, the ancient spiritual disciplines of solitude, silence and fasting can help us along the way. Such practices can help tame our drive for power and shape us into the image bearers that we ought to be. In particular, I liked Crouch’s explanation of the Sabbath as helpful for both a prescription and a diagnosis. Sabbath can be a prescription for rest, to learn to trust God and lean on him. If we are unable to pull ourselves away from our work or pursuits, Sabbath can act as a good diagnosis of our spiritual condition, or even the presence of idolatry in our lives.

I saw many connections between Andy Crouch’s talk about power with certain aspects of technology. Technology is a gift of a sort of power that ought to lead to increased flourishing. Software can help businesses be more productive, communications technology can link people over great distances and robots can relieve people from jobs that are dull or dangerous. But like anything else in creation, technology can also become an idol. Like other idols, it initially promises much and appears to demand little. It even makes similar promises: we can become like God and we might not die. But eventually, a trust in technology demands more and more from us. We can begin to see this now with the automobile, a technology that initially promised mobility and autonomy that now also dictates the shape of our cities, affects our health and puts increasing pressures on the environment in the form of emissions and the pursuit of oil. What will our digital technologies demand from us in the long run? Is it possible that applying disciplines such as fasting and Sabbath to our technologies might help us wield their power more responsibly?

May we use whatever power God has given us, including our technology, in ways that lead to increased flourishing.

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