If you say, as Bacon once did, that knowledge is power, you will find yourself arraigned pretty quickly on charges of wanting to rape the earth. But knowledge is power, and knowledge cannot be applied in this world without exercising authoritative dominion. This axiom needs to be defended and it needs to be defended without appearing to be a mindless defense of strip mining.
For all his virtues, Tolkien has unfortunately contributed to our confusion on this issue.
“Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones . . . Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well” ” (The Hobbit, p. 60).
We have this sturdy mythology that makes us assume that elves get everything done by purity of mind, while goblins are down in the forge heating up the metal in order to bang on it. And of course, when we do this we know better, because we do know that elves actually make things. But whenever that fact becomes a little too obvious or a little too apparent, we politely avert our gaze. We ignores it.
The “knowledge is power” adage is equally true when the good guys are doing it. It is true when you are clearing a plot of land to build a cabin, or cutting down a sapling in order to carve a fine walking stick, or shaping a block of stone for a place in the wall of Minas Turret. In the list of things that goblins make, all of them would be capable of noble uses with the exception of the instruments of torture.
But a pickaxe, by definition, is designed to make the dirt move when the dirt didn’t necessarily ask to be moved. To which — I want to maintain — both the elves and the goblins could reply, “Deal with it, dirt. Knowledge is power.” Now the elves are famously fair-spoken and gracious in speech, and so they wouldn’t exactly put it that way. But that does not change the reality of what is happening to the dirt. Someone who knows more than the dirt does is moving it around, usually without permission. That someone is himself a creature, and will ultimately answer to his Creator for his motives in doing whatever it was he was doing. And when that account is ultimately settled, I think it is safe to say the judgment will not be “for making and using a pickaxe.”
Look up from your computer, and look around you. If you are anything like me, you are surrounded by tools, and by the products of tools. And if you tallied them all up to three generations, we are talking about millions of very clever tools. This is true, not because we are orcs, but because we are men.
I suggest that we need to make our theological peace with our tools. We need to stop factoring them out of our discussions. We need to stop treating them as invisible. To treat them that way is simply to set ourselves up for picking an arbitrary date in our technological advancement, and treating everything prior to that date as de facto “not to be considered.” And after that entirely arbitrary “year one,” we have determined we are henceforth going to live a simple life — the Amish with their buggies and Wendell Berry with his typewriter. So fifty years from now are we going to be dealing with a group of the “simple folk” who still use the iPhone 4? Will it be a matter of high spiritual principle? Or perhaps spiritual myopia?
I want to maintain that the central question we must all answer is “what are you building?” and not “what tool is that?”