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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Is Steve Jobs Dying for Us All?

Release date:

August 25, 2011


Worldview Technology

Like Thomas Edison or Henry Ford, the name Steve Jobs conjures the image of an era more than a product. After battling pancreatic cancer, the Apple co-founder has finally resigned from the company and has resigned himself to one thing over which he has no control: death.

In a penetrating essay in Esquire today, Tom Junod explores the life, lessons, and legacy of one of our era’s greatest inventors. The title itself is telling: “Steve Jobs is Dying for Us All.” Back in January 2010, Junod contributed another piece for Esquire titled, “Steve Jobs and the Portal to the Invisible”. Both are worth the read.

Prominent in both articles are the emphases on Jobs as an artist, a creative genius who “makes the invisible visible” and fits an even “messianic” profile. In last year’s feature, Junod observed,

There are several things that Steve Jobs isn’t. He isn’t, for one thing, democratic. “He isn’t utopian,” says Wozniak. He is messianic, and his life stands as an illustration of the difference between the two objectives. He was never driven by a vision of a better world; he was driven by a vision of himself as a person whose decisions guide the world. He wanted to build a device that moved the world forward, that would take people further. He wanted to build a reality that wasn’t there. He wanted to be one of the important ones. It makes sense, then, that he is not philanthropic, either. As one philanthropist who’s worked with him says, “A lot of the people who are getting into philanthropy now are trying to put their smarts into it, their creativity into it, so they can change the way philanthropy is done. I don’t get that feeling from him. I get the feeling that he’s so into doing what he’s doing that there’s no creativity left. He’s an artist, Steve. He either likes what he’s looking at or he doesn’t. He’s not concerned with what contribution he’s making. He wants to astound himself, for himself.

In today’s essay, Junod writes,

More than any other purveyor of technological products, Steve Jobs has seemingly translated his soul into machines meant to be immortal even when they are only as eternal as consumerist whim; now, at the very moment when the language of technological immortality is becoming most explicit — when he stands ready to translate himself and his company into “the cloud,” with its promise of digital files backed forever by technology that never goes out of date — he is stranded, like Moses, in the land of the body, and its inevitable swift transit. “And one more thing,” he says, except this time there is no iPod or iPhone or iPad or iCloud to follow. There is only this unspoken plea, as his body changes within its still unvarying uniform of black shirts and blue jeans: I’m dying.

Steve Jobs “gave us our toys back,” creating a paradigm shift from the dawn of the computer age as something primarily for engineers and mathematicians to a beautiful box that everyone had to own. He is “dying for us all,” Junod suggests, in the sense that his visionary leadership will be gone. It’s not so much Jobs himself that the public worries about right now, but what this means for the iPhone 5.

There is always a next thing, in technology. Steve Jobs has taught us that, trained us to expect and demand it. There is also always a next thing, in sickness and death. He is teaching us that, too. Of course, it is a lesson that has been taught just as well by every human being who has ever walked the planet. But Steve Jobs, who has done more than anyone to make the idea of a “digital life” possible, might have one last lesson for us, by letting us in on his digital death. The logic of technology has always been offered as an answer to the logic of mortality; as it turns out, it is the same logic — the logic of inexorable advance. The logic of Moore’s Law turns out to have its biological analogue in the logic of cancer, and so it still reigns. Steve Jobs, in his career at Apple, reminded us that technological progress is but a human invention, subject to human hopes and human dreams and human choice. In his resignation — terrible and moving both for what it admits and for what it leaves out — he reminds us that technology doesn’t answer death so much as it shares its preference for forward motion.

We’ve been talking a lot in the last couple of weeks about “enthusiasm”: the longing for stripping away every creaturely veil, every mediator, and every medium in order to discover a direct and immediate divinity within ourselves. Salvation comes not from an external redemption in history, by God becoming flesh to rescue us, but from inner enlightenment and progress from dependence on others to autonomous ascent. It’s spirit versus matter, the invisible versus the visible, the god within versus the God who comes to us from outside of ourselves.

Gnosticism expressses most radically this enthusiastic impulse. The Greek mind has always been scandalized by the biblical story of a good God who created a good material world and, when his image-bearer led it into corruption and death, became flesh to rescue and redeem our flesh forever. The second-century Gnostics invented a new gospel that would be more seeker-friendly to Greeks. The Christ—a cosmic spirit—is not identical with the man Jesus born of Mary. Christ only appeared to assume our humanity, only appeared to die, and the resurrection had no place in the scheme. After all, in the Greek framework, salvation was the liberation of the divine soul from its fleshly prison-house. Think Buddhism, or the dogma of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy that evil and even death are illusions. Indeed, the whole external world is illusory; it’s mind over matter.

This is a dogma that is well-suited to the technological age, where the longing for virtual “community” and redemption from the drag of space-time embodiment can at last be fulfilled. Of course, it’s secularized and packaged in colorful boxes, but the impulse is deeply religious and ultimately pagan. That is in no way to demonize the inventions or their benefits, but it does show that even the most “secular” realm of technology is bound up with a particular religious world-view.

By contrast, when Scripture speaks of the invisible and the visible, it’s not talking about Plato’s two worlds, but the two ages: “this present evil age,” dominated by sin and death, and “the age to come,” where Christ reigns in righteousness and everlasting life. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). As that chapter unfolds, it is clear that the “things not seen” pertain to the realities that the old covenant saints longed for in the future. “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (vv 39-40). In other words, they had to wait patiently for God to make good on his promise in the person and work of Christ. When Christ came, his disciples saw, heard, and touched the invisible God. The promises were literally enfleshed. It has nothing to do with Plato’s “upper world” known only within the inner spirit or mind, but rather with the transition from promise to fulfillment.

The Christian hope is not in escaping the limitations of embodiment, society, and history, but “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” The solution (resurrection) is as radical and real as the problem (death). From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible takes death seriously. It isn’t an illusion. We don’t transcend it in our inner, spiritual nature. Rather, it’s the penalty for sin. Once the penalty was borne by Christ, believers have confidence that they too will share in his resurrection.

Steve Jobs can’t really die for us. In fact, he is, like us all, a prisoner of sin and death. We may have better machines, but we will never emancipate ourselves from sin—and its penalty of death. By affirming death, Jobs proves himself not to be a very orthodox Buddhist. Now, we hope and pray, he will embrace the only solution. This gospel not only saves us from our sins; it saves us from the feverish and ineffectual striving to make something of ourselves, to be something, to become immortal at least in our legacy. Now, we can fulfill our callings—whatever their cultural magnitude—simply out of gratitude to God and love for our neighbors.

It’s not just that our erotic attachment to technology can’t deliver on its transcendent promises, but that even if it could, it wouldn’t really matter. We cannot escape our creaturely finitude—or our sin and death—by our own works or through our own gadgets. It has to come to us from outside, through the creaturely means employed by the Triune God. Cultural progress is great, but “salvation is of the LORD” (Jon 2:9). Death trumps the noblest achievements of our most exceptional neighbors. Even Junod concludes, “We hope and we dream; maybe we even change the world by getting people to hope and dream that the iPhone 5 will come out in September. But we don’t get to choose much of anything, in the end. We succumb.” However, for those who trust in Christ, death does not have the last word. Why? Because God loves this world he created—the real world of real people and real communities and real death and real redemption—more than we do.