Lessons from the Demaray Tower on the transformative power of technology
From my office I have a direct view of the Demaray Hall Memorial Tower. I only have to glance up from my desk to see its south panel.
For years I found this view of time helpful, but I didn’t pay much attention to the panel itself. I knew that the panels, designed by former art professor Ernst F. Schwidder, represented the Trinity in connection with the arts and sciences (read more about the panels here). Recently, I began to think about the technological images clustered under images for Jesus Christ. I realized that, as my work as an administrator, teacher, and scholar has become increasingly focused on technology, I have been looking at a visual representation of a rich and hopeful theology of technology on this tower.
The tower’s west panel, facing 6th Avenue, is headed by the eye and hand of God the Creator. Below this panel, mathematical notations, biological forms, and symbols for matter and energy represent the physical sciences. At the top of the east panel, which faces the 5th Avenue Streetscape, there is a descending dove and flames signifying the Holy Spirit. The images below that panel represent artistic expression through music, architecture, and philosophy.
The south panel facing my office, which I’ve come to think of as the technology panel, presents a trajectory of human development. Christ is represented at the apex by a sunburst, an image inspired by the transfiguration and a scene from Revelation, and by Greek monograms for his name and title. Rising from the bottom of the panel, ancient images of birth and death — representations of the human journey through history and life — blend with technological artifacts. An astrolabe represents exploration, wheels represent industry, a bow and arrow signal weaponry, and coins point to commerce.
The archival record doesn’t reveal much about the artist’s intended meaning for these panels. This lack of information leaves me free to imagine how Schwidder might have understood technological innovation — our development of tools and associated techniques for using them — not only as part of human history but also as part of salvation history.
Many Christians have been influenced by negative views of technology, especially since the middle of the 20th century. The French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul, for example, argued that technology is ultimately a curse and cannot be reformed. In The Meaning of the City, Ellul described the city — one of humanity’s greatest technological inventions — as a “counter-creation” that “breaks with the divine nature of creation.” In the end, Ellul argued, the human city cannot be reformed and must be replaced by a city created by God alone.
An alternative reading of scripture, following Augustine and others, sees in the city a powerful image of our ultimate destiny. Theologian Philip Sheldrake argues that material reality, including technology and other artificial creations, is a potential means of divine revelation and sanctification. We know that technologies, like humans themselves, are flawed and fragile. But we also have faith that our created work — “the glory and honor of the nations” (Revelation 21:26), brought by refugees from fallen Babylon — may enter New Jerusalem to be reconciled with divine and natural creations.
In 1962, in the midst of Cold War tensions, the Seattle World’s Fair presented a vision of the future filled with technology and hope. This Century 21 Exposition changed the Seattle landscape with artifacts such as the Space Needle and the Pacific Science Center (built for the NASA-themed United States Science Exhibit). Now, in the 21st century, the fairgrounds preserved at the Seattle Center are surrounded by leading technological, research, and cultural institutions that are creating the future.
Views of technology are often characterized as utopian or dystopian. Both were present in the 1960s, a decade which gave us hopeful visions such as the Century 21 Exposition and Star Trek as well as more fearful visions such as Dr. Strangelove and Soviet control of space.
Schwidder’s work as an artist was changing at this time. In addition to shifting from painted images to sculpted forms, he was deciding not to retreat “from a noisy, bloody, dirty world into a pantheistic fantasy,” but instead to create explicit, empathetic, evangelistic images grounded in the crucifixion and the resurrection. Schwidder came to Seattle Pacific in 1964 and proposed the clock tower design to President C. Dorr Demaray in 1966. The panels were installed a couple of years later, concluding a period of growth that expanded Seattle Pacific’s campus and opened it up to the city.
Schwidder’s presentation of technology is neither utopian nor dystopian. It is apocalyptic, meaning his panels don’t simply show how we have evolved with our tools and techniques throughout history — they reveal how technology may be transformed and taken up into new creation through Christ. Sometimes the towers we build transgress the limits of our creative agency, but not every tower is in Babel. When I look out my window, I am reminded that divine, natural, and artificial creations may participate together in the present and future transformation of the world.
Michael J. Paulus, Jr., is Assistant Provost for Educational Technology and University Librarian, and he directs Seattle Pacific’s new Information Studies minor. With professors Bruce Baker (Business) and Mike Langford (Theology), he started the Patheos site Digital Wisdom where they reflect on theology and technology in the digital age.