Friday, October 7, 2011

Steve Jobs and the challenge of the heart

I only mentioned Steve Jobs’ passing in passing the other day, referring to him by posting an excerpt from Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (not at all attributing the title to Jobs). Being very mindful that prudence governs all the virtues, I want to tread lightly because as the great poet John Donne observed, “No man is an island…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…” If nothing else, the death of a person like Steve Jobs, given the impact of his life on his fellow human beings, brings us all together in a very human way, even those responses like Nick Denton's Steve Jobs Was Not God.

I am very happy that we’re well past extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation”), which is not even scriptural. Of course, the Church remains the ordinary, or normal, way of salvation until the end of the world. I remain content to let God handle these matters, not being presumptuous one way or the other, but praying and hoping for salvation for all. I have been dismayed to read so many misguided comments on Catholic blogs that wrote in a positive way about the life and contributions of Jobs, some even going so far as to assert that he was evil. Far from being evil, Jobs was an incredible person who certainly put the ding in the universe he said he wanted to make.


I am equally surprised at how uncritically many Christians absorb the kind of secular existentialism set forth by Jobs in his now omnipresent Stanford commencement speech. I mean, I respect what he said as an accurate and well-considered reflection of his own views that arose from his life and experience, as I respect all beliefs sincerely and deeply held. But I have to say, I am always bothered by a speech like that in which the person giving it cannot manage to be the slightest bit critical about what s/he is engaged in. I was also struck by the lack of reference to or even concern about the other. Again, I know Jobs was an intensely private person in most regards and was not at all interested in divulging what philanthropic activities he engaged in, which, as a Christian, I respect- "But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing" (Matt. 6:3), but the need to give back would seem to be an important theme in a commencement at an elite university like Stanford.

The aspect of Jobs’ speech I found troubling is precisely the one most people find inspiring, which is what prompts this reflection, namely his assertion that death is was "the most important tool" he’d ever been handed to make decisions in life. On this point I agree with him, being mindful of the old Christian injunction memento mori ("remember death"). I also agree that being mindful of death, which is different from being obsessed with death, helps us to determine "what is truly important," thus liberating us to follow our hearts. I guess my question is about the heart, about thinking I have nothing to lose. It is here that I am pretty sure I philosophically part ways with Jobs’ secular existentialism, which certainly holds a lot of appeal, apparently even for many Christians. I believe that "whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for [Christ’s] sake will find it" (Matt. 16:25). "What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?" (Matt. 16:26)

I can’t help but contrast Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement remarks with then-Bishop George Niederauer’s commencement address given at the University of Utah the same year:
Another challenge to our sense of responsibility and interconnectedness is our increasing reliance on technology to meet our needs, to fill our moments, and to fulfill our responsibilities. Nearly seventy years ago the poet T.S. Eliot warned us about becoming a people “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will have to be good.” Technology doesn’t relieve us of individual responsibility to others; indeed, it often increases it. A small, everyday case in point: Cell phone technology improves almost weekly, but, truth to tell, our behavior in using those phones still needs lots of work

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