Should We Imitate the Amish?

people-field-working-agriculture-largeMy family recently had the good fortune to spend a day with an Amish family on their farm. It is an interesting opportunity to think about how we are like and different from the Amish, and how we might imitate some of their best practices.

The first thing to say, of course, is that the Amish are devout Protestants. They are like us in that they are trying to orient their life around their Christian faith. They are unlike us in that their faith is Protestant.

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A key way we are more similar than at first appears, and thus there is an opportunity for us to learn from them, is that the Amish do not reject all technology. Rather, they are careful about technology.

They have “bishops,” but I think this means local lay leaders. These lay pastors gather together twice a year to find consensus. It is in these gatherings that they make decisions on technology. (Here already is an interesting similarity and difference: we would never ask the Magisterium to intervene on questions of our bathroom lighting; but perhaps we would do well to have lay communities who discuss such issues.)

Over our friends’ dining-room table hangs a battery-powered flashlight. Modern, yet primitive. But in their bathroom there is a kerosene lantern – and a Bic lighter. They hang their clothes to dry on a line outside, but they wash them in a modern washing machine. The machine is powered, however, by a jet of water . . . I can’t remember where the jet comes from, but anyway, there is no electric line to the house.

In the workshop is a modern electrical saw – connected to a car battery. Many of their tools work on car batteries; they also have a diesel generator for the barn. But on the sewing table in the house there was a notable absence of a sewing machine. The cows are milked using a high-tech vacuum system that attaches to old fashioned milk cans.

In short, the point is not that they reject all technology. The point is that they move slowly and carefully.

We too, who do not reject all technology, could benefit from some healthy skepticism about how technology affects our lives. Cars, lights, certainly screens, and even many mechanical conveniences in our homes – they all make good servants but terrible masters.

How much do electric lights improve our lives? I ask this writing, on a laptop of course, in my windowless basement office at school, mindful both that I’d be in absolute darkness without lights – and that I’d much prefer we didn’t have windowless offices.

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A second way the Amish are not so different: they are not necessarily farmers. Just as many of them are carpenters, and many live in small towns.

You don’t have to live on a farm in order to question the role of technology in your life. One of the reasons my family lives in a dense city is so that we can walk to the grocery store, to church, to friends’ houses, to the park, to some parts of work, etc. Let us just distinguish the farm question from the too-much-technology question. Even the Amish make that distinction!

The key question is how technology affects our lives, and whether we let it interfere with greater goods, such as family and our relationship with creation. For us as for the Amish, these are questions of living a devout life.

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And yet the key way that the Amish differ from us is that they are Protestants – a radical form of Protestantism. They are a radical wing of the Mennonites, who are perhaps the most radical wing of Protestantism. There are two key differences.

First, the Amish embrace a kind of Protestant piety called “separation from the world.” Although this specific Amish family was very welcoming to pagan Catholics like us, deeper than the Amish concern about technology is their concern about non-Christians, strictly defined.

The Catholic position on this issue is best defined in a line from St. Paul: “I wrote to you in the letter not to associate intimately with fornicators; yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then you must go out of the world” (1 Cor 5:9-10). Paul makes a distinction between “intimate association” (it’s a fancy word in Greek) and “going out of the world.”

We are called to be leaven. We are called to be in the world but not of it. We can learn from the devout Amish desire to be careful what paganism we allow into our homes or our churches. But we cannot flee the world as the Amish do.

That’s tricky. There’s no way around it: simplistic answers are easier to apply – and usually wrong. Every heresy is an effort to make complicated things simple and clear.

A second problem is related to the first: radical Protestantism, including the radical Amish, pit faith against reason, and even man against God, in ways that Catholicism doesn’t allow. There is a thin line between prohibiting idols and smashing icons. The Amish happily ignore that line. They reject books, and learning, and art, and politics. Nowhere in their house is there an image of Jesus. We can take inspiration from their devout life, but the Catholic answer has to celebrate the image of God more than that.

What is the role of technology in your life? How could it be better?