What We're Reading
An examination of the American way of life
In 1952, Bernard Iddings Bell described the general attitude of society towards the Church thus: “[M]ost Americans regard the Church as promoter of a respectable minor art, charming if it happens to appeal to you, its only moral function to bless whatever the multitude at the moment regards as the American way of life.”
The truth stings all too sharply through that statement, more true today than it was over a half-century ago. Bell, who was an Episcopal priest and educator, had a great many harsh words to say about the state in which he found the Church, particularly the Church in America. She had lost her prophetic calling, no longer standing against the deformities and perversions of the surrounding culture, but instead had simply joined hands with the prevailing cultural forces, thereby consigning herself to cultural captivity and irrelevancy.
The quotation above comes from Bell’s book Crowd Culture, which was reprinted in 2001 by ISI Books. Much of what Bell argued in that book can be found in a more condensed form in this article titled “Will the Church Survive?”, run in the October 1942 edition of The Atlantic.
In it, Bell has more words of reproach:
It is because the Church has thus obscured the socially prophetic note that it seems to most people to have no relevancy. The masses of the folk, observing the Church as of late the Church has been willing to present itself, say, ‘There is nothing here to bother with. These people bear within themselves no salvation. They are as mad as all the rest of us. They are not worth listening to. They are not even worth crucifying.’
Bell eventually answers his hypothetical question with a definitive “yes”; the church will, in fact, survive. But it will take a small minority of Christians who are willing to speak prophetically and boldly against prevailing fashions:
By no means all the Church’s membership is still placidly content with relegation to insignificance. In the ears of more and more Christians there sounds, ever louder, ever more insistent, the command that the kingdom of the world must become the kingdom of God and of His Christ. There are those who begin again to believe, with more than a verbal acquiescence, that all of man belongs to God: his doings economic, industrial, political, sexual, marital, creative, recreational. These rebellious souls, to be sure, are a small minority of Christians; but among them are persons both of high position and of influence intellectual and moral.
Let’s hope that Bell’s words are still true, and that there still remain that small minority of Christians willing to be rebels.
Ellen Ullman on computer science, the meaning of life, and the importance of the body
In his book, Should We Live Forever? Gilbert Meilaender (a guest on volume 118 of the Journal) offers a cogent critique of the radical anti-aging agenda of the transhumanists, sometimes acknowledged as “posthumanists.” Meilaender comments on the contradiction at the heart of their program:
The posthumanist vision begins with a thoroughgoing commitment to materialistic reductionism, in order, then to reimagine human beings as immaterial — as utterly disembodied. We are, according to this view, what our brains do. Mind and personal identity are located in the pattern of information housed in the brain, and our memories and emotions are simply the behavior of its nerve cells. Having reduced mind to that, we can then imagine the possibility of transferring it to a computer program, where the “self” would remain in entirely immaterial form.
Human beings are reduced to bodies, personality is then reduced to brains, which is further reduced to information, which can then survive without a body. Neat.
It is precisely the neatness of it — the dispensing with the messiness of bodies — that displays how research in cognitive science, artificial intelligence [A.I.], robotics, and “artificial life” has much in common with ancient Gnosticism.
In her 2002 article “Programming the Post-Human: Computer science redefines ‘life’” (Harper’s, October 2002) Ellen Ullman describes (with a profound sense of un-ease) how scientific research in various disciplines has converged to promote a vision of the future once only imaginable to fabulists like Isaac Asimov. Ullman recalls how in the late 1970s and 1980s, working as a young computer programmer, she
saw in AI the opportunity to explore questions that had previously been in the province of the humanities. What are we? What makes a human intelligent? What is consciousness, knowledge, learning? . . . It was clear that as members of a secular society that has given up on the idea of God we would be looking elsewhere for the source of what animates us, and that “elsewhere” would be the study of cybernetic intelligence, the engine of postmodern philosophical speculation.
Ullman bristles at the mechanistic, reductionistic view of life that is advanced by the research, and she makes a good case for its inadequacies, but she finally has no compelling way to refute it. Nonetheless, her essay has not lost in 11 years any of its power to describe the dehumanizing agenda that animates (if that is an apt word) this agenda. Passages in the article are reminiscent of scenes set in the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), the site of some devilish brain research in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.
Ullman’s essay was appreciated at the time by Steve Talbott (a guest on two back issues) in his on-line newsletter NetFuture (#138). Talbott welcomed her descriptions of the dehumanizing effects of this research (and her personal sense of dis-ease at the vision of life it represents), but finally says that he couldn’t “see how Ullman has made a case in any way that clearly separates her view from that of the AI researchers she is criticizing.”
Whose love? Which marriage?
The March 1994 issue of First Things featured an article titled “The Homosexual Movement.” It was a position paper produced by the Ramsey Colloquium, a group of scholars and public intellectuals from a variety of academic disciplines. Many of the document’s signers (Hadley Arkes, Gilbert Meilaender, and Robert George, to name a few) have appeared on past issues of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal. The purpose of the paper was to point out the flaws in what we have come to recognize, two decades later, as the determined and largely successful push to normalize same-sex behavior.
The Colloquium made a much neglected point in its paper about the definition of the word “love”:
There are legitimate and honorable forms of love other than marriage. Indeed, one of the goods at stake in today's disputes is a long-honored tradition of friendship between men and men, women and women, women and men. In the current climate of sexualizing and politicizing all intense interpersonal relationships, the place of sexually chaste friendship and of religiously motivated celibacy is gravely jeopardized.
Far from expanding the definition of love to include previously marginalized groups, current habits of thought have actually narrowed it dramatically.
Men have always been allowed, and even encouraged, to love other men in a real and deep way – such love used to be called friendship, and Aristotle ranked it as one of the highest virtues a person could attain. But if what the Colloquium suggested is true, then proponents of same-sex marriage have essentially declared all love to be rooted in sexual desire. Affirming the goodness of many forms of homosexual love (such as friendship), then, while at the same time denying members of the same sex the right to express that love sexually is seen as a complete contradiction.
Many thinkers over the past few decades have, like the Ramsey Colloquium, given the lie to modernity’s claims of unprecedented freedom and liberation. Particularly in the realm of language, modernity has been terribly tyrannical; words like love and marriage, which in the Christian faith have had such depth and richness of meaning, become reduced to one aspect and squeezed into a blunt and narrow ideology.
The intensity of the debates on homosexuality has escalated considerably in the two decades since the Ramsey Colloquium put forth their opinion on the subject, but its arguments still hold a great deal of weight.
Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology
A theme that is discussed quite often on the Journal is how important it is for Christians to be able to think christianly about politics – not merely on a policy-by-policy basis, but about political order as a whole. What is the purpose or end of political order, and what does the Gospel communicate about the proper ends of men’s political interactions with each other?
One thinker who has not yet been featured on the Journal, preeminent political theologian Oliver O’Donovan, answers these kinds of questions in his masterful work, The Desire of the Nations. Published in 1999, it is his most thorough work of political theology to date. Yet O’Donovan does not pursue a discussion of political order separated from other considerations, instead desiring to tear down the barriers that have been erected by modern thinking between politics and theology. The desire of the nations is Christ, O’Donovan argues (referencing Haggai 2:7), and therefore all political action is infused, whether we acknowledge it or not, with religious undertones. As O’Donovan puts it: “within every political society there occurs, implicitly, an act of worship of divine rule.” Christians who fail to fully grasp the implications of Christ’s kingship over all things run a serious risk, then, of falling into a form of political idolatry. Interested readers can find a more detailed review of the work here.
Due to O’Donovan’s commitment to a vision which MARS HILL AUDIO shares, that of encouraging Christians to think through the implications of the Gospel on the area of culture known as politics, it is with great excitement that we are pleased to co-sponsor an event in Washington D.C. titled “The Gospel and Public Life: Cultivating a Faithful Witness in the Face of Challenge.” Ken Myers will host a discussion with Professor O’Donovan on the subject of America’s transition to a “post-Christian” society. More details, including the time and location, can be found here.
This event is a perfect opportunity for MARS HILL AUDIO listeners to experience a live and in-person interview, unmediated as they usually are by the strictures of audio-recording technology. We hope to see you there.
UPDATE: The audio from this event was recorded live and is available for free to all users logged in to our website. To listen or download, click here.
Transcending limits, abolishing the human
Early in my interview with Gilbert Meilaender about his recent book, Should We Live Forever? (Journal Volume 118), he said that the subject of the ethics of anti-aging research was something he could not discuss in a “metaphysically neutral” way. The need for a starting point in evaluating technical means to extend human life becomes dramatically obvious when interacting with the most radical advocates of anti-aging research, the so-called “transhumanists.” As their self-designation suggests, the transhumanists (also known as “immortalists”) aren’t so much interested in extending human life as transcending it.
Some of this movement’s assumptions about the meaning of the human (or the absence of meaning in “the human”) are discussed in a 2010 article by Fred Baumann, professor of political science at Kenyon College. Published in The New Atlantis (Fall 2010), “Humanism and Transhumanism” explains how this utopian commitment depends on “a new science that accepts reductionist materialism as a matter of course, both as an account of nature and of man.” As Baumann writes:
The new science isn’t squeamish about man as machine; transhumanism goes a step further and embraces man’s becoming a different machine, or any number of kinds of machines. If that were to come to pass, even if only among elites, it would be a change of world-historical proportions, because it would mean that the new science was no longer merely seeking to transform the world to suit human beings, but rather transforming human beings into whatever they chose.
Because they are committed to eliminating all limits to human willing — limits historically regarded as necessities — the transhumanists imagine a bright future without true inwardness.
[I]nwardness arises from reflection on the self; from struggling with the challenges the world presents to you and you present to yourself; from meeting those challenges or failing to meet them; from working to make sense of them; and from the result of all these things: the progressive unfolding of the self over time. Inwardness, then, requires necessities, and arises in no small part from accepting them and reflecting on the difficulties inherent in them.
Baumann examines four possible objections to the transhumanist agenda, but acknowledges that such objections are not likely to be regarded compelling. There is, after all, no metaphysically neutral basis on which to advocate or criticize such a project. As long as we believe we must check our metaphysical convictions at the door when entering into public debate about public matters (government funds such research), the position that seems to advance more choices is likely to win. As Baumann muses, “few people seem to see that our technological motion ought to have some sensible guidance rather than continuing its relentless and blind inertia forward.”
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