The Anthropological Challenge Christians Face – Juicy Ecumenism

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The early twenty-first century, which the end of the Cold War might have indicated would be halcyon days for Christians and social conservatives, have turned out to be very challenging, both because of attacks on Christian conscience, and the growing sense, especially by the young, that traditional Christianity places too severe demands on personal life. It is reasonable that the latter development fuels the former. It is therefore important to understand the ideas driving this latter development.
This writer has referred often to Carl Trueman, Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College, and in particular, to two of his books, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self and Strange New World. Trueman spoke to the Davenant Institute on April 19 concerning the new world in which Biblical morality is considered a problem, rather than a solution to injustice and misery. The central idea is that human nature is no longer a given, but subject to improvement by science and technology.
Citing the mid-twentieth century book by C.S. Lewis, he said that “there are two ways in which ‘The Abolition of Man’ is prophetic today.” The first way is that the contemporary world is “an era when anthropology, what it means it be a human being, is the question.” He said that from the second to the fifth century, the key question was “the doctrine of God and Christology.” At the Reformation, there were “questions of authority, questions of sacrifice, questions of salvation.” These questions were asked in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The second issue on which Lewis was “prescient” was technology. He said that “it is not arguments that are driving the way society is changing, it is other things.” Technology is the “supreme” driver of this, Trueman believes. He referred Alasdair MacIntyre’s prediction of “the rise of the experts.” These “masters of technology are the driving gurus of our day.” They are a modern-day version of the “legend of Prometheus, the titan who gave humanity fire, and allowed them to be like gods.” Thus it is technology that “tempts us toward transcendence.” In the contemporary world “human limitations” are not seen as real limitations, which in some measure define human beings, but just as “problems.” This then means that “the human condition becomes a problem, rather than the thing that makes us who we are.”
Trueman cited medical ethics as an example. Medicine was once focused on restoration. The point was to return a sick or injured person to their normal condition. This means that there are “norms” for human beings. Plastic surgery, for instance, might be used to restore the body of a person badly burned. Today, much of the effort in plastic surgery is aimed at enhancement, at making a person’s body more attractive, or in some other way better than it was before.
Sex too has been greatly impacted by technological developments “whether we’re thinking of contraception on the one hand or IVF on the other.” The overall effect of this is to think of sex as recreation. He observed that the “default setting” for human fertility is now set to off. Yet it is still considered that “sex connects to who we are at a very deep level.” Therefore, sexual assault is considered a graver offense than simple assault. “Changing attitudes toward sex really reflects a deep transformation of anthropology.” He said that for many young men today, their idea of “what it means to have a female partner is shaped by what they see on pornography, on pornographic websites.” Trueman said that when he was young, accessing pornography meant “buying that magazine, or going to that place.” There was the danger that “the vicar’s wife” might see him. Shame was associated with this. Now pornography can be accessed on a cell phone. Unlike previous generations, there is no shame in accessing pornography (at least for the public at large). As “we change our view of sex, we change our view of who other people are, [and] we change our view of who we ourselves are.”
Similarly, much human interaction is now mediated by a computer screen. And to some degree, we are “shaped by algorithms.” In all previous generations, a young person would relate directly, physically, with a circle of friends. He remarked that among boys, conflicts were often resolved by fighting. Similarly, debating an antagonist on some particular issue may well reduce tension by the direct personal encounter with what is clearly another human being with intelligence, and manners, and feeling. In the cyberworld, by contrast, passions simply escalate, “and rather quickly.” Neither fighting nor authority is there to resolve the dispute.
Trueman advised that parents should not give their child a smartphone. If one does, “then the most powerful authority in your child’s life is some of the most evil people out there.” Homeschooling parents should understand “that if you give your kid a smartphone, you might as well not educate them at all.” For young people with smartphones, “life has become one of performance.”
Trueman said that transhumanism is “the latest iteration of the abolition of man.” He considers transgenderism to be “a subset of transhumanism.” The material body is only a limitation, or even more radically, a problem that “the real person has to overcome in order to become that real person.” All of the things connected with transhumanism which are so influential today are “functions of the social imaginary.” What Trueman calls “the social imaginary” he defines as “the way people endure the world.” The particular social imaginary of our day is only made possible by technology. There had to be “dramatic technological developments” for the world of transhumanism to be realistic to ordinary people. This he said, is the challenge to Christians “who want to make an impact in the public sphere at this particular point in time.”
This is a formidable challenge, because “we cannot escape technology,” yet “so much of technology is abolishing what it means to be a human being.” Our lives “in many ways are realized or actualized” by technology. Citing Martin Heidegger, he said that “technology is not simply an instrument that individuals use, it’s actually part of their very selves.” He said that technological devices do not merely mediate reality, but in some sense “constitutes that reality for us.” The Davenant Institute and other Christian groups and individuals interested in engaging the wider world “need Christian thinkers who are addressing this challenge.” The key question is “What does it mean to be human in a highly technologized society.”
Trueman said that the neo-Calvinists of the nineteenth century drew on the “classic Catholic and Calvinist Christian tradition in order to address the specific issues of their day.” These included “the nation-state, pluralism and religious freedom, the impact of industrialism. We need Christian thinkers who do the same today.” Many of today’s challenges, such as the LGBT challenge, are “symptomatic” of deeper issues. We must address “what does it mean to be a human being, made in God’s image, living in a technological society, in which we now do.” The answer to this “cannot remain at the level of argument.” Rather, as C.S. Lewis indicated, “the battle of the soul is the battle for the imagination.” He said in this regard that the weakest argument for abortion – that an unborn child is simply part of a woman’s body – turned out to be the strongest, because is “resonated with the cultural imagination,” which places heavy emphasis on personal freedom, which in turn fosters a belief in the righteousness of personal autonomy.  He said that “we will lose with the best arguments” if we have not captured the cultural imagination.
In line with Rod Dreher, Trueman believes that this means Christians need strong beliefs and communities. Christians don’t simply need to win arguments, but to demonstrate our beliefs in action. “We need to reflect and act on those things that make us truly human.” Our beliefs must be reflected in “our communal lives.” This includes such things as “friendship, kindness, altruism, forgiveness, gratitude.” He observed that “Catholicism has a rich literature” concerning these things. For Protestants to move forward in advancing God’s kingdom, we must remember the things that make us truly human. “It is a way of rebelling against the abolition of man.”
This writer would add to Trueman’s comments that at some level, Christian apologetics are essential to a full Christian answer to the challenge to human nature. Many people, probably most people, do not like the idea of being subjects in an experiment to make humanity obsolescent. Yet radical thinkers will indeed see the price of ruined lives as worth it for a better world. They will advance powerful rhetoric that norms universally recognized from antiquity (with the male/female difference, and the imperative of sexual purity prime examples) stand in the way of progress. This is why communities of committed believers who consistently live out their faith, and a strong apologetic that the Christian revelation is in fact true are crucially important.
Comment by Eddie Nabors on April 26, 2023 at 10:47 am
I’m a Sunday School teacher. I used Trueman’s DVD study of Strange New World recently in our class. My purpose was to try and pave the way for a broader argument for Methodist disaffiliation. I would call the effort successful even if a few left each session scratching their heads. I believe it planted seeds.
Comment by David on April 27, 2023 at 4:48 pm
When I go to the ENT doctor, I am always amused by the before and after photos of nose jobs. In nearly all cases, I find the before more attractive than a little nose on a big face. I suspect people have fanciful ideas about being more popular if their noses looked a bit different.

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