A bit of context for this post: Off and on over the past year, and with some frequency since he picked up blogging again after Lent, Alan Jacobs has been tackling what he has variously called a “technological history of modernity” and the problems of the “Anthropocene Era”, i.e. a world in which humanity so dominates the world we inhabit that we are physically remaking it, but in which we increasingly feel cut off from our humanity. (I’m eliding an enormous amount; you should really take a close look at the whole series of posts on Text Patterns.)
A few posts recently have asked questions and thrown out some curious thoughts about the Biblical language of “powers and principalities” and how they might be at play in our world today, and those are certainly worthy of pushing harder into as we consider. (See also this post by Matthew Loftus in which he interacts with those ideas.) Needless to say, there is a lot of interesting stuff in play here, and I’m intrigued to see where Jacobs goes with it—even if, as I currently suspect, I don’t agree with his every conclusion. So you can take all of this as a sort of sideways introduction to Jacobs’ project (which is worth your time) and also to the kinds of things I may ramble on more from time to time here.
Jacobs’ latest post returns to a broader question that seems to be underpinning his whole project, and which I would argue is one of the essential: how do we even do this kind of theology? And how do we answer the particular questions of our age in a way that faithfully extends the foundation laid for us from the Apostles’ time till now?1 From his original post on the subject:
To this claim there may be the immediate response, especially from orthodox Christians, that theology need not be different in this age than in any other, for human nature does not change: it remains true now as it has been since the angels with their flaming swords were posted at the gates of Eden that we are made in the image of God and yet have defaced that image, and that what theologians call “the Christ event” — the incarnation, preaching, healing, death, resurrection, ascension, and ultimate return of the second person of the Trinity — is the means by which that image will be restored and the wounds we have inflicted on the Creation healed. And indeed all that does, I believe, remain true. Yet it does not follow from such foundational salvation history that “theology need not be different in this age than any other.”
We may indeed believe in some universal human nature and nevertheless believe that certain frequencies on the human spectrum of possibility become more audible at times; indeed, the dominance of certain frequencies in one era can render others unheard, and only when that era passes and a new one replaces it may we realize that there were all along transmissions that we couldn’t hear because they were drowned out, overwhelmed. The moral and spiritual soundscape of the world is in constant flux, and calls forth, if we have ears to hear and a willingness to respond, new theological reflections that do not erase the truthfulness or even significance of former theological articulations but have a responsibility to add to them. In this sense at least there must be “development of doctrine.”
This all seems exactly right to me. Our robust doctrine of the Trinity, for example, was a doctrine developed specifically in response to the pressures and challenges facing the church in a specific age. The philosophy and the cultural context of Athanasius meant that the church had to answer who and what Jesus Christ is in relation to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit to the Father and the Son, and the Father to the Son and the Spirit, in a way that our own age does not demand such answers. It is not that the question has ceased to be important, but changes in culture plus the Church’s (mostly) faithful exposition of those answers in the centuries since mean other questions are now at the fore. Moreover, the other questions which are coming to the fore may indeed be questions the Church has never had to confront, and especially on exactly the terms she confronts them today.
And the challenge or question she confronts today, perhaps more than any other, is this: What even is a human? Put in a bit less “millennial” a way: the question of human nature—the ontology of the embodied, soulish, creaturely things we are—is the central question of our day. If you want to understand the last seventy-five years of cultural change in the West, you need to ask: “What do these people understand it to mean to be human?” If you’re confused about how and why there has been such a radical shift in popularly-accepted views about human sexuality and gender, this is at least a significant part of the answer. The confusion about sex is a symptom of a much deeper confusion: about the very nature of homo sapiens. Indeed, identity politics in general is symptomatic of deep confusion about human nature: how malleable it is or is not, and also what it means.
I think on the whole Jacobs is right when he suggests that much of what theologians have offered here—perhaps especially theologically orthodox theologians—is inadequate to the task:
…professional theologians have acquired in the course of their training a conceptual toolbox which they believe to contain the tools necessary to evaluate and critique cultural developments…. in my judgment the existing toolbox is inadequate; but it does not appear that way to the theologians.
To reiterate: the problem in Jacobs’ mind is not the theologians’ orthodox answers, but that we are in need of further development of the tradition and further application of the answers it provides. To return to the example I opened with: we desperately need a recovery and a ressourcement, the (re)formulation of a thick and rich Nicene Christology. But we need that as a tool to answer different questions than the Fathers were answering, and so we need it as the foundation on which we build, rather than supposing that it provides already the answers we need without further elaboration. We need to think about Incarnation as an answer not only to Gnosticism (which it still handily rebuts) but also to technologism and what I have started calling “algorithmism”: an unwavering faith that if we just have enough data and smart enough machine learning techniques, we will be able to solve all the problems of our humanity—not least our embodied state.2
So it has analogies to that old Gnosticism, but there are also possibilities (or the appearance of possibilities) before us which the Fathers did not have to confront: the pursuit not in mystical but in technological terms of escape from the constraints of the body. And that pursuit is not merely the fever-dream of the Singularity-seeking futurists. It is already the reality of a world of bodily modification, of at a minimum confusions about racial and sexual categories (is “transracial” an invalid category but “transgender” a valid one? If so, why?). And the reason I think Jacobs’ project is important is that much even of the radical individualism, self-definition, and so on which so typifies our day is a result—more or less direct—of this shift in what is technologically possible, and perhaps equally of what is conceived as technologically possible.
What we need in response is the combination of a more coherent understanding of technology3 and undergirding and shaping it a more robust theological anthropology.4 We need a thoroughly Christian account of human nature; and by that I mean a thoroughly Christ-oriented account of human nature. The technological transcendentalists are not inventing something out of thin air. The desire to ascend to a sort of godhood runs deep in fallen human nature, but it is a perversion of the good and right desire to be like God in a way appropriate to our finitude. The theological work we need to be doing is not a sort of turning-away-from-God-toward-mere-anthropocentrism. Rather, it is turning to the inspired, image-making acts of Creation and Incarnation and asking how those answer the questions of our age, with the confidence that the answers we need are there in God’s making us in his image, and then taking on our image and imaging himself to us in our very midst.
An aside: there are two modern thinkers, very different from each other, whom I think warrant careful consideration in approaching this project. One is a sort of necessary background: T. F. Torrance, whom I have only read on the Trinity, but whose works in general I have seen referenced in ways that make me think he’s going to be helpful across the board here. In general, Torrance is too little read by American theologians as far as I can tell. The other is the (orthodox) New Testament scholar whom I have seen take Jesus’ humanity most seriously: N. T. Wright. A close reading of Jesus and the Victory of God and its portrait of Jesus as a messiah whose humanity comes into view more clearly was enormously helpful in making me read the gospels again with some of this more clearly in view. I’m sure there are others as well; I rather suspect an encounter with O’Donovan would do me good, for example. But I also think there is a great deal of uncharted territory here, and a good deal of work to be done in a faithful development of our orthodoxy in a way that addresses humanity.
Long enough for today. But more to come in spurts and drabs as I am able to read more and make more sense of these questions for myself.
I’m borrowing the language of “faithful extension” here from William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith’s Evolution and the Fall, which is an interesting work that tangentially but perhaps significantly relates to these same questions.↩︎
I could readily scare-quote “smart” and “machine learning” there; I think both of those words mislead in ways that mirror the kinds of mistakes Jacobs highlights in the same post I’m interacting with here. Much more on that in the future.↩︎
especially of technology as a technique of control and therefore a possible avenue either of right worship as we carry out our Creation task, or of idolatry as we seek not to steward the world but to dominate and distort it.↩︎
A phrase Jacobs has also used in this off-and-on series over the last year, but which I have been using for quite some time: it is always a happy thing to find a term or phrase being adopted independently.↩︎