Following on the theme of the last post, secularism, I’ve been re-reading Craig Gay’s excellent, but sadly out of print book The Way of the (Modern) world – or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As If God Doesn’t Exist. It is still available in a Kindle edition – if you can get hold of it, read it. Mine was a review copy, back in the day when I worked for a magazine and got books free. Sadly, freelancing on The Hump lacks the perks.
Being published in 1998 the book concentrates less on postmodernism than it might, but as Gay points out, the latter is only really modernism taken to a new extreme, and using a wealth of sources he exposes not only modernism’s inexorable ratchet towards excluding God, but along with that its tendency towards dehumanisation too.
I was surprised to see, on re-reading, the stress he put on my bête noire of autonomy, even citing the relevance of the Prometheus myth through a number of writers I have missed in dealing with that theme from time to time, eg here. Perhaps I unconsciously remembered his emphasis from my 1998 reading – or perhaps it’s just blindingly obvious.
The book is full of thought-provoking nuggets, like the observation of one writer back in the 1930s that automatic machines, in effect, do slave work without motivation, rest or pay. That sounds OK, in that using machines as work-units appears better than using humans in the same capacity – until one realises that, whenever there is competition for jobs between machines and people, the people will be competing with slaves, and will have to lower their sights on wages and working conditions simply to live. They will become mere “human resources”. Been in a call centre recently? Maybe not, since they’re already being replaced by bots.
Nearly a century on from that writer, AI looks like being perceived as better and cheaper even for many skilled tasks. The fact that any individual human qualities are entirely lost when machines take over, and effectively lost as humans struggle to work like machines, should give us pause for thought. Would you rather be cared for in old age by immigrant care workers on minimum wages with time only to dish out your pills and rush to the next “service-user”, or by a robot with more time but no soul?
One theme that occupies the author a good deal is the way that the obsessional quest for individual autonomy – which Gay, like me, traces back as far as the Renaissance, through the Reformation to the Enlightenment – has actually led to the loss of true individuals in a number of ways. For a start, insisting on the primacy of the individual self is directly, and inevitably, linked to alienation. You can only be unique to the extent you are separated from others. The quest for maximal human happiness has produced a highly dysfunctional population.
Then again, we can all see, if we choose to, how the smörgåsbord of modern life, filtered through a thoroughly superficial media, actually leads to conformity to whatever is currently in favour, and can be sold as “autonomy”. David Bowie was an icon of non-conformity, but that only makes his fans the more recognisable by their similarity. And does buying a Mac really make you different? Different from whom?
The Christian view of personhood is about the heroic, and sometimes painful, effort to build character. We see that back in the garden of Eden, when Adam failed the test of patiently waiting to learn wisdom from God. We see it par excellence in Jesus, who despite his divinity, as a maturing human had to “grow in wisdom and stature” by making the right choices in obedience to his Father. We’re even told that:
Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from what He suffered, and having been made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him…
Even the incarnate Son of God built his character by actually doing life (incidentally, that’s one reason that his life, as well as his atoning death, is vital to the Christian hope).
But secularism generally knows nothing of this, and the emphasis now is all on finding ones “true self”, which is mysteriously hidden, fully-formed, deep within us without reference to God, to enculturation or even, latterly, to biology. Currently the main focus is on sexuality as the locus of identity, but the same phenomenon is seen in less obvious form in everything from the cult of celebrity (meaning you got on TV for fifteen minutes, fulfilling Andy Warhol’s prophecy) to “bucket lists” of thrilling experiences one must have before one dies in order to satisfy (rather than to develop) that “true self”.
Without pushing the comparison too far, it’s actually much like the contrast between ancient Gnosticism and Orthodoxy: theirs not to strive to become like Christ as the apostles falsely taught, but to release the light of God already hidden within them (and only them!) through some secret key of knowledge. Religiously, “authentic faith” now no longer means true doctrine, authenticated by the apostles, but the doctrine to be found within oneself. The “true self” is the sole arbiter of what, if anything, one will commit oneself to from religious tradition.
This narcissism is increasingly even to be found in Christian worship songs, grace to grow in Christ being mistaken for God’s unconditional approval of our spiritually undeveloped, fleshly, state. “I’m loved by you, it’s who I am.” No, chum – it’s who Christ is, and who you may become by his grace, through faithful discipleship.
The idea of the independent, inborn, self flies in the face not only of Christian truth, but of science and common sense too. It’s obvious that a child only begins to develop a sense of self in interaction with others, and the nature of that interaction, together with the choices made by the child and a smattering of biological determinism, governs what kind of character that person eventually has. As far as Christian doctrine goes, that character will tend towards increasing alienation from God and man apart from grace. But the grace of Christ is a school of obedience to God’s will, which cultivates a true individual in communion with God’s Kingdom and its co-heirs.
Let me preface my last point by reference to the story in Acts, the subject of my pastor’s sermon yesterday, when Peter is miraculously released from prison. The Lord’s very special provision is clear in the narrative, as is the intense prayer activity in which it occurred.
Less obvious is that Peter’s rescue followed the execution of James, like Peter one of Jesus’s central core of apostles. Also seldom remarked upon is that the angel’s intervention led directly to the execution of the innocent guards by Herod. I don’t think the “why” of God’s selective intervention is an answerable question, but I take from it the general principle that in God’s kingdom, actions are particular, rather than in-the-mass. We cannot take the Lord’s special care for Peter as meaning lack of care for James, or for the guards – or even Peter himself, when he was eventually martyred. We, like the Jerusalem church, are called to pray and love as needs arise, and to leave the management of the world in its entirety to the Father.
This pattern is certainly true of Christian virtue, on which character (and so the whole Kingdom of God) is built. We are called to love our neighbour, as we encounter him, and not to find the most efficient way to save the whole world. The means and motives are what will, counterintuitively, change the world – not the achievement of ends.
The secularized world, in contrast, recognizing no sovereign God, must manage the whole world, rather than mere people. It tells us to save the planet, not love our neighbour. In its political form modernism seeks to quantify behaviour, and often even to monetarize it, to achieve mastery of the world. Let’s see how this process of abstraction can dehumanise us in one professional sphere, medicine, since it’s an example I’ve experienced.
A doctor operating under the traditional Christianised form of the Hippocratic ethic will be fully committed to the patient in front of him. Knowing he cannot cure the world, he will seek to cure the bit of it he encounters, and where he can’t cure, to care. He will adjust his workload according to the knowledge and strength he has, but always guided by doing the best he can for his patient, because the patient is a person made in God’s image. What that “best” is in any particular case is a moral question, in the exercise of which the doctor himself will grow as both a physician and a human being. For such a doctor, and such a patient, the obstacles in the road may turn out to be the road itself.
But modernism (combining secularised science, economics, politics and utilitarian ethics) replaces both a real human patient and a real human doctor with the abstraction of figures. Outcomes are measured statistically – including even the quantification of the unquantifiable in units like “QALYs” (Quality Added Life Years). In my professional career when I questioned such abstractions I was told, “We have to quantify quality of life somehow.” But that is only so once one is committed to pursuing utilitarian ethics, rather than Christian morality. Virtue cannot be reduced to variables.
After processing, all these calculations are fed back as professional performance standards to the doctor, who (unless he rebels) must then submit both himself and his patient to mathematical abtraction. Both are dehumanised in the process, because the real human issue – love – has been subordinated to an inhuman system. God’s Kingdom retreats from the gates of hell.
But it’s not only professionals who are moral humans under God. Even a slave can grow in grace and virtue by sweeping his master’s room “as for thy laws” (George Herbert) – until, that is, he’s made into a contract cleaner on a zero-hours contract by an international corporation, and rushed from job to job to maximise shareholder profits.
It’s so hard to get out of the mindset of “practical atheism”. Natural disasters show our impotence in the face of the elements – but we can neither pray nor accept the lesson of our frailty, but must find someone to blame for lack of foresight or inadequate response. The real truths about the natural world, our science asserts, are mathematical abstractions, not enchanted landscapes and marvellous fellow creatures. The real truths about all human relationships show up on the bottom line of a double-accounting spreadsheet. The real truths about communities are calculable from opinion polls.
The upside is that, whilst secularism may lose us our souls, it may also gain us the world… or what’s left of it after we’ve bent it to our corrupted wills.