Broken Or Crushed?
Milton’s Satan famously quipped that “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” (b.1 l.254-255)1 The hubris required to make this statement is emphasized when Satan rejoices in his removal from God: “since he / Who now is sov’reign can dispose and bid / What shall be right: farthest from him is best / Whom reason hath equaled, force hath made supreme / Above his equals.” (b.1 l.245-249)2
These assumptions, it seems, can easily form the basis of our approach to life. Whether or not we phrase it this way, our culture often approaches situations with the mindset that we can figure out how to win with the hand we’ve been dealt and that this is all we need to make the world better. Following this line of thought, though, leads to disastrous consequences.
John Gray sheds light on where this these ideas lead. As a point of interest, Gray comes from an Atheistic point of view. In his estimation, compared to Christians “Humanists are less clear-minded, but their faith is just as irrational. They do not deny that history is a catalogue of unreason, but their remedy is simple: humankind must — and will — be reasonable.”3 Keeping this as a backdrop, it is worth noting how Gray sees the continued evolution of mankind continuing in the future:
It seems feasible that over the coming century human nature will be scientifically remodelled. If so, it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organised crime and the hidden parts of government vie for control. If the human species is re-engineered it will not be the result of humanity assuming a godlike control of its destiny. It will be another twist in man’s fate.4
This impossibility for mankind to make themselves something greater seems, to Gray, to lie in human nature. Specifically, “Any new-model humanity will only reproduce the familiar deformities of its designers.”5 This result seems to arise from the fact that, “The uses of knowledge will always be as shifting and crooked as humans are themselves.”6 That is, human beings do not provide the foundation needed to create a better race. The twists and misshapenness inherent to humanity taint everything they touch. Michael Bauman puts it this way, “The problem of the human heart is at the heart of the human problem.”7
Lewis also touched on this issue in The Abolition of Man, though he tackled it from a different angle. Lewis’ concerns with creating new people centered on what was involved in conquering Nature:
We are always conquering Nature, because ‘Nature’ is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. Every conquest over Nature increases her domain. The stars do not become Nature till we can weight and measure them: the soul does not become Nature till we can psychoanalyse her. The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature. As long as this process stops short of the final stage, we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss. But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same.8
Ultimately, it would appear that having the ability to create a new humanity is an attempt to have your cake and eat it too on two fronts. On the one hand, there is the problem of relegating oneself to a bit of nature while at the same time claiming control over nature. One the other hand, there is the issue of creating superior beings from the broken and fallible beings that make up humanity. It does not appear evident that either of these are problems that just a bit mental gymnastics and will power will overcome.
So far, this has constituted an interesting exercise in examining a set of ideas and seeing where they lead. The point though was not merely to give us a last bit of mental calisthenics before we enter the new year. Rather, examining these ideas sheds light on what it means to be a human being. This leads to several specific impacts for how we ought to live life. They aren’t particularly earth shattering, but they are worth being reminded of.
First, to paraphrase a friend, there is a God and he’s not us. This makes a significant impact on what it means to be human. God’s presence relieves us of the need to create meaning for our world. In it’s place, we have the responsibility to learn God’s meaning for the world and live according to it.
Second, reality will assert itself whether or not we care to follow it. This is a necessary extension of our first impact. If God has created the world, then it will operate according to his design, whether or not we decide to acknowledge this fact. We cannot escape the context of our lives by attempting create our own context. Again, we are brought back to our need to treat knowledge as something that is discovered. It isn’t up for grabs, something that can be molded, tweaked, or made up.
Finally, living life well requires living in the world around us in addition to bringing the world under Christ’s rule. Part of our stewardship involves quantifying and harnessing the world around us. However, when this becomes the focus of our life, we have lost the sight of the larger picture. The world is ours to enjoy as well as manage. Additionally, our focus on exercising control on the world needs to be balanced with serious attention to bringing ourselves under Christ’s authority. Lewis put it this way: “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue.”9 If our efforts at studying and understanding the world get in the way of our sanctification, our focus needs adjustment.
In the end, because our attempts to create our own context for the world, we are driven back to seeking God’s purpose for reality and our lives. The alternative is being swallowed up in the very reality we were trying to overwrite. Or, to quote Jesus’ description of himself, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” (Luke 20:18)10
What are some of the areas of reality you will be exploring in the coming year?
What are some of the aspects of life that you will be enjoying in the coming year?
2. Ibid, 303.
3. Gray, John. Straw Dogs: Thoughts On Humans and Other Animals (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 29.
4. Ibid, 6.
5. Ibid, 28.
6. Ibid, 28.
7. Bauman, Michael. Pilgrim Theology: Taking the Path of Theological Discovery (Manitou Springs: Summit Ministries, 2007), 262-263.
8. Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 71.
9. Ibid, 77.
10. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Cross way. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Photo courtesy of Pawel Kadysz