What will the world look like in ten years? Thirty? Fifty? Until recently I cannot say I’ve given the future much thought beyond idle, offhanded speculation. While well aware of many of the challenges facing humanity over the next decades – continued environmental, economic and political strife, as well as new technological developments – I honestly do not expect to see major changes in the world and the ways in which we imagine our place in it. However, according to inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, my intuitive view of the world does not correspond to reality. Kurzweil asserts that, when considered from the standpoint of technological development, human history is not linear, but exponential. Citing example after example of cases in which technological change started off slowly, then took off at an alarming rate, Kurzweil has formulated a concept which he calls the law of accelerating returns – the observation that right now the pace of change is itself accelerating exponentially. During the first half of this century, Kurzweil asserts, developments in biotechnology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence will bring about changes so profound as to lie beyond the scope of our current imagination. Nanobots will be implanted in our bodies to regulate our health, and also in the earth to clean up our environment. We will come to spend so much time in virtual realities that the distinction between “real” and “simulated” will lose its meaning. Ultimately, the creation of superintelligent robots and the reverse-engineering of the human brain will enable us to upload our consciousness onto computers and live forever in a virtual world. The term which Kurzweil uses to describe these mind-boggling changes is the technological singularity.
“What is the singularity?” Kurzweil asks at the beginning of 2005 book on the subject, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. “It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed. Athough neither utopian nor dystopian, this epoch will transform the concepts that we rely on to give meaning to our lives, from our business models to the cycle of human life, including death itself” – which, Kurzweil believes, will ultimately be transcended as humans transition from their biological state to a machine state. If Kurzweil can be believed, we will have human-level AI – robots that can tell jokes at cocktail parties, empathize with us, and pass the Turing Test of machine intelligence, in which robots attempt to personify human conversation so well as to convince judges of their humanity – before the end of the 2030’s. The Singularity itself – when, in the words of science fiction writer Vernor Vinge “the human era will be over” – is charted to occur in 2045.
The purpose of this essay is not to speculate over the likelihood of the huge technological and social transformations that Kurzweil predicts, but rather to explore transhumanism, the philosophical and political movement that has developed around the Singularity idea. Although this social phenomenon is relatively new, World Transhumanist Association Founder Nick Bostrom seeks to contextualize the movement, suggesting that its antecedents can be found in the Greek myths of Prometheus and Daedalus and its true intellectual roots can be located in Pico della Mirandola’s concept of man as the shaper of his own destiny and Francis Bacon’s emphasis on relentless empiricism as the most reliable way toward understanding the truth. According to Bostrom, the transhumanist movement is not restricted by its association with the technological Singularity, but rather encompasses all attempts to use science and technology to enhance human beings, whether through cosmetic surgery or memory pills or mind uploading. In the Transhumanist Declaration published in 2009, Bostrom asserts,
Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.
For Kurzweil, Bostrom and other transhumanist thinkers, the desire for a transition toward what some have called “Humanity 2.0” is a logical extrapolation of Enlightenment values focused on the rational ideals of human progress and advancement. Indeed, rationality and the desire to brutally and unrelentingly correct one’s own cognitive biases constitute a major priority for many in this movement, who view such rigor as the first line of defense against many of the risks inherent in the technological developments which they hope to realize. However, looking at the relentlessly optimistic, euphoric tone and totalizing teleological worldview expressed in Kurzweil’s book (he predicts that by the end of this century our artificial intelligence apparatuses will have gained domination over the entire universe) I cannot help but notice some correlation with the religious worldviews that proponents of this movement largely reject – an eschatological zeal parallelling that of certain millenarian religions. Is this growing movement – whose largely atheistic membership eschews any association with religiosity really as objective as it appears, or is its purported rationality underpinned by an unacknowledged irrationality? And, what is the relation between transhumanism and the human? On the one hand this movement, which traces its roots to Enlightenment thought on the dignity of man, purports to embody the essence of humanity – an essence which Ray Kurzweil describes as the desire to constantly extend and transcend our boundaries (374). On the other hand, I cannot help but observe a latent anti-humanism at work as well. For Kurzweil and his fellow Singularitarians, human enhancement is needed because, in our natural state, human beings are well-intentioned but simply not intelligent enough to solve our most pressing problems, such as environmental destruction, resource depletion, economic inequality and continued political strife. “I’ve never had much respect for the human body,” states Kurzweil in the film Transcendent Man, in which we see our zealous inventor downing 200 pills a day in the hope of defeating his biological limitations. For transhumanists, our biological bodies and brains are simply not good enough. Humanity 1.0 has seen its day, they tell us. Prepare to evolve.
“I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome,” proclaims Nietzsche in the famous prologue to Thus Spake Zarathustra. “What have you done to overcome him?” All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?” With this famous statement, Nietszche’s prophet calls for a radical transformation of mankind, a rejection of corrupted instincts that lead toward weakness and decay in favour of those that lead toward greater power. Transhumanist philosophy resonate with many Nietzchean ideals – the materialist rejection of dualism, the repudiation of so-called slave morality that previously glorified human weakness, and the high valuation of the will to power and transcendence. However, while Nick Bostrom acknowledges this apparent connection, he seeks to distance his movement from Nietzche as quickly as possible. According to Bostrom in his “A History of Transhumanist Thought,”
What Nietzsche had in mind was not technological transformation but a kind of soaring personal growth and cultural refinement in exceptional individuals (who he thought would have to overcome the life‐sapping “slave‐morality” of Christianity). Despite some surface‐level similarities with the Nietzschean vision, transhumanism – with its Enlightenment roots, its emphasis on individual liberties, and its humanistic concern for the welfare of all humans (and other sentient beings) – probably has as much or more in common with Nietzsche’s contemporary the English liberal thinker and utilitarian John Stuart Mill (5).
While Bostrom’s point is certainly fair, I cannot help but raise an eyebrow at Bostrom’s insistence on grounding his movement in the Enlightenment rationalist tradition and rejecting a philosophy commonly (perhaps not correctly) associated with a kind of irrationalism or mysticism seen as abundant in the critique of that tradition – an irrationalism which Bostrom prefers to attribute to the contrary movement, bioconservativism, with what he describes as its “Romanticist view of nature, certain religious (anti-humanistic) interpretations of the concept of human dignity and of a God-given natural order, and…various Continental philosophers’ critiques of technology, technocracy, and the rationalistic mindset that accompanies modern technoscience (23). Perhaps, in Bostrom’s view, Nietszche’s philosophical approach is just too “spiritual,” too anti-irrational for the rational transhumanist movement. After all what is there less spiritual or irrational than wanting to live forever? But, before I can charge transhumanism as being too narrow in its concern for a wide range of human values (including supposedly irrational ones), I must return to Kurzweil, who incidentally also refers to Nietzsche in his book, as well as to a panoply of philosophy, literature and religious traditions. While Kurzweil clearly disavows traditional religion’s search for truth in revelation, he reveals a greater sensitivity than Bostrom to that side of human experience which is sometimes called spiritual. Kurzweil has no qualms about describing his particular approach to transhumanism as a new form of religiosity which combines traditional religion’s respect for human consciousness with the secular arts and sciences’ value of knowledge and learning. For Kurzweil, who believes that at some point the entire universe will be infused with the power of machine intelligence, the answer to the question of whether God exists is “not yet.”
Evolution moves toward greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater beauty, greater creativity, and greater levels of subtle attributes such as love. In every monotheistic tradition God is likewise described as all of these qualities, only without any limitation…So evolution moves inexorably toward this conception of God, although never quite reaching this ideal. We can regard, therefore, the freeing of our thinking from the severe limitations of its biological form to be an essentially spiritual undertaking (389).
Kurzweil even goes so far as to describe his new religion as the antithesis to the deist creationism residual in many religious worldviews today. While the former conceived God as an entity which created the world and then withdrew from it, Kurzweil sees God as an entity that is created by humanity and gradually becoming a reality through the promise of technological transcendence. It is easy to see why Kurzweil might seem something of a prophet; however, I would argue that his eschatology – which conceives of nonbiological human machines creating a completely new order on earth and then spreading throughout the entire universe before the end of this century – as embodying some of the negative aspects of religion: a totalizing, eschatological worldview that dismisses or at best marginalizes those people who hold opposing values.
By seeking to reveal this inherent contradiction within a movement that overwhelmingly disavows traditional religiosity while continuing to adopt many of its forms, I hope to point toward the greatest contradiction of all. Is this movement humanistic or anti-humanistic? By seeking to contextualize transhumanism within a history that they view as teleological, forward-progression, both authors suggest that their goals and desires embody the essence of humanity itself – a curious desire to seek new knowledge and perpetually transcend limitations. But, this is clearly not the only characteristic of the human, and one might question if it really is as universal as Kurzweil and Bostrom would have us believe. One such questioner is the well-known environmentalist Bill McKibben, who offers a different vision of human nature. In a talk entitled “Being Good Enough,” he states,
The default assumption in our lives as modern Americans is that more is better—more stuff, more power, more intelligence, more years, more dimensions. When I say default assumption, that’s just what I mean. In fact, we’ve come to call this assumption and the set of traits that underlie it—curiosity, greed, technical prowess, competitiveness—we’ve come to call them human nature. This hyper-individualism is most fully developed in our own culture, and in recent times has produced a political ideology that bridles at any attempt to restrain it in the name of community.
McKibben seeks to expose the extreme individualism embedded in so many aspects of the transhumanist worldview, particularly surrounding the idea of radical life extension, and he expresses concern for the loss of human communities that might be brought about by the libertarian stance underpinning transhumanism. For McKibben, the essential defining characteristic of humanity is not the constant desire for more knowledge and greater personal capacity, but rather the ability to set limits on those desires, to stand back and say “Enough,” to forgo some individual desires in the name of humanity. What transhumanists view as flaws and grave defects in humanity 1.0 which the upgraded version will surely correct, McKibben views as our strength. Referring to one futurist’s view of the immortal conscious machines that transhumanists hope to create through technology, McKibben cites them as celestial beings who will travel the universe seeking answers to some of the deepest philosophical questions, such as why is there something rather than nothing, and where did the universe come from. With a hint of irony, McKibben declares that for him, “With all due respect, these strike me as profoundly uninteresting, at least compared with the deeply human questions of how are you feeling, and can I give you a hand with that, and do you think you could ever love me too.” For McKibben and others of his persuasion, Singularitarian transhumanism is not humanistic, but essentially anti-humanistic, threatening some of our deepest values and traditions – the ability to form close relationships and communities.
As I bring this discussion to a close, I should stress that I have barely scratched the surface of this complex discussion. I have sought to raise the question of whether transhumanism is humanistic or anti-humanistic, but as I think my examples have shown, there is no real consensus on the meaning of these terms, and I have to face the frightening but real possibility that they have no meaning at all. Donna Haraway’s well-known Cyborg Manifesto suggests that we are already a hybrid human machine culture; we are already cyborgs and the attempt to draw a clear distinction between the human and machine or establish defining characteristics for what it means to be human no longer make much real sense. The challenge is to look at the possibility of greater artificiality and increasingly blurred boundaries between the biological and the artificial from multiple perspectives at the same time:
From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defence, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war (Sofia, 1984). From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point.
Nevertheless, I end with my original question. However we may define the human, does transhumanism elevate or denigrate? Does this movement promise ecstatic transcendence, misanthropic contempt for the flesh, downright foolishness or the only logical path forward? Regardless of whether or not Kurzweil’s predictions turn out to be true, this movement forces us to consider crucial questions that will only become more salient as technology continues to develop. And so, we are left with the pressing question – what kind of future do we truly want?
Note: A version of this essay was presented at the 2012 American Comparative Literature Association’s Annual Meeting at Brown University on March 30, 2012.
I was raised by an ardently pro-life mother, and her influence on me was significant. As a teenager I accompanied her to Respect Life meetings and prayer vigils at our church, held a sign stating “Abortion Kills Children” at the annual Life Chain (a street protest commemorating the passing of the 1973 US Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the United States), and learned as much as I could about the issue. For a freshman bioethics project I researched all the grisly details of various abortion procedures, particularly intact dilation and extraction, and wrote an essay outlining all of the ethical problems I found there: primarily, that abortion involves inflicting excruciating pain on a defenseless human being.
One day, when I walked into the high school cafeteria, my pro-life button pinned to my collar, one of my more feisty classmates immediately rolled her eyes at me. “You’re pro-life? Really? Come on, Jeannine. What do you think you would do if you got pregnant?”
I stared at her, indignant. How could this little bitch even think – much less say – something like this about me? In all my fourteen years I’d barely talked to any boys, much less done anything else. I was a paragon of virtue. An example of perfect innocence. Needless to say, I was very, very sheltered for my fourteen years.
At that age I had no real awareness that not all fourteen-year-olds had the same kind of privilege. That in the world – in my country, perhaps even my own city – there were fourteen-year-olds forced into prostitution in order to survive. That a fourteen-year-old could get raped – by a stranger, by a relative, by a friend – and end up pregnant as a result. That the world was filled with all sorts of terror and trauma of which abortion was only one example.
Nowadays, I still believe the basic moral principles that guide the pro-life movement. The question of when human life begins – whether at conception, birth or perhaps some other stage in one’s personal development from childhood to maturity – is complex, and I don’t think that there is a simple answer. However, one fact that cannot be denied is that a fetus is a living being which after the first month of pregnancy has a beating heart and can feel pain, and as I understand it, inflicting the kind of pain that abortion induces on such a being is not morally justifiable. Nevertheless, the arguments of the other side also resonate with a certain truth. My friend’s question comes back to me. If I were to find myself unexpectedly pregnant, even now, what would I do? I’d like to think that I would carry the baby to term and deliver him or her into life (even if I opted to give the child up for adoption afterwards). But still, I can’t say for certain what I would do until the situation happens. Who am I to judge someone else, especially if that someone has become pregnant in traumatic circumstances? For people on the pro-choice side, the issue is not the morality of abortion itself. It is more about who gets to make moral decisions. The choice is left to the individual. If a woman chooses to have an abortion, that is her right and responsibility, and the consequences that come with it are hers to deal with. Members of the pro-life movement often refer to people of the pro-choice movement as “pro-abortion.” I doubt that anyone on the pro-choice side would state that abortion in itself is a good thing. And now we come to the main point of this post.
The debate over abortion – which continues to rage in the United States as well as many other countries – is one fuelled with harsh rhetoric, polarization, and exclusion; it’s a culture war in which each side seeks to strengthen its position by casting the opposition out as an absolute enemy. While pro-lifers frame pro-choicers as “pro-abortion,” pro-choicers frame pro-lifers as misogynistic and “anti-choice,” disrespecting an individual woman’s right to make a moral decision for herself. A closer look reveals that the two sides are essentially arguing about different issues: while one looks at the morality of the act itself, the other focuses on the question of who should have the authority to make this moral decision: the individual or the community? The issues are separate, but the abortion debate combines them into one. And this, to my understanding, is the main reason why this remains such a polarized issue. The two sides continue to argue and argue without admitting just what it is that they are arguing about.
A recent article on the Slacktiverse blog explains this confusion in more depth by focusing on the differences between proclamation and policy – two different philosophical conceptions about the role of law. According to the author of this piece,
The “proclamation” perspective holds that the purpose of the law is to announce or express the moral views of society, while the “policy” perspective holds that law should be used to change the material conditions of society, including through indirect means. The unacknowledged difference between these two perspectives leads to proposed laws being justified in terms that their opponents find literally incomprehensible, causing confused political discourse. Likewise, the under-examination of this distinction leads to thoughtless, unjustified radicalism on this question. Even a cursory exploration of these two sides of the law can help clarify numerous legislative debates, past and contemporary, while allowing citizens to more clearly understand their own views and values.
The author of the article suggests that both proclamation and policy are valid ways of thinking about the law and have their rightful place. He continues,
The “proclamation” model holds that the law represents an expression of moral values. Among the most lauded examples of the “proclamation” model of law was the USA’s Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation marked an official declaration of the Union’s position on slavery: unequivocally against. It was able to fulfill this goal without, in fact, freeing many slaves. Though it ultimately took several more years of military action and a Constitutional Amendment to end slavery in the USA as an institution, the Emancipation Proclamation is still understood as the key moment in the process of emancipation, because it articulated the Union’s moral stance against slavery so incontestably… Conversely, the “policy” model holds that the aim of the law is to change conditions as they actually apply; to address problems and improve the state. It is hard to find an independent, ideal example of legislative work of this form—as policy cannot be considered in isolation, and it does not tend to attract much notice. Thus, we can consider the example of a field rather than a particular law. Traffic law is a useful example for an initial approach. It involves a great number of small decisions which must be made, by the legislature or regulatory bodies. Few, if any, such decisions can be resolved by appeal to prior moral principle.
The author argues that each approach to law has its rightful place and that in some cases, such as in laws against perjury. However, he states that they come into conflict in some cases and cites abortion as an example:
I personally encountered one such question when talking with a pro-life friend. (I myself am pro-choice.) I made the argument that legal abortion keeps the procedure safe while not actually increasing its frequency, and that, on the other hand, the pro-life movement fails to endorse policies that would actually decrease the incidence of abortion. He granted this claim, more or less, but held that it was still important to outlaw abortion as a statement of what is right and wrong. Policy-relevant information will not affect the legislative preferences of someone thinking in proclamation terms.
In general, this argument leads me to wonder if it might be possible to make some sort of compromise on the abortion issue – or at least achieve a greater level of understanding – by looking at the issue in terms of the proclamation/policy distinction. For people on the pro-choice side, I have to ask – would it really weaken their argument to admit that abortion is a painful procedure for both mother and child, that it is traumatic, and that it is – for some people at least – morally questionable? I remember when the war in Iraq was about to begin in 2003. When Democrats began to state their opposition to the war on moral grounds, the standard Republican response was, “We’re not pro-war. No one wants there to be a war. We just see it as the only viable option in this case.” Leavng the Iraq War and its moral implications aside for the moment, I will state that, in general, war and abortion are similar issues. Both involve loss of life, both are deemed inherently immoral by some, and both can’t be prevented by legislation (ever hear of the Kellogg-Briand Pact passed to outlaw war after World War I?) By acknowledging the morally questionable nature of abortion and stating directly that they seek not to promote or actively encourage people to seek abortions, by making a statement about ethos as well as policy, people on the pro-choice side could potentially engage with a much less heated discussion with pro-lifers than what usually occurs.
Meanwhile, people on the pro-life side might benefit from looking at the issue from a policy perspective. If we really want to bring about an end to abortion, is seeking to change the law necessarily the best approach? Won’t abortions continue to occur illegally (and dangerously)? Perhaps the better approach is to focus on policies that will lower the amount of unwanted pregnancies that occur as well as promoting the primary alternative to abortion: adoption. We can also seek to educate women about the options available to them and let them know that abortion isn’t the only option for someone who, for whatever reason, cannot or does not want to become a mother. We can respect the individual’s right to make moral decisions while working – through various peaceful, respectful means – to encourage them to make a good decision.
Finally, for those of us who are religious – as many in the pro-life movement are – we can pray. Pray for healing for those women who have endured abortion, as well as for those who have endured rape, abuse and all sorts of traumas. Pray for healing in a world where the culture of death manifests in so many forms – capital punishment, war, poverty, discrimination against the elderly, disabled and all who are vulnerable in our society. In the world in which we live, it can be hard to believe that prayer still matters; it’s something I all too often forget. But it is through prayer that we can learn to become truly compassionate toward the people who need us most.
August 2, 2011
It’s hard to maintain religious faith in the secular world which I live in. Over time, I let my faith grow weak and began to take it for granted, assuming that it would still be there for me when I needed it. Now, I am learning the hard way that there is nothing in life which we can afford to take for granted; there is nothing we have which we might not lose. I have not yet lost my faith, but I’ve come to realize that if I want to keep it, I’m going to have to put up at least something of a fight.
During the past weeks I’ve offered several posts about the “Ideological Turing Test” which Leah Libresco (of the atheist blog Unequally Yoked) ran in order to give Christians and atheists the opportunity to find out if they could know the other side’s arguments so well as to fool a panel of judges. There are many flaws in this kind of exercise, but Leah herself has a post in which she addresses the ethical issues raised by the project. In any case, I’ll admit that during the atheist round I wasn’t trying too hard to fool the judges. While posing as an atheist, I tried to keep my answers as close as possible to my actual beliefs, even though I certainly did a fair amount of bluffing (for anyone interested, my answers to the atheist questions can be found here). I only managed to convince 35% of readers that I was an atheist (though an additional 25% voted me a “lean atheist,” meaning that more people considered me to be a nonbeliever than a Christian. However, I didn’t even come close to fooling enough people to “win” the round.
More interesting to me were the questions for the “Christian” component of the test. As a member of the control group I did not find it necessary to argue or apologize for my faith, but merely to assert the things that I genuinely believe. I took the exercise as an opportunity to make a profession of faith, to state the credo that I uphold in my heart and try my best to live by. When I wrote my answers, the words flowed out in a stream of passion, a kind of thrill and excitement that I only experience when stating something which I deeply, genuinely believe. Faith is a constant struggle for me, but in the moment of sharing those particular answers, I knew that I was winning:
What is your best reason for being a Christian?
I am a Christian because I believe that God exists – in the complexity of nature, in the beauty of art, and in the human capacity for empathy and compassion. Some people have told me that this belief is irrational. I am not so bothered by this charge.
I am a Christian because I believe that, while there are many ways of seeking knowledge of the divine presence in the world, Jesus Christ’s simple commandment for us to love one another (and his following of that commandment in his own life, through his ministry, suffering and death) is the best model for me to follow.
I am a Christian because I want to be part of the tradition that gave birth to Augustine’s Confessions and John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, to Michelangelo’s “Pieta” and Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater,” to Chartres Cathedral and to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to Archbishop Oscar Romero and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, if you believe what Charles Taylor says in Sources of the Self, our entire modern identity. I want to belong to the community that (if it practices what it preaches) is supposed to treat all people with mercy and compassion.
I realize that by identifying as a Christian, I also claim membership in a tradition that is hardly beautiful, one that burned so-called witches at the stake and excommunicated supposed heretics, one that started brutal wars and destroyed entire civilizations in the name of God, one that continues to breed intolerance toward women and anyone who does not identify as straight. However, I do not understand these actions/attitudes as manifestations of Christianity but perversions of it, just as the Gulag was a perversion of Karl Marx’s humanistic philosophy and the Taliban is a perversion of another beautiful religion, Islam.
I don’t claim knowledge of the truth, but for me, Christianity is the best path toward it.
What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to stop believing in God?
For me, faith is very subjective, and I suspect that what would most likely cause me to lose it would be some sort of drastically traumatic personal experience in which I felt God’s absence very strongly, as it appears to have happened to Elie Weisel in the Holocaust. As for empirical evidence against God…The reality is that (for the moment anyway) there isn’t any. I know that this is a claim which atheists dispute, but for now at least, science has been unable to prove or disprove God’s existence. Also, I do not consider science the only valid approach to human knowledge. It is certainly the best means of explaining to us how the universe works, but it cannot tell us why the universe exists, or what the purpose of life is. For this we turn to other sources: art, philosophy and (for some people) religion. Some Christians concede that a confirmed discovery of the remains of the body of Christ in Jerusalem would force them to abandon Christianity, for its central claim – that Christ rose from the dead – would be proven false. However, I do not think that this would be enough to make me abandon Christianity. The religion would be proven factually false, but I maintain that factual truth is not the only kind of truth. At best, Christ is the God who created the universe and destroyed death; at worst, he’s a very wise man who was just a little bit better than the rest of us, and that alone, for me, is enough of a reason to follow his teachings and seek to emulate his life.
Why do you believe Christianity has a stronger claim to truth than other religions/On what basis do you reject the truth claims of other traditions and denominations but accept your own?
I do not believe that Christianity has a stronger truth claim than other religions. Religion is the creation of fallible human beings who are very limited in our capacity to understand God. Consequently, all religions contain many flaws, and while all can claim to approach the truth, none can claim to have attained it (and, with the exception of the fundamentalists, most religions do not make this claim). No one knows for certain whether or not God exists, or whether or not humans have an immortal soul, or what (if anything) happens to us after death. Religion is a product of the human imagination. While critics of religion would dismiss this imaginative nature of religion as grounds for its falsity, I maintain that imagination is one of our most important human faculties. The ability to tell stories and find beauty and meaning in our experience constitutes a significant part of who we are, and in my view, this drive for myth and narrative is the most important thing that religion offers to humanity.
My decision to be a Christian is a very subjective one, and to be honest, it’s based largely upon aesthetics. Whether or not you believe in Christ’s divinity, it is hard to dispute that this outspoken, passionate man who healed the sick and ate with tax collectors was a beautiful person. The parables which he tells are beautiful stories; the morality which he outlines is a beautiful morality. Of course, one might argue that all religions contain such beauty – and they do. Christianity is just the one that speaks to me most personally.
How do you read the Bible? Do you study the history of its translations? How do you decide which translations/versions/books are the true Bible? How does it guide you if you have a moral or theological dilemma?
I belong to a Christian denomination which is notorious for its lack of biblical knowledge; the majority of us encounter the Bible in a liturgical setting, where various passages are read, but very few actually study it. I must confess that I have not yet compared translations or read the apocryphal books of the Bible (though both of these activities are definitely on my to-do list)! Also, I do not interpret the Bible literally, but as an allegory and an image of one particular human community’s experience of the Divine.
Other than one religion class taken in high school, I have only studied the Bible seriously while preparing to teach it to a group of literature students. In this class we read the New Revised Standard edition of the Bible as a secular literary text. Interestingly, reading the Bible in this nonreligious context allowed me to rethink my faith and to renew my religious beliefs. I was struck by the various images of God in the Old Testament, which I view as complementary rather than contradictory (the transcendent creator-God in the first Genesis creation story followed by the immanent human-God in the second one, for example) and the revolutionary spirit of the New Testament (I sometimes wonder if most Christians even realize that we believed in a God who told us to give all our possessions to the poor, to drop absolutely everything in order to follow him, and to love our enemies). I do sometimes turn to the Bible for inspiration in times of moral crisis; I have several favorite passages, and when feeling flippant I occasionally open the book to a random page (Magic 8-Ball style!) and read whatever message I find there, just as Augustine did.
I meant everything I said in this post, and I still mean it. So, you can imagine my shock when I looked at the statistics from the readers’ responses to my post. Only 10% of voters were definitely convinced that I was a Christian, with an additional 20% voting me a “lean Christian.” 70% found me to be either a “lean” or complete nonbeliever. Seeing these answers, I couldn’t help but shuffle nervously in my chair and read my responses again. Did I really sound so weak in my convictions that only a minority of readers found me to be a genuine Christian? My answers had not sounded or felt weak in the moment when I was producing them – why, then, did they fail to convince everyone else? Or is it just that these were not the responses that someone would expect a true Christian to offer? Looking through the post again, I certainly understand why people might be unconvinced of my religious conviction. What gives Christianity a higher truth claim than other religions? Nothing, I say. Is Christ the Son of God? Maybe; I hope so. These are not the answers of a person of strong faith. These are the answers of a person mired in doubt and uncertainty, someone who has tottered for years on the precarious tightrope between belief and unbelief. Perhaps my one strength is that I do know which side I want to be on, and I do manage to land there, even if staggering, time and time again. But somehow, this is not enough of me. I recall the ending of Flannery O’Conner’s classic short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” After the Misfit finally kills the racist, hypocritical grandmother, he makes an interesting comment:
“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Fortunately for me, I don’t have someone there to shoot me every minute of my life, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of person I might turn out to be if I did. Maybe at least then I would learn to have some convictions that others could know and recognize to be genuine. But for now, I continue to walk the fence, struggling to avoid the sharp metal spokes but continuing on even when my feet get pricked, naively trusting some unseen higher power that I’ll continue to fall down on the side of faith, which is still the side where I so vehemently want to be.
July 5, 2011
I once met a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit. A man who began each day in meditative prayer, singing God’s praises in the chapel of the Catholic high school where we both worked. A man who organized beautiful campus liturgies and before each one spoke passionately to the student body about the need to die to the self and put on Christ. A man who inspired that year’s senior class to complete more community service hours than any of its predecessors. A man who, for a brief moment, was my friend.
Or so I thought.
From the moment I first encountered “Jack”* in the teachers’ lounge, I was instantly drawn to his magnetic personality and sympathetic nature. He was hired as campus minister in November, at the end of the first quarter (the previous campus minister had quit unexpectedly when her husband was offered a new job overseas). It was my first year of full-time teaching, and I’d been thrown into the job with almost no administrative support, other than a brief orientation held for new teachers at the beginning of the year. I remembered how overwhelmed I’d felt, and I immediately offered to make myself available to Jack as a kind of unofficial mentor.
Over the next few days, I did my best to familiarize him with the school’s database for entering grades and online system for reporting said grades to the students’ parents. I also briefed him about the more seniors whom he would be teaching in his Morality class – a notoriously rowdy group that would go on to have three of its members expelled throughout the year. We experienced an instant rapport, and soon he was telling me his own life story. He confided in me about the abuse he’d experienced as a child and his youth on the mean streets of New Orleans, where he spent his teenage years as a gang leader before experiencing the conversion inspired by the devoutly Catholic woman who would soon become his wife. He told me about the birth of his three children and the family’s 2006 trip to Rome, where they met Pope Benedict XVI and were commissioned into a new vocation as a missionary family. He then told me about his current hardships – his wife had been recently diagnosed with cancer, and, afraid that she wasn’t going to make it, he asked me to pray for her. I immediately agreed, filled with concern for this man who seemed like he could have been a relative to me.
But then, slowly, the situation between us started to change. It started out small. “You’re the only one whom I trust in this school,” he told me. And then, the request came. “I didn’t want to tell you this at first, but they’re not paying me a regular wage here. They’re only giving me a small stipend. It’s because I’m a missionary and I’m going to be leaving soon.”
Not his exact words, but close enough. Someone less naive than me would have recognized instantly that something was fishy, but all I could see was that my dear, sweet new religious friend needed help. His wife was sick, after all – everyone in the school knew it. Later, his father was dying. His son was losing his scholarship at his own Catholic school. His daughter had a hole in her heart. On and on the stories went, and it was only a few months later – when the administration finally sniffed out what Jack was doing to other teachers as well as me and fired him – that I realized that I had been had.
I was more than hurt. I was more than betrayed. It wasn’t just the issue of the money I lost, and it wasn’t the fact that this false friend had turned me into a fool. It was the contradiction between his private deeds and his public mission – he’d been an ethics teacher, for God’ sake! If he had lied about his personal circumstances, what else had he lied about? Did he even believe in God? Was all his singing and preaching and trying to talk the students out of their marijuana addictions just a sham? At that point, all my faith in Jack was lost, as was some of my faith in people in general. But now, as a few years have put this unfortunate incident in perspective for me, I realize that the proper response to this situation is not bitterness or disillusionment, but empathy, compassion and what my dear undergraduate Ancient Philosophy professor would call a “positive skepticism.”
By now I can assume that most of this blog’s readers will have heard of the unexpected resignation of (former) Father John Corapi amid rumors of drug abuse, concupiscence and other behaviors not normally considered appropriate for one of the most widely popular Catholic public figures. If not, you can read more about it here:
You can also read the July 5 press release on his resignation here: http://marysaggies.blogspot.com/
Apparently, some rumors are flying that this press release is a hoax. Here is one argument as to why it is not: http://catholicism.about.com/b/2011/07/05/solt-release-on-father-john-corapi-a-hoax.htm
While I personally was not a follower of Corapi, I still feel compelled to respond to the issue of his resignation, which should not be viewed as an isolated incident but as part of a larger pattern that can be traced back to the Middle Ages and beyond: the trope of the polluted priest, the false prophet, the leader who lets us down. While we may react with disdain whenever we encounter yet another corrupt politician or business leader, there is something about the fallen religious leader – the pedophile priest, the corrupt church official – that is especially disturbing. These are the people whom we are supposed to be able to trust as moral paragons who’ve devoted their entire lives to the faith, as spiritual guides on whom we might model ourselves. If they let us down, then surely the whole system must be unreliable! Why should anyone put their faith in these supposedly incorruptible leaders who in the end prove to be much too corrupt?
I remember a statement which one of my Catholic elementary schoolteachers made. “The Church is 99% human and 1% divine, and it’s that 1% that has kept it going for these two thousand years.” While religions are built upon the desire to understand and experience the Divine, it is humans who do the building. And while I remain convinced with Anne Frank, that people really are good at heart, the truth is that we are all vulnerable to temptation. Can Corapi’s followers really be so positive that, if placed in his circumstances, they themselves would not have been tempted to make the same choices that he did? As for me, I may condemn the ethics teacher who let me down, but I have also taught ethics, and I have also done things which by my own code are morally wrong. And while I may not be a public figure in the way that Corapi is, I am still public to those people who happen to know me. I call myself a Catholic and can expect to be judged as such, just as all individuals can expect to be judged by the standards of whatever group to which they claim membership. At the end of the day this whole issue is just another cliche, captured so astutely in John 8:7: But when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
Does this mean that we should trust blindly in our religious leaders? Of course not. However, it also means that we should not mistrust them. Everyone has some positive quality that we can admire, and very often, the people who have these qualities in greater measure – courage, compassion, whatever characteristic we happen to value – become the people whom we uphold as role models for our own lives. And most of the time, these people do not disappoint us. But, on those rare occasions when they do let us down, can we really be so shocked?
People like John Corapi, my former friend Jack, and all those who betray our collective trust need to have their dishonesty exposed; they need to be censured; they need to be looked upon with disappointment. But, they also need to be approached with compassion and empathy, to be understood, to be prayed for. And, in the long run, so do we.
* The name is false, of course. I would never want to grant this individual the satisfaction of seeing his name in print.