Editor’s note: We recently ran a review of Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism? Because a driving principle behind The Curator is the exploration of “things humans create,” we felt that it would be important to continue this conversation. How might those who care about human-ness grapple with the implications of a posthuman framework?
While concern for human identity is certainly not restricted to those who profess belief in the Christian scriptures, those beliefs certainly have much to say about these ideas, and the implications should interest both Christians and those who are interested in humanist and posthumanist ideas. Toward that end, Sørina Higgins addresses below how the framework of Christianity might address the ideas of posthumanism.
In the first part of my review of Posthumanism, I began by comparing this theory to a nightmare. Although I went on to qualify that simile, saying that Cary Wolfe’s work is serious academic philosophy, I left the nightmare images intact. Indeed, a Christian’s first reaction might very well be horrified fear. Several premises of this book are terrifying: it seeks to problematize humanity’s unique existence; it calls into question universal ethics; it interrogates our assumptions about rationality; and it destabilized distinctions that are essential to religion, such as nature/culture, presence/absence, and human/nonhuman.
There are indeed many aspects of this approximately fifteen-year-old theory that are fundamentally opposed to traditional Christianity. First and most obviously: the very name, posthumanism, announces that human beings are no longer central or essential. This echoes the terrifying proposition put forward by Copernicus and Galileo that our planet was not the center of the universe. Had not God, asked the Roman Church, created the universe as a physical expression of His plan for salvation? The scientific answer was no.
Next were the strident voices of the Enlightenment that replaced faith with vigorous empiricisms and rationalisms that frightened the supernatural into a mental corner. Then spoke Charles Darwin, telling us that we were just animals, and derived from other species, no less. And now along comes Wolfe, telling us that humans are not central to the rational, observational, or subject-oriented realms, either. As he puts it: “The human is, at its core and in its very constitution, radically ahuman and constitutively prosthetic” (xxvi). In other words: we are not what we thought we were, and we are inessential to the universe. We are not the apple of God’s eye; we are an artificial limb.
The posthuman worldview goes a step beyond demoting human beings in the hierarchy of value. It promotes other species, proposing that animals are more rational than we knew. We are forced to ask: If rationality is not our Imago Dei, what is? Will you say next that we don’t have souls?
Well, unfortunately, yes. Not only does Wolfe say we need to move beyond anthropocentrism (thinking that humans are the center of the universe) and speciesism (prejudice based on our species – differences from “nonhuman animals”); his entire theory is anti-ontological, and also assumes we all gave up metaphysics a long time ago. It is thoroughly materialistic, the heir to a long line of thought that traces itself back through cybernetics and systems theory to Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida, then to Darwin, and thence to the most anti-religious minds of the Enlightenment.
Although it resists reduction and terse definition, one major premise of Wolfe’s book is that the nature of thought must change (xvi): human beings are, in his construction, thinking themselves out of existence. One possible Christian reaction to posthumanism, then, might be vigorous and total rejection. We are certainly not about to think ourselves out of existence, nor out of our Lord’s care and regard. Nor are we about to share our place in the plan of salvation with spotted newts and thorny hedgehogs.
There is, of course, another attitude that Christians could take towards posthumanism. It was modeled by Francis Schaeffer and summed up in his maxim “All truth is God’s truth.” At the very least, any propositions that are true, even if rooted in a flawed theory, are redeemable by God’s people. The Church eventually found out it was wrong about Copernicus and Galileo. It is still pondering whether it was wrong about Darwin. Even Cary Wolfe is created in the image of God in spite of himself, so even he can come up with some tidbits of truth we can rescue from the wreckage. Another examination reveals many valuable corollaries to posthumanism’s fundamental thesis.
First of all, Christians agree that we ought to be kind to animals. Proverbs 12:10 reads: “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal.” Indeed, it is only in Christian theology that there ever was a time when animals were treated ethically; in all other thought such a time only will be. It is the most conservative, fundamentalist, Bible-banging Young-Earth Creationism that teaches all animals and humans were vegetarians and non-predatory once – before the Fall and (according to some Creation researchers) up until Noah’s world-wide flood.
It is Christian theology that claims an Edenic state will be restored, predicated upon the lion lying down with the lamb. Evolution, then, is not necessary for a theory on which to rest the ethical treatment of animals. Historic Christianity had that all along.
A more profound and relevant injunction of Wolfe’s book teaches the ethical treatment and full valuing of all people, regardless of their full participation in rationalism or other aspects of “normative” human functionality: the unborn, the disabled, the mentally ill, and the elderly. Wolfe champions the absolute support of the lives of these people from a platform not unlike Christianity’s own pro-life campaigns. In this matter, then, he is a valuable ally to the Church.
And his thoughts resonate with the Church’s in another way: he opposes fantasies of disembodiment associated with transhumanism, an altogether different ideology than posthumanism (xv). Transhumanism suggests that by means of research, technology, and science, we can overcome our embodied predicament and conquer sickness, injury, and (almost) death: in other words, evolve into a being as little tied to its body as possible, into the next species after homo sapiens. Wolfe rejects this outright. He affirms our embodied nature. In fact, he came to the conclusion that our relationship with animals is based on our shared embodiment. Christianity, too, affirms embodiment in its most central principle: the Incarnation.
Wolfe points out another feature of nineteenth- to twenty-first-century life as a warning with which we can readily concur. He recognizes our co-existence with technology (xv) and encourages human beings to examine their relationship with technologies. Now, he goes a step further and describes our evolutionary history as concurrent with and co-dependant with the development of technologies – but it behooves Christians to examine their relationship with technologies. Are we idolizing our gadgets? Using them to minimize our spiritual lives? Or redeeming their use in the scheme of sanctification and missiology?
There is one final aspect of posthumanism in which Christians can see truth, and which we can reconfigure for our own spiritual purposes, and that is the essential decentralizing of the human: Wolfe’s anti-anthropocentrism. We are terrified of being on the periphery of creation. We were afraid of the heliocentric universe. But how much of this reaction is really fear, and how much is pride? Do we hate the idea of humankind’s brief existence in the material timeline because it weakens our theology, or only because it weakens our self-image? We could do with a little more humility as a species.
To go one step further: Do we fear the end of our species because we feel it means the end of God, since our extinction means we won’t be there to apprehend Him? How arrogant. How petty. However short or long the timeline of the human is compared to that of other species or to the existence of the material universe, Christian theology ought to be first in affirming its brevity compared to the uncreated, unbeginning, unending life of our God. We shouldn’t need Cary Wolfe to tell us that. As long as he is saying it, we should listen.
Now, that would be a lovely place to end this review: with an affirmation of the bits of posthumanism we can slide neatly into a quaint Christian system. However, that would be facile at best and dishonest at worst.
The full truth is that there is no Christian response to posthumanism. There can be no Christian interaction with posthumanism, because there has not been a thorough response to poststructuralism.
Near the beginning of Posthumanism, Wolfe mentions that when poststructuralism (perhaps more commonly known as deconstruction) hit the academic scene in the ’70s, scholars were terrified. But “we all got over it” (4). Deconstruction became common parlance in English departments, academic spheres in general, and in popular attitudes towards language, literature, authority, and truth. However, the Christian church in America stayed afraid. Those who were not afraid did not understand the far-reaching implications of texts’ self-referential and constitutive natures.
There have been individual Christian academics who have become deconstructionists. There are those who have written thoughtful scholarly responses. More recently, there are those who are attempting a more popular involvement and re-creation. Most noteworthy of these are the five volumes of the “Church and Postmodern Culture” series published by Baker Academic. But there has not been a radical, systemic Christian analysis, appropriation, integration, and re-creation of deconstruction.
The majority of Christian churches have had one of two fruitless responses. On the “liberal” side, churches have not talked about deconstruction, but have allowed it to steal the Bible from them. This response leaves the church eviscerated: anti-supernatural, anti-inspirational, anti-incarnational. In short, it leaves them without anything that made them Christian in the first place, stripping them of either internal meaning or a means of engagement with external realities and theories.
On the “fundamentalist” side, churches have hidden away from contemporary trends. Congregations and pastors of this ilk hardly interacted with T. S. Eliot, never mind Jacques Derrida. They closed their walls, doors, and minds, huddled together in a “medieval” mindset in the worst sense of the word, as closed to evolution (in thought as well as in the descent of man) as if they had refused the Copernican revolution itself. This response, while it can nurture profound studies of doctrine and personal morality, is also unengaged with contemporary thought. Each subsequent generation that is raised in such isolation grows further from its context. What is the Gospel, if not to be shared? Who was Christ, if not in flesh? What good is the Church, if not in conversation?
All of this is to say that if Cary Wolfe is correct in his belief that posthumanism is the worldview that will soon come to dominate “Western” thought, then he is certainly correct that it will have far-reaching consequences for public policy, bioethics, education, and the arts.
And if Christians cannot stomach it, then they might as well hand public policy over to the secular realm. If they want to participate in bioethics, education, and the arts over the next century, they have a lot of catching up to do. They could start by reading Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, then try a little Derrida, then finally turn to What is Posthumanism? We shouldn’t be afraid of Derrida or of the big, bad Wolfe.
After all, they’re only—human?