Second Nature: A Theological Idea

Something has happened to me that I never anticipated. Words that I never imagined saying escaped my lips this week.

I’ve become a morning person.

I have no idea how this happened (a friend’s response was words to the effect of “welcome to being old”), but it has. I’m routinely up 30 minutes before my alarm, often with two hours of quiet before anyone else in the house is awake. I eventually stopped fighting it, and accepted that I now have this wonderfully quiet time in which to pray, journal, and be productive. So, fresh cup of coffee in hand, I start with trying to just focus on God each morning.

Which is difficult. Oh, so difficult.

Almost immediately as my brain begins to wake up (see the previous reference to coffee), the concerns of the day begin to crowd in. All of the things that I haven’t written down are spinning in my head. All of the day-to-day things that need to be done are pressing in, even before I’ve consulted my to-do list. Because we live in a material space, it’s really difficult to be aware of anything beyond that. And, almost all of the things crowding into my head at this point are material, at least in the sense that they involve physical things (“wow, the kids didn’t pick up their toys again in this room”) or the practical (“I need to schedule the maintenance appointment for the car”). These are things that I can observe, things that have a concrete outcome, things that just need to be done.

Since my Easter reflections, though, I can’t get rid of this awareness (when I can quiet myself enough) that, beyond the white-noise of our lives, there is this extended reality that, while not immediately observable, is more real than the concrete. The realm of the spiritual. The part of our existence from which we become increasingly isolated because of our excessive focus on empirical data.

Now, as certain readers of this begin to rage that I’m anti-science or some such, I’m not. Empiricism has its place. I’m just asserting that that place is not to be worshipped or deified, which currently seems to be the religion of the day. I’m cautioning against scientific reductionism…the audacity to assume that because we know everything about a thing, that we know the thing.

The reason that I bring this up here is not to re-state my previous post, but rather to expand with this idea that I can’t let go of: that the salvific process of choosing to follow Christ fundamentally alters what we think of as the human condition. We are very different once that happens. Human, but in a way alien as well, in the sense that our humanity is somehow changed.

Hear me out before thinking that my sanity has finally escaped my grasp. After Pentecost, it was established that Christ-followers receive the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, as part of the justification event. I was raised in an atmosphere in which the work of the Holy Spirit was somewhat minimized to “conviction” or to some form of inspiration. What I think I’m beginning to see is that, as the Holy Spirit somehow joins with a person who is otherwise in a fallen condition, a regenerative event takes place that makes us, though still human, somehow very different. I think that this difference is somehow instinctively detectable by those who have not had the experience, and thus they become uncomfortable. I also think that the experience is frequently barely registered by those who have it, because of the crowded landscape of observable data that I mentioned above.

I’m getting this hypothesis from a few references: Romans 8:9 and 8:16, I Corinthians 3.16, Ephesians 2:6, Colossians 3:4, I John 3:1-10.

I’m also not in anyway suggesting that this result in a mindset of “the other,” in which Christ-followers view those who do not follow Christ as somehow less or deserving of disdain. In fact, the event that I’m discussing should have quite the opposite effect when realized.

To summarize, I wonder if, at the moment of decision to follow Christ, our humanity is somehow and suddenly different because of the Holy Spirit’s “moving in?” I’m holding onto this lightly because someone (including you, dear reader) could present a persuasive argument to the contrary. If I’m right, though, it changes so much of how we see our day-to-day, forcing a re-prioritization of our concerns.

I’ll Never Let You Go – The Grief of Losing a Dog

Just before I was in high school, my family got a dog. He was a small dog, and I’m honestly not entirely sure of his breed except to say that there was Chihuahua in there somewhere. We got him as a puppy, and this was at a fairly formative time in my life…I was old enough to take on a lot of the responsibility of him. He grew up through my high school years, faithfully waiting for me every afternoon when I disembarked from my ridiculously long bus ride. I made up funny voices for him to try to verbalize the expressive facial expressions that we came to know and love. I picked on him like a little brother. In college, I would come home on weekends and he was always there to greet me, faithful as ever.

When that dog died, it was a gut punch. If you’ve lost a pet, you know…there’s a grief process on par with losing a family member. I felt it for a while. Even though I didn’t live there any longer, it felt like a betrayal when my parents got a new dog. How could my old friend ever be replaced? It hurt that they tried.

This has come up a few times lately as our children are…passionately….expressing their desire for us to own a dog. I haven’t owned one since we lost that beloved friend. I don’t want to go through that loss again. The grief is not trivial.

Still, to go to the extremely expensive…and, I would argue, unethical…lengths of cloning a pet would be foreign to me. When I read this column about the industry that has grown up around this practice…yes, you read that correctly…I was more than a bit amazed. And, quite troubled, as well. What disturbes me is not so much the cost of doing this business, but rather the underlying assumptions that creep in through the writer’s descriptions.

If you read the column, you’ll notice that the writer feels the need to point out that cloning a pet is like resetting a phone…similar model, but new data. The comparison is to a cloned animal not having the memory or experiences of the original. I find it disturbing that our accepted cultural analogies to living things have become operating systems. I sort of get it…we are created as creators, and the lens through which we see our world is that which we have built…but there is inherent in this a disrespect for the living thing.

I’m not immune to this. Several years ago, we went through a weekend with no power after a nasty ice storm in North Carolina. When we left to stay with friends who still had power, our daughter’s betta fish didn’t survive the 40-degree nights. She was young at the time, too young, we decided, to have that conversation. So, as she hadn’t noticed when we returned, I made a late-night run to a pet store to insist to the mystified employee that I needed a betta that was a very exact color and appearance. They had one, and when my wife texted to check on my progress, I replied that I was inbound with the “Mark II.”

The source of this flippant disrespect for the living world around us can be found in abundance in the wording of the column. The process of a surrogate pet having the cloned pet is described not as a miraculous event of life continuing (even though it has been meddled with), but in purely scientific terminology. The new cat is an “embryo.” The focus is on the DNA of cells from the original animal, as though the animal is nothing more.

In his analysis of C.S. Lewis’ thought, Joe Rigney coins the expression “scientific reductionism.” He is using it to encapsulate one of Lewis’ central thoughts in the Abolition of Man. His definition is the audacity to believe that if we know all of the facts about a thing, that we know the essence of the thing (my paraphrase). That’s what I find at work here. Even though the subject of the column recognizes that her cloned cat is not the same as her first pet, there is a presumption that we have the right to artificially create a Frankenstein animal because of our grief process, because the animal has no substance other than its DNA. Essentially, in this view, the animal is no greater than the sum of its parts.

This reductionism is a fatally flawed premise. While mostly just gallows humor when we think about it in relation to pets, it becomes significantly more dystopian when framed in terms of humanity. Because, at its core, it requires the rejection of the recognition that humanity is more than just chemicals and electrons. There is no more value in life than that. When there is no more value in life, then war is acceptable. Murder of the unborn is acceptable. Mucking around with processes in our bodies that we don’t understand is acceptable.

Despite all of the science fiction through the decades that has warned us of exactly this issue.

Sometimes, when I stop to remember, and especially when I visit my parents today, I still miss that dog. Naively, I sometimes wish that he could have lived forever. I would never presume, however, to have a hand in re-creating his life, because I didn’t create it to begin with.

We’re playing God. And we’re enormously under-qualified.

Image attribution: Shadowgate under Creative Commons.

The Privilege of Remembering

There are a lot of things I remember about life that were, quite honestly, humiliating. Things that I have thought that I would be quite content to never remember again. Moments in which I thought I was being “cool,” or when I was completely oblivious some social norm and thus ridiculed by those around me.

There are painful moments that I would have liked to have avoided, as well. Relationships falling apart despite my efforts to salvage them. Having a huge life choice implode, leaving me directionless. Watching family members die. Watching friends make poor decisions.

I don’t want to forget those moments, though. As much as they hurt, I don’t. I don’t want to forget the stupid mistakes I’ve made, either, because that’s how I know to not duplicate them. I don’t want to forget my stubborn refusal to let go of negative things at times, even though I know they’re wrong. I don’t want to forget this because I plan to win over those impulses one day.

And, most of us have watched someone…or we know someone who has…struggle with the demon of Alzheimer’s. The terror that comes with not knowing one’s place in the world, to not be able to remember one’s past.

There’s a point to all of this rambling. The point is this article that I read over the weekend. To summarize (but read the article, because this is stuff that you need to know), research has built on existing knowledge of how memory works (from a bio-chemical perspective), discovered that chemical reactions can be selectively targeted, and, with the application of proper pharmaceutical intervention, be disrupted, resulting in (theoretically) the ability to obliterate memories with precision. Yes, this article is from a reputable source, Wired Magazine. Like I said, read it.

You’ll find that they specifically cite the potential applications to addiction recovery. I suppose that makes it sound attractive. I’m left, though, with a sinking feeling, a mind reeling with so many reactions that I’m not certain where to begin.

When I reached my epiphany about the beauty of inter-disciplinary thinking, it came with the realization that I didn’t have to choose any of the plethora of interests that I had explored in my life, academically or vocationally. I realized that all of them could work together. This came from remembering all of the experiences that I have had with them. Some of those experiences were painful at the time, and I would have rashly chosen at one point to forget them if I could have. Those experiences, however, make me who I am, and, were I not able to remember them, I would find myself quite adrift. I would be quite a different person. One could say (arguably) that the person that I am would cease to exist.

Of course, this pre-supposes that one recognizes personhood as more than a physiological reaction of chemicals and electrical impulses, that personality and mind and emotion are recognized as being more than the sum of their parts. The article references that many things can no longer be taken for granted when the reality of memory is questioned. This smacks of a post-modern philosophy. What I’ve always found unusable about post-modern philosophies such as this one is that the assumption that each individual can create their own referent of reality leads to a complete disintegration of cultural ethics as a natural end result. That is, the assumption that no such thing as absolute truth exists holds the attraction that no one needs to be wrong, yet holds the potential for a seriously slippery slope to questioning the societal foundations that are the boundaries between us and anarchy. It seems that this philosophy is coloring supposedly impartial scientific research in this case.

Empiricism has it’s value, but I’ve expressed my concern previously that we worship science at the expense of the humanities. Not everything can be enslaved to logic. Passion, emotion, the arts, spirituality, all have enormous value (and, ironically, this has been proven in empirical studies). Most religions that I have studied intentionally place emphasis on markers. That is, observances or physical structures designed to help one remember an event. This is built in to these religious systems because there is a danger perceived in one forgetting these events. Whatever your religious bent, or absence thereof, I would argue that there is something to be valued in this practice. This is why we build monuments to wars and national tragedies…to remember those who have fallen, to recall why events occurred, to observe our history, lest we doom ourselves to it’s repetition.

A widespread application of this pill, either for it’s minimal benefits or it’s potential evil in the wrong hands, seems to me a hellish, cyberpunk nightmare come true. Our rush to medicate away every problem because we perceive it as an easier solution than doing the difficult psychological work of dealing with an issue, has led us to this: a surgical removal of a critical part of what makes us human. Even our traumas give us something that we can build upon to be stronger. When we examine the things that form us into human beings, especially into human beings of character, I am hard-pressed to conclude that the easy events are ever the most positively formational.

I remember an episode of Heroes in which a character known as “the Haitian,” who had the ability to erase memories at will, was partnering in an interrogation of an older gentleman. At the instruction of his partner, the Haitian erased the memory of the day the old man had met his wife. A look of horror went across the man’s face as he whispered, “I can’t remember…” I’m still shaken as I remember this scene. The calculating manner in which such a supreme torture could be administered, and the devastating, lifelong harm it would cause. To have the memory of one’s dearest loved ones and family removed is the most horrific abuse of power that I can imagine. I see little difference in someone doing it by choice: our science has merely empowered us with a new manner with which someone may cut apart their lives and reduce their humanity (likely regretting it later), and potentially do it to others, as well.

I’m struck with Lewis‘ profound observation that, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we should. We worship our ability to construct our scientific advances and assume control of every aspect of our frail human existence, falling before its altar as we look to it for deliverance, praising the perception of power that we think we have given ourselves.

We look to the construction of our own designs for salvation. I fear we will find it an insufficient savior, indeed.

Assuming we remember that we tried.

Outside the Box…Again

The onset of Spring in the American Southeast brings about phenomenal amounts of pollen and allergens to which my system has an extremely adverse reaction. That reaction began Thursday night and reached an apex by Sunday morning, at which point I was sleeping only with the assistance of symptom reliever and way too sick to leave the apartment. That being the case, the only logical thing to do was to engage in the equivalent of what Saturday morning cartoons used to be. I logged into Netflix, browsed the animated streaming options, and settled on Batman vs. Dracula.

Once again, I’ll wait until you’re finished laughing.

Long time readers here will find it no surprise that I find inspiration in the mythology of Batman. When I need a writing exercise to get my creative juices flowing, I have been known to engage in writing my own adventures for the Dark Night Detective (good luck with me ever getting those published). In this  movie, Batman relies on science and chemistry to defeat the king of vampires. One of the characters in the movie even comments on how Bruce Wayne’s desire to save the world through his science and charitable foundations is of no surprise. A sort of triumph of man’s ingenuity over supernatural evil; we have the brains, and with them, we can overcome anything that rises against us.

After the movie finished, I was amused a bit at how a very well-animated artistic venture lauded scientific achievement so much, when the two of them seem so diametrically opposed.

Except they’re really not. I recently read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Artist of the Beautiful, a short story in which the protagonist creates a piece of art that is nearly indescribable in both its beauty and its fragility. The protagonist is a watchmaker, and has built his artistic creation through scientific and mechanical means. There’s an unmistakeable message in the story about forgoing beauty and creativity in favor of the mechanical and utilitarian, and yet the artist creates using scientific and mechanical craftsmanship.

The time period in which Hawthorne wrote this piece was prior to science coming into its own as the discipline we know it to be. Natural philosophy was dominant at that time, and the artificial compartmentalization of disciplines had not really come into its own yet. Science, philosophy, and art were all seen as equals, and rightly so, because all involve elements of the other at some level.

My background in theatre began largely as a designer and technician. As such, my mathematics deficiencies always left me with extra hurdles to overcome in my designs, because, while I grasp technology intuitively, there is a scientific component, not to mention a mathematical component, to the lighting and sound and scenic design processes of theatre. Likewise, graphic designers and animators (like those who animated the Batman adventure I watched this morning, I’m sure) utilize both of these in their work, as do many other creative professionals and artists.

Wouldn’t it be great if we were less confined by arbitrary boxes of this-or-that specialization, or even this-or-that field? If specific degrees were no longer required to be considered proficient in certain areas, or even if we recognized what valuable contributions individuals with educational backgrounds outside of their fields could bring? If we appreciated the craftsmanship that is involved in artistry, and vice versa?

In short, if we just stopped defining things so narrowly. Doing so inhibits many from succeeding…or at least makes is substantially more difficult for them to do so.

Photo Attribution: 

Illusory Endeavors

The age-old question: if you could know your future, would you really want to? Would you want to know when you would achieve major milestones in your life? Perhaps you would. Would you want to know who you were going to marry? Sort of takes the fun out of the exploration, doesn’t it? Would you want to know exactly from what profession you were going to retire? Would you want to know exactly when your life would be over, and under what circumstances?

Of course, various artists have explored this topic in depth over the decades, and humanity appears largely void of this sort of precognition…lucky us, to not have to make the call.

This story, however, makes it sound as though we may be landing in the neighborhood:

The implications of this are frightening, unethical, a direct result of our God complex, and catering to the narcissism of the parents, to say nothing of the negative ramifications on the children in question.

A valuable part of childhood is exploration. Personality develops as exploration occurs. Exploration leads to multifaceted individuals…you know, the “Renaissance person” that seems so rare as our culture forces us to mold ourselves into a single label so that everyone knows where to file us in their heads. We are so desperate for these labels that we seem to now want to confine our children before they even have a chance to explore. The scientist interviewed in this video openly states that he will encourage a specific set of parents to push their child into business pursuits, because of quantified test results that would seem to indicate that the child will be strong in this area. As though we can quantify a human being, reducing a person to numbers and formulae in order to predict what they will be most successful in pursuing.

Two goliath ethical train wrecks present themselves to me here: First, the forcing of persons into categories. I’ve spoken here before of how everything in life interweaves, becomes a lens through which we can view everything else…essentially the Burkian principle of communication theory. From a psychological perspective, I’ve often seen…especially in adolescents…the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy take hold; that is, living out what someone has convinced you of because you aren’t aware that there is another alternative. Imagine a person with Harvard potential refusing to further their education beyond high school, even though they want to, because they have been told that their family is one of farmers, and that this person is capable of nothing other than agriculture. There is nothing wrong with agriculture…if that is what this person chooses to do. The point is that this hypothetical person’s not being encouraged to see outside of this box limits their potential in such a way that they may never even realize that they were robbed. There is a similar principal at work in diagnoses: while naming something gives you power over that thing (or problem), there comes with this power the danger of identifying yourself with that label (“oh, I can’t help it…I’m bipolar.”), and thus an absence of effort to improve or change.

This is what will be forced upon these children, based on some tests and numerical read-outs. This set of numbers, you’re an artist. This set, you’re a scientist. How about a set that indicates you should be a janitor? What happens when you know people…you know, have connections to those testing your child, who could make it really look like they could be a business administrator or national leader? Who will watch those watchmen? More practically, and from a less nihilist perspective, who will encourage the child who received numbers stating he/she should be a chemical engineer to pursue their passion for the violin? What if, in failing to do so, a future first chair for the London Philharmonic goes unrealized because the violin was considered taboo for a talented child as they were forced by parents toward being that chemical engineer?

And, at the risk of returning to my soap-box, who said you could sum up a human being in numbers, anyway? The children who are subjected to this testing are being robbed under the cruelest of circumstances: the premise that they are being given a gift.

The second ethical issue is our worship of success at the forsaking of all else. In an industrialized culture, and an increasingly industrialized world, East or West, we value people based solely upon what they can produce. The product is all-important, and if one cannot contribute, then they are less important to the society as a whole. Personal welfare and family time are expected to be sacrificed at the altar of the next business deal. Vacation? That’s for the weak. Sick time is for the weaker. After all, if you’re not at work producing something, then of what use are you?

The concept of viewing a man or woman as being of inherent beauty and worth simply because they are human has been lost in our rush to build, create, and accumulate wealth. While building and creating are natural human pursuits, and are good things in and of themselves, they are never justification for the harm of another human being. Ever.

Yet, mankind (at the risk of a sweeping cliche) now takes this one step further, not only pushing production at the expense of intrinsic human value, but programming a child from birth as to how exactly they will produce.

So, applaud this engineering marvel and scientific breakthrough, while looking at how it will benefit you, if you choose, but do so knowing that it benefits one at the expense of the humanity of another, and, in so doing, reduces the humanity of us all. I hope this is not a true prediction of our brave new world…