Apocalyptic language is enjoying something of a vogue. We are constantly being told that we face an environmental apocalypse or that the polarization of our politics represents a cultural apocalypse. During the time of Covid, such language was common. We were living, so we were told, in an apocalyptic moment for the world at large.
The term apocalypse has two meanings, both of which apply to our current times. First, there is its common use to designate the end of an era, or even the end of time itself, in some catastrophic and terrifying way. Certainly, as we look at the world today, we can see both nationally and internationally that an epoch is coming to an end—and in a way that is marked by turmoil and uncertainty. That epoch might be variously defined. The demise of the postwar liberal consensus, the end of the cultural domination of the West, the crumbling of the nation-state: all of these seem to signal that we stand on the verge of a major and traumatic transformation of the world order.
The second—and more strictly correct—meaning of the term, however, is that of revelation or unveiling, of bringing into the open deeper realities that have previously been hidden. The Apocalypse of St. John does describe the end of the world, but it is not called the Apocalypse for that reason. Rather, it has this title because John’s book purports to unveil what is really going on in history.
What I want to suggest is that the apocalypse we are undergoing in the first sense—that dramatic and catastrophic end of an era that is plunging many parts of our culture and our world into uncertainty, if not chaos—is also an apocalypse in the second sense. It is revealing things to us that have been true for a long time but whose significance we have largely missed. More specifically, I want to suggest that what is being revealed is the fact that we are in the midst of an anthropological crisis. This affects the politics of the public square most obviously, but because it raises questions about what it means to be human in the most basic sense, it poses challenges to all areas of our lives, including the relationship of the church to the wider society. At the center of this crisis lie the dramatic developments in technology that are transforming not simply the way we live but also the way we are—what and who we understand ourselves to be.
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What We Are and Who We Are
Many current events provide evidence of this anthropological crisis. This may not be apparent from their immediate, particular, and disparate details, but certain underlying causes give these cases a deeper unity.
Consider the recent incidents, both in the United Kingdom and in the United States, when leading public figures—the Labour shadow minister for women and minorities and a now-confirmed Supreme Court Justice, respectively—were unable or unwilling to offer a definition of the term “woman.” While the question “What is a woman?” most directly addresses gender and its relationship to biological sex, the very fact that that question can be seriously asked points to a deeper issue: namely, that the question “What is a human?” no longer commands any strong consensus. This lack of consensus on what it means to be human underlies our most contentious points of political and social conflict.
Here, we must note something that distinguishes human beings from other animals: that we make a basic distinction between what we are and who we are. In our time, the who question dominates the question of what. On one level, this is entirely understandable. Other creatures operate on the basis of instinct—the bee makes a honeycomb, the fox kills chickens, the beaver builds a dam, and each does these things because they are hard-wired to do so. They have no choice. What they are is who they are. But human beings choose the activities in which they engage and how they engage in them. What we are—creatures with a certain common genome—is not who we are as people who freely form associations, participate in certain activities, and create culture. The problem is that we have allowed this “who” question to overwhelm and even detach itself from the “what” question.
We see this most dramatically in debates about abortion. The discussion of abortion today is not really about when life begins. That this occurs at conception is not seriously disputed by leading thinkers on either side. What is disputed is personhood. Is the living being in the womb a person? If it is, then it enjoys the protection of law given to other, postnatal persons. If it is not, then it does not. With the advent of personhood theories such as those espoused by Peter Singer, the “who” question, the question of intentionality and choice, has decisively eclipsed the “what” question. According to Singer, a human person is one who has consciousness of past, present, and future and the ability to act with reference to that future—in other words, the actualized ability, not merely the innate potential, to be a “who.” In such an account, neither the baby in the womb nor the child until approximately aged two qualifies as a person. Nor do those in the later stages of dementia. The “what” is morally irrelevant.
This triumph of the “who” question has happened for at least two reasons. First, we now live in a world where the old cultural frameworks for framing and shaping our sense of self—of who we are—are rapidly disappearing. External structures of authority, such as the nation, church, and family, are becoming increasingly implausible. They are being supplanted by others, supremely by those enabled and constituted by technology. As this external framework for identity becomes more fluid and volatile, our sense of self and of the world become correspondingly less stable. Thus, the question of who we are as individuals becomes more and more complicated, and the question of what we are as a species seems less and less relevant.
The significance of technology in this shift can be illustrated through some contemporary political issues. Again, take the transgender issue, which connects to two broader questions. First, there is the obvious one concerning the authority of physical, biological sex over identity: Does bodily sex have a foundational, non-negotiable, given role in who we are and how we relate to each other? Second, there is the broader philosophical question of the status and authority of the body in general for identity: Is the body of the essence of what it means to be human, or is it rather something extraneous to who I am, something that should be overcome or transcended by me in a quest to construct my own freely chosen identity?
Both questions served to locate transgenderism within the broader context of transhumanism, a collection of movements bound together by a desire to transcend the physical limitations of the human body. Some transhumanists are engaged in a quest to defeat mortality, others in attempts to break through the limitations of innate sex, intelligence, or any other human attribute that can be enhanced, overcome, or transformed. Transhumanism can only be imagined as a possibility in a world where technology makes such a vision plausible. In the specific case of transgenderism, only in a world where hormone therapy and elaborate surgical procedures are possible can I come to imagine that the sexed nature of my body is accidental to who I am and that it must therefore bow to my inner psychological convictions.
Then there is the modern tendency to see sexuality or sexual desire as the key to individual identity—something described by German philosopher Rüdiger Safranski as “our era’s most prominent fiction regarding the nature of truth.” Setting aside the specifically sexual dimension of such a way of constructing individual identity, to identify ourselves by desires of any kind is surely a remarkably subjective way of grounding who we are. By setting out my inner desires as definitive of who I am, I place all other anchors of identity, and indeed all relations with others, into a position of subordinate importance. Such a move speaks of a world where external identity markers are already too weak to give stability to a sense of self.
As to the specific issue of the sexualization of identity, as with transgenderism, this is only plausible if certain technologies exist. Traditionally, sex is behavior and has a social function in the bond of marriage and in procreation. For sexual desire to become identity, sex itself needs to be reconceptualized as something of primarily individual significance. That can only take place if it can be routinely detached from its social consequences. That, in turn, requires a world of antibiotics, contraceptives, and abortion. Indeed, such is the power of technology in shaping our moral imaginations that we now tend to think of the natural consequences of sexual activity as unnatural risks, as indicated by the routine use of the term “unwanted pregnancy” in the abortion debate.
Space does not allow for detailed discussion of the family, but we should note that technology has transformed this, too, in a number of ways. Reproductive technology has broken the monopoly of natural male–female relationships as foundational to the family structure, with its dependences and obligations. Surrogacy and IVF have shifted the cultural and legal understanding of parenthood in a functional direction that downplays or even denies the significance of biological relationships. The work of a cyborg feminist such as Sophie Lewis, with her call for the abolition of the family, is only the most recent and most extreme example of such. The same basic principle is at play in the practice of egg and sperm donation and of surrogacy. With the emerging potential to produce children from stem cells, traditional biological structures are set to become even more equivocal. The family, rather like the nation and the physical body, looks set to be demolished and rebuilt along very different lines.
These examples reveal something important: technology is constitutive of reality, because it is the means by which reality is mediated to us. But technology’s complicating of the question of what it means to be human and of who we are is not restricted to matters of gender and sexuality. There are plenty of others. Our basic notions of time and space are intimately connected to technological developments. Cheap and efficient transport means that a distance that once required days, weeks, or months to traverse can now be done in hours. In industrial and post-industrial countries, seasons no longer dominate the rhythm of life. Diseases that were once thought to be death sentences can now be routinely treated with medication. Even our experience of our own bodies has been transformed through technology—from the workplace, where robotics has diminished the significance of raw physical strength, to Zoom, where instant visible communication is no longer a matter of physical proximity.
In light of this, we might also note that technology actually tilts our imaginations toward thinking of the world in general as being merely raw material to do with as we wish, or, even more radically, as representing a set of problems to be overcome. As it seems to empower our raw wills, technology teaches us to see anything that impedes those wills as something to be overcome. And the more powerful technology becomes, the stronger such intuitions become. Again, the transformations of sex into recreation and gender into something we can create for ourselves are only two of the most politically charged examples. There are others. The shift in our understanding of medicine from being primarily reparative or restorative to something that improves on or even transcends natural limitations is another. That so many of us would now feel frustrated and less than fully ourselves if deprived of smartphones and internet access for even a relatively short period of time is also a function of this. Indeed, we are all cyborgs now. Mere physical, localized, limited bodies, without technological connectivity, are problematic and sources of alienation.
All of this points to the difficulty of answering the question of human nature. We can still give the biological answer, but that merely addresses the “what” aspect. The more important dimension of the question has always been preoccupied with the “who,” and that is now something to which no easy response can be given. Perhaps we might say that humans are those who choose, but that is not to say very much at all, raising as it does further questions concerning the freedom and range of our choices that are themselves functions of available technology. And is there any general “what” behind the individual “who” that makes these choices?
The Church and the New World Order
It has often been claimed that politics is downstream from culture. Perhaps we can rephrase that for today’s world by declaring that politics is now downstream from technology. The question of what it means to be human makes this clear. Identity politics has arisen, in part, because the old ways of grounding identity have been demolished or become too weak to fulfill their erstwhile role. And technology has unleashed a sense of power and of the plasticity of humanity that fills this void. Politics is now in chaos because modern technological society has no underlying anthropological consensus on which a polis can be built.
The old frameworks for modern political discourse—class divisions and national identity rooted in economic realities, solid space as defined by stable borders, and a shared national narrative—no longer apply. These larger identity markers have all been scrambled by technology. That we can now have protests in Bristol over police actions in Minneapolis, that we can have young people in Essex pledging allegiance to ISIS, something they only know from the internet: these are matters of political significance, indicating simultaneously the weakness of old identities and the rise of new ones. Both sides of that equation—the demolition of the old and the enabling of the new—are driven by technology. And today’s technology has detached the question of who we are from any agreed notion of what we are in a way unprecedented in human history. In such circumstances, the social fragmentation and political chaos we witness both domestically and on the international stage would seem to be entirely predictable.
The breakdown of political discourse and the crisis of legitimacy that traditional democratic institutions now face is therefore apocalyptic, in that it has unveiled this underlying, technologically fueled anthropological chaos. The “who are we?” question—always important, given that we are intentional, not merely instinctive creatures—has become the only question, no longer anchored in commitment to a notion of universal human nature, with limitations, a moral structure, and some common goal or range of common goals. Without such a foundation, without answering the “what are we” question, how can we answer the “who” question in any stable or meaningful way? How can we build any stable or coherent society?
Covid restrictions highlighted this in a painful way. Virtual Man, who works through his laptop and can thus work anywhere in general and nowhere in particular, found such restrictions to be far more reasonable than Real Man, who has to go to work in a particular time and particular place because he works with material, not virtual, reality. That is not simply a vocational divide. I would suggest it is an anthropological divide. Real Man experiences the world—and his own sense of self—in a fundamentally different way from Virtual Man. This is reflected in so many of the conflicts now straining western democracy, from the French Yellow Jackets to the rise of working-class nationalism to the Canadian truck protests. In each case, we see what Mary Harrington has dubbed the clash of the Virtuals versus the Reals. Underneath that divide lies a conflict of anthropologies between a technologically liberated view of human beings as disembodied wills who can transcend the limitations of the materiality of the world and a belief that embodiment and place are critical to survival.
The Challenge Facing the Church
Clearly, this situation is leading to a significant reconfiguring of the nature of politics. But my primary interest here is not the specifically political aspects of this anthropological crisis. Rather, it is the challenge this crisis raises for the church in her relationship to society.
Here, it is useful to note the historical background to our religious situation. Europe lost its religious unity at the Reformation but retained its broad moral consensus, because the Christian idea of human nature as exceptional and as possessing a moral shape remained strong even after the attenuation and ultimate death of God at the Enlightenment. This had obvious political implications. We might say that even as Christian dogma and practice slowly ceased to set the terms of membership in the civic sphere, the morality Christianity had inspired remained central to public life. In the nineteenth century, this came under fierce intellectual challenge from various angles, most famously in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche had little impact in his lifetime, but the trajectory of his thought proved prescient. The intellectual assault on the idea of normative human nature continues to the present day in various theoretical disciplines, such as gender theory, queer theory, critical race theory, and so on. Such theories have potent analogues in the ways in which technology enables us to imagine the world. The net result is that the anthropological crisis articulated in social theory is now being enacted in social practice.
This anthropological crisis has many implications for the church, but the most obvious and immediate is this: as our dependence on technology reshapes the moral imagination of our culture to see human beings as psychological wills that need not respect material limitations, so the old order that was built on these limitations will become increasingly implausible. Furthermore, the terms of membership of the old order will come to appear antithetical to those of the emerging new order. This has significance for the political conflicts noted above, where those wishing to assert the importance of place will come to be seen as reactionary and backward. With no common ground, the political conflict will become even more acrimonious. But this situation also has implications for the church.
Under the old liberal order, the things that made Christianity stand out from the wider culture—belief in the Incarnation and the Resurrection, for example—could be safely confined to the private sphere and played no role in public life. Belief or denial of such things was not part of the conditions of membership in civil society. Under the new order, the things that make Christianity stand out from the wider culture—the moral shape of human nature, the authority of the body and of bodily reality for human community and well-being—stand in contradiction to the emerging philosophical assumptions of public life and its terms of membership. Christianity takes the material world very seriously and sees it as having an authoritative moral structure that limits how we should act. Most obviously, it sees human nature as a real, universal thing, inextricably connected to our embodiment. From identity and sex to family and community, from the private sphere to the public square, this is foundational to Christian thinking. And in a world that wishes to assert the opposite, this means that the emerging terms of membership in civil society are increasingly those that will deny Christianity and Christians the possibility of full membership.
The Path Forward
Humanly speaking, the situation for the church is bleak. We need to understand that. The apocalypse that is identity politics reveals that the church’s answer to the question “What is a human?” is now considered not merely implausible but also immoral and politically unacceptable.
At the same time, the world’s answers to that question—that being human means whatever you wish it to mean, or whatever technology allows you to imagine it means, or whatever the tastes of your society require it to mean—scarcely offer a stable foundation for our corporate existence. The church may be forced to society’s margins, but society itself has no center that can hold. The collapse of public discourse, the prevalence of anxiety and mental health issues, the disintegration of communities, the nihilism of affluent consumerist lives, the widespread loneliness and despair of young people, the scourge of rapid-onset gender dysphoria—each of these things and more indicate that a lack of consensus on what it means to be human has far-reaching and catastrophic effects for us all.
Yet here, perhaps, is a glimmer of hope. The reason for this is something we all intuitively know: we human beings are not simply whoever we wish to be; we are not simply disembodied wills; on the contrary, we do have a nature—a “whatness”—that cannot be indefinitely denied with impunity. We are embodied, and those bodies involve biological limits (we all die, even if we choose to self-identify as immortal) and a moral framework—we never exist in isolation but always within a network of dependence and obligation. If the time of Covid revealed anything, it revealed that most human beings still have some intuition that embodiment, and the communities of obligation and dependence that are intrinsic to our embodiment, are of critical importance to what it means to be human.
The challenge for the church, embedded as she is in this technological age, is to embody that reality in her life. The path forward is to take our coming marginalization seriously, as an opportunity, not merely a setback: an opportunity to embody in our own lives and congregations what it means to be truly human.
This essay was adapted from a speech delivered at a banquet in London on November 9, 2022.