Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, April 17, 2017

Anthropocene theology

The Anthropocene: what until recently geologists had called the Holocene — the Recent Era — they are now increasingly coming to designate as the era of humanity, the era during which the very bones and breath of the earth are being disrupted, broken, and remade by human will.

And yet others tell us that the world we inhabit is posthuman: certain longstanding understandings of what it means to be human have ceased to be relevant, or in any case seem less accurately descriptive than they once did. A human world — our ancestors lived in that, along with their God or gods: we are beyond such a place now.

Ours; not-ours.

One could describe this disjunction simply as the difference between scientific and humanistic vocabularies, or between two objects of attention: the natural world and human experience: Anthropocene describes what we are doing to our environment, while posthuman is largely phenomenological, a condensed articulation of what it’s like to live in a world where we are constantly making and remaking ourselves, especially via biotechnology. And surely there is some truth in these points, but I want to suggest that the apparent disjunction obscures a deeper unity. A world in which we remake our environment and ourselves is a world that does not feel human to us. We do not know how to play the role of gods, and on some level perceive that to act as gods is to betray our nature.

Borrowing from and extending the work of Aristotle, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has described us as “dependent rational animals,” and for my purposes here the key word in that description is dependent: when we are no longer cognizant of anything or anyone on whom we are dependent we confidently and ceaselessly remake our world, and yet feel that by so doing we have ceased to be fully human. It is an exciting thought and yet also one that troubles our ease. We may sometimes suffer from a species-wide imposter syndrome. What Bonhoeffer famously called “humanity come of age” can be uneasy, wondering whether it might not still be a child who flourishes best under the governance of its Father. (Which is why our political and economic system is so profligate in its production of substitutes for what Auden called “our lost dad, / Our colossal father.”)

In is in light of this twofold reality — the fact of the Anthropocene and the perception of the posthuman condition — that theology in our time should be done.

To this claim there may be the immediate response, especially from orthodox Christians, that theology need not be different in this age than in any other, for human nature does not change: it remains true now as it has been since the angels with their flaming swords were posted at the gates of Eden that we are made in the image of God and yet have defaced that image, and that what theologians call “the Christ event” — the incarnation, preaching, healing, death, resurrection, ascension, and ultimate return of the second person of the Trinity — is the means by which that image will be restored and the wounds we have inflicted on the Creation healed. And indeed all that does, I believe, remain true. Yet it does not follow from such foundational salvation history that “theology need not be different in this age than any other.”

We may indeed believe in some universal human nature and nevertheless believe that certain frequencies on the human spectrum of possibility become more audible at times; indeed, the dominance of certain frequencies in one era can render others unheard, and only when that era passes and a new one replaces it may we realize that there were all along transmissions that we couldn’t hear because they were drowned out, overwhelmed. The moral and spiritual soundscape of the world is in constant flux, and calls forth, if we have ears to hear and a willingness to respond, new theological reflections that do not erase the truthfulness or even significance of former theological articulations but have a responsibility to add to them. In this sense at least there must be “development of doctrine.”

It is vital — if I may continue the aural metaphor — that we not allow ourselves, even through commendable adherence to Christian tradition, to become theological monodists. I borrow that term from W. H. Auden, who used it to describe Kierkegaard.

Given his extraordinary upbringing, it is hardly surprising that Kierkegaard should have become — not intellectually but in his sensibility — a Manichee. That is to say, though he would never have denied the orthodox doctrine that God created the world, and asserted that matter was created by an Evil Spirit, one does not feel in his writings the sense that, whatever sorrows and sufferings a man may have to endure, it is nevertheless a miraculous blessing to be alive. Like all heretics, conscious or unconscious, he is a monodist, who can hear with particular acuteness one theme in the New Testament — in his case, the theme of suffering and self-sacrifice — but is deaf to its rich polyphony.

It is noteworthy that Auden contrasts Kierkegaard, in this respect, to Bonhoeffer, whom I have already mentioned, and who managed even in a period of great suffering and inevitable anxiety to retain in his spirit and figure forth in his words the Christian’s reasons for comfort and impulse to rejoice. To read those letters from prison is indeed to gain an education in the polyphony of Christian teaching and the Christian way of life. What Bonhoeffer possessed to a nearly supernatural degree was the faculty of spiritual hearing: he was the best and acutest of listeners to the frequencies at which his cultural world was transmitting its messages.

I want to emulate him in this respect, as best I can. And over the past few weeks of silent reflection it has become clear to me that much of what I’ve been chewing on for the past couple of years — especially the theological history of modernity and the fiction of Thomas Pynchon — has been pointing me towards the need for a theological anthropology adequate to the Anthropocene. (With the Anthropocene, as explained above, understood to include the experience of the posthuman — I mean something more than the many approaches to a theology of the Anthropocene already out there, all of which, as far as I can tell, confine themselves to the responding theologically to what we are doing to the planet. Which matters, to say the least, and will be a big part of my story.) That is, those earlier inquiries fit my interests best not as stand-alone projects but as necessary elements of an Anthropocene theology; and Pynchon is one of the key thinkers whose frequency I need to tune into if I’m going to do this job properly.

More thoughts about all this in my next post.


  • This is exciting, Alan. Much needed. Also, I'm sure you have this in your mind somewhere, but I like the convergence of your use of Auden’s “rich polyphony” and Bonhoeffer here. In Letters & Papers, 302–3, he too uses that metaphor of polyphony to encourage Bethge to love both God and family. The Christian life is contrapuntal, and requires real effort to sing well.

  • Quite a mouthful. If I understand you correctly, you’re taking note of new nomenclature, the so-called anthropocene and the posthuman, and seeking to formulate a Christian theology that responds to both.

    I can’t speak to theological aspirations and their literary sources, but I would dispute the idea that we are in any significant way yet posthuman. I’m generally okay with adoption of the term anthropocene in consideration of the fact that in a relatively few millennia, we humans have reshaped the biosphere, largely for the worse. But we are nowhere close to becoming posthuman, or transhuman is one prefers. The idea is certainly out there, and many are pursuing its various incarnations with gusto. However, ideological embrace of a prospective self-redesign is not at all the same as its achievement. Sure, we’ve made significant strides in biomechanics, yet our psychological and/or cultural progress (loaded term, that) remains stalled in early adolescence or, as the current political landscape suggests, has reverted to an earlier period of childhood.

    Thus, despite wishful thinking about becoming posthuman, that is at present merely a projection. Further, to be posthuman would be wildly disjunctive from being fully human, however that may be understood, and it’s not even clear that the posthuman experience would be better. Such ambitions are not intended to supersede our mortal condition so much as escape it, which entails precisely the loss and abandonment sensitivity to certain frequencies of, to use your term, the moral and spiritual soundscape.

  • Matt: Yes, I love that passage and write about it at length in my Theology of Reading.

    Brutus: You're right, which is why I make the distinction in my post between the fact of the Anthropocene and the perception of the posthuman.

  • This is great stuff, Alan. I definitely sense the underlying unity in these viewpoints, a unity that (in my very limited experience) tends to go unnoticed by enthusiastic scholars of the posthuman. Looking forward to hearing more.

    The Auden quote is very thought provoking in its big picture argument - I think he's right to note this pattern of heresy that narrows in on one particular idea at the expense of all others. However, as a would be burgeoning Kierkegaard scholar, I feel honor bound to note that Auden offers a pretty unfair (indeed, monodistic) reading of the Dane here (though in Auden's defense that interpretation has certainly been a common one throughout Kierkegaard scholarship). I think, understood rightly, Kierkegaard is a very polyphonic writer, and one who certainly does not disdain life on earth.

  • So glad you're back.

    I'd like to push back against the notion that we (or at least someone?) are not yet posthuman. To the extent that posthumanism is an attitude or frame aiming at freedom from the limitations of the human, actually adopting this attitude (consciously or otherwise) may take us nearly as close to the goal as we're ever going to get. Experiencing ourselves as unmoored - and feeling this either as freedom or anxiety or alienation, or bouncing between them - is already the essential feature of posthumanism fully realized. The details to come, in the form of technological advances of any kind, can't take us beyond this. The real desire is to become limitless, which can't be accomplished with technology. We are already living in a mode in which we chase opportunities to overcome constraints, and in which each new removal of a limit fails to make us feel significantly less constrained. No self-redesign we achieve is going to change this, no?

  • I'm very much looking forward to this! If it's not already there, just putting this on your radar: https://www.amazon.ca/After-Nature-Anthropocene-Jedediah-Purdy/dp/0674979869/ref=pd_lutyp_simh_1_2?_encoding=UTF8&pd_rd_i=0674979869&pd_rd_r=VSPME3T39XWQE05VYY5G&pd_rd_w=oKGVC&pd_rd_wg=aJu4p&psc=1&refRID=VSPME3T39XWQE05VYY5G

  • Asher, I think Auden was reacting against his own earlier overpraise of SK; perhaps he overcorrected.

    Charles, you write: "Experiencing ourselves as unmoored - and feeling this either as freedom or anxiety or alienation, or bouncing between them - is already the essential feature of posthumanism fully realized." That would be true if we only experienced ourselves as unmoored, but I think that experience is often accompanied by others that draw us back into an order not of our making. Which can make us happier or sadder, depending.

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