Flirting with ancient delusions
In what follows, I'm trying to unpack what seems to be a curious overlap between something happening in western Christianity (especially Evangelicalism - maybe more broadly but I don't have good visibility outside of that) and ideas percolating within western secular culture, most especially in regard to transgenderism. In both cases, what I'm perceiving is a kind of shared demotion of the human body.
Among Evangelicals, I'm observing a growing cohort of adherents who are evolving a disembodied practice of their faith, one which is predominately informational and mainly concerned with the moral rehabilitation of their inner lives. For them, the body's role as a full participant in their faith is shrinking. The significant use of livestreaming as a replacement for embodied participation in the gatherings of the church is instructive in this regard. Also the creeping moral ambiguity among some of the evangelical elite regarding sexual practice.
What I find curious is that this is happening among Christians at precisely the same time that the transgender activist community is loudly declaring that our natural bodies are irrelevant also to the question of sex. For transgenders, one's gender is a figment of the will, and unrelated to the way one's body is actually made. For them, their inner lives are the ultimate authority and arbiter of reality.
All of this has been rattling around in the back of my mind for some months, but had not percolated up to the point of my wanting to connect the dots in writing. As things often go, however, some minor events over the last few days have brought these thoughts to full flower, provoking me to finally flesh out how I'm perceiving this curious demotion of the body, both within the church and in the broader culture.
Ever since Covid, my church has continued to livestream its services, and most of the weekly bible classes are livestreamed as well. For some people, those who are physically unable to attend for one reason or another, livestreaming is a wonderful and happy resource. For any of those people who happen to be reading this, what I'm about to write does not apply to you.
This past Sunday, my normal bible class teacher was absent and the substitute needed help setting up a livestream for the class. Since I have a paid Zoom account, I can set up Zoom meetings that last long enough for purposes of our weekly class. So I set up a meeting and sent the meeting invite to our substitute teacher. He then sent an e-mail containing the invite to the entire class attendee list, so that anyone who needed to listen from home or somewhere else could do so.
As Covid began to wind down over the past year, I continued to watch the livestream usage data. It gradually dawned on me that some of the people who are livestreaming could be attending in person, but have apparently found the disembodied participation of livestreaming much more to their liking.
This point was further driven home to me by something that happened after the conclusion of the class last Sunday. As I was talking with my wife and collecting my belongings, a visibly agitated man marched up and was waiting impatiently to speak with me. When I concluded my conversation with my wife, I turned to him.
The conversation went like this:
Agitated Man: I didn't get the Zoom link for today's class.
Me: Oh, well, I'm sorry to hear that. But I guess it didn't matter though, since you're here.
Agitated Man: I wouldn't have been here if I had gotten the link!
Me: Well that's kind of lame, now isn't it?
Christianity has long been plagued by a gnostic inclination. Gnosticism has always been characterized by its insistence, to greater and lesser degrees, on a dichotomy between the content of Christian faith and the embodiment of it. There has always been a gnostic tendency to diminish messy embodiment in favor of unsullied knowledge. Any understanding of Christianity which conceives of itself primarily as a form of disembodied information, reduced almost entirely to the holding of right opinions, is a Christianity that emits more than a whiff of the gnostic past.
Of course, if we go by just the biblical text itself, Christianity is really an unsanitary and earthy amalgamation of dirty feet and baths, body and blood, death and resurrection, bread and wine. It is certainly not less than informational - there is content to the gospel message after all. But as described by the bible, Christianity is very far afield from the antiseptic flickering of a livestream video.
Jesus, whom we Christians are supposed to be following after all, said "this is my body", not "this is my cable modem". So there's that.
When many evangelical churches readily gave up baptisms and holy communion during the recent pandemic, even long after the actual Covid risks were well understood, one had to work hard to ignore the vaguely familiar scent of ancient gnostic flirtations.
Even beyond the realm of Christianity, the Western world is currently engaged in a cultural bar fight over whether our embodied existence defines something essential about ourselves as human beings, or whether the abstractions and preferences that occupy our minds constitute the real.
Do the male and female forms tell us anything about ends and means? Do they suggest anything inescapable, at all, about our existence? Or is it the case that our emotional preferences really determine reality? From this perspective, one way the transgenderism debate can be understood is as a kind of gnosticism.
There is, alas, an eerie similarity between an understanding of Christianity which says your faith can be separated from your embodied participation, and a view of sex which says your gender can be separated from your embodied existence.
I have written elsewhere that much of our current political upheaval is a conflict between those who believe we exist with an embodied and essential human nature, and those who believe human nature is fluid and can be manipulated by technology.
People are taking up sides right now in a broad cultural conflict between the human and the technocratic. It is not only believing Christians who are resisting the technocratic impulse. The secular world is also taking up sides, and some of the most effective fighters on the side of the human and the real are not even Christians.
There is a growing community of erstwhile feminists who have woken up to the problems inherent in the idea that human beings are infinitely malleable. Women like Louise Perry, and Mary Harrington have begun rejecting the trendy view that men and women are merely interchangeable parts. Thus, they are reconsidering the possibility that the respective sexes are biologically, intellectually, and emotionally different from one another. They are even suggesting that having the sexes occupy different roles might be a very good thing indeed.
Mary Harrington is an articulate and critical thinker regarding how our views on human nature have influenced - and are influencing - the transgenderism debate. Notice that in this clip, she suggests that a disembodied online existence may contribute to the formation of an intuition in modern children that their bodies are fungible.
I do not believe it is coincidental that the contentious debates taking place in the west revolve around the essential nature of our existence. Marriage, sex/gender, reproduction, environment, etc. are all addressed as design first principles in the biblical text, and unsurprisingly, they also reflect where the major conflicts in western culture are most heated.
One way to understand the conflict roiling the West over human nature, humanity's place in the world, and our embodied existence, is to see it as modern resentment against the very fact of our "createdness". Moderns are embittered by the possibility that the circumstances of our existence are prescribed by anyone other than ourselves. Adopting a belief, such as gender being anything we say it is, seems like nothing so much as a collective effort at giving God the finger. We really do not like the fact that we are created and can never be entirely self-defining. For the modern, having the circumstances of our existence imposed upon us is, it turns out, enraging.
Some of this may actually be an artifact of pride in our own technical achievements. It is probably no accident that the most vocal advocates for technocracy, and for the fluidity of human nature, are justifying such advocacy on the basis of human technical ingenuity.
Connecting the Dots
We are living through an eruption of transgender mania - a moment characterized by a rejection of the relevance of the natural body as a determinant for human sexual identity. It is remarkable that at just the same moment, a surprising (to me) cohort of Christians have come to see their own bodily presence as largely irrelevant to the practice of their faith.
One of the urgent tasks facing modern Christians is the need to rediscover the embodied character of our faith. What life as a Christian offers is not primarily a mechanism for coping, either morally or emotionally. Nor is it limited to the rehabilitation of our inner lives. Christianity is a comprehensive way of being, one which reaches into every nook and cranny of our existence. Jesus did not redeem us merely to make us feel better about ourselves, or even just to enable us to have all of our informational ducks in a row.
There is a no-kidding spiritual fight currently raging. People are actually dying. Following Jesus involves bringing our whole self - body and soul - to be used by him as combatants in a very ancient conflict. Our weapons are not the weapons of our enemies. And our enemies are not always visible to the naked eye. But the conflict is no less real for all of that.
Bodily courage may be required.