The Image of God #2: In our culture reality is malleable so I am who I want to be

In April I delivered a talk on the image of God to the Acts 29 Europe conference in Rome. In part one we saw that we are defined by realities outside of ourselves, especially our relationship to God. Here’s part two.

I’m defined by realities outside of myself, especially my relationship to God. To be human is to be in the image of God, defined by God. But this shifts radically with the Enlightenment. Instead of a call to ‘know thyself’ in relation to God, we have a call to know oneself independently of God. Alexander Pope says: ‘Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man.’ Francis Quarles, another early Enlightenment thinker, said, ‘There is none that can read God aright unless he first spell Man.’[1] The order has been switched. Knowledge of self comes first. God is defined in relation to us. So Enlightenment theology (most famously in Friedrich Schleiermacher) becomes the study of human spiritual experience.

These two trajectories have created a stark tension in contemporary culture. Modern science says man is the product of our sub-subconscious (Freudian psychology) or our genes (evolutionary theory) or our society (sociology). We are nothing more than advanced animals. Yet the same time the legacy of a Christian worldview means human beings are still seen as special, creative, rational. For some unspecified reason, people have ‘human rights’. This tension is pulling in opposite directions and so the fabric of our humanity is fraying at the edges of life. The unborn child and the unproductive elderly are having their rights taken away. The baby in the womb is not a person, but a foetus.

But let me highlight two ways in which our generation has gone even further – one this post and one in a future post.

1. In our culture reality is malleable (I am who I want to be)

The idea that our desires should confirm to reality has been turned on its head. We’re the generation which thinks reality should be shaped to match our desires. We’re the generation of self-expression, self-fulfilment, and increasingly self-definition and self-creation. I am who I want to be. One of the first people to point this out was C. S. Lewis in his book The Abolition of Man way back in 1943. Lewis takes as his starting point a recently published school textbook. The textbook describes a famous incident in which the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge heard a man describe a waterfall as ‘sublime’. The authors of the textbook comment: ‘When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall … Actually … he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really … I have sublime feelings.’ C. S. Lewis comments:

Until quite modern times … all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it – believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.

You can say that something was beautiful or ugly, terrifying or comforting, right or wrong. Until recently the purpose of education, argues Lewis, has been to teach people the right responses to objective realities – even if people disagreed on what a right response was.

But in modern times feelings are self-validating. We can’t talk about whether they are an appropriate response to reality. No-one can judge my feelings. In contrast Lewis says:

Because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it).

‘To say that a shoe fits,’ says Lewis, ‘is to speak not only of shoes but of feet.’ In other words, to speak of feelings is to speak not only of feelings, but also of the realities which evoke those feelings. My anger is right is it is a response to an objective injustice. It is wrong if it merely reflects my selfishness or pride. It is not self-validating.

So Chaz Bono, the child of Sonny and Cher, says: ‘Gender is between your ears and not between your legs.’[2] In other words, it’s what I choose to make it, not what is objectively the case. Chaz was born ‘Chastity’, but is now known as a ‘transgender male’. Gender is becoming self-determining. I found a critique of the McHugh article (which was circulated in the email) from a transgender-Catholic group. The article says, ‘He assumes that transsexuals seek to change their gender … instead of conform their body to their mind or soul.’[3] That’s very revealing: gender is being defined in the mind and they’ll change their bodies to match their self-perception.)

This is riddled with inconsistencies. At the same time that Bruce Jenner, the former Olympic gold medallist, was lauded for appearing as the woman Caitlyn Jenner on the front cover of Vanity Fair, the civil-rights activist Rachel Dolezal was heavily criticised for posing as black when she has white parents. You can’t pretend to be black when in fact you’re white. But you can pretend to be a woman when in fact you’re a man. This is a confused culture!

[1] Francis Quarles, Hieroglyphics of the Life of Man, 1638, i, 1.1.

[2] Cited in Jesse Bering, ‘The Third Gender,’ Scientific American, Oct 1 2012, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-third-gender-2012-10-23. Accessed March 24, 2016.

[3] https://catholictrans.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/a-critique-of-paul-mchughs-surgical-sex.

 


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