Superheroes? Stardust? Or vessels of the Incarnation?

When I was first introduced to the fascinations of the DNA double-helix in a biology class at Baltimore’s St. Paul Latin High School, fifty years ago, the “unraveling” of this key to unlocking the mysteries of human genetics had taken place just a dozen years before. Yet in the five decades since my classmates and I built plastic models of the double-helix, humanity’s knowledge of its genetic code has grown exponentially. And it seems likely that, as a species, we’re only at the threshold of our capacity to use this knowledge for good or ill.

Take, for example, “CRISPR”: the acronym for a DNA-editing technique more formally known as Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. Thanks to CRISPR and the rapid pace of experimentation with its possibilities, scientists may be able to cure HIV or hemophilia or muscular dystrophy or some cancers by editing the genes of those suffering from those maladies: and those “edits” would be merely therapeutic, as they wouldn’t be passed along to future generations. But in time, Crispr’s capabilities to “edit” DNA sequences might be used to alter sperm, egg, or embryonic DNA for purposes of what is known in the trade as “human enhancement.”

Which really means human reinvention.

The temptation to use knowledge to break through the seemingly built-in limitations of the human condition, creating superheroes and making the world anew, has been part of the human story for a long time. The ancient Greeks pondered it through the myth of Prometheus. In the eighth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Simon Magus tried to buy the gifts of the Spirit that fell upon converts through the laying on of hands by Peter and John. In politics-besotted modernity, utopian and totalitarian ideologies tried to reinvent the human by radically altering social conditions, raising up what one such lethal experiment unblushingly called “New Soviet Man.” The catastrophic results of such projects, from the French Revolution through the Nazis’ eugenic elimination of “life unworthy of life” to Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward,” have put an end, we may hope, to politically driven “human enhancement.” But the possibilities of genetically driven “human enhancement” now have scientists talking about the “immortality project” – by which they don’t mean the Resurrection of the Dead.

Curiously, though, this 21st-century Prometheanism, which celebrates the infinite possibilities of genetically modified humanity, runs parallel to the claims by the New Atheists and others that we’re just congealed stardust, the accidental result of cosmic biochemical processes that just happened. So here’s the strange position in which we find ourselves. One gang of materialists says that we can be supermen; another says that we’re just meat, if interesting meat. Christians are frequently dismissed by the first gang of materialists as nay-sayers with a soured, cramped view of the humanity and its possibilities; the proponents of the congealed-star-dust model of the human condition dismiss us as hopeless, even infantile, romantics.

The truth of the matter is that Christianity has a far higher view of the human than either of the dominant materialist gangs in today’s high culture. That view was brilliantly outlined by St. Augustine more than a millennium and a half ago:

“We must keep before our eyes the very source of grace, taking its origins in Christ, our head, and flowing through all his members according to the capacity of each. The grace which makes any man a Christian from the first moment of his coming to believe is the same grace which made this man the Christ from his coming to be as man. The Spirit through whom men are reborn is the same Spirit through which Christ was born. The Spirit by whom we receive forgiveness of sins is the same Spirit who brought it about that Christ knew no sin.”

When the “immortality project” was cranking up in earnest, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said to me, “You know, we’re going to spend the rest of our lives explaining to people that suffering and death are good for you.” It’s not an easy sell, however true it may be. But it’s a truth easier to hear, and bear, if we imagine ourselves, not as genetically enhanced superheroes or congealed stardust, but as the stuff from which God became incarnate among us.

COMING UP: Domesticating the divinity

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Some biblical scholars consider the Book of Deuteronomy to be a collection of sermons: catechetical homilies on the great theme of the Exodus and the fulfillment of that epic adventure in God’s gifts of the Law and the land to the people of Israel. Throughout the book, Israel is told, over and over again, “Remember….” (or, more sharply, “Take heed, lest you forget….”). And what is Israel to remember? What does Israel dare not forget? Israel must remember God’s mighty deeds in leading his people out of that “house of bondage,” Egypt. Israel must remember that Pharaoh’s army was crushed by God’s power, not its own. Israel must remember the manna and the quail in the desert, food from heaven. Israel must remember the gift of the Law, which helps Israel avoid falling back into the bad habits of slaves. And Israel must remember the gift of the land, which, by God’s bounty, gave her a home where she might prosper.

In Deuteronomy, Gianfranco Ravasi remarks, to “remember” is a synonym for “to believe:” for to remember God’s gracious action in history is to believe that God alone is God, and God alone is to be worshipped. Thus the admonition “Remember…” is a caution against idolatry. In the Old Testament, “idolatry” often means worshipping the false gods of the various peoples Israel encounters; in Deuteronomy, “idolatry” is the false god of self-sufficiency. Settled in the land, Israel may be tempted by prosperity to fall back into its national “original sin,” symbolized by the darkest moment of the Exodus epic, the incident of the golden calf. For what was that all about? It was about the worship of a domesticated God whom Israel can fashion into an image and see, and thus control.

Self-sufficiency – the forgetting of our dependence on the Lord and on the Lord alone – is a perennial temptation for all those who share in the spiritual heritage of Israel. In this twenty-first century, we are no less tempted to domesticate God, and thus to sink into a shallow religious indifference or insouciance, than our biblical ancestors. In his recent, striking pastoral letter, “Unleash the Gospel,” Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit reflects on this in discussing the roots of the contemporary crisis of faith.

Two factors creating today’s crisis of faith are familiar to most of us: “scientific fundamentalism,” which asserts that the only path to truth is through the empirical scientific method and the natural sciences, and “secular messianism,” which imagines the world to be perfectible by human agency alone. Archbishop Vigneron identified a third factor impeding or corroding faith today, “moralistic therapeutic deism.” He writes:

“This term was famously coined by two sociologists to describe the amorphous set of religious beliefs to which many American young people subscribe. This belief system is moralistic in that it emphasizes moral behavior, vaguely defined as being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, and so on. It is therapeutic in that it envisions God as on call to take care of problems that arise in our lives, but not otherwise interested in us nor holding us accountable for our choices. It is deistic in that it views God as having created the world but not personally involved in it. Such views fall short of the Christian understanding of God, who does hold us accountable, who gave his Son for us to save us from the devastating consequences of sin, and who desires to be deeply involved in our lives.”

The Church of Nice is not the Church of Jesus Christ, who came “to cast fire upon the earth” and longed to see it blaze up [Luke 12.49]. Yes, the Church of Jesus Christ is the Church of the merciful father, who restores to the prodigal son the squandered dignity of his sonship. But the condition for the possibility of the son’s receiving the father’s forgiveness is the son’s recognition of his need for forgiveness – the son’s recognition that he had been reduced to foraging for swine’s fodder by his self-indulgent self-sufficiency.

There are signs all around us of Christian communities domesticating God by trimming their doctrinal and moral sails to the prevailing mores of the post-modern West. It is a temptation against which the Catholic Church, and especially its ordained leaders, should be constantly vigilant.