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EV Symposium: Sci-Fi and the Technocratic Impulse (Ch. 1)

October 20th, 2011 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Matt’s note:  this is the first post in the Earthen Vessels Symposium.  Jonathan Sprowl was kind enough to provide this intriguing reflection.  He is the Assistant Editor of Men of Integrity magazine and Editor of Leading Outreach newsletter.

We were created by God as embodied creatures with a unique form and function. But the desire to reshape this form and function has always been with us. In the garden, we see the roots of the technocratic impulse discussed in chapter one of Earthen Vessels. It has been enacted with ever increasing precision as human history unfolds and science advances. Science fiction has always served a prophetic role in our culture. As the lines between science and science-fiction are increasingly blurred, we would do well to pay attention to what it has to say about the limits of our scientific efforts.

I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi. I enjoy the playfulness of taking the staid conventions of life and inverting them, or in some cases, totally remaking them. In the imagination, the world possesses a wonderful magic. Sci-fi is often scoffed and summarily dismissed for its sacrifice of character development for the sake of furthering plot. It’s often banished to its own section of the library alongside mysteries, westerns, and romance novels. But it’s probably our best laboratory for thought experiments on what it means to be human. What if we separate mind and body? Is a human still a human without a body? What about the cyborg? Is a human/machine hybrid still human? At what point is a threshold irreversibly crossed and a human ceases to be human? How about an android? Can a self-aware machine that looks human be classified as human? We learn much about what it means to be human by exploring what we are not, and flirting with the boundaries through fiction. We also learn to value the characteristics that make us uniquely human.

In addition to what it has to say about the form of humanity, sci-fi has much to say about the way humanity functions in the world. An example is the way humans use technology. In Technopoly, Neil Postman furthers the theory that we are being mastered by our technological tools as they shape the way we interact with one another. There is no more staid convention of sci-fi than humans being usurped by their tools, creations, or machines. It’s even a dominant theme in one of C.S. Lewis’ own sci-fi novels, That Hideous Strength.  When we pursue advancements through technology we surrender something in the process. It’s obvious that a device such as the iPhone is more than just a communication tool. It is a culture-shaping tool that can easily master its user if not used carefully and reflectively. It has the power to disconnect and isolate as much as its power to connect.

Because of its focus on projecting human beings into the future, sci-fi often provides the most fertile and prescient cautionary tales. With each passing day, the human race acquires a greater mastery of the mechanisms of our bodies and the world around us. Yesterday’s science fiction is today’s science. Often the aspiration to remake the world and ourselves according to an imagined or socially-constructed ideal steps off the page or screen and into reality. Sci-fi provides us with advance warnings about unchecked hubris harnessed to scientific genius. We should not take these warnings lightly, as our technological capabilities tend to outpace our ability to moderate them. As Nathaniel Hawthorne poignantly portrayed in his short story “The Birthmark,” our best attempts to correct what we perceive to be the blemishes of nature often come at a very high cost.

Our culture’s confidence that science holds the answer to all of our problems is horribly misplaced. Our human efforts—or techniques as Matthew has termed them—will always fall well short of our imaginations. The fallout of our experiments in social engineering isn’t always immediately clear. And for all our machinations, we cannot escape the fact that we are earthen vessels living life in light of eternity—sub specie aeternitatis. As much as we desire to be the captains of our own destinies, we do not belong to ourselves nor to this world. We were made in the image of another. Is it any wonder that our hearts are restless? Is it any wonder that we can’t help but aspire to something greater than what we currently experience?

Juxtaposed with the dystopic visions of hubris gone horribly wrong, sci-fi typically provides a savior of mythic proportions and mysterious origins (Luke Skywalker, Neo, Max Rockatansky, Ender Wiggin, John Murdoch, John Preston, Paul Atreides). I realize this is no new insight. Authors—most notably Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces—have traced the archetypal hero and his many incarnations for centuries. But the formula never gets old. That is the thing that astounds. It’s as if the world is continually reinterpreting the opera of the New Man, the Second Adam, the Word become flesh, Immanuel. It was a cosmic invasion that sent out concentric aftershocks to the collective imagination of humanity, pre- and post-Incarnation.

What better place is there to ground a theology of the body and to begin a robust discussion of how we should then live as embodied souls? Matthew rightly begins Earthen Vessels with the most fundamental validation of the body: that of God in Christ:

The body is a temple, but the temple is in ruins. The incarnation of Jesus affirms the body’s original goodness. The death of Jesus reminds us of its need for redemption. And the resurrection of Jesus gives us hope for its restoration. (31)

Seen through this lens, the body is no longer a mere template to be sculpted by technique, or transformed according to the blueprints of science and social convention. It is no longer simply a piece of flesh harnessed to and enhanced by human tools. The answer to the question what does it mean to be human? is to be created and recreated in the image of God by the work of the Holy Spirit, in and through Christ. It is to be a temple of the living God and a member of the Body of Christ.

Well-crafted sci-fi, like all good literature, holds up a magnifying glass to the human experience and heightens our longing for a grander vision. Hope is found, not in asserting our freedom to shape ourselves through the advances of science, but in submitting ourselves to the work of God.

Jonathan Sprowl is Assistant Editor of Men of Integrity magazine and Editor of Leading Outreach newsletter.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.