Humanity in the Age of the Immanent Frame

Humanity in the Age of the Immanent Frame

What Hollywood taught me about human dignity…

When I was about twelve or thirteen, I went to see the movie Gattaca. If you don’t recall, it’s about a future society in which humans are no longer the fruit of love between two parents, but are genetically engineered to increasing standards of perfection. Those who were not engineered, like the main character Vincent (played by Ethan Hawk), society deems “invalid” and restricts their level of education and opportunity. Only the “valids,” those humans designed in a laboratory, are worthy of real societal empowerment and investment. 

I remember walking out of the theater thinking the movie was pretty good. But it was just a movie. Most audiences agreed with me, as it had only modest reception at the time. But looking back now, its central message seems more prescient than ever, not only in that we are on the verge of nonfiction designer babies, of actually practicing what the writers of Gattaca only imagined, but because the film puts its finger on the philosophical and theological questions that still haunt us today when it comes to human value and dignity.

In the twenty years since the film’s release, my sense is that we have not advanced that discussion one bit. We are still circling around the same categories, the same arguments, the same impasse. Even Gattaca struggles to answer its most important questions. One of my favorite lines is narrated by the main character: “I’ll never understand what possessed my mother to put her faith in God’s hands, rather than her local geneticist.” Vincent is describing his own origins as one who was conceived and born naturally, that is, from a father and mother. He can only describe that process with an appeal to God. Here the filmmakers have identified the crux of the matter: are humans more than genes? And if they are, what do we mean by that? How do we describe that something that makes us more? The message of film—and you can feel it throughout—wants so desperately to do just that, to articulate that we are more. But even at its crescendo, the conclusion, the most it can say is that there is something unquantifiable about being human. As the tagline put it, “There is no gene for the human spirit.”But that’s it.

This capitulation, I think, is why we are stuck. Every time we start to talk about human dignity and human rights,  we invariably hit our heads on the philosophical ceiling that hangs over all of Western society. The ceiling that says, “here, and no further.” There are lots of ways to describe it, but Charles Taylor has probably done it the best in his book A Secular Age. He called it the “immanent frame.” 

How the immanent frame is a conversation killer…

The immanent frame, for our purposes, is the basic philosophical principle that any concept of transcendence, anything worth talking about beyond what we can measure empirically, is off limits. Immanence, what is right it front of our senses, is all that matters. It’s all that is real. We have moved on from appeals to the divine or supernatural in how we understand the world, and consequently, in how we understand ourselves. 

Obvious examples abound. This constraint is part of the deep skepticism toward religious belief that has become more prevalent in our society and explains (in part) the church’s waning influence in culture-making institutions. So much of what Christianity has to say about truth is beyond the boundary line that more and more people are hesitant to cross: the line of transcendence.

This same dynamic has been at play in so much of the discussion around human dignity and worth. Appeals to the transcendence of human beings, inherent value, are dismissed out of hand, and must be for the immanent frame to survive. If we want to root human dignity in something, it must be something we can taste, touch, hear, see, and smell. This is especially evident in discussions around the beginning and end of life. 

I was recently reading the New York Times opinion article, “Why The Fight Over Abortion Is Unrelenting,” by Thomas Edsall. In it he quotes anthropology professor emerita Sarah Hrdy of the University of California, Davis, who asserts that before we can talk about abortion and women’s rights, we need to first understand male coercion of female primates as a primary scientific and philosophical backdrop. Regardless of what you think of that idea (honestly, I laughed out loud), it illustrates the point. Here is an incredibly immanent explanation for how men and women treat each other, and why men have always demanded a say in female sexuality.

This approach is consistent, but has devastating consequences. If human dignity is not based upon a transcendent metaphysical principle (like, all humans are by definition valuable because they are made in the image of God), then all we have left are human capacities. One need not think too hard about this to realize the Pandora’s box that it opens. If human worth is based on capacity, then why protect the unborn? They can’t do anything. Why fight for the aging? They are no longer real contributors to society. 

What if, for example, we decided that certain races of humans had less capacity for intelligence than others? Hello, eugenics movement! 

What if we decided that having a genetic disorder, like Down’s syndrome, made you less than fully human? Hey there, Iceland! (Iceland has virtually eliminated Down’s syndrome through elective abortion).

What if we decided to measure human worth by self-awareness or sentience? Enter Peter Singer, leading bioethicist at Princeton, who has publicly endorsed infanticide up to the age of one on that very basis. 

On this last example, there was real public outcry. Surely that action is wrong! But wham, we hit our heads on the immanent frame again. There is no argument against it without appealing to something more. Don’t blame poor Peter Singer for being consistent.

Singer’s opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s. And round and round the conversation goes. 

Cracks in the frame…

Ross Douthat, another writer for the New York Times, recently tweeted about an exchange he had with friends over dinner (by the way, how do you cite Twitter? What a time to be alive!). He asked his friends if they believed in ghosts. Of course, not a single hand went up. But the woman next to Douthat leaned over and said, “I don’t believe in them, but I’ve seen one.” 

The same dynamic, I think, is at play in human dignity. If there are cracks in the immanent frame, this contradiction is a big one. We may not “believe” in transcendent human worth, but we’ve seen it. Just think about it. Do you know anyone who truly believes human beings are a collection of cells and chemicals? Almost everyone I have talked to knows through and through the inherent value of people even if they can’t articulate it. 

This has been the foundational passage on which all discussion of human worth is based in Western society. Our secular friends are simply trying to have their cake and eat it too, to uplift humanity as something special without appeal to divine creation. My opinion? It won’t work. 

So what do we do in the meantime? How do we push on these cracks in the immanent frame? A concluding thought for the church: 

Human dignity is not an argument to win. It’s a mission to be lived out. 

I believe that, as Christians, we have a strong logical case for human dignity. I’ve laid out some of it here. But logic alone is not very compelling, nor is it all that God asks of His people. I’m afraid that Christians in the United States have a reputation for wanting to win arguments around human dignity without actually loving people. Fair or unfair, we should take that criticism seriously. In Jesus’ kingdom, it is never enough to be right. One must also be good. Can we practice what we preach? Can we backup our high view of human life with a high commitment to helping others, especially those whom our culture struggles to love? Can we, as Peter admonishes us,

“live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits” (1 Peter 2:12 NIV)?

Here’s my suggestion to help us do this. Let’s sing ourselves an old song, with one emendation: Jesus loves THEM this I know, for the Bible tells me so.  I think we would do well to remember that, yes, Jesus loves me, but He also loves them, whoever “them” happens to be in society. Just like the “invalids” in Gattaca, every culture has a “them,” a less than. Christianity has always been known, at its best, to love them well. There is a reason the church has exploded in places like India, where the gospel radically challenges the caste system and raises the dignity of the Dalit, the “untouchables.” It was on the basis of human dignity that chattel slavery was eradicated in the Western world, though it took way too long for that to happen. There’s a reason the Christian faith thrived in Rome, even under heavy persecution, because Christians protected exposed infants meant to die and willingly sacrificed themselves to love others during the plague.

This commitment in particular to human life changed an empire not too long ago. 

The immanent frame looks strong. But God’s love is stronger. May we wield it well.

Advocating for the Unborn

Advocating for the Unborn

Recently my wife Liz and I attended the Advice and Aid banquet celebrating 30 years of coming alongside women who find themselves in the often-difficult realities of an unplanned pregnancy. For many years Christ Community has linked arms with Advice and Aid, and we continue to look for ways we, as a local church community, can be more involved and supportive in our advocacy of the unborn.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Pope Francis compared elective abortion justified by prenatal fetal maladies to Nazi eugenics. Pope Francis made the point that today we are doing the same thing the Nazis did although our destruction of the unborn is “practiced with white gloves.” (WSJ, June 18, 2018)

I am grateful for the courage and moral clarity of Pope Francis and I only wish more spiritual leaders would speak out in our troubled times. Although I have spoken out many times before on the matter of abortion, I want to again make it crystal clear where I stand and where Christ Community stands when it come to the destruction of the unborn.

I believe legalized elective abortion on demand is the most grievous injustice of our time, both in its unconscionable evil, as well as its massive scope. The numbers of the unborn that have and continue to be destroyed through legalized elective abortion is staggering. Somewhere around 50 million babies have been aborted in the United States since 1973. The landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision has unleashed an unimaginable holocaust of human destruction.

Behind much of the current cultural and political polarization lurks a wide and fundamental divide between those who assert “reproductive rights” of women and those who assert the “right to life” of the unborn. Many “pro-choice” advocates say they want abortions legal yet rare, but the inconvenient truth is the abortion holocaust continues to be driven by a relentless government lobby and a highly profitable death industry.

As followers of Jesus, one of our most compelling stewardships is to seek justice and to care for and protect the most vulnerable among us. While we must up our game in confronting other grievous injustices in our time, we must also keep in mind the most vulnerable human beings are those in the womb.

The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision is erected on a faulty legal, scientific, and a moral foundation. In a recent Christianity Today article, Matt Reynolds lays bear the judicial malpractice of Roe v. Wade:

Taking the life of an unborn child is a sin against God and man. Roe, by contrast, is an offense against America’s democratic order, a renegade ruling utterly untethered from the text, logic, structure or history of the Constitution it purports to enforce. Supporters and opponents of abortion ought to find it equally indefensible.” (Christianity Today, October 2018, p. 28)

The legal architects of Roe v. Wade discovered a right to privacy as well as created an arbitrary determinate of personhood around the idea of fetal viability. The arbitrary line of fetal viability established in 1973 has been scientifically debunked as fetal viability is now seen much earlier in human development. Clearly, on scientific and moral grounds, the most compelling line of personhood is conception, not viability.

And even if there was a question as to when human personhood begins, with so much on the line, would we not be wise to err on the side of caution? Abortion on demand has provided a legalized mirage of a bankrupt situational morality. Let’s be clear, just because a human court deems something legal, does not mean it is morally right in God’s eyes. Clearly, this was the case for America’s dark history of racism where humans of African descent were legally deemed less than persons.

The Holy Scriptures remind us that every human person is made in the image of God and has intrinsic worth and value. The Bible points to God’s sovereign involvement in our lives even before we are born. In Psalm 139, we read David’s words of rapturous wonder,

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

The Bible’s advocacy of the unborn is anything but silent or clouded. Yet the moral confusion, obfuscation, and willful blindness of our cultural moment in regard to abortion is glaringly seen when, on the one hand the medical community pulls out all the medical stops to save a wanted premature baby, and on the other hand is performing a surgical abortion snuffing out the life of an unwanted baby.

In the midst of so much moral confusion, it is my prayer that we might, both as individuals and as a faith community, have moral clarity, compassion, and courage. So how should we respond to the ongoing holocaust of the unborn? How might we be Christlike advocates of the unborn?

  • First, we need to have moral clarity and conviction that elective abortion on demand is wrong and unjust.
  • Second, we need to pray for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens to change and for the end of the legalized slaughter of the unborn.
  • Third, we need to look for ways we can care and support women who have had abortions, as well as those who find themselves in an unplanned pregnancy. Abortion recovery services, adoption services, and organizations like Advice and Aid need our prayerful and generous financial support.
  • Fourth, we need to consider ways we can work through legal and political processes to change abortion laws and to seek the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
  • Fifth, for some, advocacy of the unborn will mean lawful protest.

May I also encourage you to make it a priority to see the recently released movie, Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer. This movie is not easy to see, but it captures the barbaric horror of abortionist Dr. Kermit Gosnell, and I pray it serves to awaken a nation to the white-gloves holocaust that continues unabated.

With humility and hope, may we heed the timeless words of the prophet Micah, “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.