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This year marks the eightieth anniversary of the lectures that became C. S. Lewis’s book The Abolition of Man. Speaking to an audience at the height of the Second World War, Lewis identified the central problem of the modern age: The world was losing its sense of what it meant to be human. As man’s technological achievements were once again being used to destroy human life on an industrial scale, Lewis pointed to the dehumanization that was occurring all around. And as the war continued, the Final Solution and the atomic bomb served to reinforce his claims. Yet modern warfare was not the only problem. As Lewis argued, the intellectual and cultural currents of modernity were also culpable. The war was as much a symptom of the problem as a cause. Modernity was abolishing man. It represented nothing less than a crisis of anthropology.

Sociologists have proposed a number of concepts that characterize the modern age. These provide a useful backdrop to Lewis’s observations. Perhaps the most influential is the Weberian thesis of disenchantment. Whereas once the local god or saint kept the water supply fresh and sweet, now the local water purification plant does the same. Village life has been replaced by the anonymity of the city. People have come to be valued not for themselves but for their earning potential or their consumption. And disenchantment has worked its way into every corner of life: Whereas once love was a serendipitous force that culminated in a lifelong bond between two people, now we swipe left or right on our apps for the next hookup.

These changes bring with them a sense of loss. Modernity has shunted religion and the supernatural to the margins, at the cost of stripping the world of its mystery. The sea of faith recedes, Matthew Arnold wrote in a great poem, and we hear only its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.”

The problem is not merely that the world has become prosaic. It is also that man has lost his sense of his own significance. The more we understand and control nature, the more we realize our own contingency and smallness amid the vastness of an impersonal universe. The unique intellectual brilliance of our species has, ironically, deprived us of any sense that we have special significance. As Pascal observed, the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens those who reflect upon it. This is the ethos that haunts the work of many modern and postmodern writers: Kafka, Beckett, Sartre, Pinter. With no God-given human nature and no God-ordained human end, the question “What is man?” is easily answered: He is nothing much. His nature too is disenchanted.

A second facet of modernity, identified by Zygmunt Bauman, is its liquidity. We live in a world that is in constant flux. This observation is not original to Bauman. Both Marx and Nietzsche voiced it in the nineteenth century. The Communist Manifesto famously declared that the bourgeois era required a constant revolutionizing of production and of markets and thus of all social relations. Constant disturbance was a hallmark of modernity; as Marx put it, “all that is solid melts into air.” Likewise, Nietzsche’s madman, reflecting on the death of God, described the earth as unhitched from the sun, turning all old certainties into chaos. Both men spoke truth: The modern West is indeed in state of endless flux and offers us no place to stand, no firm grasp of who we are.

More recently, the flux has been intensified by what Hartmut Rosa calls social acceleration. If Marx was correct that industrial production was a source of constant change in society, it was so in large part because it depended on technology that was itself constantly changing. We too live in an era of constant technological change, but it no longer affects merely industrial production. Technology shapes how we live in every area, from education to romance. Our lives are technologically shaped in public and in private, and the technology changes so fast that we are unable to assimilate one development before another overtakes it. The result is a dizzy feeling that our ability to control even our personal worlds is constantly slipping further away. In such a context, the questions of who we are and what we are meant for become impossible to answer. Indeed, to borrow from Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” things seem constantly falling apart, and that includes the consensus on who or what man is and what he is for.

The abolition of man as Lewis describes it takes place against the background of two aspects of modernity: its disenchantment and its accelerating liquidity. Yet I want to suggest that we need to add a third category, that of desecration. Man is made in God’s image. That means that the abolition of man is a theological act with theological consequences. Neither disenchantment nor liquidity by itself adequately expresses this aspect of the problem. Desecration, a theological concept, does so.

We can see this more clearly when we reflect on the limitations of disenchantment and liquidity as explanatory schemes. The first is that these concepts speak only to a loss of that which once was. Disenchantment, of course, points to the loss of enchantment. Whereas once the supernatural pervaded the natural, and the transcendent set the terms for the immanent, now only the natural and the immanent remain. Likewise with liquidity: We no longer have, in Marx’s phrase, fixed, frozen relations. All true—but, as will be seen, there is more to our modern condition than these losses.

The second problem is that disenchantment and liquidity connote a lack of human agency. Both are the result of impersonal social processes: industrialization, bureaucratization, technologization, globalization. Connected to these processes is the reification in common language of the phenomena to which they refer: industry, bureaucracy, technology, the global economy. Each takes on a life of its own in our imaginations, and we humans feature within these processes as interchangeable objects, not as active subjects or persons. Yet the processes themselves are the result of human activity. If we have become cogs in the machine, it is because we built the machine.

Further, we must not ignore the agency of the cultural elites—the legal, educational, technological, artistic, managerial, and political classes. In the past, such elites saw themselves as tasked with continuity, with the transmission of values from generation to generation and the careful cultivation of the institutions and social practices that were necessary for this task. Today, the dominant impulse of our elites is toward disruption, destruction, and discontinuity. The abolition of man is a conscious project of our culture’s officer class, not merely the outcome of impersonal social and technological forces. Disenchantment and liquidity simply cannot do justice to this project.

The third problem is that neither disenchantment nor liquidity takes account of the theological significance of the transformations that modernity has wrought upon the understanding of what it means to be human. One need not be a Christian or even a theist to grasp that these transformations have theological significance. Both Marx and Nietzsche connect their understandings of the modern world to desecration. In the same passage that pronounces that all that is solid melts into air, The Communist Manifesto declares that all that is holy is profaned. And Nietzsche’s madman makes very clear that God has not simply ceased to exist in the moral imagination, but is dead—more than that, we have killed him. This slaying of God is surely the ultimate act of active desecration.

Both Nietzsche and Marx view this desecration as good. For Marx, religion is an opiate that prevents the proletariat from feeling the full pain caused by capitalism. Criticism of religion is therefore central to the revolutionary project. Desecration is a precondition for the coming of the communist utopia. For Nietzsche, the death of God, though placing a terrifying responsibility on the shoulders of human beings, is a necessary precondition for man’s self-transcendence. The only question is whether we are up to the task.

It is true that in modernity, desecration is not always the result of intentional agency. Mechanized warfare intensified modern problems surrounding theodicy and inflicted serious damage on traditional religion. Wilfred Owen’s great poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth” transposes the language of Christian liturgy to the slaughter of the Great War’s trenches. The faith is desecrated, but not by the actions of any particular individual—rather, by the chaos of a war supercharged by the power of industry, the fruit of a coincidental confluence of numerous aspects of modernity.

Desecration, however, is more often an intentional act. I noted earlier the impulse of modern elites toward disruption and discontinuity. Nowhere is this more obvious than in their preoccupation with desecration. From Algernon Charles Swinburne to Francis Bacon and beyond, the conscious profaning of the holy has been a constant theme. Take, for example, the opening lines of James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
               — Introibo ad altare Dei.

So begins the greatest masterpiece of modernism, with the first line of the Mass, intoned by a man about to shave, with his genitals flapping in the breeze for all to see. Though Joyce’s conscious intention is presumably not to abolish man—by instantiating Homeric epic in the everyday life of modern Dublin, he ennobles man no less than he ironizes him—Ulysses opens with a moment of desecration that has implications for anthropology. To mock religion is in effect to mock the understanding of God and humanity that religion represents.

Much could be said about the anti-religious tendency of much of high modernism. What is important to note, however, is that intentional desecration has migrated to the popular culture of our own time. As the sophisticated Joyce in the 1920s mocked the Latin Mass, so the talented Billy Joel reminded us in the 1970s that Catholic girls wait far too long to lose their virginity, and now the buffoonish Lil Nas X performs songs as blasphemous as they are banal. Desecration is today mainstream, the preoccupation of even the lowest forms of cultural pond life.

Though further evidence that desecration has gone mainstream may be sought in many areas, I will focus on sex and death. Both have traditionally been matters of deep religious significance. Sex is the mysterious origin of life, death the mysterious end of life. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that a large part of the laws of the Pentateuch is preoccupied with the implications of sex and death for ritual purity. The law specifies in detail how one who is unclean because of sex, or sex-related phenomena, or through contact with a dead body, may return to the community by means of sacrifices and washings. Islam, too, sees sex and death as raising matters of ritual purity.

Christianity sees the Pentateuch as transformed through Christ, but the Pentateuch still provides the context for New Testament drama. In Mark 5, Jesus exorcises the demoniac who lives in the cemetery, heals the woman with the flow of blood, and raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead. In each case, the miracle is one of cleanness overcoming uncleanness connected to sex or death. And Christianity sees the marriage union as an analogy of the union between Christ and the church, an analogy reflected in Paul’s teaching on sexual ethics and in the Catholic Church’s sacramental view of marriage.

It is unsurprising, then, that Western societies continued for the longest time to surround sex and death with public, sacred rituals. A marriage service was the prerequisite for licit sexual experience. Babies were baptized. The dead were buried in consecrated ground. Sex and death were matters of sacred and communal significance.

What this means is that modern shifts in attitudes to sex and death are not trivial. There are many important issues in society: rates of income tax, speed limits on highways, the legal age for the purchase of alcohol, and so forth. But none are as central to the essence of a culture as attitudes to sex and death. One need not be religious to see this. One must only acknowledge that sex and death have traditionally been matters of sacred concern, in order to see loss of that status as significant.

Sex and death are inextricably connected to the body. The one involves two bodies creating another, the other the cessation of bodily life. Indeed, sex and death were sacred because the body itself was sacred, bounded by the mysteries of birth and death. We might put this another way: Those made in God’s image were made so as bodies. The image did not inhabit the body as an astronaut inhabits a spacesuit. The body was the person. Adam affirms this when he sees Eve and declares, “this is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” And the New Testament teaching on bodily resurrection confirms that a person is not a spooky immaterial entity but a unity of body and soul.

The tendency of modern culture is to deny such significance to the body. Embodiment is no longer enough for personhood, a point made by philosophers such as Peter Singer and Derek Parfit. But this argument is not the preserve of university seminars. It is part of the shared moral imagination of our age. We intuitively prioritize feelings and deny authority to the body and to the relationships embodiment involves. We think of ourselves as primarily psychological beings, a notion reinforced by the frictionless, disembodied interactions of our online world.

The desecration of man thus manifests itself most pungently today as a battle against the authority of the body, specifically its sexual nature and its mortality. Pornography is one obvious example. What does pornography do? It takes the mysterious, creative sexual act and depersonalizes it by making it a commodity for third-party consumption. The sexual act’s meaning is found not in the interactions of the actors but in the pleasure those interactions give to the consumer. Pornography turns the human subject into an object, the embodied human person into a piece of meat. And the increasingly violent nature of pornography today reinforces this process. Pornography is thus dehumanizing. Or, to put it another way, it is a desecration of man.

Of course, pornography’s basic logic is arguably that of the sexual revolution pushed to its end. Whereas sex historically was sacred because connected to the mystery of life, its contemporary significance is as recreation and self-fulfillment. Whereas once sex pressed the individual toward treating the other person as a subject to whom he had normally to be committed, now it tilts us toward seeing other people as objects to be used primarily for personal satisfaction. The sexual revolution involves a desecration of man.

The transgender moment in which we now live is another example. The detachment of the person from the body reaches its apex in the statement “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.” This statement is plausible only in a world where psychological feelings have been essentialized and granted an authority denied to the body. Of course, there is a paradox here: If the body is irrelevant, why must it be reengineered at extraordinary cost to conform to an inner sense of gender identity? The body is relevant only in an instrumental way: It is not the real me, but a means by which I give the real me outward expression. Now, we can and should be very careful in our pastoral approaches to this issue, precisely because the person making such a claim is just that: a person. But to concede the validity of the claim is a denial of true personhood because it is a denial of the significance of the body to personhood. It is a desecration of man.

This allows us to see the paradox of the current problems within the broader LGBTQ and feminist movements regarding trans rights. Traditional lesbian, gay, and bisexual thinking assumes the importance of the embodied sex binary, in that an attraction to one’s own sex presupposes the stability of that sex as a category. Hence the growing opposition of some lesbians and gay men to transgenderism. But there is a problem here. These groups also, in practice, paradoxically deny the significance of the embodied sex binary—the idea that males and females exist in intrinsic sexual complementarity, the one made for the other. This denial effectively downgrades the importance of embodiment for personhood—for if properly ordered sexual union involves the giving of oneself to another, then the sexual constitution of the body is a central part of both persons. But if the sexed nature of the body is irrelevant to the most intimate of human personal interactions, then who I am is detached from my body in a most fundamental way. I become something that inhabits my body and uses it as an instrument, not something that I am. In sum, one cannot desecrate the body and retain a stable notion of personhood any more than Nietzsche thinks one can kill God and keep the earth hitched to the sun.

If sex is no longer sacred, then practices relating to death have followed a similar path. Once it was a sacred mystery; now we mobilize social and technological forces to deny it. Violence and death, once too sacred to be depicted onstage in Greek tragedy, have become the trivial or pornographic fare of movies and video games. The Roman Colosseum made death a matter of entertainment; today, movies and video games bring pornographic violence into the living rooms, indeed the palms, of everyone with a television, a game console, or a smartphone. 

Real death is a purely medical affair, with the dying placed in hospitals and hospices. The battle against the body is significant here too, for what is the final authority that the body possesses? Not to dictate our sex as male or female, but to dictate that we are mortal. In light of this, euthanasia looks like one last (and arguably futile) attempt to seize control of who we are.

The attempt to domesticate mortality continues after death. Churches are no longer typically built with graveyards, with the result that worship is today not experienced in the vicinity of dead loved ones. Funerals are becoming celebrations of life. Every year, cremations rise in popularity in America. There may well be practical reasons for this—cost, lack of space—but it still serves to incinerate any lasting, visible reminder from among the living of the dead as the dead. True, some have urns with the ashes of loved ones. But the jar on the mantel at home is different from—dare one say less sacred than?—a burial ground next to a place of worship. It is hard to maintain quiet reverence when the television is blaring and the kettle is boiling. 

The same can be said of transhumanism, of which transgenderism is a philosophical subset. The body in its mortality is the final barrier to self-creation. To identify as a man when you are a woman is to defy the body’s authority, but you can persuade yourself with the aid of hormones, surgery, and the affirmation of the world around you. You can also defy the body’s authority by identifying as immortal—but you will surely retain a suspicion that someday your body will assert its authority and contradict you. Hence the transhumanist push to defeat human limitations, specifically that of the limited span of our mortal lives.

This brings me to a further advantage of desecration as an explanatory scheme for much of modernity: It helps explain the intentionality and the exhilaration involved in the destruction of the old anthropology of human exceptionalism and limitation as grounded in the image of God. Desecration is an assertion of power, reinforcing the greatest myth our culture likes to believe: that we are the godlike masters of this universe. Again, the ideas of disenchantment and liquidity cannot account for why, for example, some abortion activists regard abortion not as a necessary evil but as something of which to be proud and to boast. Nor can they account for the male trans activist who recently bragged about wanting a uterus transplant just so that he could become pregnant and have an abortion. There is an intentional, ecstatic, irrational delight in the demolition of old moral norms, traditional categories, and bodily realities that goes beyond the impact of impersonal social phenomena.

If we add desecration as a category, however, such things become more comprehensible. As both Augustine and Freud understood, transgression is pleasurable, and the greater the transgression, the greater the pleasure. Well, there can be no greater transgression than that against the sacred. In killing God, we grant ourselves the privilege of becoming gods ourselves. There is surely no greater exhilaration than in being God. And there is no more dramatic way of being God than in waging a holy war against the God-given nature of embodied human personhood.

There is a heavy price to pay for the desecration of man. In a letter written, like Lewis’s The Abolition of Man lectures, in the early 1940s, Czesław Miłosz commented to his friend Jerzy Andrzejewski that, without a religious and metaphysical underpinning, the word “man” becomes contentless. Elsewhere in the same letter, Miłosz speaks of wartime atrocities being made possible by the philosophical reduction of the human person to a lump of animated meat (or as Mary Harrington put it more recently, “Meat Lego”). Once that reduction is accomplished, Miłosz says, it is easy to imagine young men in clean military uniforms shooting other human beings while also eating their lunch. In Crepuscular Dawn, Paul Virilio observes that the presupposition of Nazi eugenics was that the body possessed no moral significance; camp doctors were therefore free to engage in their horrific experiments with no pang of conscience. Divorced from the image of God and from personhood, the body is animate Play-Doh at best. And so the desecration continues, as recent responses on American university campuses to Hamas violence against Jewish children indicate. Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, faced with the incalculable suffering of innocent children, was unable to accept that sense could be made of it by any final providential ordering. In a melancholy act of rebellion, he declared that the price of harmony was too high, and he most respectfully returned to God the ticket. Ours is a world that seems all too eager to revel even in the destruction of infants, all enabled by the death of God and the consequent dehumanization that it entails.

Our cultural imagination is steeped in the seemingly endless potential offered by technology. “Man” is an even emptier term for us than it was for Lewis and Miłosz. Technological developments simultaneously destabilize any sense of what it means to be human and push us to see nature as mere raw material. As the folk memory of the Christian moral vision fades, we can define the term “human” however we wish. Indeed, it is this repudiation of the body’s authority that has made the question “What is a woman?” so difficult to answer. Gender confusion is not a discrete phenomenon. It arises from a basic bewilderment about how to answer the question “What is a human?”

This lack of any normative embodied understanding of what it means to be human frees our technologically empowered wills from any limitation. The question of what, if anything, it means to be human is then projected into the future, to the detriment of whatever we have been in the past or are in the present. If to be human is to be embodied according to Christian teaching, then today we are dehumanized, our bodies mere matter without moral or teleological significance, to be moved from potency to act. And yet, having no given nature, our potency has no intrinsic shape to define what that move might look like. That is the scenario Lewis envisaged in another of his works, That Hideous Strength.

There is an irony in man’s genius and its nihilistic outcomes. During the scientific revolution, man used his exceptional intellectual powers to convince himself that he was not exceptional at all. Today, he combines his willpower with his technological talent to turn himself into Play-Doh. He persistently uses his humanity to dehumanize himself, in what Augusto Del Noce would call a total revolution.

So where does hope lie? In short, we need to restore a normative understanding of what it means to be human. How is that to be done? My argument has been that our fundamental problem today is not that man is disenchanted or turned into liquid, but that he has been desecrated, in part by the impersonal forces of modernity, but largely by his own hand. The answer, therefore, must have consecration at its core. This cannot be legislated. Politicians have no authority over the spiritual imagination, to which the language of consecration speaks. The modern crisis of anthropology must find its solution among religious communities worshiping in local contexts. The answer is first and foremost a theologically informed liturgical one, for it is in worship that human beings are brought into the presence of the God, in whose image they are made and who grounds their common human nature.

The early Church broke with contemporary Roman attitudes and asserted a creed, a code, and a cult that treated human beings as made in the image of God. Women benefited. Children benefited. The weak and the poor benefited. Humanity benefited. This charity was rooted not in a thin altruism but in a deepening understanding of God and his actions in Christ. It is no coincidence that deep reflection on the identity of Christ and the Triune God marked this charitable church of the early centuries. Her vision of human beings as persons rather than objects and as possessing innate value was grounded in the notion that all were made in the image of God. Human nature, body and soul, had a normative, sacred content. That remains true today. The restoration of personhood and dignity to men and women requires the worshiping community of the church to grasp the greatness of the God in whose image we are made. Only then, when God is placed at the center, will we be able to address the challenges posed to human nature by the various tools of disenchantment, liquidity, and desecration, from technology to the ever changing tastes of identity politics.

Contra Nietzsche, God is not dead. But we moderns have used Nietzsche’s claim as an excuse for desecrating man, for turning ourselves and others into insignificant, sexualized, animate lumps of meat. Only a reclamation, and a proclamation, of the living God in the vital worship of the Church will consecrate man and bring him back from the brink of a nihilistic, dehumanized abyss. Indeed, if modern man requires that I accept his desecration as the price of entry to a world in which God is dead, then I, for one, most respectfully return to him the ticket.

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. This essay was delivered in October 2023 as the 36th Erasmus Lecture.

Image by Wikipedia licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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