Next year is the eightieth anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s delivery of the lectures that later became his book The Abolition of Man. Rereading those lectures today, it is impossible not to be struck by their contemporary feel. The reason is simple: What Lewis identified in 1943 as the key issue facing society remains the key issue facing us today, and that in an even more intense form. The issue is anthropology, the very understanding of what it means to be a human being.
Much of the turmoil in our contemporary Western world is a function of the collapse of consensus concerning what it means to be human. The fractious and futile debates about gender, sexuality, abortion, and race all track back to a loss of a sense of human nature as a universal reality in which we all share. Then there is the increasing tendency in our culture to define people in terms of their ideas and convictions and thereby to deny legitimacy to any who happen to disagree with us. This affects everything. It makes it increasingly rare to have personal friendships between those of different perspectives. When we are our beliefs and convictions, what can we have in common with those who do not share them? It is why the language of human rights is now often (and ironically) not deployed to speak about the rights all individuals enjoy as human beings, but rather as some socially constructed sub-category of humanity. And it feeds into the increasing tendency of both political sides to deny legitimacy to elections that favor the other side. Crisis is an overused term, but it seems eminently justified to describe our current moment: We do live in a time marked by a crisis of anthropology.
Hopefully over the next year the anniversary of Lewis’s lectures will focus the minds of many on the big questions he raised—questions of natural law, moral subjectivism, human purpose, and the dystopian possibilities of a future where human nature has been abolished. It is, after all, surely the case that the problems to which Lewis pointed in his day, particularly those posed by technology, are even greater now than in the 1940s. And the civil religion which then still pervaded Western societies and provided some boundaries to the abolition of man has now itself been more or less abolished. We live in a world where the problem is not simply that the center cannot hold, to borrow Yeats’s oft-quoted phrase. We live in a world where the center has been annihilated thanks to technology and the death of any notion of a fixed and universal human nature.
Hopefully 2023 will witness significant levels of interest in The Abolition of Man and provoke useful contributions to the field of theological anthropology. In the interim, Christmas offers Christians everywhere the opportunity to reflect once again on the Incarnation, sing of its glorious mystery, and make connections to a rich understanding of what it means to be human. Three things at least deserve attention, given our current anthropological chaos.
First, the Incarnation shows how the universals of human nature are not canceled out or opposed by the particulars of individual human existence. For God to become flesh, it was inevitable that he had to do so as a specific individual at a certain time and in a definite place. But the New Testament makes it clear at numerous points—the genealogy in Luke, the Pauline paralleling of Adam and Christ, the worldwide call of the gospel—that these particularities are merely the necessary contexts for Christ’s universal significance. That he was a first-century Jew is true. That he was man is also true. But these are simply the necessary concomitants of the fact that he was above all God manifest in human flesh, the humanity of which is common to us all.
Second, in taking flesh from Mary, he shows us an important fact about what it means to be human that modern society tries to ignore: We are all dependent creatures. The Christian claim is that God became flesh, God became human. And central to that claim is the narrative of Christ’s life, a life where God himself, transcendent and self-sufficient—becomes a human being, from zygote to adult. God enters the network of interpersonal dependency that lies at the heart of what it means to be human. Human nature is more than a genome; it involves personhood, and personhood involves dependencies.
Third, Christ in his human nature is not simply dependent upon his mother. He is also dependent upon his Father. The New Testament speaks of Christ learning obedience to his Father’s will. It records his prayers to his Father, especially at the moment of crisis as Calvary looms. Christ shows that to be truly human is to acknowledge God the Father and to look to him for all things.
Our world stands at a moment of anthropological crisis. Our response as Christians at this juncture is important. Advent offers us each an opportunity to reflect upon how Christ, God Incarnate, offers a vision of humanity that not only stands at odds with the fragmented, autonomous, and materialist anthropologies of our day, but that also speaks to humanity’s deepest needs: to know who we are in relation to others and in relation to our creator.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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