JANUARY 4, 2023BY CARL R. TRUEMAN
As our dependence on technology reshapes the moral imagination of our culture to see human beings as psychological wills that need not respect material limitations, so the old order that was built upon the vision of human beings as both body and soul will become increasingly implausible. The things that make Christianity stand out from the wider culture—belief in the incarnation, the resurrection, and embodied human nature as a real, universal thing with moral consequences—are antithetical to the terms of membership in the emerging world order.
Apocalyptic language is enjoying something of a vogue. We are constantly being told that we face an environmental apocalypse or that the polarization of our politics represents a cultural apocalypse. During the time of Covid, such language was common. We were living, so we were told, in an apocalyptic moment for the world at large.
Satan works through the elements also to garner his harvest of unprepared souls. He has studied the secrets of the laboratories of nature, and he uses all his power to control the elements as far as God allows. When he was suffered to afflict Job, how quickly flocks and herds, servants, houses, children, were swept away, one trouble succeeding another as in a moment. It is God that shields His creatures and hedges them in from the power of the destroyer. But the Christian world have shown contempt for the law of Jehovah; and the Lord will do just what He has declared that He would—He will withdraw His blessings from the earth and remove His protecting care from those who are rebelling against His law and teaching and forcing others to do the same. Satan has control of all whom God does not especially guard. He will favor and prosper some in order to further his own designs, and he will bring trouble upon others and lead men to believe that it is God who is afflicting them. GC 589.2
The term apocalypse has two meanings, both of which apply to our current times. First, there is its common use to designate the end of an era, or even the end of time itself, in some catastrophic and terrifying way. Certainly, as we look at the world today, we can see both nationally and internationally that an epoch is coming to an end—and in a way that is marked by turmoil and uncertainty. That epoch might be variously defined. The demise of the postwar liberal consensus, the end of the cultural domination of the West, the crumbling of the nation-state: all of these seem to signal that we stand on the verge of a major and traumatic transformation of the world order.
The present is a time of overwhelming interest to all living. Rulers and statesmen, men who occupy positions of trust and authority, thinking men and women of all classes, have their attention fixed upon the events taking place about us. They are watching the relations that exist among the nations. They observe the intensity that is taking possession of every earthly element and they recognize that something great and decisive is about to take place—that the world is on the verge of a stupendous crisis.—Prophets and Kings, 537 (c. 1914).
The calamities by land and sea, the unsettled state of society, the alarms of war, are portentous. They forecast approaching events of the greatest magnitude. The agencies of evil are combining their forces and consolidating. They are strengthening for the last great crisis. Great changes are soon to take place in our world, and the final movements will be rapid ones.—Testimonies for the Church 9:11 (1909). LDE 11.1 – LDE 11.2
The second—and more strictly correct—meaning of the term, however, is that of revelation or unveiling, of bringing into the open deeper realities that have previously been hidden. The Apocalypse of St. John does describe the end of the world, but it is not called the Apocalypse for that reason. Rather, it has this title because John’s book purports to unveil what is really going on in history.
What I want to suggest is that the apocalypse we are undergoing in the first sense—that dramatic and catastrophic end of an era that is plunging many parts of our culture and our world into uncertainty, if not chaos—is also an apocalypse in the second sense. It is revealing things to us that have been true for a long time but whose significance we have largely missed. More specifically, I want to suggest that what is being revealed is the fact that we are in the midst of an anthropological crisis. This affects the politics of the public square most obviously, but because it raises questions about what it means to be human in the most basic sense, it poses challenges to all areas of our lives, including the relationship of the church to the wider society. At the center of this crisis lie the dramatic developments in technology that are transforming not simply the way we live but also the way we are—what and who we understand ourselves to be.
What We Are and Who We Are
Many current events provide evidence of this anthropological crisis. This may not be apparent from their immediate, particular, and disparate details, but certain underlying causes give these cases a deeper unity.
Consider the recent incidents, both in the United Kingdom and in the United States, when leading public figures—the Labour shadow minister for women and minorities and a now-confirmed Supreme Court Justice, respectively—were unable or unwilling to offer a definition of the term “woman.” While the question “What is a woman?” most directly addresses gender and its relationship to biological sex, the very fact that that question can be seriously asked points to a deeper issue: namely, that the question “What is a human?” no longer commands any strong consensus. This lack of consensus on what it means to be human underlies our most contentious points of political and social conflict.
Here, we must note something that distinguishes human beings from other animals: that we make a basic distinction between what we are and who we are. In our time, the who question dominates the question of what. On one level, this is entirely understandable. Other creatures operate on the basis of instinct—the bee makes a honeycomb, the fox kills chickens, the beaver builds a dam, and each does these things because they are hard-wired to do so. They have no choice. What they are is who they are. But human beings choose the activities in which they engage and how they engage in them. What we are—creatures with a certain common genome—is not who we are as people who freely form associations, participate in certain activities, and create culture. The problem is that we have allowed this “who” question to overwhelm and even detach itself from the “what” question.
As the Protestant churches reject the clear, Scriptural arguments in defense of God’s law, they will long to silence those whose faith they cannot overthrow by the Bible. Though they blind their own eyes to the fact, they are now adopting a course which will lead to the persecution of those who conscientiously refuse to do what the rest of the Christian world are doing, and acknowledge the claims of the papal sabbath.
The dignitaries of church and state will unite to bribe, persuade, or compel all classes to honor the Sunday. The lack of divine authority will be supplied by oppressive enactments. Political corruption is destroying love of justice and regard for truth; and even in free America, rulers and legislators, in order to secure public favor, will yield to the popular demand for a law enforcing Sunday observance. Liberty of conscience, which has cost so great a sacrifice, will no longer be respected. In the soon-coming conflict we shall see exemplified the prophet’s words: “The dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” Revelation 12:17. GC 592.2 – GC 592.3
We see this most dramatically in debates about abortion. The discussion of abortion today is not really about when life begins. That this occurs at conception is not seriously disputed by leading thinkers on either side. What is disputed is personhood. Is the living being in the womb a person? If it is, then it enjoys the protection of law given to other, postnatal persons. If it is not, then it does not. With the advent of personhood theories such as those espoused by Peter Singer, the “who” question, the question of intentionality and choice, has decisively eclipsed the “what” question. According to Singer, a human person is one who has consciousness of past, present, and future and the ability to act with reference to that future—in other words, the actualized ability, not merely the innate potential, to be a “who.” In such an account, neither the baby in the womb nor the child until approximately aged two qualifies as a person. Nor do those in the later stages of dementia. The “what” is morally irrelevant.
This triumph of the “who” question has happened for at least two reasons. First, we now live in a world where the old cultural frameworks for framing and shaping our sense of self—of who we are—are rapidly disappearing. External structures of authority, such as the nation, church, and family, are becoming increasingly implausible. They are being supplanted by others, supremely by those enabled and constituted by technology. As this external framework for identity becomes more fluid and volatile, our sense of self and of the world become correspondingly less stable. Thus, the question of who we are as individuals becomes more and more complicated, and the question of what we are as a species seems less and less relevant.
Barnes and Frith, the faithful friends of Tyndale, arose to defend the truth. The Ridleys and Cranmer followed. These leaders in the English Reformation were men of learning, and most of them had been highly esteemed for zeal or piety in the Romish communion. Their opposition to the papacy was the result of their knowledge of the errors of the “holy see.” Their acquaintance with the mysteries of Babylon gave greater power to their testimonies against her.
“Now I would ask a strange question,” said Latimer. “Who is the most diligent bishop and prelate in all England? … I see you listening and hearkening that I should name him…. I will tell you: it is the devil…. He is never out of his diocese; call for him when you will, he is ever at home; … he is ever at his plow…. Ye shall never find him idle, I warrant you…. Where the devil is resident, … there away with books, and up with candles; away with Bibles, and up with beads; away with the light of the gospel, and up with the light of candles, yea, at noondays; … down with Christ’s cross, up with purgatory pickpurse; … away with clothing the naked, the poor, and impotent, up with decking of images and gay garnishing of stocks and stones; up with man’s traditions and his laws, down with God’s traditions and His most holy word…. O that our prelates would be as diligent to sow the corn of good doctrine, as Satan is to sow cockle and darnel!”— Ibid., “Sermon of the Plough.”
The grand principle maintained by these Reformers—the same that had been held by the Waldenses, by Wycliffe, by John Huss, by Luther, Zwingli, and those who united with them—was the infallible authority of the Holy Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice. They denied the right of popes, councils, Fathers, and kings, to control the conscience in matters of religion. The Bible was their authority, and by its teaching they tested all doctrines and all claims. Faith in God and His word sustained these holy men as they yielded up their lives at the stake. “Be of good comfort,” exclaimed Latimer to his fellow martyr as the flames were about to silence their voices, “we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”— Works of Hugh Latimer 1:8 . GC 248.2 – GC 249.1
We now live in a world where the old cultural frameworks for framing and shaping our sense of self—of who we are—are rapidly disappearing.Away with the Bible up With Laudato Si’ Candle
Technological Man – abortion and Trans humanism
The significance of technology in this shift can be illustrated through some contemporary political issues. Again, take the transgender issue, which connects to two broader questions. First, there is the obvious one concerning the authority of physical, biological sex over identity: Does bodily sex have a foundational, non-negotiable, given role in who we are and how we relate to each other? Second, there is the broader philosophical question of the status and authority of the body in general for identity: Is the body of the essence of what it means to be human, or is it rather something extraneous to who I am, something that should be overcome or transcended by me in a quest to construct my own freely chosen identity?
Both questions served to locate transgenderism within the broader context of transhumanism, a collection of movements bound together by a desire to transcend the physical limitations of the human body. Some transhumanists are engaged in a quest to defeat mortality, others in attempts to break through the limitations of innate sex, intelligence, or any other human attribute that can be enhanced, overcome, or transformed. Transhumanism can only be imagined as a possibility in a world where technology makes such a vision plausible. In the specific case of transgenderism, only in a world where hormone therapy and elaborate surgical procedures are possible can I come to imagine that the sexed nature of my body is accidental to who I am and that it must therefore bow to my inner psychological convictions.
Then there is the modern tendency to see sexuality or sexual desire as the key to individual identity—something described by German philosopher Rüdiger Safranski as “our era’s most prominent fiction regarding the nature of truth.” Setting aside the specifically sexual dimension of such a way of constructing individual identity, to identify ourselves by desires of any kind is surely a remarkably subjective way of grounding who we are. By setting out my inner desires as definitive of who I am, I place all other anchors of identity, and indeed all relations with others, into a position of subordinate importance. Such a move speaks of a world where external identity markers are already too weak to give stability to a sense of self.
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.
As to the specific issue of the sexualization of identity, as with transgenderism, this is only plausible if certain technologies exist. Traditionally, sex is behavior and has a social function in the bond of marriage and in procreation. For sexual desire to become identity, sex itself needs to be reconceptualized as something of primarily individual significance. That can only take place if it can be routinely detached from its social consequences. That, in turn, requires a world of antibiotics, contraceptives, and abortion. Indeed, such is the power of technology in shaping our moral imaginations that we now tend to think of the natural consequences of sexual activity as unnatural risks, as indicated by the routine use of the term “unwanted pregnancy” in the abortion debate.
It would be far more consistent for nations to abolish their statutes, and permit the people to do as they please, than for the Ruler of the universe to annul His law, and leave the world without a standard to condemn the guilty or justify the obedient. Would we know the result of making void the law of God? The experiment has been tried. Terrible were the scenes enacted in France when atheism became the controlling power. It was then demonstrated to the world that to throw off the restraints which God has imposed is to accept the rule of the cruelest of tyrants. When the standard of righteousness is set aside, the way is open for the prince of evil to establish his power in the earth.
Wherever the divine precepts are rejected, sin ceases to appear sinful or righteousness desirable. Those who refuse to submit to the government of God are wholly unfitted to govern themselves. Through their pernicious teachings the spirit of insubordination is implanted in the hearts of children and youth, who are naturally impatient of control; and a lawless, licentious state of society results. While scoffing at the credulity of those who obey the requirements of God, the multitudes eagerly accept the delusions of Satan. They give the rein to lust and practice the sins which have called down judgments upon the heathen.
Those who teach the people to regard lightly the commandments of God sow disobedience to reap disobedience. Let the restraint imposed by the divine law be wholly cast aside, and human laws would soon be disregarded. Because God forbids dishonest practices, coveting, lying, and defrauding, men are ready to trample upon His statutes as a hindrance to their worldly prosperity; but the results of banishing these precepts would be such as they do not anticipate. If the law were not binding, why should any fear to transgress? Property would no longer be safe. Men would obtain their neighbor’s possessions by violence, and the strongest would become richest. Life itself would not be respected. The marriage vow would no longer stand as a sacred bulwark to protect the family. He who had the power, would, if he desired, take his neighbor’s wife by violence. The fifth commandment would be set aside with the fourth. Children would not shrink from taking the life of their parents if by so doing they could obtain the desire of their corrupt hearts. The civilized world would become a horde of robbers and assassins; and peace, rest, and happiness would be banished from the earth.
Already the doctrine that men are released from obedience to God’s requirements has weakened the force of moral obligation and opened the floodgates of iniquity upon the world. Lawlessness, dissipation, and corruption are sweeping in upon us like an overwhelming tide. In the family, Satan is at work. His banner waves, even in professedly Christian households. There is envy, evil surmising, hypocrisy, estrangement, emulation, strife, betrayal of sacred trusts, indulgence of lust. The whole system of religious principles and doctrines, which should form the foundation and framework of social life, seems to be a tottering mass, ready to fall to ruin. The vilest of criminals, when thrown into prison for their offenses, are often made the recipients of gifts and attentions as if they had attained an enviable distinction. Great publicity is given to their character and crimes. The press publishes the revolting details of vice, thus initiating others into the practice of fraud, robbery, and murder; and Satan exults in the success of his hellish schemes. The infatuation of vice, the wanton taking of life, the terrible increase of intemperance and iniquity of every order and degree, should arouse all who fear God, to inquire what can be done to stay the tide of evil.
Courts of justice are corrupt. Rulers are actuated by desire for gain and love of sensual pleasure. Intemperance has beclouded the faculties of many so that Satan has almost complete control of them. Jurists are perverted, bribed, deluded. Drunkenness and revelry, passion, envy, dishonesty of every sort, are represented among those who administer the laws. “Justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter.” Isaiah 59:14.
The iniquity and spiritual darkness that prevailed under the supremacy of Rome were the inevitable result of her suppression of the Scriptures; but where is to be found the cause of the widespread infidelity, the rejection of the law of God, and the consequent corruption, under the full blaze of gospel light in an age of religious freedom? Now that Satan can no longer keep the world under his control by withholding the Scriptures, he resorts to other means to accomplish the same object. To destroy faith in the Bible serves his purpose as well as to destroy the Bible itself. By introducing the belief that God’s law is not binding, he as effectually leads men to transgress as if they were wholly ignorant of its precepts. And now, as in former ages, he has worked through the church to further his designs. The religious organizations of the day have refused to listen to unpopular truths plainly brought to view in the Scriptures, and in combating them they have adopted interpretations and taken positions which have sown broadcast the seeds of skepticism. Clinging to the papal error of natural immortality and man’s consciousness in death, they have rejected the only defense against the delusions of spiritualism. The doctrine of eternal torment has led many to disbelieve the Bible. And as the claims of the fourth commandment are urged upon the people, it is found that the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath is enjoined; and as the only way to free themselves from a duty which they are unwilling to perform, many popular teachers declare that the law of God is no longer binding. Thus they cast away the law and the Sabbath together. As the work of Sabbath reform extends, this rejection of the divine law to avoid the claims of the fourth commandment will become well-nigh universal. The teachings of religious leaders have opened the door to infidelity, to spiritualism, and to contempt for God’s holy law; and upon these leaders rests a fearful responsibility for the iniquity that exists in the Christian world GC 584.2 – GC 586.2
Space does not allow for detailed discussion of the family, but we should note that technology has transformed this, too, in a number of ways. Reproductive technology has broken the monopoly of natural male–female relationships as foundational to the family structure, with its dependences and obligations. Surrogacy and IVF have shifted the cultural and legal understanding of parenthood in a functional direction that downplays or even denies the significance of biological relationships. The work of a cyborg feminist such as Sophie Lewis, with her call for the abolition of the family, is only the most recent and most extreme example of such. The same basic principle is at play in the practice of egg and sperm donation and of surrogacy. With the emerging potential to produce children from stem cells, traditional biological structures are set to become even more equivocal. The family, rather like the nation and the physical body, looks set to be demolished and rebuilt along very different lines.
Surrogacy and IVF have shifted the cultural and legal understanding of parenthood in a functional direction that downplays or even denies the significance of biological relationships.
These examples reveal something important: technology is constitutive of reality, because it is the means by which reality is mediated to us. But technology’s complicating of the question of what it means to be human and of who we are is not restricted to matters of gender and sexuality. There are plenty of others. Our basic notions of time and space are intimately connected to technological developments. Cheap and efficient transport means that a distance that once required days, weeks, or months to traverse can now be done in hours. In industrial and post-industrial countries, seasons no longer dominate the rhythm of life. Diseases that were once thought to be death sentences can now be routinely treated with medication. Even our experience of our own bodies has been transformed through technology—from the workplace, where robotics has diminished the significance of raw physical strength, to Zoom, where instant visible communication is no longer a matter of physical proximity.
While appearing to the children of men as a great physician who can heal all their maladies, he will bring disease and disaster, until populous cities are reduced to ruin and desolation. Even now he is at work. In accidents and calamities by sea and by land, in great conflagrations, in fierce tornadoes and terrific hailstorms, in tempests, floods, cyclones, tidal waves, and earthquakes, in every place and in a thousand forms, Satan is exercising his power. He sweeps away the ripening harvest, and famine and distress follow. He imparts to the air a deadly taint, and thousands perish by the pestilence. These visitations are to become more and more frequent and disastrous. Destruction will be upon both man and beast. “The earth mourneth and fadeth away,” “the haughty people … do languish. The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant.” Isaiah 24:4, 5. GC 589.3
In light of this, we might also note that technology actually tilts our imaginations toward thinking of the world in general as being merely raw material to do with as we wish, or, even more radically, as representing a set of problems to be overcome. As it seems to empower our raw wills, technology teaches us to see anything that impedes those wills as something to be overcome. And the more powerful technology becomes, the stronger such intuitions become. Again, the transformations of sex into recreation and gender into something we can create for ourselves are only two of the most politically charged examples. There are others. The shift in our understanding of medicine from being primarily reparative or restorative to something that improves on or even transcends natural limitations is another. That so many of us would now feel frustrated and less than fully ourselves if deprived of smartphones and internet access for even a relatively short period of time is also a function of this. Indeed, we are all cyborgs now. Mere physical, localized, limited bodies, without technological connectivity, are problematic and sources of alienation.
All of this points to the difficulty of answering the question of human nature. We can still give the biological answer, but that merely addresses the “what” aspect. The more important dimension of the question has always been preoccupied with the “who,” and that is now something to which no easy response can be given. Perhaps we might say that humans are those who choose, but that is not to say very much at all, raising as it does further questions concerning the freedom and range of our choices that are themselves functions of available technology. And is there any general “what” behind the individual “who” that makes these choices?
The Church and the New World Order
It has often been claimed that politics is downstream from culture. Perhaps we can rephrase that for today’s world by declaring that politics is now downstream from technology. The question of what it means to be human makes this clear. Identity politics has arisen, in part, because the old ways of grounding identity have been demolished or become too weak to fulfill their erstwhile role. And technology has unleashed a sense of power and of the plasticity of humanity that fills this void. Politics is now in chaos because modern technological society has no underlying anthropological consensus on which a polis can be built.
The old frameworks for modern political discourse—class divisions and national identity rooted in economic realities, solid space as defined by stable borders, and a shared national narrative—no longer apply. These larger identity markers have all been scrambled by technology. That we can now have protests in Bristol over police actions in Minneapolis, that we can have young people in Essex pledging allegiance to ISIS, something they only know from the internet: these are matters of political significance, indicating simultaneously the weakness of old identities and the rise of new ones. Both sides of that equation—the demolition of the old and the enabling of the new—are driven by technology. And today’s technology has detached the question of who we are from any agreed notion of what we are in a way unprecedented in human history. In such circumstances, the social fragmentation and political chaos we witness both domestically and on the international stage would seem to be entirely predictable.
Politics is now in chaos because modern technological society has no underlying anthropological consensus upon which a polis can be built.Pope Francis A Man of His Words Gifts A COMMON GOOD Dream in Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti
The breakdown of political discourse and the crisis of legitimacy that traditional democratic institutions now face is therefore apocalyptic, in that it has unveiled this underlying, technologically fueled anthropological chaos. The “who are we?” question—always important, given that we are intentional, not merely instinctive creatures—has become the only question, no longer anchored in commitment to a notion of universal human nature, with limitations, a moral structure, and some common goal or range of common goals. Without such a foundation, without answering the “what are we” question, how can we answer the “who” question in any stable or meaningful way? How can we build any stable or coherent society?
Covid restrictions highlighted this in a painful way. Virtual Man, who works through his laptop and can thus work anywhere in general and nowhere in particular, found such restrictions to be far more reasonable than Real Man, who has to go to work in a particular time and particular place because he works with material, not virtual, reality. That is not simply a vocational divide. I would suggest it is an anthropological divide. Real Man experiences the world—and his own sense of self—in a fundamentally different way from Virtual Man. This is reflected in so many of the conflicts now straining western democracy, from the French Yellow Jackets to the rise of working-class nationalism to the Canadian truck protests. In each case, we see what Mary Harrington has dubbed the clash of the Virtuals versus the Reals. Underneath that divide lies a conflict of anthropologies between a technologically liberated view of human beings as disembodied wills who can transcend the limitations of the materiality of the world and a belief that embodiment and place are critical to survival.
The Challenge Facing the Church
Clearly, this situation is leading to a significant reconfiguring of the nature of politics. But my primary interest here is not the specifically political aspects of this anthropological crisis. Rather, it is the challenge this crisis raises for the church in her relationship to society.
Here, it is useful to note the historical background to our religious situation. Europe lost its religious unity at the Reformation but retained its broad moral consensus, because the Christian idea of human nature as exceptional and as possessing a moral shape remained strong even after the attenuation and ultimate death of God at the Enlightenment. This had obvious political implications. We might say that even as Christian dogma and practice slowly ceased to set the terms of membership in the civic sphere, the morality Christianity had inspired remained central to public life. In the nineteenth century, this came under fierce intellectual challenge from various angles, most famously in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche had little impact in his lifetime, but the trajectory of his thought proved prescient. The intellectual assault on the idea of normative human nature continues to the present day in various theoretical disciplines, such as gender theory, queer theory, critical race theory, and so on. Such theories have potent analogues in the ways in which technology enables us to imagine the world. The net result is that the anthropological crisis articulated in social theory is now being enacted in social practice.
Pope Increasingly World’s Moral Leader
This anthropological crisis has many implications for the church, but the most obvious and immediate is this: as our dependence on technology reshapes the moral imagination of our culture to see human beings as psychological wills that need not respect material limitations, so the old order that was built on these limitations will become increasingly implausible. Furthermore, the terms of membership of the old order will come to appear antithetical to those of the emerging new order. This has significance for the political conflicts noted above, where those wishing to assert the importance of place will come to be seen as reactionary and backward. With no common ground, the political conflict will become even more acrimonious. But this situation also has implications for the church.
Under the old liberal order, the things that made Christianity stand out from the wider culture—belief in the Incarnation and the Resurrection, for example—could be safely confined to the private sphere and played no role in public life. Belief or denial of such things was not part of the conditions of membership in civil society. Under the new order, the things that make Christianity stand out from the wider culture—the moral shape of human nature, the authority of the body and of bodily reality for human community and well-being—stand in contradiction to the emerging philosophical assumptions of public life and its terms of membership. Christianity takes the material world very seriously and sees it as having an authoritative moral structure that limits how we should act. Most obviously, it sees human nature as a real, universal thing (Catholic Means Universalism)”, inextricably connected to our embodiment. From identity and sex to family and community, from the private sphere to the public square, this is foundational to Christian thinking. And in a world that wishes to assert the opposite, this means that the emerging terms of membership in civil society are increasingly those that will deny Christianity and Christians the possibility of full membership.
The agencies which will unite against truth and righteousness in this contest are now actively at work. God’s holy word, which has been handed down to us at such a cost of suffering and blood, is but little valued. The Bible is within the reach of all, but there are few who really accept it as the guide of life. Infidelity prevails to an alarming extent, not in the world merely, but in the church. Many have come to deny doctrines which are the very pillars of the Christian faith. The great facts of creation as presented by the inspired writers, the fall of man, the atonement, and the perpetuity of the law of God, are practically rejected, either wholly or in part, by a large share of the professedly Christian world. Thousands who pride themselves upon their wisdom and independence regard it as an evidence of weakness to place implicit confidence in the Bible; they think it a proof of superior talent and learning to cavil at the Scriptures and to spiritualize and explain away their most important truths. Many ministers are teaching their people, and many professors and teachers are instructing their students, that the law of God has been changed or abrogated; and those who regard its requirements as still valid, to be literally obeyed, are thought to be deserving only of ridicule or contempt GC 582.3
Under the new order, the things that make Christianity stand out from the wider culture—the moral shape of human nature, the authority of the body and of bodily reality for human community and well-being—stand in contradiction to the emerging philosophical assumptions of public life and its terms of membership.Pope Common Good Evangelical Gamble
The Path Forward
Humanly speaking, the situation for the church is bleak. We need to understand that. The apocalypse that is identity politics reveals that the church’s answer to the question “What is a human?” is now considered not merely implausible but also immoral and politically unacceptable.
In rejecting the truth, men reject its Author. In trampling upon the law of God, they deny the authority of the Law-giver. It is as easy to make an idol of false doctrines and theories as to fashion an idol of wood or stone. By misrepresenting the attributes of God, Satan leads men to conceive of Him in a false character. With many, a philosophical idol is enthroned in the place of Jehovah; while the living God, as He is revealed in His word, in Christ, and in the works of creation, is worshiped by but few. Thousands deify nature while they deny the God of nature. Though in a different form, idolatry exists in the Christian world today as verily as it existed among ancient Israel in the days of Elijah. The god of many professedly wise men, of philosophers, poets, politicians, journalists—the god of polished fashionable circles, of many colleges and universities, even of some theological institutions—is little better than Baal, the sun-god of Phoenicia.
No error accepted by the Christian world strikes more boldly against the authority of Heaven, none is more directly opposed to the dictates of reason, none is more pernicious in its results, than the modern doctrine, so rapidly gaining ground, that God’s law is no longer binding upon men. GC 583.1 – GC 584.1
At the same time, the world’s answers to that question—that being human means whatever you wish it to mean, or whatever technology allows you to imagine it means, or whatever the tastes of your society require it to mean—scarcely offer a stable foundation for our corporate existence. The church may be forced to society’s margins, but society itself has no center that can hold. The collapse of public discourse, the prevalence of anxiety and mental health issues, the disintegration of communities, the nihilism of affluent consumerist lives, the widespread loneliness and despair of young people, the scourge of rapid-onset gender dysphoria—each of these things and more indicate that a lack of consensus on what it means to be human has far-reaching and catastrophic effects for us all.
When the leading churches of the United States, uniting upon such points of doctrine as are held by them in common, shall influence the state to enforce their decrees and to sustain their institutions, then Protestant America will have formed an image of the Roman hierarchy, and the infliction of civil penalties upon dissenters will inevitably result.
The beast with two horns “causeth commands all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: and that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.” Revelation 13:16, 17. The third angel’s warning is: “If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, the same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God.” “The beast” mentioned in this message, whose worship is enforced by the two-horned beast, is the first, or leopardlike beast of Revelation 13—the papacy. The “image to the beast” represents that form of apostate Protestantism which will be developed when the Protestant churches shall seek the aid of the civil power for the enforcement of their dogmas. GC 445.1 – GC 445.2
Yet here, perhaps, is a glimmer of hope. The reason for this is something we all intuitively know: we human beings are not simply whoever we wish to be; we are not simply disembodied wills; on the contrary, we do have a nature—a “whatness”—that cannot be indefinitely denied with impunity. We are embodied, and those bodies involve biological limits (we all die, even if we choose to self-identify as immortal) and a moral framework—we never exist in isolation but always within a network of dependence and obligation. If the time of Covid revealed anything, it revealed that most human beings still have some intuition that embodiment, and the communities of obligation and dependence that are intrinsic to our embodiment, are of critical importance to what it means to be human.
The challenge for the church, embedded as she is in this technological age, is to embody that reality in her life. The path forward is to take our coming marginalization seriously, as an opportunity, not merely a setback: an opportunity to embody in our own lives and congregations what it means to be truly human.
This essay was adapted from a speech delivered at a banquet in London on November 9, 2022.
About the Author
Carl R. Trueman is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College, Pa, and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He writes regularly at First Things and is the author of numerous books, most recently The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cu… READ MORE
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