The Mechanical Governess,
attr. to Vichy et Fils, circa 1880
It is not often that people across both the country and the media are shocked and sickened by the practices of a liberal darling organization like Planned Parenthood. Nonetheless, Cecile Richards who leads the group was defiant and many stood by the nation’s largest abortion provider including the White House and the Democratic 2016 presidential frontrunner. Their practice of harvesting the intact body parts of aborted babies and selling them is not an unfortunate departure from the modern world’s march of progress. It’s what happens when scientific civilization divorces Christian civilization and becomes a technologically empowered cult of selfish autonomy.
Modern people expect to control the world. It’s what modern means. The world out there is a chaotic and dangerous place in need of taming to make it predictable and safe. Modern science promises and provides that. Ancient and medieval inventions improved life, but they were few and haphazard. Modern inventions have flowed like a river with an ever wider and stronger current. This was no accident of time. The distinctly modern understanding of reason as calculating and production-oriented directed the efforts of the mechanically ambitious through a disciplined method toward the conquest of nature for the relief of our estate.
But the blessing has been mixed. The information revolution of the internet has given us easy access to vast reservoirs of information and rapid email communication, but also a deluge of pornography and shattered spans of attention. Infant mortality rates have plummeted, but abortion technology has made pre-natal infanticide “safe,” clinical, and somewhat respectable. And so on.
The problem is not just the technology that appears equally open to good or evil uses, but the view of creation both human and non-human that technology assumes. God commanded us to “take dominion” of the earth (Genesis 1:26), which modern technology helps us to do. But that requires that we see ourselves as God’s image bearers in God’s world under God’s authority for God’s purposes. Without that understanding, we are left with tyrannical domination over the universe—including the human, even the soul, the psyche—with no moral guidance except our selfish desires. Whatever we can do we should (e.g., human cloning, designer babies), because mastery must extend as far as possible so that my autonomy may be as wide as possible.
In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis warned that man’s control of the universe through an atheistic science necessarily becomes the power of some people over most people. And because reason is no longer also for hearing and understanding God but now only for conquering and calculating, we are left only with the passions for guiding our use of that power, most often the selfish ones.
Sir Francis Bacon, the early 17th century author of the modern scientific project to make us masters of the universe, tried to calm people’s fears (notice, there were fears even then) that this greater power over nature would bring even greater evils upon us. The products of the new science, he assured us in New Organon I.129, would be governed by “sound reason and true religion” (recta ratio et sana religio). But he knew that both of these are historically rare and that his new science would undermine both. He expected this modern empire of man to be pagan and dangerous though peaceful and comfortable, and, as Christian restraints are falling away, that is precisely what it is showing itself to be.
As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama defended abortion rights as necessary to "ensure that our daughters have the same rights, freedoms, and opportunities [control] as our sons to fulfill their dreams [selfish desires].” For women to share equally with men in modern personal autonomy—unconstrained by God, morality, or nature—they must have free access to abortion, even, if necessary, as the baby is being born.
The prophet Daniel confessed that the sins of his people were his own sins too (Daniel 9:4-11). The sobering truth is that modern Christians share in this morally and spiritually unrestrained drive to conquer the world technologically for our comfort and convenience. Until we properly distinguish the uniquely modern from the Christian, a form of distinguishing Christ from the world, we will continue to be complicit in these horrors.
[Portions of this post first appeared in my Worldmag.com column, August 10, 2015, "Abortion and the Modern People We Are."]