Raw Material

Michael Hanby has a long piece that is well worth reading on the future of American Christendom over at First Things. I am mostly in agreement with what Hanby writes here — I am one of the radicals he describes, as I think the problem resides less in the sexual revolution itself than in the entire intellectual and confessional nature of modernity, and it’s inability to deal with pluralism.

And Rod Dreher deals with this piece in greater detail. I have things to say about marriage, which I swear I will get to on Monday.

However, I have a concern with something Hanby writes early on in the piece:

All notions of justice presuppose ontology and anthropology, and so a revolution in fundamental anthropology will invariably transform the meaning and content of justice and bring about its own morality. We are beginning to feel the force of this transformation in civil society and the political order. Court decisions invalidating traditional marriage law fall from the sky like rain. The regulatory state and ubiquitous new global media throw their ever increasing weight behind the new understanding of marriage and its implicit anthropology, which treats our bodies as raw material to be used as we see fit. [Emphasis mine – CHF] Today a rigorous new public morality inverts and supplants the residuum of our Christian moral inheritance.

I agree with the notion he puts forth that late modernity puts forth a vision of human beings “as raw material to be used as we see fit.” But this isn’t just a problem with the sexual revolution — it is a problem with all of industrial mass modernity, and it was inherent in the entire scientific endeavor in the first place (as Hanby notes). Conservatives can see this when it comes to sex, but are utterly oblivious to people as “raw material” when it comes to economics. Or anything else.

Because this is how mass modernity — the modernity of the industrial revolution, of imperial Europe, of mass society and democracy, of science and progress — views human beings. We are widgets made of meat to be used and discarded. We are economic or social inputs, and the only value we have is what comes out in the end. What someone can buy.

Hanby, and some other conservatives I think, are belatedly beginning to discover that you cannot have a genteel and morally restrained modernity. If people are “raw material” in one way — free to be exploited and used and consumed and discarded by capitalists and industrialists and governments who view them solely (or largely) as costs or inputs into an industrial production process — then why are those same people completely unfree to view themselves as commodities? If I am a mere thing that produces and consumes — and our entire civilization has been structured this way — then why should I be expected to be anything more than a mere thing to myself?

If I can be exploited — to the point of death — by my employer, by my government, by any myriad of commercial relationships, then why am I completely unfree to exploit myself?

One of the reasons I have long supported some version of The Benedict Option is simply because the truth claims the church makes about who human beings are — and these stem from our primary claims of “Jesus Christ is Lord” and “He rose from the dead” — are irreconcilable with the truth claims modernity makes. We need to live like people for whom this confession is true, is real, and matters more than anything a human being could confess. Handy gets this, I think. I fear too many other conservatives will not (and do not), and seek not a resurrected church preaching and confessing true faith, but merely a restored social order in which the church is still subsidiary to a state and a society where people are still looked upon as consumable and disposable “raw material” for everything other than family making.

4 thoughts on “Raw Material

  1. I’m not quite sure how to respond to this post, since most of the topics are really “big”. Suffice to say that not”all” of modernity leaves us as “widgets”. I don’t think democracy, science, and capitalism, necessarily have to commodify us or reduce us to numbers, although they often do so.

    A political scientist once said “capitalism needs the kinds of men it does not produce”. Perhaps the same thing could be said of democracy or science. “Love God, and do what you will” could be a more profound political statement than is realized. A society whose hearts are being ordered correctly is one that can be trusted with pointy objects and technological powers. A society which loses even the memory of God, or common goodness, or basic understanding of men, women and children, is not one that can be trusted with its tools.
    “It is no accident that Benedict XVI placed the spirit of monasticism at the foundation of any authentically human culture. For nothing less than an all-consuming quest for God, one that lays claim to heart, soul, and mind, will suffice to save Christianity from this decaying civilization—or this civilization from itself.”

    Perhaps we ought to pray more strenuously for economic and political orders (and thinkers) committed towards genuine human flourishing (although people have deep disagreements about what “human flourishing” really means). Yelling “stop” is not as effective as creating alternative ways of being in the world.

  2. But what are the alternatives to late modernity? Aldous Huxley created in Brave New World a hedonistic tyranny, in which most people stayed stoned; then 20 years later he bought into his own dystopia, promoting the use of ‘mind-expanding’ drugs. This idea was a big hit, but it did nothing to alter the premises of modern society, except to reinforce and make explicit what was already there implicitly.

    Earlier Christian societies were not much different regarding day-to-day business. In what sense were serfs and apprentices (and even petty lords and daughters and younger sons of great lords) not raw material for feudal society? The primary difference (for the sake of what is being argued here) is that there was an adjunct subculture (or superculture) of religious specialists who had, to some extent, died to the world. Eventually, in the Latin West, there was an elevation of the office of pontiff (and his surrounding apparatchiks) to a status superior to worldly power. In the end, it seemed to be just another form of worldly power with unworldly pretensions. And so for nearly all religious groups, to the extent that they became closely associated with or co-opted by mundane authorities.

    Even if corporations and insurance companies and professional guilds are absorbed into the state, that doesn’t much change their nature, except perhaps to become a little more or less efficient.

    The church is useless unless Christ really is its Lord, unmediated by any human institution or authority (including the family), whether we perceive, acknowledge or desire this Lordship or not. I.e., Jesus is messing with everybody’s shit everywhere right now, invisibly moving us according to his designs, heartening some, enlightening some, etc. Or else we’re out of luck.

    This is a Dangerous Idea. I’m betting it’s a true one.

    What makes a person more than a piece of meat in the public mind, heart and imagination? To me this seems related to the transition from shame-honor culture to guilt culture. And this, I think, was due to the public’s knowledge of the whole Biblical history of God with Israel and the world, especially the prophetic condemnation of the fallibility of human authority and of society as a whole. The Glory of God far exceeds any human virtue, and would burn the world to a crisp if it were not for God’s mercy. We are more than scrap, because he has given us the power (exousia = power deriving from our transformed nature, in this case) to become Children of God. Nothing is more subversive.

    • I don’t think there is an answer to late modernity, but communities like L’Arche are what I’m thinking of. Theres a great podcast on Jean Vanier, who won the Templeton award recently, called the Wisdom of Tenderness. L’Arche communities are places to remember that we are mortal and dependent, and need to be loved by other people. I don’t know if you have to join these places, but something of that spirit should be incorporated into our own lives and its easy to forget the truth if you don’t hear it often enough.

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