Whenever a sweeping social change is proposed, champions of the cause often claim to be “on the right side of history.” The reasoning is that, since history is always progressing, any major shift in public opinion signals the dawn of yet another little age of enlightenment.
Nowhere is this more pronounced these days than in the debate over whether to recognize same-sex relationships as equivalent to marriages in society. While progressives across the nation celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges earlier this summer as a victory for “love,” on a par with earlier civil rights achievements, the Catholic Church and her allies have firmly maintained that a stable marriage—necessarily between one man and one woman and ordered to the raising of children—is the building block of society. The strongest argument for the Christian position involves the facts of the natural law, to which Jesus Himself alludes when asked about the essence of marriage. But what happens when the rebuttal to this argument from human nature claims that human nature itself is fluid and subject to change and “progress”?
A philosophical view that has been gathering steam in recent decades, known as transhumanism, makes precisely this claim. Aided by advances in medicine and biotechnology, the human race can and will, transhumanists propose, eliminate the limitations of our physical bodies—weakness, disease, and even death—and ultimately evolve into a more advanced species. In other words, transhumanists aim at remaking humanity in their own idealized image and becoming “like gods.” Some transhumanists even envision a world in which the difference between male and female is eradicated from the human condition.
This same desire to transcend human nature by our own will power appears to be at work in the reasoning behind the Supreme Court’s decision, which introduces a “right” to marriage while disregarding the integral roles of men and women. Yet this is nothing new for the Court, or Justice Anthony Kennedy, who penned the majority opinion. Twenty-three years earlier, in the opinion for Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Kennedy wrote:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
In other words, our own society promotes the idea that one cannot be free—and thus truly human—without being able to define for oneself what it means to be human. But what happens when this desire to engineer humanity, as the transhumanists would have it, is exercised?
Science fiction is replete with stories of failed attempts to liberate humanity from its nature, from the society in Brave New World (1932) to a botched social engineering experiment in Serenity (2005). Even our own history contains attempts to “advance” humanity by making it independent of divine revelation (as in the French Revolution) or of any relationship with the Transcendent at all (as in Communism); but these experiments inevitably turned violent to protect those in power. Could any of these societies, whether real or imagined, truly be on the right side of history?
The crafter of another fictional society, J. R. R. Tolkien, provides some insight:
Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.
What Tolkien intimates is that any attempt to improve human society can succeed only if it aims at the ultimate goal of humanity—eternal life and union with God.
Truly, transhumanism correctly identifies the problems and limitations in our human condition and desires a perfect society in which “death shall be no more” (Rev 21:4). But such a society is not to be found this side of Heaven. Rather, these limitations to our humanity that proceed from Original Sin can be overcome only by the “final victory” of which Tolkien speaks, that of Jesus Christ over sin and death through his saving Passion and Resurrection. God has created us in His image and likeness to participate in this victory, through which our frail bodies will be glorified and made incorruptible. Only by God’s grace, not our will alone, can we be divinized.
By rejecting the goodness of human nature as it is, however, transhumanism amounts to little more than the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, with its contempt for material creation and its will to improve humanity through secret knowledge. When this dangerous idea arose under the name of Albigensianism in the early thirteenth century, God inspired St. Dominic to establish an Order of Preachers to preach the truth about our human condition—that it is fallen, yet open to grace—and about our ultimate destiny in Christ, who alone gives full meaning to the mystery of human life.
Today, as our culture proclaims that liberty is to be found in making our own reality and reshaping human life according to our own ideas, this Good News about humanity is needed once again. By cooperating with this message of grace, we can realize our “final victory” in Jesus Christ, the Truth that will set us free (Jn 8:32) and draw all people to Himself (Jn 12:32). We will then find ourselves on the right side of eternity.