Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
—T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” The Four Quartets
I have recently tasted a luscious fruit of modernity for the first time in my life: surgery. It was a simple matter that required less than 30 minutes of my doctor’s time; but what a revolution for me. When I awoke from my first experience of anesthesia, I was missing an impacted wisdom tooth that had brought on recurring infections. My tooth was making me sick, so I had it removed. To replace the bone bordering on my sinus cavity, my surgeon inserted a small amount of animal cadaver — sheep, I am told — around which my tissue should rebuild. As a result, I am no longer entirely human.
Medical innovation is among the strongest arguments in favor of a progressive view of history. My newly cleared head, secured by the remains of a creature of another species, turns indignantly away from the ancients. Why look backward at all? We have come to a place where I do not have to live with a recurring tooth problem. When I grow a bit older, I may have the option to replace bad knees or hips. Bad arteries can be bypassed. An enormous number of things that once killed — quickly and slowly — have been done away with. Every day is brighter than the one before. We’re headed in the right direction.
Or are we?
Despite my repaired orofacial arrangements, I can only conclude from human history that I am going to die. (Of your charity, pray it is not too soon.) The end of life may be pushed further out; but for normal humans and even mostly humans like me, the end still exists. And in fact, as the ancients knew, the “end” — in the sense of “purpose” — of human life is embedded in every moment of our time on earth and beyond. Because one day we won’t be here, there must be a reason outside ourselves to explain why we are here now.
Our burial service, quoting St. Paul to the Romans, reminds us, “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.”
I am overjoyed to be rid of this troublesome tooth, so that I may continue to be a less frequently infected father to my children and priest to my parishioners. In fact, becoming slightly inhuman has made me more aware why I am alive. With or without this surgery — whether I should live 40 years or 80 — I was made to worship and to serve. This is my end. I live now as ever in a time vortex connected to history’s apex, Anno Domini.
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
— Eliot, “East Coker” IV
The world cannot believe that the most important event in its history has already happened. We want a different kind of “world without end” than that which the Church proclaims. And the only place to find it is beyond humanity — to imagine ourselves capable of defining our own existence, altering it, and eternalizing it. We must redefine our “end” to arrive at another end — namely, physical death is not inevitable. My partly sheep-boned jaw is a miniature example of the striving of our race to arrive, perversely, at what we are not. I am physically less myself (not more) than I was before my surgery. Likewise, striving to “be myself” may take me further away from rather than closer to the person I was made to be. If my “end” is myself, then obviously I want and need myself to conform to my feelings and, fantastically, to go on as such for longer and longer stretches of time, according to what tomorrow’s therapeutic technologies can afford.
As a Christian, I believe that I will live forever, but not because I am my own reason for being. If dying in Christ is the path to living with Christ, then my existence is primarily about my Creator and only secondarily about me. I therefore do not define who I am, regardless of whatever condition I may feel in my emotional or physical state. Indeed, St. Paul would no doubt be perplexed with the all-too-common 21st-century sentence that begins, I feel like. Why? Because, he reminds the Corinthians and us too, “you are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19).
On the contrary, modernity tells us we are our own, and our pitiful religion is that of the sovereign self. Wotan learns in Wagner’s opera Siegfried that every man is his own god, who breaks the one staff of divine law, crafted from the sacred ash tree of the world. Each of us is his own master, even a three-year-old boy whose parents let him live as a girl. But mass autocracy comes at high costs — among them, harrowing stories of people whose self-construction leads only to the discovery that drastic measures have failed to reveal their true nature. Wounds fester instead of heal. The real self fades. Progress takes us from perfect freedom as worship of God, to an illusion of freedom as worship of a broken me. And still the world bangs its sad drum: The right step toward the right version of you is just around the next bend. Bear with us. Please!
I have recently taken interest in Jonathan Swift’s great work Gulliver’s Travels, and I agree with Allan Bloom and Harvey Mansfield that Swift sees the “end” (purpose) of scientific progress, at least in part, as the end of the world. Swift’s concern looks ahead to the astonishing thesis by Rousseau almost a century later: Nature must be overcome. Swift predicts the folly of such thinking in the case of the floating island of Laputa, whose technological prowess results in an absurd system of domestic neglect coupled with tyranny over neighbors. Innovations inevitably involve errors of judgment that wreck both the Laputans and everyone else.
During the Cold War, Swift’s critique had an obvious analogue in the nuclear arms race. Now we may see a parallel in transhumanism. We have progressed toward being able to destroy ourselves not only by weapons of mass destruction and environmental pollution, but more fundamentally. First comes total reliance on technology for the most basic needs of life, along with simple medical therapies that introduce nonhuman or artificial matter into our bodies. Then come superhumans genetically engineered in the womb, followed by creatures merged with and subsequently replaced by machines of our own making. The “end” of humanity is thus the end of humanity. As C.S. Lewis puts it in The Abolition of Man: “Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.”
Meanwhile here I sit, transhuman, often prone to thrashing out my frustration at the prospect of further progress. But I am not my own. My becoming part sheep is not the end of the world. I have accepted a bit of ovine anatomy into my body as an alien presence, and a welcome one. But the real me is hidden with God in Christ, living for Resurrection Day. I know my end. Whatever I am now belongs once and for all to the great I am, whose will for me is total transformation into incorruptibility — to be what I am not, and thus more human than I have ever been. If I acquire more inhumanity in my body before then, may I live these unnaturally long years with blessed biological aberrations only to praise my God. If the increasingly animal or robotic me ceases to do this, I pray someone will melt me down immediately.
Until then, I return to “East Coker,” where Eliot’s reaction to modernity sounds a clearer note than ever: “In my beginning is my end.” And, equally, “In my end is my beginning.”
World without end. Amen.