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Diminishing Humanity: How the Modern World Is Dehumanizing Us[1]

Gregory E. Reynolds

The psalmist’s age-old question, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” is now the great question of our age, as technology has given us tremendous power to manipulate the created order. For all its benefits, it has also given sinful, autonomous man the false idea that he can redesign human nature. This is a dangerous concept, the hazards of which are becoming more evident with each passing year. Without the Creator’s view of what the being he has created is, dehumanization, which began with original sin, is inevitable. Notice that the psalmist’s question is addressed to God. It is precisely the lack of transcendent reality in the modern mind that leads to the illusion of pervasive human control. The apotheosis of the human ends ironically with dehumanization.

The problem of dehumanization has emerged as one of the fundamental problems of the modern world, especially since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The Christian view of humanity, based on the transcendent special revelation of God’s Word, offers unique intellectual and spiritual tools to analyze, critique, and present solutions to the problem. Tragically both the church and the world seem only to be able to feel the pain of our diminishing humanity without really understanding the problem, much less its solution.

There is a hint of dehumanization in the International Style of architecture. This style grew out of Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus School, uniting art and technology. For example, Le Corbusier’s mass housing “machines for living” were built to “human proportions,” but notably lacked the humanly important elements of decoration and delight.[2] The apotheosis of science and technology is diminishing our humanity in significant ways so that we are becoming T. S. Eliot’s “hollow men.”[3] C. S. Lewis warned that modern education was producing “men without chests.”[4] As quantity replaces quality, virtue is shoved aside by technique.

At the level of popular culture, the symptoms are legion. We hear people say, “I feel like a number.” “I get lost in the crowd.” “Nobody cares.” “Whatever!” Our virtual connections have made us “alone together,” longing for community, while traditional social connections are fast eroding.[5] We are amazed to get a live person on the other end of the phone line when we call a business or other institution. The media have so saturated us with exposure to disasters throughout the world that we become callous to suffering. Entire population groups have been liquidated: White Russians in Russia, Armenians, Jews in Germany, Mosquito Indians in Nicaragua, Curds in Iraq, Sudanese, and the unborn daily in the Western World.

There is also a reflection of diminishing humanity in art and literature, mirrors of our culture. In Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” man disappears almost entirely. Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman said of his film The Silence in 1963, “God is dead. There is only silence in the universe.”[6] Much of modern art is, as George Roche said, “the nightmares of a materialistic society.”[7] The rejection of the God of the Bible diminishes the humanity in its self-expression.

I. THE DIMINISHING OF OUR HUMANITY

Our rejection of a Christian view of humanity was the real problem as the rejection of any transcendent reality became an assumption of the modern mind. As G. K. Chesterton is believed to have said: “When people reject Christianity, it is not that they believe in nothing, but they will believe in anything.”[8] The late Jacque Barzun maintained that dehumanization is “brought about by the sway of number and quantity.”[9] “Science is an all pervasive energy, for it is at once a mode of thought, a source of strong emotion, and a faith as fanatical as any in history.”[10] According to Daniel & Revelation the progress of world history in its idolatry tends toward diminishing our humanity. Thus the symbolic image of beasts. Paul describes the dehumanizing effects of idolatry as it degenerates to sexual perversion:

Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Rom 1:22–25)

A. A Brief Survey of Diminishing Our Humanity

Contrary to many thinkers like Alfred North Whitehead and Francis Schaeffer, dehumanization did not begin with the twentieth century or the “line of despair” formed by the philosophers Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, and the Enlightenment. Humanity began to be diminished at the point of the historic Fall of Adam. When Adam chose to worship created reality and seek meaning apart from God, his humanity became diminished. Romans 1:25 “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” This is what the Bible calls idolatry: locating ultimate loyalty and devotion in the created order rather than in the personal Trinity. These are the God substitutes satirized by the psalmist in Psalms 115 and 135 and by the prophets. If we deny the historic Fall, we are left with humanity the way we find it in its corrupted form.

Idolatry diminishes humanity by alienating us from the personal Creator in whose image we are made. Thus our humanity is intimately and inextricably wrapped up in our relationship with God.

[M]an’s ultimate ethical commitment determines the objects of his affections and devotion. His rebellious stance is both reflected in and cultivated by the idols he constructs. “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:8). Idolatry dehumanizes. Idolatry is at the heart of the thought forms and moral habits of a fallen culture. Media, especially electronic media, create a pervasive environment. Thus, the vast and world encompassing Babel-like project of modernity highlights the use of technology to create a culture independent of God.[11]

Idolatry also diminishes our humanity by alienating us from other people. Immediately after the Fall in Genesis 3 and 4 we see: guilt and shame; Adam and Eve trying to cover their sin and escape from God; blaming each other; ultimately committing murder. Alienated man becomes a brutal manipulator. Our abuse of the natural world exemplifies our alienation from creation itself.

Something significant did happen with the Enlightenment. In philosophy Immanuel Kant sought to save science from the skepticism of British empiricist David Hume regarding the nature of “causality.” Hume argued that all knowledge comes through the senses and saying one thing causes another is a mental habit, not a fact. In his rescue attempt Kant elevated the “phenomenal” world of space and time, and causality to the knowable; and free will, immortality, and theology to the unknowable “noumenal” world of God. G. W. F. Hegel absorbed all reality into the Absolute. History is the Absolute realizing itself in one grand inter-related evolutionary scheme. Science is essential to furthering the process. Thus began the process of elevating science and technology; man becomes the controller of his own destiny. God became an unnecessary hypothesis. The created order is subjected to manipulation in order to better human life without any overarching purpose apart from efficiency in the glorification of humanity. The idea of God, especially in Christianity, inhibits the evolutionary progress of humans liberating themselves. French sociologist Jacques Ellul defines technique—the broader motive or leitmotif behind our uses of technology—as the human quest for control through ultimate efficiency in every human endeavor.[12] Technology without telos is treacherous.

Darwin, Freud, and Marx declared complete independence from the Christian view in science, psychology, history, and political science. The nineteenth century declared the “Ascent of Man.” The twentieth century dawned to witness the diminishment of humanity on an unimaginably brutal scale. Man is reduced to a mere aspect of the natural world, a mass of molecules, a lucky animal, easily dispensed with in order to achieve certain revolutionary ends. Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer writes:

Surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, Nietzsche knew the tension and despair of modern man. With no personal God, all is dead. Yet man, being truly man (no matter what he says he is), cries out for a meaning that can only be found in the existence of the infinite-personal God, who has not been silent but has spoken, and in the existence of a personal life continuing into eternity. Thus, Nietzsche’s words are profound: “But all pleasure seeks eternity—a deep and profound eternity.”

Without the infinite-personal God, all a person can do, as Nietzsche points out, is to make “systems.” In today’s speech we would call them “game plans.” A person can erect some type of structure, some type of limited frame, in which he lives, shutting himself in that frame and not looking beyond it. This game plan can be one of a number of things. It can sound high and noble, such as talking in an idealistic way about the greatest good for the greatest number. Or it can be a scientist’s concentrating on some small point of science so that he does not have to think of any of the big questions, such as why things exist at all. It can be a skier concentrating for years on knocking one-tenth of a second from a downhill race. Or it can as easily be a theological word game within the structure of the existential methodology. That is where modern people, building only on themselves, have come, and that is where they are now.[13]

In Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche declared “God is dead!” Man is an “instinctive animal.” Ultimate reality is the “will to power.”[14] Hitler lived out this vision of the superman as a kind of twentieth-century Cain, another in a long line of “brutal manipulators,” diminishing humanity as he was diminished himself.

In the 1960s many of us vainly attempted to reclaim our humanity by rejecting “the establishment” and the “military industrial complex.” But our alternative of a modified American Eastern mysticism offered only an escape into the impersonalism of various forms of pantheism. Politically the New Left of the 1920s and 1930s fueled the countercultural movement of the 1960s. As Italian political and cultural philosopher Augusto Del Noce has astutely observed, metaphysics had to be rejected in order to implement the new empirical vision of liberated man. In analyzing the influence of Dr. Wilhelm Reich’s writings on the sexual revolution, he asserts:

Indeed Reich’s thought is based on the premise, which of course is taken as unquestionably true without even a hint of a proof, that there is no order of ends, no meta-empirical authority of values. Any trace not just of Christianity but of “idealism” in the broadest sense, or of a foundation of values in some objective reality, like history according to Marx, is eliminated. What is man reduced to, then, if not to a bundle of physical needs? [15]

B. The Technological Diminishment

Technology has become the chief god in the pantheon of idols beginning with the Enlightenment. Control over material culture is overwhelming all human concerns and aspirations. As “extensions of man,” technology was defined by the human. Presently man is being transformed as an extension of material culture and technology. What we think we control has a way of controlling us.

The modern incarnation of the idol Narcissus is revealed in the world of screens. Narcissus, a Greek god who falls in love with his own reflection, is symbolic of ultimate self-absorption. People have abandoned their porches for their entertainment centers. Witness your town or street with its eerie blue cathode ray light radiating from your neighbors’ windows as you walk by, if you ever walk by. Public space is increasingly diminished in our communities. Witness the people who are “somewhere else” even while they are in your space on a smart phone.

Couch potatoes are not only passive observers but takers, cultivating an incapacity to give of themselves. Furthermore, they have little to give. Consumption reigns. The moral nature concerned with commitment and values is replaced by the aesthetic nature concerned with the enjoyment of the senses. God created us such that the moral nature is meant to inform and control the aesthetic.

One great ironic tragedy of the world of enhanced “communication” is the problem of loneliness. Psychologists Robert Kraut and Vicki Lundmark studied the effects of Internet use with ninety-six families over two years. They concluded that “The more time individuals spent online, the greater the degree of depression and loneliness they experienced.”[16]

Richard Stivers in his book, Shades of Loneliness, contends that modern mental disorders are not genetic or chemical in nature, but relational, and that relational breakdowns are in turn exacerbated by technology. “I think that a technological civilization provides an extremely harmful environment. The various shades of loneliness are the price we pay for living in a society dominated by technology.”[17] In the nineteenth century personality supplanted character in defining the human.[18] Stivers argues that public opinion motivates envy as the unifying principle of personality.[19] “Technology makes human relations abstract and thus impersonal.”[20] TV promotes passing and shallow emotions and attachments. It becomes a substitute reality. Direct experience is lost and so is reality itself.[21] The self is no longer defined in terms of its relationship to God and others. Thus, fear and loneliness dominate.

Humans are meant to live in relationship to God and others. The superficial tendency of modern technologies is alienating. We are historically lonely because TV is an anti-narrative with no context, only the present. Those who have no past, have no future—and thus no hope.

Technology fosters Gnosticism, as if humans are disembodied spirits living in the virtual rather than the real world. Marshall McLuhan warned of the “disincarnating” tendency of the electronic environment.[22]

The Electronic Revolution displays a strong tendency toward what Os Guinness calls “Cybergnosticism.” [Fit Bodies Fat Minds, 1994, 129] McLuhan feared that the great tendency of the global village would be “discarnate man. … The discarnate TV user, with a strong bias toward fantasy, dispenses with the real world …” [“A Last Look at the Tube,” in Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message 1989, 197] In Understanding Media McLuhan observes: “Language as the technology of human extension, whose powers of division and separation we know so well, may have been the ‘Tower of Babel’ by which men sought to scale the highest heavens. Today computers hold out the promise of a means of instant translation of any code or language into any other code or language. The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity” [Understanding Media, 1965, 80].[23]

The body is essential to being made in God’s image, and thus our humanity.

II. THE RETREAT OF THE CULTURE AND THE CHURCH FROM DEFINING THE HUMAN

A. The Plague of Anti-intellectualism

The Romantic ideal of the authentic experience of the liberated individual has left us thoughtless. Harry Blamires says it well in The Christian Mind (1963):

Of course the very fact that nowadays we look upon convictions as personal possessions is a symptom of the disappearance of the Christian mind. It is precisely in such odd and scarcely graspable notions that the full extent of the secularization of the modern mind is glimpsed. One of the crucial tasks in reconstituting the Christian mind will be to re-establish the status of objective truth as distinct from personal opinions; to rehabilitate knowledge and wisdom in contradistinction from predilection and whim.[24]

Anti-intellectualism deprives us of the ability to define the meaning of the human. At best secular thought has left us with an evolutionary notion that man is simply a sophisticated animal, who now has the ability to shape his own destiny and nature through bio-technology.

In the report of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness,[25] Leon Kass, the report’s principal author, defines it as an “ethical inquiry.”[26] He distinguishes between “therapy,” which helps alleviate disease and injury, and “enhancement,” which seeks to improve humanity through bio-engineering to yield better children, superior performance, ageless bodies, and happy souls. Technology without ethics is a dangerous reality. Albert Borgmann observed that the “root of the technological promise—[is] the eradication of trouble from the human condition.”[27]

B. The Failure to Understand Media and Technology

Electronic media are altering the way we think, view the world, and the structure of culture. Naïveté regarding the dehumanizing tendencies of media is a major problem for both the culture and the church. “Every technological innovation is hailed as the final stride toward that universally rich and satisfying life.”[28]

A culture informed and dominated by technology in general and electronic media in particular is deeply inhospitable to God’s Word, grace, and the sacraments, as well as the community of faith. We are coming to theological and spiritual conclusions outside the discipline of the church and the communion of saints.

III. THE HOPE OF REFORMATION: RECLAIMING THE HUMAN

A. Develop Clear Thinking about Humanity with the Biblical Doctrine of Man

As Harry Blamires encourages us:

The sphere of the intellectual, the sphere of knowledge and understanding, is not a sphere in which the Christian gives ground, or even tolerates vagueness and confusion. There is no charity without clarity and firmness.” [29]

B. Articulate a Christian View of Humanity: Five Key Assertions

1. The infinite-personal Triune Creator has made everyone in his image.

Personality and purpose are ultimate, not impersonality and chance. The inter-Trinitarian love and glory is shared through eternal communication in the mysterious interpenetration (perichoresis) of the divine Persons. God made humanity in his image so that we could communicate with God personally (Gen. 1:26; 2:7).

2. God has spoken a personal Word to mankind in the Bible.

Silence is not ultimate. Thus, from the beginning human communication was not only imitative of Trinitarian communication, but it was covenantal in nature as God spoke to Adam in the garden. The very first human experience of communication was not social, but between God and man; and God was the first to speak. His speech was always by way of the sovereignly initiated and defined arrangement of his relationship with man, which the Bible calls a covenant. We were created with dignity and worth.

Humans are unique among the creatures, in contrast to the materialist biological reduction of Darwin. Barzun declares “Man alone has a biography and he but shares a zoology.”[30] J. Gresham Machen in The Christian View of Man asserts that man as distinct from animal creation “is capable of personal companionship with the infinite and eternal God.”[31] Scripture gives us a true view of God’s world and God’s image bearer, humankind.

3. God has sent the True Man, Jesus Christ, to save us from our dehumanizing idols.

The most significant declaration of Scripture is the startling statement with which John begins his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The phrase “In the beginning” hearkens back to Genesis 1:1. There, as the name of the Son (Word) implies, was communication par excellence. In John 5:20 we read, “For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing.” The verb “shows” (δείκνυσιν) means reveal, explain, and in the present tense indicates a continuous activity. In Christ’s high priestly prayer in John 17, we are told that there was a covenant made in eternity between the Father and the Son to save his elect people. “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (v. 4). Here is communication of the profoundest sort.

The quest for human perfection without Christ is a futile effort, but also an understandable aspiration. It represents the original deceit that man can live without God, and reflects the original intention of creation: glorious perfection in Jesus Christ.

4. As God’s image-bearers, humanity is gifted with the ability to explore and draw out the potentialities of God’s creation.

Our inventions must be employed in service to our fellow man. Because of sin, we must understand the ways that our inventions are both blessings and liabilities. All our inventions must be employed, above all, in service to God. Christians need to demonstrate the new humanity in Christ in every sphere and endeavor of life. Paul calls us to this complete consecration in Romans 12:1–2:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

5. Exhibit true humanity in genuine community in the family, the church, and the world.

Christians need to be better stewards of our electronic devices so that we may focus more on face-to-face relationships. In writing my 2012 article on this topic, I was amazed to discover that this theme of the importance of face-to-face communication and fellowship is pervasive in the Bible.[32]

Conclusion

Ken Myers, the host of Mars Hill Audio, was once asked, “Can modern technological man alter human nature?” He wisely responded “No, but we can do a lot of damage trying.” While Christians cannot control the damage that dehumanization inflicts, we can promote and model a Christian view of who we are as God’s image, but especially as that image is restored in the true and final man, the last Adam, Jesus Christ.

Endnotes

[1] Originally “Reduction, Retreat, Reformation: A Christian Response to Contemporary Dehumanization,” a lecture given on January 23, 1989, to the class of Dr. Dennis Roark, “Christianity and the Natural Sciences,” The King’s College, Briarcliff Manor, NY. This version is revised and expanded.

[2] First century BC Roman architect Vitruvius’s three rules of good architectural design were expounded in his foundational The Ten Books of Architecture: firmness (firmitas structural integrity), commodity (utilitas usefulness), and delight (venustas beauty).

[3] T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” was published in 1925.

[4] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 1.

[5] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

[6] Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1976), 202.

[7] George Roche, A World without Heroes: The Modern Tragedy (Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College Press, 1987), 71.

[8] Émile Cammaerts, The Laughing Prophet: The Seven Virtues and G. K. Chesterton (London: Methuen, 1937), 211. The quote is actually Cammearts’s interpretation of something Father Brown says in “The Oracle of the Dog” (1923).

[9] Jacques Barzun, Science: The Glorious Entertainment (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 1.

[10] Ibid., 3.

[11] Gregory Edward Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2001), 24.

[12] Ellul defines technique as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), xxv (emphasis in original).

[13] Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? 180–81.

[14] Walter Kaufman, ed. and trans., The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Viking, 1954), 125.

[15] Augusto Del Noce, The Crisis of Modernity, trans. and ed. Carlo Lancellotti (McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal and Kingston, 2014).

[16] Richard Stivers, Shades of Loneliness: Pathologies of a Technological Society (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 41.

[17] Ibid., 6.

[18] Ibid., 13.

[19] Ibid., 15.

[20] Ibid., 17.

[21] Ibid., 24.

[22] Marshall McLuhan, “The Brain and the Media,” in George Sanderson and Frank Macdonald, eds. Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1989), 184.

[23] Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures, 57.

[24] Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind (New York: Seabury, 1963), 40.

[25] Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, a report of the President’s Council on Bioethics (New York: Regan, 2003). Dr. Leon Kass is the principal author.

[26] Ibid., xx.

[27] Albert Borgmann, Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003), 78.

[28] Ibid., 19.

[29] Blamires, The Christian Mind, 40.

[30] Barzun, Science, 306

[31] J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man (London: Banner of Truth, 1965), 145.

[32] Gregory E. Reynolds, “Face to Face: The Importance of Personal Presence in Ministry and Life,” Ordained Servant Online (Dec. 2012), https://opc.org/os.html?article_id=340; Ordained Servant 21 (2012): 20–26.

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, November 2017.

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