Micah Redding — Christian Transhumanism: faith, technology & the future

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Deus Ex Machina

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In Insurrection, Peter Rollins critiques the Deus Ex Machina.

This is the god that, in ancient Greek plays, was lowered on a rope into the middle of the stage, in order to resolve the story. It's a terrible contrivance, and we've probably all seen bad movies that make use of just this sort of device. Perhaps it comes in the form of a fairy godmother, or someone winning the lottery, or someone waking up to discover that the whole episode was a dream.

What makes this so abhorrent is that it invalidates everything else in the story. We are tracking along with the characters, experiencing their desires and struggles, watching everything run on a collision course towards the center. We hold our breath, waiting to see what will happen. And then the stagemaster cranks in his cheesy plot device. The story has just been destroyed.

It's worse because we know we can't rely on such devices in our lives. If we get late on our bills, we can't just win the lottery, or whisk in a fairy godmother. We actually have to struggle through the issues, solving problems by weaving together the strands of our desires and abilities and choices. In investing ourselves in a story, we are trusting that the author will do the same thing, working with the same threads we have, and in the process, showing us a way forward.

The problem isn't with the supernatural itself. We enjoy movies about wizards and vampires and superheroes. But when those stories are done well, the supernatural isn't the mechanism by which problems are solved - it's the mechanism that causes the problems in the first place. If Harry Potter could have simply cast a spell and solved all his problems, there would have been no story.

Peter Rollins suggests that all religion promotes the Deus Ex Machina. Whether extreme fundamentalism or feel-good Christianity, religion trots out a God who appears whenever we need reassurance, confidence, or purpose in life, and who otherwise gets cranked back up into the rafters. Rather than doing the hard work of finding true meaning in our existence, we can rely on this much easier and more convenient fallback mechanism.

This dynamic works itself out in the church. Once a week, we are offered the chance to step into an alternate world and truly experience the presence of God, in a thin space which operates to free us from the cares of this life. But if this effort is successful, we may well end up addicted to ever-more ecstatic worship experiences. The more successful we are at bringing God near in these unique moments, the more the color and meaning is drained from the rest of our lives.

I've detailed this here. A God standing outside our world will always draw us away from normal life, sucking the meaning right out of existence and into a world far removed from our own.

Rollins' solution to this, and one that I endorse as wholly biblical, is that we must come to see God not in some external reality, but as being present in the very act of love. Rather than an object of affection, God becomes the means by which we love others.

But there is a problem. Many of the people who embrace this approach are unable to see how God could then be real in any sense. God becomes a personification of love, and loses all substance. Richard Beck has suggested that while this losing God, finding love thing might have some validity, it might also cause you to commit suicide. Instead of making a choice between a transcendent God and a God present in love, couldn't we have both? Or as Daniel Kirk says, maybe it's not either-or, maybe it's both-and?

This is a very common refrain among postmodernists, and it's one I inherently distrust. It seems to me that if there are legimitate tensions between two ideas, we shouldn't just go smacking those ideas together and calling it good. There is a reason for the tension, and it demands that we figure out why.

But I, for one, do believe in a real God. And I also think Pete is right to suggest that focusing on a metaphysical world devalues life. And I also think Richard is correct to point out that simply abandoning your ground of being is a good way to end up killing yourself.

So what alternatives are there? Is there a way to believe in a real God, and yet not get sucked into the metaphysical trap? Is there a way to affirm God as being present in love, and yet not lose God as real?

I think there is a way, and one that seems to have remained relatively unexplored.

Rollins places God firmly in the actual mechanics of our love towards others. In the biblical narrative, we can say this is true because God placed himself there. God, desiring to draw us into the world, made it so that our affection for him always has to go through something else.

It is as if he placed the entire world between us and him, and said "Now love me!" And so our love, as a result, has to hit everything in between.

But this is not the entirety of our experience of God, because God loves us back. And so God's love comes to us, back through the world, humanity, and the rest of reality. This experience of love can never be entirely localized or constrained, because it comes to us from all directions, an omnipresent downpour.

This draws us firmly into the world, because we cannot love God without loving the world. But neither can we experience God's love apart from our experience of the world. That love can never be reduced to a specific entity or location, but is always experienced in specific entities and locations.

God is real because love comes to us. God is experienced when we direct that love towards others.

This is what saves our love from becoming idolatry. This is what saves God from becoming a flattened abstraction of our own sentiments. This is what gives us an alternative to metaphysical obsession.

And this is how God comes to us not as the Deus Ex Machina, but as the very dynamic of the play itself.

Richard:

Thanks for this. I think you are on to something important by pointing out the reciprocal nature of love. Love isn't just giving but receiving. For my part, I think the notions of gift and gratitude (shorthand for grace) are critical here in the experience of receiving love from "God." If I experience my life as gift and grace I assume a posture of gratitude which opens me up to love. Further, if my life is experienced as gift I step back from the ledge.

J. D. Bentley:

Excellent post, Micah! Very thoughtful. This sounds good to me, but too vague. I think "love" needs to be further defined as both what we normally think of love (kindness, mercy, etc), but also the tragedy God allows to happen for the sake of our theosis. That "refining fire" kind of love. Then it's obvious God is real in both the good times and the bad. I agree that many people trot out a deified version of themselves to justify their actions, emotions and beliefs and negate or condemn those of other people, but I take issue with Rollins' assertion that "all religions" promote the Deus Ex Machina. He seems like a guy who's taken some hits from religious people and so set out to skewer all religion. It sounds like he's talking about moralistic therapeutic deism, which is a general religious attitude that seems to be dependent on postmodernism and first-world post-Christian society. That is to say, Deus Ex Machina religion has a particular time and place. I don't think it applies to all religion, least of all to institutional religions since it requires unrestrained individualism to believe such things. But, then again, maybe I'm taking it completely wrong. I don't actually know what he means by religion. Do you? Can you elaborate for me?

micah:

I agree that love has to be seen in both good things and bad - I would go so far as to say that biblical "wrath" is never a counterpoint to God's love, but is the actual expression of that love. I think what Rollins means by "religion" is "a mode of confident belief", which allows us an "easy out" of our suffering and angst. He would lay the same charge against Dawkins and the like. The problem then is not in what is believed, but the way in which that belief is used to confidently prop up our own existence. I think Rollins sees this as problematic because it anesthetizes us against life - when our pet dies, we can be happy by confidently claiming that "all dogs go to heaven!" To Rollins, atheists engage in the same mental trick, allowing their disbelief to become a way of warding off the pain of life. Anything which lies as a metaphysical grounding to our existence does the same thing - substituting a pristine and solid (Platonic?) concept for engagement with reality. I see what he's saying, and have been engaging with it over several posts. I'm not sure if I think we can really live without grounding as he suggests, but I think it's worth questioning the way in which our religion might encourage us to devalue the world around us. In this post, I'm trying to suggest that we may be able to have religion as "a mode of confident belief", without falling into the metaphysical addiction he worries about.

Stephen Wheeley:

Micah, this may be one of your best posts ever, although I must point out that what you say Rollins has "discovered" is nothing new but in fact is what Christ taught and the Apostolic church practiced and lived daily. The problem is that the "Church" as we now know it has wandered farther away from the true Christian life/ experience as an institution with each passing century, since about 300 AD, when it became "legitimized" under Constantine and became a "Religion" instead of "The Way", that is to say, it became a "lifestyle" instead of Life Itself. Of course God is not "some external reality", merely an "object of affection" (adoration would be a more proper term ) nor is He some "Dues Ex Machina " that we only call upon in a crisis. Sadly this is the conception many people wrongly have and thus this is how they try to "relate" to Him, but this is no true relationship at all, its God as a "fire extinguisher" that you only turn to in an emergency. Neither is the "thin space" experience of God as a once weekly "comforter" in church worship the way to have a true, deep, complete relationship with God, for as you correctly say this can lead to "junkie" effect of thinking He can only be known or experienced in that certain way, in ecstatic, short term "spiritual highs ". It is of course Christ who placed God "in the mechanics of our love for others", not Rollins, Pete has just re-discovered this truth, at least partially it seems. I would not completely agree with the statement "our affection for Him always has to go through something else", for when we first give our hearts to Him it is because we have realized His immeasureable love for us, and all mankind. ( We love because He first loved us ) And we can and should continue to love and adore Him for what Christ did for us as individuals, this is the foundation of our "personal relationship " with God/ Christ/ Holy Spirit. But once this happens, resulting in our being "born again as a new creation in Christ " we MUST then take the next step and "love our neighbors as ourselves " or as you said "God is experienced when we direct that love towards others". This is the "litmus test " of our Faith, of whether we truly are "born again", a true "child of God " for as it says in 1John 4:20 "If anyone says, 'I love God' , yet hates his brother, he is a liar." It is at this point in our "walk with God" that we realize "our love has to hit everything", we do have to "love all of humanity " in order to "love like Jesus". I don't really like your characterization of this as "God placing the world between us and him and saying 'now love me' ", as though loving others is a barrier twixt us and the divine, although it does in fact become one for those who don't really "know Him ". But this is the part that Rollins either doesn't seem to get or if he does he never seems to express fully. The only way we can fully "love God by/ through loving others " is to actually have God living in us and controlling us via the indwelling Holy Spirit. We must fully submit our will to His will, for this is the only way to know and thus obey His will, by becoming His slave, literally, not metaphorically. Then we will as you said, experience His love as " an omnipresent downpour" , both from Him and from those we are loving as He loves. For they will be directing their love not to us, but to the God we reflect in our lives, the God who actually lives in us. This is why we feel such joy and fulfilment when we do "good works ", the fruit of our Faith, because we feel both God's love for us (for our obedience to His commandments ) and the love of those we help, directed at the One living in us, for we also live "in Him ". That is, we feel the love both coming and going.

micah:

Steve, I think the biblical view is that we are all recipients of the love of God. This is what allows us to acknowledge and become conduits of that love towards others. This is the picture I've tried to get to here. The bible emphasizes over and over that this is the way we can love God - by directing our love towards other people. Consider the parable of the sheep and the goats, for instance. The biblical picture is not of a vertical and horizontal dimension, but of one circular motion that carries God's love through the world to us and then on through the world back to him.