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Bill McKibben's 'Enough' is not enough to provide hope
May 07, 2007
By Russell D. Moore, Senior V.P. for Academic Administration, Southern Seminary
We debate now whether or not we ought to baptize a repentant four year-old. But will your grandchildren be debating whether or not we should baptize a robot with artificial intelligence? That's one of the questions posed by ecologist Bill McKibben in a book on new horizons in bioethics.
It is hard to imagine someone with whom I would have less in common than McKibben. He is something of a 1960s hippie, a population-control advocating environmentalist who authored a book entitled "Maybe One: The Case for Smaller Families." I disagree with him on many things, and expected to disagree with his 2003 book "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age," which I read recently. Instead of disagreeing all that much, I found myself saying "amen" an awful lot.
In this book, McKibben seeks to lay out the case against what he sees as the "frontiers" of genetic engineering, robotics and nanotechnology, arguing instead for a nearly biblical vision of human nature. Along the way, McKibben points out some aspects of contemporary techno-utopian culture Christians would do well to notice.
McKibben highlights, for instance, the culture-transforming nature of television. He does so in a way that avoids the semi-Pharisaism of some conservative Christians and some liberal intellectuals, both of whom enjoy remarking on how little television they watch. McKibben notes that the effects of television are societal, not just individual or even familial. As he puts it, "You may keep the TV in the closet, but you still live in a TV society."
For McKibben, the loss of human community through our "progress" to individual decontextualization has left us with a radical loneliness and an even more acute fear of death. To answer these terrors, we look to even more technology, and even more freedom. McKibben writes:
"A reasonable definition of a human being is any creature unhinged at the prospect of dying. 'This is what is creaturely about man, this is the repression on which the culture is built,' insists Ernest Becker. That culture covers everything from the pyramids of Egypt to the 'Left Behind' novels now crowding the top of the best-seller charts. Death's overpowering reality drives some to embrace various creeds, or to mummify bodies, or to jog. Some of us try to achieve glory so our names will be 'kept alive'; others to reduce ourselves until we merge with some ultimate reality ... Death is us."
This is actually a quite perceptive description of the contemporary experience of a humanity held captive to the evil one "through fear of death" (Heb 2:14-15).
McKibben also recognizes that the motives behind "post-human" technologies are often simply the second, third or three-hundredth step behind a sexual revolution that sought to deny the createdness of gender. He cites those who celebrate the fact that a cyborg would "transcend" the old "patriarchal dualisms" of the past. Free from manhood or womanhood, such a being would be "liberated" for "perversity." McKibben might not recognize Romans 1 on a printed page, but he recognizes a flight from one's Creator when he sees it.
He also seems to recognize who his allies are, at least on this: those who worship. Worship for McKibben seems to point to the central truth of human existence: "Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God."
McKibben asks: "Whom would you worship as your creator if your genes came from Pfizer? If your daily bread came from a magic nanobox? If you had been programmed? Eventually, like all other meanings, religion would wither away. That's a lot of human legacy to dispense with, but we might well do it. According to the technoutopians, we will do it. We have no choice; we inevitably push forward. It is our destiny, and destiny is inescapable. We aren't special."
I don't agree with McKibben on everything, of course. He doesn't distinguish very often between appropriate technologies and utopian ones. Still, the book is sensible, beautiful and apocalyptic in the biblical rather than the pop-ecology sense of the term. He sets forth a chilling portrait of some new challenges the church may face. How will we minister to human clones? How will we preach the Gospel to those who are promised a cure for death itself? By the way, I'm opposed to baptizing robots.
What the book doesn't provide is a vision of ultimate hope. McKibben's ending paragraph is a moving description of a night-time jog past the homes of his neighbors, in which McKibben reflects on the fact that the world, despite its cruelties and sufferings, is not perfect or fair but is enough.
And yet clearly it is not.
What McKibben seems to need, what all of us need, is a harmonious universe, ruled by a righteous humanity beneath a glorious and personal God. "Enough" is not the contemporary equivalent of the Psalms or the Proverbs. There are few answers here. It is more like a contemporary restatement of Ecclesiastes, pointing out the vanity of a self-made existence.
"Enough" is not enough. But it's a good start.