In a profound yet enigmatic book, Christ and Culture, theologian Graham Ward makes an incisive point about how technology in the modern era may be affecting our culture in ways we do not immediately see. In speaking about renewed, scholarly interest in the embodied nature of Christ’s incarnation, Ward points to a much broader “obsession” in “affluent locations around the world” with the body itself:
This wider obsession that desires to turn the body into the most finely balanced sensorium so that it might experience its own joys and pains to the full is, I suggest, both a response to the fear of the body’s disappearance and also a response to the new working conditions created by globalism that demands a machine’s optimum efficiency.
The problem that Graham, and some critical theorists like Luce Irigaray, are pointing out is that of a society, especially in the affluent West, which is becoming more and more reliant on technology for all its social and economic interactions. This displacement of the physical body from our social and work life, tempts us to seek out sensory experiences elsewhere, intense ones at that, to make up for the lack of bodily engagement previous generations would have had in abundance, simply given the normal modes of everyday life (face-to-face commerce, farming, manual labor, artisan craftsmanship, travel by foot, bicycle, horse, etc.). There is, after all, a tremendous difference in bodily experience between pressing a keyless ignition and, say, saddling a horse or mule.
While the call goes out for new incarnationalism [embodiment]…while new health and sports clubs open every week…, while cooking and the celebrity of chefs are daily taking up more media time, while high street fashions populate the pages of every glossy magazine and film stars parade their designer labels, while films like Hannibal are produced reflecting the fears for and fascinations with the consumer body and while the Human Genome Project publishes its regular breakthroughs—the deepening of cyberspace, the multiplication of mobile phones and the endless mobility of peoples make gnostics of us all.
And so a tension exists between technology and its effect on the body and society’s desperate attempt to compensate for the disconnect between man and his world that has resulted. We try to exaggerate bodily experience, so as not to become gnostics with regard to our physical existence. Technology makes us feel too much like ethereal minds. We forget about our bodies as we sit in front of the computer screen, yet are bodies stubbornly persist in their existence. A hunger pain strikes, a lustful thought emerges, and we must do something about that!
It seems to me that this disembodiment in ordinary life and the subsequent, desperate search to find replacement experiences for the kinds of bodily interactions our ancestors would have had naturally, could be one additional factor as to why so many Americans ignore the clear moral implications of something like abortion. As human beings lose touch with embodied, daily activities, like hard work on a farm or even daily shopping at the local general store, our bodies long for some kind of physical stimulus. Yet we are deprived of it.
At the same time, however, we are no longer accustomed, thanks to technology, to more intense forms of negative stimulus–ones that might prepare us for others kinds of physical hardships. Thus we long for a more embodied life, but certainly we do not tend to want, at least, that life to be painful. As such, our search for pleasurable bodily experiences increases in disproportion to our willingness to undergo uncomfortable physical interactions. In the end, most of us frequent the new 24-hour fitness center ultimately for the sake of having a different kind of bodily experience than the one the weights or treadmills can deliver.
So what do we do? As Ward points out, we look to compensate. We do this through novel or intensified means of physical fitness. We celebrate food in an inordinate way and to an exaggerated degree. We parade around in designer fashions like peacocks. While these are all common manifestations of our desire for embodiment, clearly there is another area where we seek to maximize embodiment that Ward leaves unmentioned here (but not elsewhere in the book).
Compensating for the Lack
Sexual experience of some type would be the most effective at making up for this extreme lack of bodily interaction. For example, pornography obviously lends itself to fill that gap. And thus, regardless of our knowledge of porn’s devastating effects on both individual and society, we allow it anyway. We do so because it does the job of providing the experiential fix we think we need. Similar too with abortion.
We know that abortion is murder, but the obvious point must be made: if one is going to pursue sensual pleasure through casual sex, seeking to maximize the body as a “sensorium” of pleasure, then the burden of the children that could result from that pleasure-seeking project must be eliminated. Nothing deters us from treating our body as a receptacle of pleasure like having to care for a child; with the exception perhaps of enduring through a disease or prolonged illness. No wonder babies are often spoken of as parasites or viruses or tumors by radical abortionists. The baby can act like a tumor for the woman (and man) focused on maximizing bodily pleasure. Given what we know about babies in the womb, this may sound shocking. But it shouldn’t surprise.
Nevertheless, one is left to wonder if prior generations that expended far more of their bodily energies in other areas of social and economic life, due to the lack of technology, found it easier to preserve certain virtues than our current, tech-saturated one. Perhaps if Pink were grinding it out 10-12 hours a day on a dairy farm instead of making millions grinding out bad pop songs, she would be less inclined to tell us to go “F*** off” when we point out the wrongness of murdering babies and of thinking you have a right to be so wrong.
One should take note, however, that none of this is by accident. Critical theorists like Herbert Marcuse in his foundational work Eros and Civilization, the work that earned him the title “father of the sexual revolution,” specifically theorized about reducing human beings to their most instinctual. For Marcuse, man is most fundamentally this: a pleasure seeking animal. And so to be truly liberated, one must deconstruct the long history of sexual sublimination; both in the funneling of excess, libidinal energies into physical work, as well as the restraining of libidinal activities on account of belief in antiquated religious doctrines and their associated matrices of guilt and shame. The first is the deconstruction of Capitalism, the second the deconstruction of Judeo-Christian morality. Pink is very much the pink-headed step-child of the white, heterosexual German man— at least ideologically speaking.
Abortion and Living in an Eros-Driven World
In a far more classical work of theology than Ward’s, the late Thomas Oden writes:
Love is a confluence of two seemingly paradoxical tendencies: The desire to enjoy the object of love, and the will to do good for the beloved. One impulse takes and the other gives….In Greek, the passion to posses another is called eros, whereas self-giving love is called agape. They are joined in creative tension in all human love.
Oden, Classic Christianity “Agape and Eros”
Another reason we see such outrage over the removal of the fake “right” to kill children, is the increasing inability in American culture to not only practice but even understand “agape” love. America has truly become the land of eros, the land where we seek to possess the object of love, but never to sacrifice or give of ourselves for the benefit of the beloved.
Certainly there are more pleasures to be had than just bodily ones. For example, there are the intangible pleasures that come from being famous, from achieving one’s subjective life-goals, from maneuvering oneself into positions of authority and power and from the feeling one might have when, in some way, they have finally “arrived” at the top. In short, we all have our ambitions, and ambition is now treated as a virtue in various cross-sections of American culture, unlike the vice it was once known to be.
This blatant praise of ambition reminds one of the scene from Gladiator, when the loathsome Commodus, played so creepily well by Joaquin Phoneix, tries to convince his father, the stoic-king Marcus Auerilius, of his “virtues.” And yet here we are today, where every egomaniacal pop-star, movie star, star athlete and New York City mayor can boast about how their choices to murder babies (or allow babies to be murdered) were justified because of their personal ambitions. How often have we now heard something like this: “If I had not been allowed to have my abortion 10, 15 or 20 years ago, I wouldn’t be the beautiful, sexy, rich, beloved actress/politician/lawyer/athlete I am today!” Worse, of course, than the statements themselves are the resounding choruses of cheers that usually follow.
Less Ambition, More Agape
In short, we have become a culture of Commoduses: our love is the love of possessing the things we love, not the giving of ourselves for the sake of that which is loved. It is what the world can give us, not what we can give the world that matters now. And so even more women who do choose to have children, often do so on account of what the child will do for them—for how the child will help the mother “fulfill her potential.” In the end, everything becomes shallow if having experiences is all that matters. And if technology is robbing us of those experiences most natural to us, then we can see the incredible danger of this mix.
And so at this point, perhaps we might appropriate John F. Kennedy’s maxim and pose the imperative anew: “Ask not what your baby can do for you, ask what you can do for your baby!” Or, even better, we might recall the apostle Paul’s words about ultimate love, and once again set this as our example in a post-Roe America:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who:
though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,
being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.