Ghost in the Machine Liberation Front

As the world careens on its merry way, giving thanks to The Universe In General for such rarified gifts as “unity,” “equity,” and an asymptotically but never-quite-actually flattened curve, it’s time for us – meaning Christians, one and all – to stop harping on about spiritual blessings, attitudes of gratitude, and other bankrupt abstractions. It’s time to get carnal. After all, Advent ‘tis the season of expectation: the forward-backward remembrance of the incarnation of God.  Soap-bubble ephemera like the brotherhood of man and universal goodwill aren’t the stuff that was born in a manger to die for your sins; in fact, they aren’t stuff at all. They are mere ideals, and vague ones at that. I say we get back into our bodies and eat, drink, and give thanks like we really mean it – like we are flesh and blood and pulsing breath holding together a lump of clay that somehow bears the imago dei. Like we are actually humans – spiritual animals, flesh-drenched souls. 

That was an awkward metaphor. I blame Rene Descartes; he’s the one (among many others of lesser genius) who robbed us of our carnality all those centuries ago. At least, he makes a good scapegoat for our culture’s pervasive mind-body dualism. Somewhere along the crooked path of modern thought, the unreasonable ascension of Reason and the Deist’s drunken dream of a Watchmaker God conspired to trap us all inside our bodies, rendering human nature a mere “ghost in the machine.” We’ve been stuck there a long time. It’s an easy downhill slide once you take the first fatal misstep: thinking the universe is a pretty clock. Despite the well-meant crusading of the “intelligent design” crowd, hyperfocus on the mechanical ingenuity of the cosmos can lead to the nasty intellectual hangover just described. Here’s the recipe for this potent cocktail:

  1. Start with 1 oz. (measure generously) of barrel-aged mathematical prowess (whether this is your own hard work or some other smart fellow’s moonshine is immaterial): Predict a few astronomical phenomena, decode some DNA, and write equations to govern microscopic miscellany. It doesn’t matter whether you groove on quarks or the Golden Ratio; the point is to peer beneath the veil of appearances in order to behold the wondrous inner mechanisms of creation. Lo! The design is so intricate that it must come from the hand of a Master Builder, a creator of unfathomable power and intellect.  In other words, this universe is completely above your paygrade and technical proficiency. 
  2. Add ½ oz. sweet post-Enlightenment individualism: Your self – your sacred, thinking, willing, identity-declaring persona – sloshes lightly against the glass, not quite blending with the first ingredient. Choice, emotion, and consciousness provide a subtle counterpoint in flavor to the heady determinism, while proving just as intoxicating in their own right. 
  3. A dash of aromatic bitters: Most of your existence falls squarely in the former category of mechanistic complexity – taxes, healthcare, transport, the price of milk: all must be managed by the elite credentialed class. After all, the world is a labyrinthine supercomputer too sophisticated for ordinary human prudence to navigate. This simultaneously robs you of sovereignty and relieves you of responsibility. The experts will upgrade your software when the time comes; in the meantime, try to be civic-minded. Don’t try to control what is so far beyond your puny competence.
  4. Cherry on top: complain about it in a blogpost. This eases the existential dread. 

And there we are, neatly incarcerated in a machine – our souls like the drivers of sci-fi mech suits much larger than ourselves, themselves networked into a behemoth totality of other machines and interlocking systems, some man-made, some deity-designed. Feel claustrophobic yet? You should; your body is just the innermost layer of some vast concentric gear system, one built into your cells and around your whole existence. Parts of it are inherited, parts of it are innovated – but none of it is “you” in the sense of soul, or self. Please note that the idea of personal autonomy is, on this account of the universe, a thing that cannot in principle extend to the body. Your body is at best the fuzzy grey zone where the machine of the universe at large intersects with your sense of personhood; ultimately, it is the squishy biological interface between self and world – but a machine no less, and subject to the same three laws of the Watchmaker’s Universe: 1) it is off the human scale in complexity and design 2) it is therefore outside your competence to govern and 3) it therefore falls within the purview of expert management. 

Thus, o denizen of modernity, you should surrender “bodily autonomy” to the state, or to those who manage the gearbox of social engineering and crisis management. Upgrade your operating system as directed, as often as directed, for whatever reason you are directed. Snip, jab, swallow, donate and transition as required by the powers that be. Your “ghost,” in the meantime, is free to manage affairs within its own sphere of competence, which is anything that has zero impact on the body politic…oh wait. Yeah, that’s not a whole lot. Better just watch Netflix and mix another cocktail. 

Or – here’s another idea, one just in time for Advent as we remember-expect the incarnation of God – you could sober up. You don’t have to swallow this Watchmaker God’s dead automaton universe; you don’t have to gawp at the legerdemain of “intelligent design.” While the created world is doubtlessly fashioned by an artist, its purpose is far superior to any locked and loaded machine. To paraphrase George MacDonald, what if all our clever analysis of the universe’s mechanics is comparable to a man studying the pulleys and gears that move backdrop pieces in a theater, or the lighting system used to spotlight the stage? What if the intimidating machinery of the world is the gorgeous prop and costumery of a mighty drama, written for those who are at once audience and appointed actors? What if we miss the entire narrative purpose of the play, so engrossed are we in the backstage minutiae? 

This implies, of course, not a Watchmaker God, but rather a great Author – one actively directing and shaping His narrative. Better yet, One who entered into it Himself to set the plot aright when the wayward cast’s improv session introduced caustic Death into the show. In such a world, one may be thankful for the evolving scenery and the well-managed lights, but it would be folly to let these distract us from the meaningful, eternally significant scene unfolding before our very eyes – the one into which we are thrust, here and now, as the main characters. We are not ghosts trapped in machines, but images – images “cast” in living matter. Our bodies are not the innermost sphere of a vast machinery that contains us, but the medium of our Creator’s artistic expression. Thus, they violate all three laws of the Watchmaker’s Universe: 1) they are precisely formed upon a human scale of understanding, for they are the very fabric and language of human existence; 2) so, therefore, they are a sacred gift bestowed within the creation of each unique individual; and 3) they are under the creative copyright of God – not any human “expert.”  Which means, of course, that individual autonomy is essentially embedded in your body. That body is you – and you are the imago dei. And no backstage technician, however clever or impressively credentialed, may override the creative prerogatives of the Author Himself.

So let us remember this and rejoice as we enter this season of giving thanks and making straight the way of the Lord; we are carnal beings, right down to the clay and breath that mysteriously support our being.  Let us eat and drink and pray and laugh and be free of the illusory machines that pretend to hold us like ghosts in bondage. We are blood and dust and God’s breath, compacted into living beings. We are bodies, made so by our Creator. Or, in the far more eloquent words of George MacDonald, “There is glory and might in this vital evanescence, this slow glacier-like flow of clothing and revealing matter, this ever uptossed rainbow of tangible humanity. It is no less of God’s making than the spirit that is clothed therein.”