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Shortreads

Lower Than Angels

Eric Miller

The deepest truth about what we are lies in the tension between the material and the immaterial.

We were pulling out of our church parking lot when our youngest son—a budding zoologist at thirteen—spotted a quite pregnant woman. Surprisingly, some social commentary ensued. “It seems strange,” he noted, “so animal-like, that a baby is growing inside a woman. I mean, we think of ourselves as advanced, so past that. But the baby could just pop out—like an animal’s does in the woods.”

“You have to substitute human being for ‘baby,’his older brother advised, steering him from the Darwinian abyss. “A human being is growing inside her.”

But his brother had a point. We human beings (indeed!) are far more closely related to the animal world than we tend to imagine ourselves to be. We are, after all, creatures.

Between the Material and Immaterial

Maybe that’s obvious—or at least should be. If we’re not creatures, what are we? Gods? Spirits? Machines? Transhumans? Each of these proposals, to be sure, has its advocates. Beginning with our corporal reality they construct an anthropology that moves downward or upward: toward either the merely material or the supra-material.

But the deepest truth about what we are lies in the tension between the material and the immaterial. In his book The Paradise of God theologian Norman Wirzba underscores this tension by describing us as “spiritual and biological beings.”
1
 To neglect the one adjective is to misunderstand the other.


“We have an unceasing compulsion to imagine ourselves as that which we’re not: immortal, flawless, blameless, whole.”


Such misunderstanding has long plagued us. Alasdair MacIntyre, the scholar who radically altered the discipline of moral philosophy with his 1981 volume After Virtue, realized in retrospect that he had premised the book’s argument upon a consequential mistake. “I was in error,” he wrote in Dependent Rational Animals, “in supposing an ethics independent of biology to be possible.”2 He had since come to see that “no account of the goods, rules, and virtues that are definitive of our moral life” can hope to succeed without a grasp of our biological constitution and circumstance, including especially “the nature and extent of human vulnerability.”3

It was quite a confession to make. It was only accentuated by his claim that he was in such good company: “From Plato to [G. E.] Moore and since there are usually only passing references to human vulnerability and affliction and to the connections between them and our dependence on others.”4 Moral philosophers, rather, have tended to imagine human beings as “continuously rational, healthy, and untroubled”—as rather angelic beings, you might say.5 Certainly not lower than angels.

What We Are and What We’re Not

But if we are, as Christian theology teaches, fallen creatures, then our deeply embedded tendency to evade the perception of our true identity and state is bound up in what we mean by pride. We have an unceasing compulsion to imagine ourselves as that which we’re not: immortal, flawless, blameless, whole. And add to that, strangely enough, immaterial. Spiritual. Ethereal. Like gods.

With piercing vision Tolstoy captured this state of delusion in his novella The Death of Ivan Ilych. Ivan, a middle-aged jurist stricken with an incurable disease, finds himself unable to fathom his own mortality—even though, as we learn, he had already buried three children. Face to face with his own death, Ivan discovers within himself an entrenched failure of perception. “In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he unaccustomed to such an idea, he simply could not grasp it, could not grasp it at all.”6 And Ivan, as this story makes clear, isn’t alone. He is simply every man—especially every modern man.


“The only pathway to true transcendence—to transformation—isn’t up, but down. We human creatures rise by falling.”


By the end of the story Ivan discovers this crucial fact: that never having grasped his mortality, he had never actually lived. The “death of Ivan Ilych” was actually his wan, entombed life. “What if my entire life, my entire conscious life,” he mercifully comes to wonder, “was not the real thing?”7 This painful but illuminating reality he comes to sense as he stands at death’s door is the state of soul Christians know as repentance.

Repentance requires a change in movement at the deepest possible level. In repentance, we discern that our peace and joy come from knowing ourselves not as gods but as creatures, living among the sparrows and lilies, with hairs, as well as days, that can be numbered. In repentance we rejoice that God did in fact make us to bear children. Herein lies our very humanity, encountered only through the passageway of humility. It is, truly, a more excellent way.

The less excellent ways beckon, though, and beckon powerfully, including the demonic lure of what philosopher Karen Joistens calls the ascendant “trans-anthropological mindset.” In a passage worthy of close reading, she contends that

After the death of God, the death of traditional relationships and knowledge acquired through experience, the loss of time and space, of values, and the omnipresence of technical images, man has—in a figurative sense—begun to kill himself. He has turned his back on himself, he has abandoned himself, and he is now endeavoring with every possible means—whether biotechnology, artificial intelligence, or media-theory research—to create something new and different: a trans-human.8

Here the prefix trans signals the attempted way beyond our fallen condition. But it is a ruse, a hoax, a trap. The only pathway to true transcendence—to transformation—isn’t up, but down. We human creatures rise by falling. We move beyond this world only by walking through it, sojourning through green pastures and dark valleys.

This is not simply figurative language. The actual roads we travel matter. The particular ways we take shape our minds, our perception, our identities. If the primary means by which we get around are optic fiber, flying missiles, and speeding cars, our souls will reflect these godlike ways. A mind shaped by the foot trail will differ from a mind shaped by the ethereal screen.

Where the Sacred Shapes Us

It’s something my zoologist-son and I were remarking on just this week. We had an hour-and-a-half to play with on a warm May afternoon, so we decided to drive to the next ridge over and take a quick hike in the park. I’d discovered a new trail and was eager to take him on it.

We walked through cool hollows and pockets of heat—like in a swimming pool, he said. It was the first time we had been in the woods since the return of the leaves, after their seven month absence; we enjoyed anew the scented ceiling of the forest. And the undergrowth was mounting a presence, too, we saw, risking poison ivy as we crossed from one trail to another. We made a quick ascent to the top of the plateau and stopped for a drink amid a stand of hemlocks so lovely it seemed sacred, my son thought—like a place you maybe shouldn’t be.


“A mind shaped by the foot trail will differ from a mind shaped by the ethereal screen.”


But there we were. For a time. We walked down the edge of a gulch and back across a trail that runs parallel to the road but fifteen feet above it, hearing cars that didn’t notice us. Then we stepped out of the woods, onto the road, and headed home.

“It’s the worst part of every hike,” I said. “Yeah,” my son replied—“the moment your feet hit the macadam after being on the trail.” The sense of the sacred stayed in the woods. Gratefully, our hearts did too.

References

1. Wirzba, Norman. The Paradise of God : Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 13.

2. MacIntyre, Alasdair. Dependent Rational Animals (Chicago: Open Court, 1999), x.

3. Ibid., xi.

4. Ibid., 1.

5. Ibid., 2.

6. Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Bantam reissue edition (New York: Bantam Dell, 2004), 79.

7. Ibid., 108.

8.  Joisten, Karen. “Man, Mortality, and the Athletic Hero: Yesterday and Today” in Sport and Christianity ed. Kevin Lixey, L.C., Christoph Hübenthal, Dietmar Mieth, and Norbert Müller (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2002), 34-35.