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June 3, 2012 | 8:00 a.m. | Trinity Sunday
Out of Touch
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
“Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
Isaiah 6:10 (NRSV)
We are people who must sing you,
for the sake of our very lives.
You are a God who must be sung by us,
for the sake of your majesty and honor.
We are witnesses to your mercy and splendor;
we will not keep silent . . . ever again.
Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth
In the chapter we read from the book of Isaiah, the prophet Isaiah has a vision by which he is called and commissioned by the Lord. In this vision, the Lord is seated on a throne, surrounded by seraphs, and so glorious and holy is God that even the seraphs cover their faces with their wings. So towering is the Lord that just the hem of his robe fills the whole temple. In the presence of the holy, Isaiah is so struck with awe that he can do nothing but confess his own inadequacy and the inadequacy of his people: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” In the presence of such holiness, all that comes from his mouth is a confession.
It’s not surprising that the first thing that comes out of the prophet’s mouth is a confession. A vision of God in all God’s glory would likely put a person in his place and stun a person with the immediate recognition that God is God and we are not. The vision that Isaiah had was revelatory, not only because it revealed the divine, but also because it revealed humanity.
Humanity suffers from unclean lips, from incomprehension, from corrupted minds. This is the state of sin. So corrupted in the head are we that not only do we not know what we should know, but more devastatingly, we don’t even know that we don’t know. Here I’m not trying to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, who, when answering a question during a press conference about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, said, “There are known knowns; these are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—there are things we do not know we don’t know.” This was a predicament that most certainly our Department of Defense tried to rectify by gathering as much intelligence as possible. In contrast, the predicament of human sin is such that no heroic effort to gather information or to accumulate knowledge will make matters better. Sin is not merely an action, no matter how egregious; it is the human condition under which all our actions are taken.
It seems ironic that God tells Isaiah to go and, by preaching, “make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” This is a description of the sinful state of the human condition. The people to whom Isaiah is to preach are already in this state, and the book of Isaiah tries to reveal not only this human condition, but also relate it to the political devastation that Israel experienced in its ancient history. The irony is that the Lord asked Isaiah, by preaching, to exacerbate the already corrupted state of their minds. Why would God exhort Isaiah to exacerbate the already corrupted condition of peoples’ minds? Wouldn’t God desire redemption for his people rather than a further spiraling down into sin? Wouldn’t God want to promote progress in and enhancement of the human condition?
Recently I have been reading a collection of essays in which Christian ethicists have been debating the pros and cons of biomedical attempts to enhance the human condition. With the development of bioengineering technologies, it is now possible for humans to live longer, healthier lives as well as to improve vision, hearing, and mental powers. Just as physical powers of strength, stamina, endurance, and speed can be enhanced, so can powers of memory, reasoning, and concentration. Ronald Cole-Turner writes, “Research is underway on new and exotic technologies such as nanotechnology, information technology, cell regeneration, and implantable devices that interact directly with the brain” (Ronald Cole-Turner, Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement, p. 1). For example, scientists are developing devices that allow the human brain to interact with computers in order to augment their hearing or in order to operate a robotic arm, using their thoughts alone. The use of technology for the purpose of human enhancements is called “transhumanism.”
When Christian ethicists debate the issue of transhumanism, many questions arise, such as what do we mean by “enhancements,” and what is the difference between enhancements and medical therapy and what are the limits of human enhancements and even what implications do human enhancements have for what it means to be human.
Despite all these questions, almost no one objects to the idea that human beings should strive to enhance or improve themselves. After all, the desire for human redemption and transformation is at the very core of Christianity. The Christian life is one of redemption and sanctification. The Apostle Paul spoke of life in Christ as a new creation, a transformation in which the “old self” was put to death and the “new self” was in Christ.
Given that the theme of human transformation runs so deep and is central to our faith, it shocks us that God would say to the prophet Isaiah, “Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” Doesn’t God desire, above all else, that his people will be healed, or saved?
From a Christian perspective, transhumanism raises the question of how we understand salvation. Is salvation the transformation that results from ongoing enhancements in our human capacities? Is salvation attained through perfection? Even long before technological enhancements became possible, the pursuit of salvation as perfection existed. History has taught us the problems involved in such pursuits of salvation. One problem is that the standard of perfection differs over time and across cultures. Another problem is that a perfectionist theory of salvation usually leads to an elitist theory of salvation, given that very few persons, if any, can become perfect. Perhaps the most significant problem is that it doesn’t take into account the human condition of sin and the role that this condition plays in salvation.
In an essay on “Transhumanism and Christianity,” Ronald Cole-Turner writes that “the gift of salvation is made possible by the action of God in Jesus Christ, who assumes our human condition as necessary for the work of salvation” (p. 197). We are saved by a God not apart from or out of touch with the human condition, but incarnate. To receive the gift of salvation from God does not require that we enhance ourselves beyond the human condition. The goal is not to achieve perfection of all our capacities. It would be a mistake for us to think that salvation is ultimately an escape from sin into perfection.
In Isaiah’s vision, we see not only a God who does not rescue Israel from its sinful condition, but a God who makes his people face the consequences of their sin. At the same time, we see a God who remains faithful to and never abandons his people, offering them, in the midst of their devastation, hope for salvation. As is often the case in the book of Isaiah, a prophecy of devastation is followed by a word of hope. “‘Cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; . . . vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.’ . . . The holy seed is its stump.”
Because of our sin, we are in need of salvation. But salvation from God does not allow us to escape our human condition. It happens in the midst of our human condition. In Jesus Christ God takes upon himself the human condition, not so that we can be rescued from it, but so that God can forgive us for it. If Christ hadn’t become incarnate, we wouldn’t know that it was acceptable to be human. Because he did, we can recognize the depth of our sin, confess it, and hold onto the radical hope that indeed we will be transformed into a new creation in Christ. Amen.