Created to Be Creators
From the Metanexus lecture series “By Nature Creators: Coming to Terms with Human Nature”
I. Created to be Creators
I introduce my presentation this evening and those that follow in this series by commenting on three facets of this work: what it’s about; the form it takes; its genre or type of literature.
What It’s About—the Calling of the Human Creators
We live in a situation today that challenges us to understand how we should direct human creativity. Let me say first of all what the challenge is not. I insist that the most fundamental challenge we face is not survival, not the preservation of the planetary ecosystems, not making our technology more humane, more just, and more moral. All of these are important challenges. All of them deal with the life and death of our ecosystem and of us as humans. None of them, however, is the central issue, as I see it. None of them is the glowing core of the human situation today.
The central issue is the human calling; we might even say human destiny; my religious tradition speaks of the human vocation: what we are called to do and be with our capabilities and possibilities as creators. This is the dauntingly big issue. It defies our ability to get our minds around it, and yet it is the issue posed by our times that will prove definitive of human nature in this period of our history. Human calling is the message of this work.
The Form It Takes—A Theory of Human Being
I choose to reflect on this basic issue of human calling by elaborating a comprehensive theory of human being in our context today. This theory is complex and at times both difficult and problematic. At times I myself have thought that this work is about a philosophical and theological anthropology informed by science, but it isn’t. A basic anthropological theory is the form, the medium, in which the message of human calling is carried. Contrary to Marshall McLuhan’s famous maxim, in this case the medium is not the message. Or at least not the primary message that I intend. Medium and message are not to be confused, even though they are inseparably wedded. That may be difficult to understand in our media-drenched culture.
Other mediums would be possible. A concern for human calling could easily take the form of moral exhortation. A preacher like Billy Graham might cast the message in this form. Or, it could be articulated as a strategic plan for human creativity, which would be congenial to policy makers and ethicists. It could even take the shape of an apocalyptic prophecy of doom, a form that is often chosen by those who speak of crisis in our times. These are not the mediums I have chosen. Mine is the medium of a theory of human being, and even though the medium is not the message, there is significance in this choice, as we shall see. Perhaps most significantly, as anthropological theory, I appeal to understanding, particularly understanding what contemporary human experience tells us about human nature. Moral exhortation appeals to the moral sensibility and our wills, as strategic planning appeals to practical evaluation, and apocalyptic visions of doom appeal to our fears. In contrast to these, my aim is to throw light on human nature as we perceive it in our times.
The Genre—Memoir or Personal Narrative
There is philosophy in what I present. There is also theology, science, and social-cultural analysis. Nevertheless, I conclude that I am not constructing a scientific or theological or philosophical treatise, but rather a personal narrative, memoir that tells a story of being human today and in doing so interprets this moment in our history.
The genre should be appropriate to the truth-claims of the work. What I am writing cannot claim for its assertions the status of a philosophical or theological treatise, nor that of a scientific paper. The status of the truth that lies in my work is most appropriately asserted by what we call personal narrative or memoir.
This personal narrative is not mine alone. All of us—individually and together—are challenged to write the memoir that makes sense of who we are in our situation today. My reasons for designating this work as memoir will be clearer as we go along.
My topic is religion and science, and about understanding human life in a scientific and technological context. But there is more, because there has to be more. There is a time and a place for science to be purely science, and there is a time and a place for religion to devote its attention purely to itself. But this time and place are not where I do my work “Purely science” and “purely religion,” if they are not empty abstractions to begin with, are what happen in two watertight compartments, where there is no leakage from one to the other or to anywhere else, for that matter. Religion-and-science as a conversation does break out of the compartments.
Even so, the conversation between religion-and-science must be about more than what we ordinarily call the “dialogue.” It must be about the human journey, the struggle to understand what it means to be human today. The journey is a search for more adequate symbols. This is the task I have set for myself. And since my tale is about our human journey, I suggest that it is a kind of memoir we write along the way.
II. An Emerging Image of Who We Are
The image of ourselves as creators stands at the center of my reflections. It is an emerging image, not yet firmly fixed in our minds, still much debated and about which we have no consensus. That should come as no surprise, since, as odd as it may seem, “Who are we” is not a simple question to answer—the answer comes only through struggle.
At the same time, the image of ourselves as creators is real, and it must not be falsified or shunted aside. The image is scientific, in that it is provoked and undergirded by scientific evolutionary views of human development, but it is also a matter of common human experience. The scientific understanding and the common experience are brought into the spotlight because of an intense crisis in which we find ourselves. It often happens in this way, that we gain a clarity about ourselves when we are in crisis, in danger of losing what is familiar and valuable to us and also feeling the lure toward unexplored and dangerous territory. This clarity is often lacking in more tranquil times. Crisis threatens us with the loss of something. Paul Ricoeur writes that when we are faced with loss, we very quickly become aware of what is valuable to us, what we can and cannot bear to lose. In that moment, we also get a clearer glimpse of who we are. The conversation between religion and science takes place today in such a crisis context.
Science, experience, and crisis. I begin with our common experience that we are able to do things that are novel; that we are able to change the world around us and the world within us in ways that seem important or desirable or both. We can test a pregnant woman, determine the condition and genetic development of the fetus she is carrying, and contemplate a number of interventions for the sake of the welfare of mother or unborn child. We can rearrange the molecules of the earth’s natural resources, to develop new substances, such as nylon, plastics, or synthetic skin and bone. We regularly fabricate life-sustaining environments that enable men and women to travel and work in outer space. We manipulate genetic structures so as to enable goats to give milk that is especially beneficial to humans, or pigs to grow organs that are friendly for transplant to humans. We have created a cyber world in which we receive and transmit huge and diverse amounts of information in a variety of ways that was wholly beyond the experience of most people just twenty years ago. From the California recall election to the forging of a new Iraqi society to the laws and administrative procedures regarding gay and lesbian partnerships, we reveal our confidence that we can shape our social existence in new ways.
Such experiences are not all brand new; some have been available for decades. They point to our experience of imagining and actually creating alternative worlds. Imagining alternatives to the present and acting upon that imagination is a major dimension of human nature and of our experience of ourselves as creators. As such, imagination deserves considerable attention in discussions of science, technology, and religion.
At the core of these examples is what I call the experience of ourselves as “creators.” This experience is not tangential to our lives today, not a secondary element, rather it is central. It is fundamental to the task of becoming human in our present times. I follow sociologist Richard Florida, who judges that creativity in this respect has emerged as the ethos of life for many people, ethos defined as “the fundamental spirit or character of a culture” (Florida 2002, 21).
Scientific understandings throw light on this experience of ourselves as creators; they underscore its essential character. We have evolved as creatures of genes and cultures. To say “genes” is to acknowledge that our physical-chemical-biological constitution is the pathway by which we become human. Physically and chemically, we reveal our ancestry in the galaxies and stars in which the elements of our planet and our bodies originated. We are creatures of stardust, some like to say. Biologically, we declare our kinship not only with our human ancestors, but with all life forms. Genes speak also of the present programs that govern so much of our development. We have accepted for a long time that genes program traits like eye color; more recently we have learned that disposition to certain illnesses and defects, even behavior, moods and personality have an element of genetic programming. Even our mortality, our growing old and dying, is written into our genetic composition.
Genes are essential, but genes alone do not a human being make. A fully biological organ called the brain or central nervous system has emerged within our evolutionary development. The brain is the seat of culture, which I define as learned and taught behaviors and the symbols by which we interpret our learning and teaching. Culture is as essential to us as genes. If you have watched a calf being born in the barnyard, you may be impressed, as I am, at how quickly, in a matter of minutes and hours, the calf gets to its feet, walks, finds its mother’s milk, and gets a start in life. How different from the birth of my granddaughter two weeks ago. If human babies received no more cultural attention than the calf, they would die at a very early age. Without the culture, their genes would give out. When we take this cultural attention for granted, we forget how necessary it is for life as we have come to expect it.
The fine medical centers in our country are symbols of the intense cultural intervention we exercise, in this case through our practice of medicine, aimed at keeping our genes, our biology, functioning, so that our culture can maintain its quality. What goes on at such centers is culture intervening in our biology. And since culture has emerged from biology, the practice of medicine is actually a stage of biology intervening in itself. The calf is a mature adult in little more than a year, whereas human development specialists would say that it takes nearly thirty years today to produce a well-functioning adult human being. It doesn’t take our biology thirty years to grow up; our culture requires the three decades in order to acculturate the person for competent, mature living. Human biology requires this enculturation. As humans, we are a vivid example biological and cultural evolution, what we now know as biocultural evolution.
Think back to the experience of ourselves as creators. The popular scientific sketch I have just drawn adds to our experience, in that it clarifies that the component of creativity, of being creators, is written into our basic biology. Our genes, to be sure, exhibit flexibility and versatility, but it is our brains and the development of our culture that is shaped by creativity just as surely as our biology is shaped by prior programming and environment. This super-creative element of culture, learning and teaching is as fundamental to us as our genes, but with a far smaller element of prior programming. Even when we accept the findings of the sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, we must acknowledge this lack of programming in our culture relative to the programmed factor associated with genes. I marvel when I read about prehistoric humans–how did they learn which plants and animals were suitable for eating? How did South American Indians, for example, learn that corn is an imperfect food unless it is prepared with the introduction of lime, whereupon it becomes fully nutritional? This example, of course, is taken from Sol Katz’s research.
Culture evolves, just as biology does, although according to different, non-Darwinian, laws. Some years ago, I visited the magnificent Museum of Mining at Bochum, in the Ruhr area of Germany. Half of this museum is devoted to the history of mining, and the other half to the technology of modern mining. In the historical exhibits, the cultural evolution is vividly set forth, from the prehistoric scraping of the earth to the digging of shafts in the earth to the industrialized mining procedures of the last two or three hundred years. The climax comes in the depiction of entire villages being relocated so that the ground beneath them can be mined, only to be replaced when the extraction is completed. Our experiences of being creators today are enabled by our primordial genetic-cultural constitution. It takes the form that we know today, because we stand where we do in the evolutionary development of our cultural capabilities. The exhibits of this museum set forth in striking panorama the capability of our brains to imagine the alternative worlds that we then create by means of our cultures—from prehistoric scraping to contemporary village-replacement.
Creator and Created
I have emphasized our emerging sense that we are creators, by our very nature and experience. If we attend carefully to our experience, however, we recognize that we are as much created as creator. The scientific story tells that the processes of nature have created us, by means of evolution. We did not give ourselves our physical-chemical-biological composition, nor did we give ourselves brains and the culture that they make possible and necessary. When we turn to our religious traditions, we will see that they speak of our being created by God. These natural processes that have engendered us are declared to be the instrumentality of a divine creator. I will focus on these religious traditions in the next two lectures.
Since we are created as we are, the conclusion to be drawn is that we are created creators. There is a linkage, however, between the source of our being created and our own creativity. I will try to capture the fullness of this linkage by using the term, “created co-creator.” To the degree that evolving nature has created us, our own creating is taken up into that nature, so that we are nature’s own creators, co-creators with the evolutionary process that has engendered us. If we view ourselves as created by God, as the religious traditions tell us, we are God’s creators, God’s co-creators. Over the years, as I have spoken of the created co-creator, that little particle “co” has evoked a flood of discussion, some of it quite critical and even negative. What that “co” signifies will be a major concern of my third lecture in December.
The Crisis of Technological Civilization
This leads us directly to the element of crisis, which is the third strand that contributes to the awareness of ourselves as becoming creators. In a nutshell, the crisis is this: Our technologically driven culture now dominates the planet, both its natural and human ecosystems, and we are presently experiencing dislocations that stem from our lack of ability and competence to manage our culture in ways that are life-giving to the planet and its people. Some of these dislocations are life-threatening.
Today, technology is central to what I have referred to as culture. Learned and taught patterns of behavior and the symbols that interpret them are nowhere more prominent and powerful than in our technology. Through technology and the symbol systems by which we support it, we have superimposed our culture over nearly all the natural systems of our planet. As Richard Niebuhr, following Malinowski, suggested, culture is an “artificial, secondary environment, which we superimpose on the natural.” (Niebuhr 1951, 32). The word “artificial” is misleading, but Niebuhr’s idea of culture as superimposition is to the point.
The image of clear plastic overlays comes to mind. We may place a map upon a table and superimpose upon that map a transparent sheet that depicts the river system of the area, over that a sheet that depicts the hills and mountains, and over that one that depicts the population density or the pockets of air pollution or the incidence of various crimes, or the like. The original map is there, underneath it all, but we access the map through the overlays. In some such manner, our technology relates to the natural world. One difference is that we cannot easily remove our technological overlays and return to the original map. Cattle, hogs, turkeys, and chickens, for example, cannot revert to the state prior to our agricultural engineering. The Colorado and Rio Grande Rivers cannot be restored to their prehistoric condition. It is unthinkable that the human populations of our planet could live once again as they did in the 1800s.
The image of the overlay does not go deeply enough, however. Think rather of the image of weaving. Technology is interwoven with nearly all domains of what we think of as “nature.” Consequently any clear-cut, unambiguously discernible boundaries between technology and self and between technology and the natural environment, have been erased. That such boundaries have been obliterated is nowhere more evident than in the interactions between technology and the human self. There are countless ordinary ways in which we have acted out the ritual of entering into technology and permitting technology to enter into us. Ordinary eyeglasses are a means of the spirit for those of us who could not read or write without them. The pharmacological products of technology enter into us in the most intimate way—we ingest them and they become integral to our body and mind. High blood pressure, diabetes, depression—just to name a few—would destroy our selfhood if not for our ingesting certain fruits of technology. Implants and artificial parts—cardiac, orthodontic, optical, cochlear, hips and knees—very quickly extinguish the boundaries between technological outside and personal inside as they make life possible and fuller. Many of us are now so intimately related to our computers that our creativity—whether it is writing or graphic art, or interpersonal communication, mathematical modeling, or other research procedures—is so integrated with the machine it scarcely qualifies as an entity that exists “outside” our spirits.
These technological mergers with our bodies and spirits are so ordinary that they are no longer phenomena that occur in our culture; they are rather dimensions of our culture; they are ethos. (Hefner 2003, 20-1)
Sometime within the last fifty years or so, we reached the point where the domination of natural systems by human cultural systems became a necessity for human survival. For decades, our technological interweavings enabled a decline in the mortality rate and the lengthening of human life that enabled populations to increase. Now, however, technology not only enables the human population, that population is dependent upon technology for its survival. We do not have the option of pulling back and removing our technological interface with the rest of nature. If we did, millions, even billions, of people would perish.
Such is the technological situation in which we live, to which I apply the term technological civilization. Why do I say we are in crisis? How is the crisis to be defined? We must pause for a moment to consider how our culture-technology works. Technology requires continuous conscious awareness, knowledge, planning, competent operation, monitoring, and evaluation. It requires constant accountability. Technology does not just happen and go its way on its own. Each time we flip an electrical switch or turn on our faucets, we should remember how fully dependent the flow of light and water is upon massive amounts of human engineering and operational competence–we often call it infrastructure. Furthermore, our technology must interface with the millions of other systems in the natural world. Synchronizing with the environment is an inescapable requirement. The crisis of technological civilization resides in the fact that for all of our knowledge and expertise, we are not fully competent to maintain our secondary cultural environment, nor are we able to interweave adequately with the other systems of nature. It is truly a civilizational crisis, in that nearly every trouble that we experience today has its origins in our culturally based action of creating.
There are deeper meanings, however, to be found in this inability to manage our culture adequately. It is not just a case of how we use tools. Rather, it is quintessentially a human crisis, a crisis of the human creators. Since technology is the work of our cultured brains we may say that the crisis has its origins in the gifts that are distinctive to us as humans. Technology is the work that comes naturally to us, imagining alternative worlds and acting on that imagination. In this respect, technology is natural and not “artificial,” as Niebuhr said. It is a natural expression of our nature as creators.
To say that we are incompetent in the exercise of our culture and inadequately synchronized with the rest of nature is to say, therefore, that in a significant way our incompetence has to do with being human. We are ourselves out of sync with other systems of nature. The crisis therefore challenges us to understand who we are in the scheme of things, specifically, in the natural world. Where do we fit in? What is the purpose of our culture? How are we to conduct it in accord with its purpose? The crisis presses us to gain a sense of our own identity so that we are enabled to respond to these questions.
I suggested earlier that crisis is revelatory. When we are in danger, when we are threatened with loss, a shaft of light is thrown on what is essential to us, on what matters most to us. In this shaft of light, we encounter the ambiguity of our human becoming. We hope, as well, that the light will point us toward adequate responses to that ambiguity. In our struggle with crisis and loss, we discover our identity. What form does this loss take for us today? Four examples will suffice here:
(1) Our traditional image of ourselves as superior beings sharply differentiated from other animals is no longer viable, theoretically or practically.
(2) Equally obsolete is the deeply held notion that human culture, including technology, is a thing apart from nature, qualitatively different, belonging in a different order of being than nature.
(3) The deeply ingrained sense that the rest of nature exists for our exploitation, to satisfy human needs and wants, is collapsing. Environmental deterioration on every hand suggests that nature itself is in revolt against these human pretensions.
(4) The conviction that human nature possesses an essence that is stable, perennially enduring, even static, is called into question. Proponents of this idea are beleaguered, fighting a holding action against significant alterations in this essential nature‚€”whether those alterations are technological, as in genetic engineering, or social, as in the movement of equality for gays and lesbians.
Our response to these losses is psychologically complex and socially devastating. Denial is prominent, as evidenced in the widespread refusal to acknowledge the depth of the crisis I have described, as well as the refusal to alter behavior. Anger is obvious. Grief is also widespread as an undercurrent.
Denial, anger, and grief cannot last forever, however. The critical constructive consequences of the losses which our crisis reveals are coming more and more to the fore. Denial, anger, and grief must give way to a struggle with the issue of priorities–What means most to us, and what will we finally let go? Issues of identity also beg for our attention. If older self-images no longer work to sustain wholesome life, what identity is emerging for us? As false identities prove themselves dysfunctional, will we be in a position to discern the emerging identities that will prove wholesome? These questions are the focus of these lectures.
III. Writing Our Personal Narrative
We write our narrative out of our vulnerability in this situation. Little wonder that we are also anxious writers. We are ambivalent. On the one hand, we are eager to reach our destination, but we are not happy at the prospect of our own ignorance as to where that where we are going and how we are getting there. It is not pleasurable for us to undergo transformations that we cannot control or even predict. Our own personal ambivalence is reflected in the larger society, because we do not all respond in the same way to the prospect of transformation. For some of us, the scientific accounts have rendered the religious views unbelievable; scientific understanding has displaced the religious—at least on the surface. Others, contrariwise, are so uncomfortable with the naturalistic accounts of science that they opt for religious interpretations at the expense of science—also at least on the surface. I call this ambivalence on both sides rather than outright opposition, because the secularists hold to high valuation of human being that has its roots in our religious traditions, while those, for example, who oppose evolutionary interpretations of human being continue to avail themselves of the benefits of evolution–the modern healthcare system, for example, whose cornerstone is evolutionary biology.
We are also ambivalent about the idea of “human becoming” because we prefer stable, unchanging states. We often would like to think of human nature as something fixed and reliable. Some believers in the Bible would rather read Genesis 1 as if the theory of evolution had never been formulated. On the other hand, a secular thinker like Francis Fukuyama recently argued in his thoughtful book, Our Posthuman Future, that biotechnology is dangerous because it threatens to alter human nature, with the loss of human dignity. Many people would rather not struggle with the new values of life that are engendered by current options in reproductive technology, because they prefer to think of sexuality and procreation as if those technologies had never emerged. In his book, Enough, Bill McKibben urges us to resist the changes that becoming entails. In his own words, “Perhaps we can find, instead, some conserving instinct within us that lets us stand pat” (McKibben 2003, 109-10). He thinks religion is his ally in this. There is a great deal of ideological “stand-patism” in the air today. Religious communities, especially Christians and Muslims, do indeed tend to exhibit a knee-jerk “stand-patism.” Leon Kass and the President’s bioethics committee tend in the same direction, very close to the argumentation of Fukuyama.
These positions do not get to the chief issue underlying the technological crisis as I outlined it at the beginning, namely, what should the human creators be creating. The perspectives that I have just mentioned miss this issue. For example, in genetic engineering and other biotechnological issues, the main concern is on what we should not be creating—”the least bad” genetic engineering. This type of thinking never gets to the question of what we should be creating. Focusing on the least evil is a recipe for disappointment and ultimate failure. We must recognize this.
We ought not try to hide from ourselves or from the outside world that we the authors of the personal narrative are off balance, ambivalent, vulnerable, anxious, and caught in the crossfire of differing opinions and values within ourselves. Recognizing this about ourselves is essential for the substance of our personal narrative and for its credibility. Acknowledging this about ourselves is essential if our memoir is to be credible. In fact, this is what our memoir is about–how we respond to our situation of vulnerability and ambivalence and how we interpret its meaning.
Let me say more about personal narrative. I take Vivian Gornick as my mentor in this matter (Gornick 2001). She uses the terms “memoir” and “personal narrative” interchangeably. Memoir is not fiction, neither poetry nor novel nor a piece for the theater. It must be creative, to be sure, but it is not fiction. Memoir is not journalism or science. It does not presume to be detached enough in its objectivity that it can settle for reporting some external truth “out there,” with no personal involvement for the writer. Nor is memoir autobiography, in which it is perfectly acceptable, as Gornick says, to fall “into the pit of confessionalism or therapy on the page or naked self-absorption” (Gornick, 10).
In contrast, memoir describes a situation—my situation, our situation—and tells a story that makes sense of the situation. My reflections this evening have described our situation. Genes and cultures, creators, technological crisis—these are all markers, coordinates that map our situation. Journalism and science can place the situation on center stage and put the sense or meaning of that situation aside. Fiction can take liberties, poetic license we call it, in describing both situation and its possible meaning. Autobiography can focus entirely on what happened to me and how I reacted to it. Memoir must take a different tack. What makes a compelling memoir is a credible description of its author’s situation, as well as a clear sense of the self who struggles in that situation and the forging of an interpretation that can respond to the “So What?” question of the self in the situation, an interpretation that grapples with the meaning of the self’s entanglement in its situation.
What do religion and science have to do with memoir and personal narrative? They have everything to do with it, because science is a fundamental element of our situation today, and religion is challenged to tell a story that will make sense of that situation. There is more to our situation than science, but there is very little in our situation today that does not have a thread of connection to science and its consequences. Each of us is challenged to tell the story that offers the sense of our situation. Not all of us will bring religion into this story in the same way. For all of us religion will be latent in our memoirs, because the very act of struggling to make sense of our situation is a religious struggle. The religious dimension is inherent in the larger human effort to discern meaning, even if the effort does not bear the conventional explicit marks of religion. Whenever we plumb the depths of our lives and our identity, we are in touch with the reality of religion. For others of us religion will be manifest, since the traditional symbols of religion will be instruments of our search and vessels of meaning. In any case, we are comrades, brothers and sisters together writing our personal narrative, attempting to make sense of our situation.
“Memoir” reminds us that the sense we are looking for is not abstract, far removed, or “other” from us; it is the meaning of ourselves that we are after. Each of us and all of us together are engaged in this personal narrative. We find ourselves in a strange situation. We are aggressive, forward looking, intent on making plans and carrying them out, but we are finding that in our aggressiveness we are on the receiving end of a process that we did not plan or even foresee. We sense that we are undergoing transformations that don’t fit with our accepted self-images, our received interpretations of what it means to be human. This is truly our situationin which we are becoming human in ways that we cannot ourselves easily comprehend or take the measure of.
We are rehearsing for ourselves and for each other the experience and the challenge of becoming human in the world that confronts us today. We are attempting to tell a story that makes sense of our situation and our journey. We are writing a story about our calling as human creators.
Gornick, Vivian. 2001. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Hefner, Philip. 2003. Technology and Human Becoming. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Florida, Richard. 2002. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books.
Fukuyama, Francis. 2002. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
McKibben, Bill. 2003. Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. New York: Times Books.