In 1903, a human skeleton was discovered in Gough’s Cave in the Cheddar Gorge of Somerset, England. It was an unusual skeleton, very old and bearing marks that suggested it had belonged to a man who had died from a blow to his head. Scientists determined that this wasn’t a recent murder victim at all. In fact, the skeleton belonged to the most ancient murder victim in the British Isles, a man who had lived and died seven thousand years before the birth of Christ. The body of this ancient man was positioned near a cave that was full of animal bones. Presumably it had once been his store house. The man’s bones bore the same kinds of marks as those of the animals, suggesting that the flesh had been stripped from them in the same manner as theirs had been. In other words, he was killed, butchered, and eaten by other human beings. He was about 23 years old when he died.
Ninth thousand years have passed since the murder of the Cheddar Man, as this skeleton came to be known. In those nine millennia, human life has changed significantly. There are very few cannibals left in the world. It is rare for someone to die before they are twenty-three years old. We don’t know what kind of social system the Cheddar Man lived in, but it’s safe to assume that his day to day life and his interactions with other people were very, very different from our own. This paleolithic man was a hunter gatherer, who had never heard of hunting, who moved about the land following grazing animals and collecting nuts and berries, rarely running into other people who weren’t part of his little family group. The technology he used was entirely different from our own. He used stone tools and bits of hide and sticks to catch his pray and make his clothes and carve out his dwellings. Physiologically he was different, shorter than we are, less well nourished. The resemblance between his humanity and ours was minimal.
In terms of time, Jesus is much more our contemporary than he was the Cheddar Man’s contemporary, but in terms of technology he would find the Cheddar Man understandable and us incomprehensible. When Jesus appeared two thousand years ago, he told the disciples that he was the Son of Man. He was claiming his humanity, stating that he had come to show us what God is like, but also to show us what a true and perfect human being is like. True humanity consisted of service to others (Mark 10:45), forgiveness (Mark 2:10), bringing justice to others (Luke 18:8), and giving himself up as a ransom for other people (Matthew 20:28). That, for a Christian, is what it means to be human, and it’s important for us to remember it, because so much in our humanity is changing.
Let’s consider, for a moment, changes within our own lifetimes. I just recently read Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s book The Bronze Pen to my daughter. It’s protagonist, Audrey Abbott, finds herself isolated from her friends and classmates because her father has a heart condition that requires bypass surgery. Now, this book is set during my own childhood, in the 1970s. Bypass surgery was still experimental surgery, and in order for Audrey’s father to get an operation he has to find the rare doctor who was willing to do it, and go to San Francisco for a week for surgery and recovery. So he malingers, always ill and sad and not expecting to live much longer, and Audrey rushes home from school every day so that he won’t be alone while her mother works an afternoon shift at a bank. These days, this scenario couldn’t really drive a plot. Bypass surgery is routine, and can be performed almost anywhere. People still do linger in the grasp of malign and seemingly incurable illnesses, but the numbers who do are much, much fewer. Our attitude to health has, correspondingly, changed. We expect modern medicine to be able to fix us, no matter what our illness is. We don’t expect death to reach out and grab us without a fight. And I think this changes our inward, spiritual attitudes. We are less complacent with the world, less accepting of fate. We’ve lost a sense of the accidental. When an accident happens, when someone dies, our first instinct is to try to determine who is to blame. Our expectations as human beings have changed. It used to be that we expected the universe to control us. Now we expect to control the universe.
These physical, spiritual and mental changes to our humanity are only going to accelerate as history moves forward. In 2005, Ray Kurzweil published a book called The Singularity is Near. In it, he predicts all sorts of wacky changes for the future of humanity. He believes that human beings and computers are going to merge at some point in the near future to make a new, augmented humanity. Software will be able to mimic human intelligence by the mid-2020s, and then it will keep expanding, getting smarter and smarter. Tiny little robots called nanobots with travel inside the capillaries of our brain and help us merge with machine intelligence. More than that, they will manipulate our very cells and molecules, helping to heal all of the incurable diseases and even reversing human aging. They’ll create virtual realities from inside our own nervous systems, telling our eyes that they’re seeing things that aren’t really there, and our ears that we’re hearing things that aren’t really there. And there will be little nanobots floating in the air all around us, that will join together and form themselves into foglets, swarms of tiny robots that can alter sound waves and light waves and create virtual realities in the world outside of our nervous systems as well. Supposedly, our human-machine intelligence will just keep growing and growing until, Kurzweil says, “the entire universe will become saturated with our intelligence.”
This reminds me of nothing so much as the scientific enthusiasts of the mid-19th century, particularly Auguste Comte. Comte was the founder of positivism, which held that science would come to replace all other systems of thought. He was so sure of science and rationality’s ascendency over the human spirit that he wrote to the Pope, suggesting that the Catholic Church consider folding itself into his new religion of science (you can read about this in Henri de Lubac’s The Drama of Atheist Humanism). He saw the technological potentials of the human race and forgot about our seemingly unending moral limitations. In the following century, after the holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb, it became much harder to believe that science represented human salvation.
I don’t know if Ray Kurzweil is right (although futurists rarely are), but even if he is, I have doubts that the future he describes is actually good. He assumes that machines will treat us nicely, and that we’ll treat machines nicely, and that human-machine intelligences will treat each other nicely. He forgets that we’ve never really learned the thing that Jesus came to teach us. We’re all ready to become extra-human, but we’ve never learned to be truly human. The truth is that the Cheddar Man isn’t that different from us. In 1997, scientists in England sequenced the mitochondrial DNA of the Cheddar Man. They found that they could trace patterns in his DNA to modern day people. To one particular person, in fact, a history teacher named Adrian Targett who was living in Cheddar Village. Here were two men, relatives separated by nearly 9,000 years, who lived within a few miles of each other. Now I’m sure that Adrian Targett is a perfectly nice person, but he is still part of fallen humanity, as am I, as are you, as was the Cheddar man, so many millennia ago.
What does it profit us to gain the whole world, or the whole universe, and forfeit our lives? Before we go rushing ahead into the future, we need to learn how to be of service, how to forgive others, how to bring justice to others, and how to give ourselves as a ransom, if need be, for the lives of others. And we can only do that if we stop fearing death so much, and stop thinking of ourselves as masters of the universe.
How do we do that? Carl Gregg, who wrote this week’s The Hardest Question blog post, suggests an answer. He quotes Richard Rohr, who says this:
Once we have learned to discern the real, disguised nature of both good and evil, we recognize that everything is broken and fallen, weak and poor, while still being the dwelling place of God — you and me, your country, your children, your churches, even your marriage. That is not a put-down, but finally a freedom to love imperfect things! As Jesus told the rich young man, ‘God alone is good!’ (Mark 10:18). In this, you may have been given the greatest recipe for happiness for the rest of your life. You cannot wait for things to be totally perfect to fall in love with them or you will never love anything. Now, instead, you can love everything.
When we think about what it means to be truly human, it’s not excitable visions of the future that should draw us. It’s not the hope that some technological improvement or new way of thinking about the universe will finally make us perfect. It’s the fact that we have a chance to love the imperfect, here and now. Just as Jesus did. God loved imperfect humanity so much that he came down from heaven and dwelled among us. To teach us how to be good, but also to teach us that our goodness depends on our ability to love imperfections. Jesus turns to Peter and chastises him: “Get behind me, Satan!” But he never stops loving Peter, imperfect as he is. Because to be human is to be immersed in life, invested in it, here and now.