Between Grace & Nature
Growth is grace if we consider it the capacity of a human being to join God as a city-builder, subcreator and a namer for animals.
The Paraable of the Talents By Willem de Poorter. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
If the Christian is to be consistent, he cannot say that freedom is absolute, for the consequences of that are atheism. To be consistent as a liberal, the must state that freedom is man’s essence.
—George Grant, in his review of The Secular City
Many wealthy men enjoy philosophy once they have enough wealth to take care of themselves. A few philosophy students have become wealthy, partly because of their passion for wisdom. Thales of Miletus saw a huge crop of olives, while others predicted a poor harvest. He rented the presses of the city as a monopolist. George Soros was a student of Karl Popper from the London School of Economics before he founded the Bank of England. Peter Thiel credits Rene Girard, his mimetic teacher for allowing him to make a profitable bet with Facebook.
Thiel continued his philosophy studies at Chicago. He also teaches courses at Stanford and supports various intellectual programs, as well as his fellowships for college drops out. The incisive British essayist Mary Harrington–a contributing editor at UnHerd and probably “the good feminist” to TAC readers and “that transphobe” to others–was recently on faculty with Thiel for a seminar in Palo Alto put on by the Zephyr Institute. Thiel sat down for a chat. The conversation was wide ranging and reviewed many now classic observations from the Zero to One author. I encourage you to read all of Harrington’s suggestive reflections on it, but one dichotomy or theme in particular stood out to me: what, when we consider the question of technology, is the relationship between nature and grace?
After raising the fear–distilled in the 1930s and ’40s by figures like Aldous Huxley, C.S.
After raising the fear–detected in the “”s and “s by figures like Aldous Huxley, C.S.
He seems to view this as a largely academic question, and not really in keeping with his understanding of Christian civilisation as fundamentally oriented toward the future. “I consider Christianity deeply historical. A sense of certain types of historical progress is part of Christianity.” This perspective suggests that the idea of an unchanging human nature does not fit well with Christianity’s outlook. It belongs, he says, more to the “classical than the Christian tradition”.
“He tells me that the word “nature” does not appear in the Old Testament. However, he says that “nature as an eternal and unchanging thing isn’t a Christian concept.” Thiel says, “It seems that Christian concepts are more than things like grace and original sin.”
The observation that philosophers’ view of nature–cosmos, a indivisible, whole without starting point or destination- lacked scripture was provocative and well-understood. Whether as a self-sustaining chain of fixed natures or being in endless flux, “nature” in this sense of Western reason is an object of human subjectivity opposed to revelation. I believe there is a missing Christian concept, and it’s not grace or original sin. “Nature” in this sense of Western reason, however, seems to be an object of human subjectivity opposed to revelation. As Paul writes in Romans, “For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.” And in this sense of creation much of the Christian skepticism for what is called transhumanism retains all its force, for while recognizing the becoming implied in a linear sense of history, its teleology of beginning and final judgment retains the possibility of essences: acorns becoming oak trees and human beings becoming more fully human in new creation.
Thiel almost certainly has thought through this. I assume it was discussed at the seminar. However, in Harrington’s conversation and much of his writing publically, he takes the discussion away from postmillenial anticipatory and brings it back to reality. In an indirect response to the objections, Thiel said, “And maybe science isn’t so much. But I’d say that if science and technology cease believing in the Teleology of Science and Technology, it’s not like we return to some Thomistic, medieval, or medieval conception of teleology. “We become fully epicurean.” Perhaps we’re left in a post-Christian culture, with the choice of secularized technology or the deep pessimism that eternal death is a permanent reality.
Up to this conversation, perhaps the most distilled account of Thiel’s thoughts on our present technological malaise was a 2015 essay by the futurist for First Things, entitled “Against Edenism.” The problem, as he sees it, in brief: “Technology means doing more with less. We end up in a zero-sum world where there is always a loser. It is not clear whether a capitalistic economic system could function without growth; and it is unlikely that a representative democracy, which requires the give-and-take of win-win compromise, would continue to function.” That is to say, we do not live in a time when technological progress as such has overcome the bounds of human control, but rather when the digital–the transcending of time and space by manipulation and recording of information–has outstripped all material developments; “the world of atoms” and physical engineering stalled somewhere in the 1970s. The promise of a post-scarcity world remains unkept.
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This insight can be kept with as orthodox as possible a theology for creation (whatever that may be). For its focus is the act of dominion mandated to humanity after original sin, and the sweat of our brow, far before it questions whether we must indeed unto dust return. Thiel uses the term grace of growth in the 20th-century tradition political theology. But surely, there is grace in growth if it means that a human being can join God as a city-builder, subcreator and namer of creatures.
Indeed. In our present-day battle between proponents of “degrowth,” who demand that Americans live in degraded lifestyles for “nature”, and men like Thiel (who remain optimistic that human intelligence and spirit can make better use of what we have been given), I’m reminded nothing more than Christ’s parable about the talents.
For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. He gave one five talents to the other, then to two more, and so on, each depending on his ability. Then he set off for a long journey. After he had received five talents, he traded them with five more talents. The same happened with the two-talented man who received them. He also gained two additional talents. He who received the first went to dig in the ground and concealed his lord’s money. The lord of these servants arrived and settled the accounts after a while.
The man who received five talents brought five additional talents. He said, “Lord! You gave me five talents. Look, I’ve gained five more talents.” He was told by his lord, “Well done good and faithful servant, you were faithful in a few matters, but I will give you the power over many other things.” Enjoy the happiness of your Lord. The second talent was also received by him. He said to his lord: “Lord! You gave me two talents. Look, I’ve gained two additional talents.” He was told by his lord, “Well done good and faithful servant, you’ve been faithful in a few areas, but I want you to be the ruler of many. Enjoy the happiness of your Lord. “
Then, the man who received one of his talents came to him and said: “Lord! I knew that you were a hard-working person, sowing where you have not sown and reaping where your seed has not been scattered.” Your talent was hidden in the ground, which scared me. You have the right to what you want. “
But the Lord said to him: “You wicked, lazy servant, I know that I reap what I haven’t sown and gather seed where I haven’t scattered it.” You should have banked my money, so that I could get my return with interest. Take the talent and give it back to him with ten talents. “
” For everyone who has more, he will get it, and he’ll have plenty; for him who doesn’t have enough, he’ll lose everything. Then cast out the inefficient servant to the darkness. You will cry and grind your teeth. “