White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Jars of Clay or Chips of Silicon?

Published Tuesday, July 31, 2007 By Douglas Groothuis

God’s revealed truth can be attacked outright by those who deny cardinal biblical doctrines on the basis of supposedly new revelations or through spurious skeptical arguments against the supernatural. The most insidious challenges to Christian orthodoxy, however, often insinuate themselves into the fabric of culture so that their presence subtly undermines crucial Christian perspectives on the things that matter most-God, creation, human nature, salvation, and ethics. The biblical doctrine of creation is being vitiated today not only by assorted Neo-Gnostics who deny the very reality or goodness of matter, but also by certain emerging technologies that create implicit habits of thought and perception which corrode the Christian understanding of matter. Before exploring these recent developments, we will critique the fundamental philosophical error that sparks their appeal.

The Case Against Matter

A host of non-Christian religions and philosophies claim that the source of human misery is not sin against a holy and personal God, but materiality itself. The problem is not that we sin in our bodies, but that we have bodies in the first place; not that the fall affects the material world but that the material world is the effect of the fall. The physical universe conspires against our noble souls, which find themselves incarcerated in the cruel cages of corporeality. Spiritual liberation, according to various modern-day Gnostics, Hindus, Neoplatonists, occultists, New Agers, and others, comes not through the reconciliation of the creature to the Creator through Christ, but by transcending the body itself. They echo the beliefs of ancient Gnosticism, a heresy of the early Christian centuries, that creation itself was the fall-the fall of spirit into matter. Nevertheless, spirit still resides as the kernel in the hard shell of matter, however hidden. Through the attainment of gnosis (the esoteric wisdom of one’s essential nature divined through direct experience), the soul can be set free by ascertaining its own deity. (1) Disembodiment is the highest form of liberation. Once free from the bondage to the body, matter matters not.

The Gnostic error flourishes in our times. Well-known literary critic Harold Bloom has recently written a defense of a kind of Gnosticism called Omens of Millennium, which he concludes with a “Gnostic Sermon.” (2) For Bloom, and all Gnostics, what afflicts humans is not sin, but ignorance of our innate, but hidden deity. The suicide of thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate cult sadly illustrates the Gnostic error in extremis. Under the direction of Marshall Applewhite, the cultists believed that they could leave their human “containers” by ending their earthly lives and ascend to a space craft hiding behind the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet. Despite the UFO element, the group was essentially Gnostic. This explains their ascetic behavior and the castration of several of the members. They believed that the body must be renounced and overcome-not disciplined by God’s grace or finally resurrected at the end of history. Rather, it must be left behind as refuse.

The Biblical Case for Matter

When put this blatantly, the Gnostic temptation is easily identified and confronted by core aspects of Christian theology, such as the concept of divine, fiat creation. God, the perfect and personal Creator, brought the universe into existence by his will ex nihilo, according to his wisdom, and for his pleasure. Since creation is rooted in the will of an all-good and omnipotent being, it is intrinsically good (Gen. 1:21; 1 Tim 4:1-4) and fitted for human flourishing (Is. 45:18). The fact that creation is (by definition) less than divine-since it is physical, finite, temporal, and contingent-does not render it unworthy of respect or ill-suited for God’s image-bearers to inhabit or cultivate (Gen. 1:26-28).

The Christian reality of redemption is equally implanted in matter. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). As the early church fathers put it, what isn’t assumed cannot be redeemed. God, in Christ, took on a human nature in order to redeem human beings in their totality: body and soul. Hebrews cites Christ as affirming, “a body you prepared for me” (Heb. 10:5). In his great Christological hymn Paul proclaims that Christ Jesus, though “in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” but took “the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” for the sake of our redemption (Phil. 2:6-7). Although Christ humbled himself to assume a human nature, he did not pollute himself by the sheer fact of Incarnation. The idea of Incarnation and crucifixion was “foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23), who deemed the divine as being too exalted to associate with matter. But God in Christ did not reckon it so. Paul again emphasizes God’s investment in matter when he says that believers are reconciled “by Christ’s physical body through his death” to present them “holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (Col. 1:22).

The final liberation of the redeemed and of the cosmos itself is a material matter. The death-defeating resurrection of Jesus Christ is not the release of a disembodied spirit to a higher level while his body is discarded. The resurrected Jesus told his startled disciples, “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 24:38-39). Christ’s resurrected body was physical; the tomb was empty. It was a body unlike any other, because it was the first fruits of the general resurrection to come, but it was-and is-a genuine, material entity (1 Cor. 15). Christ ascended bodily to the Father, and he will return in like manner (Acts 1:11).

The final state of every human being will involve the body as well. The prophet Daniel foretells the resurrection of the just and the unjust (Dan. 12:2). Jesus promised his disciples that they would rise with him at the end of history (John 5:24-29). Paul teaches that the entire cosmos groans for redemption as it “waits eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23).

Those redeemed from sin through the incarnate, crucified, resurrected, and ascended Christ are also called to follow his way of life, to glorify God in their bodies by presenting themselves a living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). Christian ethics pertains to the soul, but not at the expense of the body. Paul counsels husbands to love their wives “as their own bodies” (Eph. 5:28). His argument against immorality assumes the worth of the human body: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body … Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!” (1 Cor. 6:13, 15). We cannot serve God in the spirit while disobeying him in the body, or vice versa. Our thoughts affect our actions and our actions affect our thoughts, and both are laid bare before the omniscience of God (Heb. 4:12).

Given this rich theology of matter, Christians should be on guard against any direct or indirect attack on the reality and worth of the physical dimension in relation to divine creation, fall, redemption, and ethics. We should fortify ourselves against the direct attacks of assorted Gnostics and other anti-matter proponents by a sound understanding of both theology and apologetics. For instance, the New Age best-seller The Celestine Prophesy, by James Redfield, speaks of humans becoming so spiritual that they dematerialize and ascend into heaven. This has nothing to do with the redemptive work of Christ, who was resurrected and ascended in a physical body. Redfield’s scenario is a counterfeit, a false promise with no logical or evidential support, unlike the Christian hope. (3)

Cyberspace Temptations: Techno-Gnosticism

However, other challenges to the Christian view of the physical world are more indirect and subtle. The world of cyberspace technologies presents some strange new hi-tech versions of ancient errors. The term cyberspace has been bandied about in the last few years, and it has a range of meanings. Essentially the term comes from two words. Cyber is an abbreviation of cybernetics, the study of information systems, typically computers. Cyber-space, then, is the space or place where humans interact with computers. I am writing this article on a word processor, one of the less exotic realms of cyberspace. The words I type appear and disappear on a computer screen, not on a piece of paper (as they would if I were using a typewriter). The information is in cyberspace, an electronic or “wired” environment.

More interestingly, cyberspace also refers to the informational exchanges of the Internet, a system where millions of computers are linked by phone lines. The Internet, made more accessible through the World Wide Web (a way of simplifying Internet access), is a huge, ever-changing depository of information-involving everything from Christian apologetics web pages to hard core pornography. Through the various modalities of cyberspace, people may do research on a particular cult, use electronic mail, engage in chat rooms (where several people in different places post short messages that appear one after the other on a scrolling screen), engage in bizarre on-line fantasy role playing games (called MUUs and MUDs), or any number of activities.

Cyberspace allows those who can master the technology and afford to be wired (which excludes many, both here and abroad) to be connected in a variety of ways not possible before. Huge amounts of information can be exchanged across vast distances very quickly, providing a host of beneficial possibilities for up-to-date prayer concerns, personal correspondence, medical research, and so on.

However, this manner of electronic connectedness increases information flow often at the expense of the personal presence. The digital world is disembodied in the sense that information is detached from encounters with other persons. Previous technologies produced this effect as well. Both the telephone and the radio detach the human voice from physical presence. Television gives us images of humans without their actual presence. There are real, live people sitting somewhere in front of their computers, but the information they send, receive, and synthesize can never replace the person-to-person, life-on-life dimension so central to the Christian ethos and ethic.

Some cyberspace-utopians (digitopians), such as Bill Gates in his book, The Road Ahead, have hailed the Internet as a zone of unlimited freedom and positive possibility. One television commercial revels that on the Internet there is no gender or race or age, so it is a place of equality and tolerance-as if shearing ourselves and others of these God-given physical particularities were an unmitigated good. The Gnostic temptation rears a digital head as digitopians seek disembodiment as ultimate liberation. Yet as media critic Clay Shirky notes, “An area that bases its idea of tolerance on simply hiding characteristics the majority are intolerant of is at best a digital closet.” (4) The lack of physical proximity among persons and the absence of responsibility often engenders rude and thoughtless exchanges. (5)

Nevertheless, some cyberpunk science fiction, such as the novel Neuromancer by William Gibson, fancies a world where humans can shed their bodies and as fully digitized beings directly “jack in” to cyberspace. Outside the realm of literary fiction, Hans Morovec, a robot scientist, argues in his book, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence, that human consciousness can one day be translated into digital information and enjoy immortal free-doms unconstrained by biology. These specu-lations evince a kind of Techno-Gnosticism in which the flesh becomes the technological equivalent of spirit by computer transformations. It is a false hope of digital resurrection apart from the power of a supernatural God. Idols, whether made of silicon or stone, cannot save.

Incarnational Matters

Jesus Christ’s incarnation is God’s supernatural means of redeeming erring mortals, but it also spells out a pattern of relationships and communication for Christian discipleship that resists both overt Gnosticism and the disembodying effects of cyberspace technologies. Authentic Christian life and ministry is “incarnational” in that the Body of Christ should relish embodied fellowship and personal involvement with other believers and the nonbelieving world as well. In this way, the reality of Christ can, in a sense, be “made flesh” through our physical presence. In Jesus’ high priestly prayer to the Father, he expounds this dynamic: “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 18:18). Just as Christ “made the Father known” (John 1:18) by his life among the living, so we should make God known by our personal presence in God’s world for the sake of his creatures.

The incarnational model of communication considers personal, face-to-face engagement superior to other ways of communication, yet it does not reject other means entirely. Paul’s written epistles are foundational to biblical theology, but he nevertheless confessed his desire for personal contact with his Christian friends: “I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong-that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Rom. 1:10-11). Paul’s letter to the Romans has been an unparalleled spiritual gift to the world for two thousand years; yet Paul still yearned to have an “incarnational” presence in the life of the Roman believers. Even a teleconference linked through the Internet would not have quenched his thirst. Put another way, embodied fellowship is an irreducible and incomparable quality which cannot be adequately translated into any other form of communication, cyberspace or otherwise.

This exclusive quality of fellowship is also evident in the Apostle John’s comment that “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12; see also 3 John 13-14). For John, the fullness of joy sprang from physical encounters, despite the fact that he was an instrument of the Holy Spirit in the writing of inerrant Scripture.

Human Otherness in Jeopardy

The centrality of embodied fellowship is sometimes threatened by cyberspace technologies that obscure the reality of genuine human otherness. Technology critic Gregory Rawlins raises this pertinent issue: “Perhaps our deepest distinction is that between our own bodies and our environment-the self and other-and that distinction crumbles when we can jack ourselves into any device in our environment. In such a world, the environment becomes us and we become the environment.” (6) In other words, the human presence of others may melt into the software. Rawlins doesn’t develop a comprehensive ethical analysis, but Christians have urgent theological reasons to do so. The incarnational model of ministry presupposes the sanctity of the human person as an individual and embodied soul, a unique bearer of transcendent value conferred by a holy God. By virtue of their essential personhood, such beings must be addressed as truly other. They should not be dissolved into impersonal digital environments. When the flesh becomes data it fails to dwell among us. (7)

When we busy ourselves with manipulating data in a digital world where human otherness does not intrude, relationships can be stripped of all the vicissitudes of enfleshed encounters. A kind of technological autism can result, in which the human origin of information recedes beyond the digital horizon. To use the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s terms, the “I-Thou” relationship, which is “characterized by openness, reciprocity, and a deep sense of personal involvement,” (8) may be eclipsed by an “I-it” relationship that lacks the personal dimension, despite the technological wizardry involved. The more often social interactions occur in cyberspace instead of in the world of real space and material objects, the greater the threat of depersonalization becomes.

For example, a Christian professor may write his E-mail address on a class syllabus, and then, instead of meeting with students in his office, simply trade E-mail messages with them. Information is exchanged, and much of it may be helpful, yet there is no authentic meeting of eyes, minds, hearts, and souls. There is no person-to-person mentoring; iron fails to sharpen iron because silicon has absorbed the interpersonal impact of a face-to-face encounter. Similarly, a pastor may deceive himself into thinking that by reaching more people through E-mail and the church’s jazzy web page, he can justify fewer hospital and home visits. But no electronic message can take the place of human touch and physical proximity. Biblical practices such as the laying on of hands (Acts 28:8; 2 Tim. 1:6), the right hand of fellowship (Gal. 2:9), Communion (1 Cor. 11:17-34), and Baptism (Matt. 28:19) can have no digital counterparts because they require the literal presence of others.

Although C. S. Lewis wrote before the age of cyberspace, his eschatological reflections on the dimension of otherness serve as a tonic for us today.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all law, all politics. (9)

And, we must add, all our interaction in cyberspace must be understood in this eternal context as well.

The “incarnational” ideal for communication certainly does not eliminate cyberspace or other electronic media of communication for Christians. Technological innovation is implied in God’s command for his image bearers to “have dominion over the earth” (Gen. 1:28). With respect to evangelism, the Apostle Paul said that he had become all things to all people so that he might win as many as possible to Christ (1 Cor. 9:22). Analogously, we should use whatever media are appropriate in particular contexts. Nevertheless, unless we subject all means of communication to a solid theological analysis, we may mismatch the message with the medium and fail to hallow God in our stewardship of the resources at our disposal. How we estimate and handle matter matters to our Maker and matters eternally. Those who attempt to forever free us from matter or use it in ways that undermine its goodness and value find themselves at odds with the Creator and Redeemer of heaven and earth. (10)

  • Douglas Groothuis

1 [ Back ] For more on Gnostic doctrine and its refutation, see Douglas Groothuis, Jesus in An Age of Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1996), 77-118.
2 [ Back ] Harold Bloom, Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).
3 [ Back ] For an argument for the Resurrection of Jesus in relation to New Age views, see Groothuis, 272-284.
4 [ Back ] Clay Shirky, Voices From the Net (Emeryville, CA: Ziff-Davies Press, 1995), 42.
5 [ Back ] Ibid., 42-45.
6 [ Back ] Gregory J. E. Rawlins, Moths to the Flame: The Seductions of Computer Technology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 40.
7 [ Back ] This turn of phrase is not original with me, but I can only remember that I read it in an E-mail message of unknown origin.
8 [ Back ] Kenneth Seeskin, "Martin Buber," Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Ed. Robert Audi (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 90. See Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1970).
9 [ Back ] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, revised and expanded edition, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 18-19. Lewis is speaking hyperbolically; he did not believe in literal deification.
10 [ Back ] Parts of this article overlap with themes raised in more detail in Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997).