From Providence to progress to process…

Human to Posthuman

Every day we live with the consequences of deep cultural change that began hundreds of years ago.  The arrival of the postmodern era signals a profound change in the way the world is understood—and in the way people expect to live their everyday lives.  These deep changes are often discussed as a progression from the pre-modern to the modern to the postmodern.


But they can also be seen as the displacement of one source of cultural authority by another.  In the past four hundred years, two major shifts have occurred—theology was replace by science as the dominant source of cultural authority; even more recently, technology has replaced science as the prevailing cultural force.


This progression—from Providence to progress to process—is outlined by Brent Waters in the first chapter of From Human to Posthuman.  His particular concern in this book is the postmodern vision for using the new biotechnologies to create a superior species of “beautiful, invulnerable, and perfect people.”  But the history he outlines has ramifications well beyond the biotech vision of creating posthumans—for education, medicine, research and development, the arts, human reproduction, and so on.


“The Late Modern Landscape” is the title of the chapter where Dr. Waters sketches these two landmark cultural shifts.




In 1563, the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism could assume that their readers would understand and accept their assertions about Providence.  This was their mental framework, their worldview.  Question 27 asks: “What do you understand by the providence of God?”  The prescribed response is,


The almighty and ever-present power of God whereby he still upholds, as it were by his own hand, heaven and earth together with all creatures, and rules in such a way that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.


But the long theological and cultural tradition represented by this catechism was about to end.  Dr. Waters notes that what’s remarkable is “how rapidly following the Catechism’s publication its teaching on providence was greeted with mounting incredulity.”  The cultural authority of theology was shifting to science.




[With the rise of modern science in the sixteenth century, a] new breed of scientists was gaining greater knowledge about the details of nature and history that had remained impenetrable to theologians. A growing body of scientific knowledge not only enriched intellectual pursuits, but was also applied to improving the health and material well-being of the general population. It was not the human lot to endure misery and suffering to the extent presumed by earlier doctrines of providence. … Theology was not shaken simply in reaction to the sun replacing the earth as the center of the universe, but as the result of the increasing ability of science to explain the workings of nature and history which had previously seemed beyond comprehension. The idea of progress fuelled by scientific discovery emerged as a more captivating cultural icon than that offered by an inscrutable providence. …


Those in theological circles, both academics and pastors, responded by seeking ways to make peace with science, but it came at great cost to orthodoxy.


With the accumulation of greater scientific knowledge, the gaps within a Newtonian framework could be filled without appeal to divine intervention. Newton himself had created the opportunity for this turn of fortune by contending that the universe reflected evidence of divine design, not specific acts of God. Since God had presumably not designed an imperfect universe, then there was little reason for God to be an active participant in the daily affairs of creation. Consequently, a number of theologians turned increasingly to nature, instead of revelation, to describe the relationship between God and the world. These natural theologies portrayed a remote and detached creator. …


Although the goal of natural theology was to make God intelligible within a scientific age, the deity expounded was a dispassionate creator and not the God of orthodox Christian faith who gave both drought and rain, and punished and consoled sinners. …


Such a God could not sustain religious devotion. Deism and rationalistic Christianity claimed few adherents beyond a small cadre of intellectuals. A God intimately involved in human life was needed to nourish the soul. Yet believers could no longer turn to science to disclose a divine presence in either nature or history. Many retreated inwardly to find God in the depth of their psyche, a place which was presumably invulnerable to scientific scrutiny and skepticism. A religion of the heart offered experience as an alternative foundation for belief, but it was a foundation of poetic sentiment rather than empirical knowledge. This withdrawal into personal faith was the tactic employed by [Horace] Bushnell. The world could be divided between science and religion. The former guided by reason described physical reality, while the latter following the leading of the heart described spiritual reality. Believers could thereby have their faith nourished by a God who could be neither challenged nor proven by science.


Although a religion of the heart preserved a comfortable and comforting niche for God, the price was dear. Religion was now a matter of private belief instead of public explication. By the mid nineteenth century it was widely accepted that science had effectively displaced theology as the dominant source of reliable knowledge


With the retreat of religion into the realm of private experience, what would guide science in the exercise of its new-found technical powers?  As Dr. Waters points out, science was in need of a guiding morality outside itself, since “science per se could do nothing to identify or purify the source of moral vision.”  Efforts to sustain a connection with morality shorn of its religious origins would prove unsuccessful.




Science-based technology was, in short, the engine driving modern progress. Ironically, the principal imagery of natural theology had proven prophetic: the dominant reality directing and governing human life was mechanistic. But it was not a mechanism designed by a supernatural creator, but the machines of human ingenuity.


Progress was clearly the most prized legacy of the Enlightenment, yet the symbolic weight heaped upon it by its most eager champions proved incautious. …


Advances in science and technology did not necessarily mean that moral, social and political progress would keep pace.


There were some who worried that modernity had lost sight of its progressive horizon. The axis of industry, science and technology had admittedly generated unprecedented prosperity. The distribution of wealth, however, was far from even. The cost of industrialization was the emergence of widespread poverty, deplorable working conditions, squalid cities, political corruption and devastated rural communities and landscapes. Mastering nature was a violent conquest, encompassing the collateral damage of appalling numbers of decimated families and communities. Exchanging the pain and misery of an inscrutable providence for that of willful exploitation was proving, for many, to be a bad bargain. …


Although religious and secular reformers often conducted their respective crusades in isolation from each other, they nonetheless shared a number of goals and assumptions. Paramount among these was a belief in morality itself. Both shared a repugnance of suffering, and the conviction that it could be ameliorated through purposeful human action. …


[B]oth believed in progress, and for both it was unimaginable that true progress could be achieved in the absence of an alliance between science and morality. In this respect even the most faithful reformers were forced to admit that science, unlike theology, was in the best public position to maintain a progressive momentum. This acknowledgment did not mean that private beliefs had to be jettisoned, but if they were to have any public currency they needed to be expressed and acted upon in moral rather than religious terms. Religion had not been reduced to ethics, but it was through morality that progressive Christianity made its peace with modernity. There was no reason why Christians could not believe that science and technology, guided by fervent moral values, were the key instruments for building God’s kingdom on earth, but it would not be the kind of city envisioned by Augustine. …


If religious reformers were to square their beliefs with science, then they must return to the Enlightenment’s challenge to explain once again how they could base their morality on a God who was either an incompetent or cruel creator. And if secular reformers were to continue arguing for the efficacy of a morally directed science, then they must explain how a dispassionate reason could somehow be invoked by thoroughly self-interested beings. No readily compelling answers were forthcoming, and in their absence the confident assumption that progress would inevitably result from the alliance between morality and science appeared as little more than spurious rhetoric.


[T]he alliance between morality and science was a bankrupt enterprise. If neither religion nor reason could disclose the normative content of morality, then what was to prevent science from serving a destructive ideology posing as morality? …


The fear would come true in the bloodbaths of the twentieth century in which totalitarian regimes of both the left and right waged wars and genocidal vendettas disguised as moral crusades to cleanse the world of its vermin. Most distressing to true believers in progress was how easily science embraced the task of perfecting tools of war, torture and terror. The mushroom clouds detonated both in anger and to satisfy scientific curiosity also incinerated the locomotive and tracks of progress. Nor could any massive reconstruction project bring them back. Looking back from this vantage point prompted a growing recognition that the preceding battles over the course of history had been waged in vain. There was no progressive trajectory to discern; only a non-directional process marking the passage of time. History was not headed toward a golden age, because history was simply not heading in any direction at all.


But what recourse was available once the certitudes of religion and reason had withered, and the emotive symbols of providence and progress had been smashed? There was still the will, and unlike previous generations humans now possessed the technological power to assert it more effectively. Moreover, if humans were to carve out for themselves a hospitable niche within a purposeless and directionless history, that power would be needed not only to master nature, but also to master, if not transform, human nature. It is with the postmodern project of directing human evolution that technology begins to supplant science (as well as an already eviscerated theology) as the dominant, formative cultural force.


In “A Postmodern World,” Chapter 2 in From Human to Posthuman, Dr. Waters develops more fully the postmodern vision of using technology to master both nature and human nature.  For postmoderns, “There are no given borders or boundaries that determine what it means to be human.  That determination lies squarely and solely in what humans will themselves to be.  The mastery of nature and human nature will only be complete, only be perfected, though human self-transformation.  But transformation into what?”



“The Late Modern Landscape,” Chapter 1 in From Human to Posthuman, is available online.


From Human to Posthuman: Christian Theology and Technology in a Postmodern World, is available here.




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