The New Tower of Babel
“Man is the being whose project is to be God.”
This penetrating assessment, offered from the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, is incredibly accurate of modern man. And particularly, today.
It was reported this week that a Chinese scientist has claimed to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies—“twin girls whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life.” This kind of gene editing, for now, is banned in the United States because “the DNA changes can pass to future generations.” In other words, it changes the human stock. Think The Island of Doctor Moreau.
Many have been quick to denounce the procedure. It’s “unconscionable… an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible,” said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal. “We’re dealing with the operating instructions of a human being,” added Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. “It’s a big deal.” Even The Atlantic called it “reckless” and “needless.” But get ready for eventual acceptance courtesy of the slippery slope, evidenced by Harvard University’s George Church, who said, “I think this is justifiable.
In reviewing the past 500 years of Western cultural life, author Jacques Barzun concluded that one of the great themes is “emancipation,” the desire for independence from all authority. Barzun concludes that for the modern era, it is perhaps the most characteristic cultural theme of all. The value of “autonomous individualism” maintains that each person is independent in terms of destiny and accountability. Ultimate moral authority is self-generated. In the end, we answer to no one but ourselves for we are truly on our own. Our choices are ours alone, determined by our personal pleasure and not by any higher moral authority. Intriguingly, Thomas Oden notes that this is the force behind the idea of heresy. The “key to ‘hairesis’ (root word for heresy) is the notion of choice—choosing for oneself, over against the apostolic tradition.”
It was this same spirit of autonomous individualism that erected the infamous tower of Babel and is leading to its rebuilding today. Only this time, we are not building with bricks and mortar but silicon chips and genetic engineering. We live in a technological age and have embraced technological advancement with abandon, creating what Neil Postman termed a “technopoly,” where technology of every kind is cheerfully granted sovereignty. Or, as Jacques Ellul has written, at least the process of technique designed to serve our ends.
Ironically, within the word “technology” itself lies the new philosophical mooring that marks our intent. The word is built from such Greek words as “technites” (craftsman) and “techne” (art, skill, trade), which speak to the idea of either the person who shapes or molds something, or to the task of shaping and molding itself. But it is the Greek word “logos,” to which “technites” is joined, that makes our term “technology” so provocative. “Logos” is a reference within Greek thought to divine reason, or the organizing principle of the world. In John’s gospel, “logos” was used to communicate to those familiar with the Greek worldview the idea of the divinity of Jesus. Moderns have put together two words that the ancients would not have dared to combine, for the joining of the words intimates that mere humans can shape the very order of the world. Though technology itself may be neutral in its enterprise, there can be no doubt that within the word itself are the seeds for the presumption that would seek to cast God from His throne and assert humanity in His place as the conduit of divine power.
And we have wasted little time.
On July 25, 2003, the first test-tube baby turned 25. Robert Edwards, who, along with his partner, Patrick Steptoe, pioneered the procedure, graced the occasion with a rare but candid interview with The Times of London. “It was a fantastic achievement but it was about more than infertility,” said Edwards, then 77 and emeritus professor of human reproduction at Cambridge University. “I wanted to find out exactly who was in charge, whether it was God Himself or whether it was scientists in the laboratory.”
Smiling triumphantly at the reporter, he said, “It was us.”
While technology may be the new Tower of Babel, the deeper reality is this:
It will end just as the first.
James Emery White
Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions
“Chinese Scientist Claims to Have Created ‘World’s First “Genetically Edited Babies”’,” The Telegraph, November 26, 2018, read online.
Ed Yong, “A Reckless and Needless Use of Gene Editing on Human Embryos,” The Atlantic, November 26, 2018, read online.
Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present.
Thomas Oden, After Modernity... What?
Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.
Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, translated from the French by John Wilkinson.
On the meaning of the words “techne” and “technites”, see the article on “Carpenter, Builder, Workman, Craftsman, Trade” by J.I. Packer in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 1, Colin Brown, editor.
Anjana Ahuja, “God Is Not In Charge, We Are,” T2-The Times, 24 July 2003, p. 6.
James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).
Nathan Barczi, “In the Image of Our Choosing,” Christianity Today, February 17, 2017, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.