I had a very of-the-moment experience the other night at bedtime in my hotel room. After reading about the unmitigated horror of Planned Parenthood’s customized cannibalizing of fetal body parts, I toggled over to the ESPN site to watch the propaganda video the network made to set up its awarding Caitlyn Jenner its Arthur Ashe Courage Prize.
I encourage you to watch the clip, which is about 13 minutes long. It is a remarkable piece of work, and profoundly indicative of the deepest metaphysical assumptions of Western culture today. Jenner’s heroism, according to the film, consists in his dramatic refusal of Nature — of imposing his own will and desires on nature so profoundly that he repudiates his own nature as a male. Jenner retains his male genitalia, and, of course, maleness in his genes. In other words, everything about Jenner’s material existence (that is, his existence in his body) is male. But Jenner thinks of himself as female, and presents himself publicly as a female. He believes that what he wishes to believe about himself is who he really is, in terms of his gender. And our culture has decided that someone who wishes to assert that he or she is actually of the opposite gender than his or her body, that not only is that person conforming to the Truth — courageously, against the opposition of tradition, religion, society, and so forth — but that courage in part consists of that very willingness to impose one’s will on Nature, to make it serve our desires.
If you watch the Jenner video, he/she keeps saying things like, “This is who I am” and “I had to be who I really am.” I’m not making fun of this; clearly Jenner believes this quite deeply. The images in the video in which s/he is presented as a lone conquering hero are crushingly sad; Jenner comes across as a defaced person lost in the desert, someone who thinks s/he is free, but who doesn’t seem free at all. The culture now seems to have accepted as self-evidently true that one’s gender is whatever one wants it to be. To assert this implies a metaphysical view that is radically at odds with classical (including Christian) metaphysics, which holds that nature is not mere stuff that we can fashion as we like, and impose our own meaning onto it, but rather that nature in some mysterious way reflects things as they actually are.
In the new edition of the (unfailingly excellent) Mars Hill Audio Journal, Ken Myers interviews philosopher Roger Scruton, who talks about the implicit atheism of contemporary culture, and how we are “defacing” Nature by denying — whether we realize it or not — that there is intrinsic, metaphysical meaning in matter. Driving home from the airport last night, listening to the Journal, a line from Scruton jumped out at me:
“As soon as we begin to understand how the human person, as it were, defines himself apart from the natural order, till we do that, we won’t begin to see exactly where the limits of scientific investigation lie.”
He’s put his finger on the heart of the matter. How do we define the human person within the natural order? The way we answer this question has everything to do with how we judge what Bruce Jenner has done by reinventing himself as Caitlyn — is he a hero or a fool? — and, for that matter, how we regard the Planned Parenthood fetal body part harvesting. It is remarkable to me that so many people who read this blog puzzle over why people like me are horrified by the scandal; we accept organ transplants, don’t we? The point from our side is not that it’s wrong to study or otherwise put to use human tissue, but rather the circumstances under which this tissue was acquired are radically dehumanizing. Doctors had to exterminate human life to acquire the tissue, and in fact altered their method of extermination so as to preserve the tissue, which they then sold on the market. Even if one does not believe as a philosophical matter that human personhood begins at conception, there is no doubt at all that the unborn child, or fetus, is, biologically speaking, human and alive — which is precisely why its organs are scientifically valuable.
In both the Caitlyn and Planned Parenthood cases, the stand you take has everything to do with what you think it means to be human, and how you relate the human being to the natural order. Modernity generally sees the material world as meaningless matter that we can fashion however we like. The older world — including the world of Christianity — teaches that God is intimately involved with Creation, and that we therefore have strict limits governing how we should treat it, including our bodies. A big problem is that far too many modern Christians have lost that older, classical Christian metaphysics, and no longer view the body and nature as bound inextricably to the divine. The conservative Christian may draw the limits of exploiting nature in a different place than, say, Caitlyn Jenner or Planned Parenthood’s Dr. Deborah Nucatola, but there may well be a shared metaphysics among them.
The fact that the core divide between orthodox Christians and those who profess the Joy of Caitlyn Thought is not moral but metaphysical tells us how unbridgeable the gap is. It’s not that we look at the same natural phenomena and draw different conclusions from the same set of facts. It’s that we don’t even see the same things.
When I watch that Caitlyn propaganda video, I am reminded of Ulysses in Canto XXVI of Dante’s Inferno. Ulysses is damned as a “false counselor” — as someone who used his rhetorical gifts to lead others to their deaths. In the version of the myth Dante uses, Ulysses chose to violate the limits the gods set on how far man may voyage. He was curious to see where the journey beyond the Pillars of Hercules would lead. He knew that his loyal crew would not want to cross that line, so he delivered a stirring speech telling them that if they really wanted to be brave and to be who they really are, they would not be cowed by limits:
‘Consider what you came from: you are Greeks!
You were not born to live like mindless brutes
but to follow paths of excellence and knowledge.’
Their captain convinced them to throw off all limits, because that was the courageous thing to do. They all sailed to their doom.
Caitlyn Jenner, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, and the rest of us: Western culture is having a Ulysses moment. Our own captains of media and culture are exhorting us to be brave, and “to follow paths of excellence and knowledge” — but it’s a lie.
This will not end well.