Theological Praxis for Posthuman Life

Q: “What are concrete ways we can increase love and consciousness in this posthuman culture?”

Ilia DelioIlia: Our question this week seeks to address practical ways we can reflect on our lives in a posthuman culture, so as to increase love and consciousness. This question invites us, first to consider posthuman life, and second, ways to reflect on an evolving posthuman world. The word “praxis” is helpful because it calls for a prayerful reflection of new ideas, discernment of new ideas, and how such ideas can shape new action.

The word “posthuman” can destabilize us unless we understand what is meant by this term. Initially, it evokes a sense of fear that we are becoming other than human when in fact, the posthuman challenges boundaries of constraints that oppress or reject in order to become more fully human.  What do I mean by this?

We must first consider that the human person is neither static nor fixed but part of a cosmic stream of evolution. The human person as individual arose in the axial period when consciousness took a turn from cosmic communal wholeness to individual autonomy and freedom. World religions and the modern human person arose in the axial period. Axial consciousness enjoyed a considerable length of time, from approximately 800 BCE up to the 20th century. Within this span of consciousness, Eastern and Western religions emerged along with their corresponding scriptures. Hence both the evolution of consciousness and the emergence of religion gave rise to an understanding of the human person as autonomous, free and transcendent.

The rise of the posthuman emerged in the 20th century, as technology and philosophy challenged the boundaries and ontologies of persons as static substances mediated by language, space and relationships.The posthuman is not merely an outgrowth of cyborg life (although this does play a significant role); rather the posthuman is part of a turn from the Eurocentric image defined by sameness and difference, subject and object, superior and inferior toward the embedded, hyperconnected person.  Rosi Braidotti writes: “[Humanist] subjectivity is equated with consciousness, universal rationality, and self-regulating ethical behavior, whereas Otherness is defined as its negative and specular counterpart.”[1] Feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray pointed out that the abstract ideal of Man as the symbol of classical humanity is very much a male of the white, European, handsome and able-bodied species. Measured against this ideal Man is everything else.[2]  Posthumanism “rejects this dialectical scheme of thought, where difference or otherness play a constitutive role, marking off the sexualized other (woman), the racialized other (the native) and the naturalized other (the animals, the environment or earth).[3]  Charles Taylor describes this redirection of the human as the emergence of new “social imaginaries,” new operative matrices of social and cultural engagement marked by a conversion from the hierarchical norms of pre-modern social imaginaries to the egalitarian, horizontal, direct access social imaginary of (post)modernity.[4]

Posthumanism is often defined as a post-anthropocentrism: it is “post” to the concept of the human and to the historical occurrence of humanism, both based on hierarchical social constructs and humancentric assumptions. The posthuman overcoming of human primacy, though, is not to be replaced with other types of primacies (such as the one of the machines). Posthumanism can be seen as a post-exclusivism.  Posthumanism does not stand on a hierarchical system: there are no higher and lower degrees of alterity when formulating a posthuman standpoint; the non-human differences are as compelling as the human ones.  Posthumanism is a post-centralizing, in the sense that it recognizes not one but many specific centers of interest; it dismisses the centrality of the center in its singular form, both in its hegemonic and resistant modes. Posthumanism might recognize many centers of interests, although such centers are mutable, nomadic and ephemeral. Hence posthuman perspectives tend to be pluralistic, multilayered, and as comprehensive and inclusive as possible; that is no single religion, gender, race, nation-state or political power will satisfy the posthuman search for inclusivity and wholeness.[5]

Katherine Hayles states that “the posthuman does not really mean the end of humanity. It signals instead the end of a certain conception of the human, a conception that may have applied at best to that fraction of humanity who had the wealth, power and leisure to conceptualize themselves as autonomous beings exercising their will through individual agency and choice.”[6]  The posthuman means the human subject as autonomous being, exercising one’s will through individual agency and choice, gives way to distributed personhood where conscious agency is never fully in control;  “thinking” is done by both human and nonhuman actors. We have always been, in a sense, posthuman, since each person is embedded in a matrix of relationships (family, community, friends, animals, machines, tools) in which relationships shape personal identity and personal identity shapes relationships. This embedded cybernetic identity is extended today through internet relationships and computer technology in such a way that personhood is moving beyond autonomous agency to shared being or what Thich Nhat Hanh called “interbeing.”[7]  Younger generations do not think in terms of “me and you” but me and you” in which the conjugated middle holds the ontological meaning of personal identity.

The posthuman is a new type of relational person emerging in and through information embeddedness in which boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction. The human person is considered less an autonomous, independent subject and more a complex dynamical system open to and interacting with the environment. We see this fluidity of personhood in the rise of gender fluidity, interracial relationships, animal-human relationships and interreligious encounters. Essentially, the factors which marked the first axial person such as gender, race and religion, are giving way to new markers of shared being such as complexified consciousness (ex. global concern for climate change), creative identity (pierced and/or tattooed flesh, nonbinary identity), and hyperpersonalization (from the spacetime “me” to the electronic wormhole “we”). In the new posthuman milieu, shared information forms personal identity beyond religion, skin color or gender. These past markers are now blending into the emerging hyperpersonal posthuman.

The posthuman invites a new understanding of personhood consonant with evolution. In this respect, Beatrice Bruteau’s insights provide a wonderful starting point for theological reflection. Like Teilhard, she held that evolution is a process of convergence towards greater unity and complexified consciousness. From an evolutionary perspective, we are not individual substances but centers of activity or, as Bruteau wrote, we are “radiating centers” and not “gravitational centers,” sucking being into itself.  Each particular person may be likened to a “particle” in which our “radiating centers” are “waves” of relatedness. At the most fundamental level, we are webs of energy, fields within fields, which means we are always connected to everything that comprises the “world.”  We never act alone or think alone because the fundamental stuff of life is intrinsically relational.

Life does not evolve smoothly across species or even within species but depends on many factors such as environment, genetics, history, etc. Teilhard said that evolution is fundamentally a drive toward more consciousness, which increases with physical complexity. If evolution is the rise of consciousness, than an “individual” is a particular local existent oriented toward more consciousness, which increases with degrees of relationships. A person (from the Latin sonare meaning “to sound through”) is by definition a relational being reflecting a higher level of self-reflexive consciousness and thus a higher level of evolution. Hence human evolution is the process of becoming a more relational person through higher levels of consciousness.

Bruteau said that evolution evokes a whole new understanding of the human person. As we evolve toward personhood she writes: “We cannot look at or talk about a subject. To do so is to convert it into an object. We must rather noetically coincide with our self by experiencing our own existence interiorly.”[8] This idea is consonant with posthuman hyperpersonal relationships. She indicates that a “person” is not an individuated being; rather, a “person” is the unbounded activity of freely projecting energies or what she calls “spondic” energy, a Greek word which means “libation.” Spondic energy does not originate out of thought or will; it is not the act of an individual. Rather, it comes from a deep, transcendent center where we are held in being by an infinite divine depth of Being itself, the principle of our own centration which is Omega.

A “person” is one who acts out of this spondic, self-gifting center; anything other than a spontaneous energy center of relatedness is not fully reflective of a person. To affirm another, she says, we need not sanction one’s behavior, especially if it is hurtful or evil, nor need we even like the person in the sense of personality or emotional attraction. “All these belong to the ‘individual,’” Bruteau writes, “not to the ‘person.’” She indicates that only persons can enter into communion consciousness; individuals remain external to one another. It is this transcendence of the person over the individual that makes possible the communion consciousness of the new creation in Christ. To be a person is to be a creative center of activity, always in the process of becoming and living towards the future.  In her essay on “Trinitarian Personhood” she writes:

Our ‘I,’ our personhood, is not a product of God’s action, something left over after the action has ceased. Rather it is God’s action in the very actuality of acting. ‘We’ are not a thing but an activity. This is why God’s activity of ecstatically moving out to us is an act of coinciding with our activity, just as our union with God will be our ecstatically moving out to God as an act of coinciding with God’s activity  . . . This activity which we are and which God is, is the act of creative freedom, of initiative, of self-originated self-giving.[9]

Personhood is an ongoing activity that is dynamic in nature and crucial to the future of evolution.  A person is one in whom there is a higher level of integral consciousness marked by a deeper level of relationality. Bruteau calls this higher level “neo-feminine consciousness” and describes it as one of intellectual intuition and creative love. She writes: “This consciousness does not so much passively know other beings as they already are and have been . . . as it actively projects being towards others. It is creative in its intention to share life.”  We see a similar type of consciousness emerging in the posthuman where shared being is creative in its intention to share life.

This level of neo-feminine consciousness is community-building because it is oriented outward toward others; a deep intuition of knowing one’s personal life belongs to a larger whole. Hence connections are important not for information per se but to create together what cannot be made or found alone: “The communal organism united by this consciousness will not stream about like a crowd, nor ingest and produce like an organization. It will radiate being-goodness in an unceasing circulating mutual indwelling, like the Trinity.”  One has only to consider the recent global climate strike by school children organized through social media to get the drift here.

Evolution calls us into a new type of wholistic consciousness, according to Bruteau, where things are first seen together and then as distinct within this togetherness. She distinguishes a wholistic consciousness from a partial consciousness or what she calls the “grid of partiality,” a consciousness of separateness and alienation from one another and from nature; a utilitarian way of thinking that turns the means into the end and forgets the original aim. In the words of Joan McIntyre, it is our loneliness as much as our greed which can destroy us. If we are to evolve into a more unified whole, we need a wholistic consciousness. Bruteau writes:

Perceived through the grid of wholistic consciousness, the world would appear as a pattern of inter-independence, complementarity, cooperation, friendship, and creative joy. Knowledge would be drawn from the level of which elements are synthesized, intelligibility being recognized as located in the Whole. In human relations. . . we would work by “both/and” methods, rather than “either/or,” striving for inclusion of all and reconciliation of differences. We would find our delight in giving ourselves freely and totally to the creative processive Whole, in company with all who together compose it and are themselves creatively contributing to it, each in a unique way.

Teilhard realized decades ago that “nothing holds together absolutely except through the Whole, and the Whole itself holds together only through its future fulfillment.” As long as we insist on old, quasi-dualistic ideas on what is “physical” and “spiritual” (for example, “body” and “soul”) and do not see that we are fundamentally energy-turned-matter, we will continue to live on a lower level of evolution, as competitive individuals, spiraling downwards towards global destruction.

Posthuman life and culture should not be feared; it should be celebrated. It represents a struggle and challenge toward a new consciousness of the whole in which evolving persons are active participants, dynamic integrated realities.  But this new cybernetic life does require a level of depth and discernment if it is to optimally shift to a new level of global community and planetary life. The key is to consolidate consciousness on higher levels of integrated reality which is the work of spirituality.

The first thing we need to do is slow down and become aware of an infinite depth within, an ungraspable horizon of being which draws us in our beingness; this ultimate point of nothingness is the pure glory of God that radiates through our being as brilliant light. To know this point of dynamic ultimacy one must be attentive to the pull within toward ultimate meaning and concern and hence to the infinite horizon of God. Slowing down includes learning about the universe that is our home. Try to find short pieces that explain the New Universe story and the realm of quantum reality that supports us. Understanding the process of evolution is essential life in the new posthuman culture. Books by Andrew Cohen, Beatrice Bruteau, Teilhard de Chardin and Carter Phipps can shed new light on what it means to be a human person in evolution. Read and share your questions, as well as your fears and challenges with other seekers. Form an Omega group as a way of celebrating the new universe story and the dynamic adventure of human life. Reading, sharing and personal reflection can help shift the understanding of God from static transcendent Being to dynamic immanent presence. As you struggle through this paradigm shift, know that it cannot be one of intellectual formation alone. The shift must reach the deepest parts of ourselves so that we truly learn to let go into the dynamic presence of God. That is, the necessary shift of mind and heart must be transpersonal; only by becoming new persons can we hope for a new world.

Next we must let go trying to control ourselves, as if we are the masters of our own universe. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are eddys in the stream of cosmic evolution, particular in our personalities but nevertheless partial wholes in the stream of evolution. When we can begin to live from the deep God-center center within us, then we can begin to know ourselves to be inwardly free, spontaneous, open to change and open to the future. This requires a consciousness of living without possessing; all is gift. Everything is provisional; nothing is necessary, all that we have and do exists in the moment of gifted life. Life originates in the constant flow of newness. The more we can live from an inner spaciousness of God’s indwelling presence, the more we can engage shared being across hyperpersonal connections. To live with an evolutionary spirit in a posthuman milieu is to learn to let go when the right time comes (hence the need for integrated consciousness) and to engage new structures of relationship toward the flourishing of life.

Consciousness is key to posthuman life. Every relationship and encounter has a dimension of ultimacy in it; God is the within and the between of every relationship. We do not have to name the relationship as such but to become aware of an ineffable quality of the relationship, an unspoken depth and breadth that can elude words or logic. The old God of the starry heavens is a myth of the past (in truth such a God never existed). Posthuman life is the radicalization of incarnation; divine reality in our midst drawing us together into a new future of life. God is the name of divine love seeking to become more being in love in and through us. We are the rising up of God in evolution which means our interconnected lives are permeated with sacred hotspots. They appear as hope, promise, opportunity, creativity, novel ideas, excitement, spontaneity, laughter, friendship, compassion, shared vision, peace, resistance to oppression, beauty, desire, future, love, longing, unity and truth. Our task is to be focally conscious and locally present. Attention is key to the depth of God rising up in and through our relational beingness. Receptivity is more important than aggressive action because receptivity is necessary for mutuality.  Posthuman life is world-making and God-making (theopoeitic).

The Christian God is the assymmetric outward-moving Trinity which means the energy of life is non-linear and creative, always on the edge of chaos. Posthuman life is spontaneous life, far from equilibrium, momentary breaths of ongoing life. Plans are good if you can accept they may change. Assymmetry is important as compassionate acceptance of what we cannot control. Living non-linearly means being at home with incompleteness, instability and randomness knowing that infinite possibilities exist where there is no final determination. Every end is a new beginning and every arrival a new departure. Every moment is a choice and every choice fills the time of creativity we call a day; nothing is taken for granted in the posthuman milieu.

Space is necessary for interior growth – days of solitude and silence– where unplugging and being at home in Being itself is more important than doing (or worrying!)  Time is momentary and local which means plans can change and what was yesterday is enfolded in the now moment.

There is nothing that stays the same except for that which is continuously created and held in being by dynamic energies of relationships. God is the root reality of all relationality; hence love is our truest being because it is our fundamental energy. To live in love is to trust in the process of life itself, a trust built on faith and rooted in God’s ultimate fidelity in love. God is within and ahead. Lean on the future because the future is constantly arriving in the present and inviting us to become a new creation, personally, collectively and cosmically.  If you feel alone then it is possible you have not yet encountered God. Be assured God is within, waiting for you.

Notes

[1]    Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge:  Polity, 2013), 15.

[2]    Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1985a); ibid., This Sex Which is Not One (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1985b).

[3]    Braidotti, Posthuman, 27.

[4]   Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (New York:  Belknap Press, 2018 reprint),164 – 5, 209.

[5]    Francesca Ferrando, “Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, Metahumanism and the New Materialisms: Differences and Relations,” Existenze  (8/2 (2013) https://existenz.us/volumes/Vol.8-2Ferrando.pdf.

[6]    Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1999), 286.

[7] Thich Nhat Hanh, Interbeing (Berkeley:  Parallax Press, 1987).

[8] Beatrice Bruteau, The Grant Option (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 51.

[9] Bruteau, The Grant Option, 75.

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