Between Grace and Nature
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
If the Christian is to be consistent, he cannot say that freedom is absolute, for the consequences of that are atheism. If the liberal is to be consistent, he must say that man’s essence is freedom or else he gives up his position.
—George Grant, in his review of The Secular City
Many rich men dabble in philosophy, once their wealth is of the sort that largely takes care of itself. But a few students of philosophy have even become rich, in part thanks to their love of wisdom. Thales of Miletus anticipated a bumper crop of olives when others expected a bad harvest, and so leased the city’s presses as a monopolist. Before he broke the Bank of England, George Soros studied under Karl Popper at the London School of Economics. And Peter Thiel has credited the mimetic thought of his teacher René Girard with prompting him to place a very profitable bet on Facebook.
Thiel has continued his studies of philosophy, at the University of Chicago, teaching courses at Stanford, and supporting various intellectual programs besides his fellowships for college dropouts. The incisive British essayist Mary Harrington—a contributing editor at UnHerd and probably “the good feminist” to TAC readers and “that transphobe” to others—was recently on faculty with Thiel for a seminar in Palo Alto put on by the Zephyr Institute. She sat down with Thiel for an on-the-record chat. The conversation was wide ranging and reviewed many now classic observations from the Zero to One author. I encourage you to read all of Harrington’s suggestive reflections on it, but one dichotomy or theme in particular stood out to me: what, when we consider the question of technology, is the relationship between nature and grace?
After raising the fear—distilled in the 1930s and ’40s by figures like Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis, and Romano Guardini—that technology has and will continue to outstrip nature, in particular human nature, Harrington writes of Thiel:
He seems to view this as a largely academic question, and not really in keeping with his understanding of Christian civilisation as fundamentally oriented toward the future. “I think of Christianity as deeply historical. Some sense of a certain type of progress of history is a deep part of Christianity.” And from this perspective, the notion that there exists an unchanging human nature doesn’t really fit with the Christian outlook, but belongs — as he puts it — more “in the classical than the Christian tradition”.
“The word ‘nature’ does not occur once in the Old Testament,” he tells me, while “the concept of ‘nature’ as something that’s eternal and unchanging” isn’t a Christian one either. “It seems to me that the Christian concepts are more things like grace or original sin.” From this perspective, Thiel argues, the problem with transhumanism isn’t that it seeks to remake humanity, but that it isn’t ambitious enough in this regard: “the Christian critique of transhumanism should be that it’s not radical enough, because it’s only seeking to transform our bodies and not our souls.” It appears, in other words, that while Thiel is unflinchingly realistic about what’s immediately achievable, he doesn’t see any given or self-evident limits to what we could set our sights on.
The observation that the philosophers’ account of “nature”—cosmos as an indivisible whole with no starting point or destination—was not derived from scripture is a provocative, under-discussed one, and obviously correct. Whether as a self-sustaining chain of fixed natures or being in endless flux, “nature” in this sense of Western reason is an object of human subjectivity opposed to revelation. But there appears to me to be a missing Christian concept here, in addition to “grace or original sin,” from both the Old and New Testaments, namely that of creation. As Paul writes in Romans, “For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.” And in this sense of creation much of the Christian skepticism for what is called transhumanism retains all its force, for while recognizing the becoming implied in a linear sense of history, its teleology of beginning and final judgment retains the possibility of essences: acorns becoming oak trees and human beings becoming more fully human in new creation.
Thiel has almost certainly thought through all of this, and I expect it was covered in discussion at the seminar, but in his conversation with Harrington, and in much of his public writing, he brings the conversation away from postmillenial anticipation back down to earth. Indeed, in an oblique response to this line of objection, he told her, “And maybe science and technology aren’t that much, but I would say if we stop believing in the teleology of science and technology it’s not that we go back to some Thomistic or medieval concept of teleology. We become fully epicurean.” In a historical moment past faith in grace perfecting nature, we are perhaps left as a post-Christian culture with a choice between the secularized providence of hard technology and the profound pessimism of eternal passing away.
Up to this conversation, perhaps the most distilled account of Thiel’s thoughts on our present technological malaise was a 2015 essay by the futurist for First Things, entitled “Against Edenism.” The problem, as he sees it, in brief: “Technology means doing more with less. In the absence of technological progress, we end up with a zero-sum world, in which there must be a loser for every winner. It is not clear whether a capitalistic economic system could function without growth; and it is unlikely that a representative democracy, which requires the give-and-take of win-win compromise, would continue to function.” That is to say, we do not live in a time when technological progress as such has overcome the bounds of human control, but rather when the digital—the transcending of time and space by manipulation and recording of information—has outstripped all material developments; “the world of atoms” and physical engineering stalled somewhere in the 1970s. The promise of a post-scarcity world remains unkept.
And this is an insight that can be retained with as orthodox a theology of creation as I can claim (whatever that is). For its focus is the act of dominion mandated to humanity after original sin, and the sweat of our brow, far before it questions whether we must indeed unto dust return. In the twentieth-century tradition of political theology, Thiel makes a grace of growth, but surely there is a grace in growth if we understand it to be the human being’s capacity to join God—a city-builder—as a subcreator, a namer of animals.
Indeed, in our current-day fight between “degrowth” proponents demanding that Americans, for the sake of “nature,” learn to live degraded lives and men like Thiel, who remain hopeful that human ingenuity and spirit can construct a better use of the material we’ve been given, I am reminded of nothing as much as Christ’s parable of the talents:
For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey. Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them.
So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, “Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.” His lord said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.” He also who had received two talents came and said, “Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.” His lord said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.”
Then he who had received the one talent came and said, “Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.”
But his lord answered and said to him, “You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents.”
“For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”