With James Bond tied to a chair, Raoul Silva, the villain in Skyfall, tells a story about rats. Silva’s mother owned an island. Some merchants happened upon the island and released rats from the ship. Feeding off the succulent coconuts, the rats spread and overwhelmed the island. The mother devised a plan get rid of them: she placed a coconut over the hole to an oil drum. One by one, the rats all fell into the oil drum as they haplessly tried to eat the coconut. Inside the oil drum, the famished rats slowly began to eat each other until only two were left. Silva’s mother then removed the rats from the oil drum. She had transformed their nature: the two rats no longer ate coconut, but ate rat. Although Silva’s story was meant to illustrate the terrible familial triangle between him, James Bond, and their secret service mother M, the parable also seems to tell us something about human nature: it is produced. In the context of Christianity, a produced human nature transforms the way we explain sin, grace, and, in particular for our purposes here, spirituality. Thus, in order to understand the function and purpose of spirituality, we must explore what it means that human nature is constructed like a Honda or an Ipad.
Human nature is neither good nor evil, but it is produced. In a segment of the Examined Life, Michael Hardt puts it quite well:
The question of human nature has long been a thing of political philosophy and I am sure everyone had some stupid evening in college, smoking way too much and you end and decide you disagree with your friend because she thinks human nature is evil and you think human nature is good and you can’t go any further. That kind of stupidity I think has affected a lot of the history of political philosophy. I think the relevant fact for politics [is] that it is human nature is changeable. Human nature isn’t good or evil. Human nature is constituted by how we act and the history of habits and practices that are the result struggles, victories and defeats…this is the key to rethinking revolution is to recognize that revolution is not just about a transformation for democracy, but a transformation of human nature so humans are capable for democracy.
Thinking in these terms, the pertinent question seems to be more about who is transforming human nature into what.
Our human nature is ultimately produced by the relations of capital and alienated labor. In her book The Managed Heart, Arlie Hochschild explores the concept of emotional labor, examining flight attendants. First, Hochschild explores emotion rules. These are social expectations for the management of emotion: like the way we are supposed to be happy at weddings and sad at funerals. She shows how these emotional rules are used by organizations to sell emotional labor for profit: the flight attendant role is not really about providing drinks and pillows, but producing a happy demeanor that is meant to make you feel happy on your flight. Flight attendants must repress their emotions when accosted by angry fliers. Hochschild refers to this process as the “commercialization of emotion.” Therefore, one of the most important parts of being human–to show emotion, love, care for someone–is managed by external agency whose only concern is profit. This is one example of how our participation in global capitalism alienates us from basic human tendencies–to love, display happiness–in order control it and sell it as a product. As a result, late capitalist society produces competitive, overworked, impatient, and inter-personally alienated human beings, like the readers of Political Theology. These asymmetrical emotions and anxieties are carefully managed, sometimes mildly through entertainment, like television, film, and politics, and other times extremely, like in the case of the company Foxconn, who produces all of our lovely Apple products, placing nets on the sides of their building to catch the depressed workers who have decided that their work life is too much to handle.
Christianity’s view of human nature has been trapped in 1500 year old debate between Augustine and Pelagius. A recovering sex-addict and opponent of all things of the flesh, Augustine constructed a dark view of human nature, emphasizing the human inability to avoid sin. His theological anthropology influenced much of Christianity to follow, in particular some of reformers like Calvin who made this contextual theological anthropology into universal doctrine. Modern types of Christianity that support this view of human nature have few spiritual practices because they believe that nothing can be improved. Ethical rejection of culture (abortion, war, gay marriage, etc.) is emphasized as spiritual practice against individual disciplines. In contrast, Pelagius, a haughty monk with a penchant for causing controversy, argued that human nature was basically good and that Christ’s grace was given to spur humanity on toward perfection. Sin was something to overcome through effort. This theology influenced some Roman Catholic theology and later made itself home in the mainline liberal protestant denominations. Spirituality in this tradition looks something like Richard Rohr whose constant exhortations to find your true self point to some deep orb of goodness inherent in all people. Both of these views of human nature and correlative spiritualites miss their contextual origins: Augustine’s view of spirituality was born in rejection of his context and Pelagius’ was birthed in affirmation of his context. Therefore, both perspective are products of certain interactions with context. However, instead of siding with one or the other or neither (searching out our own view), we need to recognize the gift given to us by both: the Augustinian strategy to respond destructively to oppressive culture and the Pelagian tendency to create human subjectivities through spiritual disciplines.
We need to destroy and create. In his book Crack Capitalism, sociologist John Holloway articulated the need to destroy the alienated chains that bind us to destructive capitalism. To some degree, the emergence of social justice Christianity–with the help of mildly progressive statists like Jim Wallis–and the recent battles over social issues within churches have opened many Christians eyes to the destructive power of global capitalism. At Fuller, professors like Erin Dufault-Hunter and Glen Stassen in their ethics classes are creating new horizons of ethical responsibility, with moderately radical initiatives like the Just Peacemaking Initiative. At the same time, John Holloway also encourages his readers to create spaces outside of the order of the relations of capital as well. In the same way, the ethics must be deeply attached to spirituality, for it is the world enacted in spiritual practices that imagine for our world. This means that our spirituality is political; true spiritualities subvert the production of human nature by global capitalism in order to create alternative communities outside its domination. The chasm between ethics and spirituality needs to end and Christian spirituality needs to return to it’s central place in Christian life, otherwise we might end like a bunch of rats eating each other alive.
We need more discussion about spiritual practices. Spiritual practices are the tools to orient an individual toward a way of living, which in turn produces a Christ-like person. Contemplation and meditation, for instance, create human beings who are gentle and patient, oriented towards slow living. As an Episcopalian, the Eucharist has oriented my mind and body toward living in unity with others and Christ. Praying the liturgy of hours transforms the rhythm of one’s day from time as means to an end–as in labor or school, toward a deep appreciation of the moment as pregnant with the possibility of incarnation. All of these things, when practiced daily become rituals that produce a distinct human subjectivities.