A newborn baby is brought home from the hospital. She is beautiful, like all babies. But, like some babies, she becomes colicky. The third night home she cries for hours on end– all through the night and into the early morning. Mother and father are exhausted. The following night, the same thing. And the next night, and the next. Two weeks go by, more of the same. The baby is beautiful, the baby is good. But, the experience is intense and the suffering acute. The screaming causes tremendous pain for all parties, physical and mental torture. If it persists, perhaps developing into purple crying, the parents might not make it, or it least they feel that way, which is real enough. These loving parents are not some kind of super-soldiers, trained to go without sleep or to ignore emotions. They are like you and me, and they are on the brink of what we might call madness. They want to be above it. They long to find the strength. But every morning they wonder if they will survive.
The nature of biology is both wondrous and horrible. Scientists awe at the mind-boggling intricacy of the cell, but they also pause at the decay inherent within it. We all wonder at the majesty of a wild mustang or the grandeur of a Kodiak, yet shudder at the thought of a flesh-eating bacteria or lice. Wild flowers bloom and scent our suburbs and countryside. Ragweed makes us sneeze uncontrollably and our eyes water.
Human nature is also equally mysterious and awe-inspiring as it is hideous. The colicky baby both inspires and drains, her countenance when asleep is angelic–when contorted in pain, unbearable. As much as we love it and sacrifice for this child, we also know that she does not know to love or to give back to us. The baby only demands, as it can do no other (at least not yet). It makes the fully conscious life quite difficult. And so nature, both animal and human, is life-giving and life-taking at one and the same moment. A decision about how to manage it must be made.
Our view of nature, both biological and moral, and its genuine fallenness, its corrupted beauty, will say much about who we are and what we are ultimately to become. How we look at this baby, how we experience its struggle, a struggle that becomes our own, and what we decide to do, or not to do, about the paradoxical nature of nature is a most salient benchmark for the status of our soul.
Nature and The Problem of Western, Eurocentric Rationality
One salient criticism often levied against colonialist European culture by critical theorists of various intellectual leanings is its post-Enlightenment reliance on instrumental reason to solve our human problems, problems like the one elucidated above. Law professor Kenneth Nunn, for example, argues that it was white Europeans whose “cultural determinates manifest themselves mainly in the areas of thought structuring and processing and include epistemologlical values and logic”1 Kenneth B. Nunn, “Law as a Eurocentric Enterprise” in The Minnesota Journal of Law and Inequality, December 1997 (333) that contributed to the creating of a “culture of acquisition and narcissism.”2 Nunn, 332. This instrumental use of reason, or high regard for “thought structuring” and “epistemological values and logic,” might not have been as devastating to non-white cultures were it not also for white European materialism:
Since the Eurocentric perspective conceives of reality in material terms, the amount of resources available for well being and survival are perceived to be finite. This perception that life is a ‘zero-sum’ game leads to the development of social behaviors that are highly competitive and aggressive. Because competition is so critically important to the Eurocentric mind-set, individualism and the accumulation of material things are promoted.3Nunn, 323 [emphasis added]
In addition to the seeing reality as purely materialistic and its reliance on logic, analytic thought, abstraction and other aspects of reasoning,4Nunn, 323-337European culture has also committed a kind of social sin in its “desacralization” of nature,
Nature objectified and rationalized leads to the illusion of a despiritualized universe. In the Eurocentric worldview there is no room for the operation of sacred forces. Nature is reduced to a mere thing, an object that may be manipulated to suit mankind….Even where God is allowed in Western philosophies s/he is banished to a separate spiritual realm where s/he can have no effect on quotidian human affairs.5Nunn, 337.
This “desacralization” that Nunn mentions likely borrows from Max Weber’s claim that, in modernity, the world had become “disenchanted,”6 Max Weber, Science as Vocation a theme Charles Taylor unpacks with extraordinary detail in his seminal work A Secular Age and that ultimately goes back to Schiller’s concern of the emerging secularism of his own day. The rationalistic philosophy of the enlightenment that drove the scientific endeavor of the late 19th and early 20th century, ultimately culminating with logical positivism and the later anti-theistic views of English intellectuals like Richard Dawkins, had done indelible damage to western sensibilities of nature being imbued with mystical and supernatural forces.
In this particular article, “Law as a Eurocentric Enterprise,” Nunn goes on to charge white European culture with various other sins and evils that have lead, most importantly for him, to the creation of a corrupt and failed legal system–one imbued with racist ideology. It is not my intent here to defend Nunn’s thesis, and I have tried to show elsewhere that it is indeed a highly flawed generalization. Nevertheless, in pointing out the problem of materialism and the over-reliance on, or desire to utilize, reason in order to master what is considered to be a desacralized world, Nunn unwittingly echoes a critique of post-Enlightenment modernism that the Church has been warning about and arguing against since Hume, a critique that perhaps found its most formal, and most polemic, articulation in Pius X’s 1907 Encyclical on modernism.
Taking into account this unique “matrix of behavior and belief”7Nunn, 338 of European, materialistic rationalism that Nunn rightly, albeit rather tardily, illustrates, the resulting stance one might take toward the nature of nature is best examined by looking at one very concrete, ubiquitous aspect of human nature, namely, in one’s stance toward human sexuality and procreation.
Hating Nature: De Beauvoir, Feminist Theory and Reproductive Control
In her 1949 book The Second Sex, French thinker Simon de Beauvoir argued forcibly that it is not biology or nature that determines what a woman is, but society itself that creates and shapes the identity of the feminine. This view was encapsulated by de Beauvoir’s lover, Jean-Paul Sartre, when he asserted succinctly “Existence precedes essence.” According to Sartre, we exist first, simpliciter, then we decide or choose to be what we want to be. For de Beauvoir especially, the choosing to become a woman in the modern era means breaking with older, religiously inspired constructions of womanhood.
Unfortunately for de Beauvoir, however, one thing a woman could not do, even a modern woman who considered gender to be a purely social construct, is deconstruct her capacity to become pregnant through sexual intercourse. There biology still reigned and ruled over the otherwise socially constructed female identity. As such, it would have to be through technology, i.e. through the instrumental use of reason to develop means for controlling nature, that this undeniable reality of femininity would have to be subdued and brought under mastery:
With artificial insemination, the evolution that will permit humanity to master the reproductive function comes to completion. These changes have tremendous importance for woman in particular; she can reduce the number of pregnancies and rationally integrate them into her life, instead of being their slave.8Simon de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (New York: Vintage, 2011), 139; quoted in Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 258-259.
This bringing of nature, here the bearing of children, under the control of technology developed by the human intellect and subject to the human will is for de Beauvoir and later feminists the key to liberation. It is freedom from the literal bondage to biology:
Relieved of a great number of reproductive servitudes, she [woman] can take on the economic roles open to her, roles that would ensure her control over her own person.9 see Trueman, 259.
Here too we see another aspect of the white, Eurocentric way of thinking that Nunn exposes, namely the mastery over nature for the sake of economic gain, or “acquisition.” If woman can gain control over their bodies, then they can acquire all kinds of material benefits. This is very typical of the “white” mindset.
One disciple of de Beauvoir, Shulamith Firestone, extends de Beauvoir’s thinking about biology and womanhood, applying this very modernist reasoning not just to the process of procreation, but to the very idea of “man” and “woman” itself, as well as to the structure of “family.” All of these prior sociological concepts are now endangered species in light of humankind’s technological progress and a natural world devoid of supernatural forces or sacred meaning:
The end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally….The reproduction of species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would be born to both sexes equally or independently of either, however one chooses to look at it; the dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general, and any remaining inferiority to adults in physical strength would be compensated for culturally….The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.10 Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970: repr., New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) 11. Quoted in Carl Trueman, 261, emphasis mine.
For modern feminists like de Beauvoir and Firestone, thinkers who laid the intellectual groundwork for legal decisions like Roe vs. Wade and paved the road to abortion on demand, nature is a bane on human existence, especially “female” existence. While babies might be angelic as they sleep or coo, to deal with them when the scream themselves purple every night is but a burden requiring lifting. The elimination of struggle justifies the manipulation of nature and the proper management of such painful experiences as needed. With the rise of technology our enslavement to nature can and should be broken.
However, the social attributes that allowed French philosophers like Sartre and de Beauvoir and later feminists like Firestone to assume they could choose their identity, i.e. determine their own “quiddity,” and conquer nature through scientific technology, are the very same features of European culture, e.g. desacralization, hyper-rationality, and materialism that Nunn and other critical theorists have pointed out as being inherently racist; they exemplify a Eurocentricity that
reaches out to delineate and direct everything the Eurocentric society produces, within the realm of art, science, economics and social life. All social and cultural productions–even the society’s concept of the law– will reflect the materialism, aggression and individualism that Eurocentricity generates.11 Nunn, 338
The materialism and individualism inherent in the views of women like de Beauvoir and Firestone is rather obvious.12 This is assuming we take “materialism” to mean more than just a naive consumerism, which I think Nunn clearly does. Both de Beauvoir and Firestone (as far as is known) were atheist materialists. Not only that, but any notion of there being a fixed human nature, let alone one infected with something like sin, is aggressively rejected. Nature, both biological and metaphysical, is clearly the enemy for both feminists– and the enemy must be destroyed or at least greatly subdued.
This materialism is a fundamental part of the modernist presuppositions assumed by most 20th-century European thinkers. Jaques Ellul in his incisive 1965 treatise on modern propaganda, argues there are four such modern presuppositions in all Western societies:
It seems to us that there are four great collective sociological presuppositions in the modern world. By this we mean not only the Western world, but all the world that shares a modern technology and is structured into nations, including the Communist world, though not yet the African and Asian worlds. These common presuppositions of bourgeois and proletarian are that man’s aim in life is happiness, that man is naturally good, that history develops in endless progress, and that everything is matter.13 Jaques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, (New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1973) 39.
In sum, Nunn is correct, at least on this count. The white European desacralization of the world that started in the Enlightenment, that led to a “post-metaphysical” and anti-essentialist view of human nature, and that emphasized the hegemony of instrumental reason, allowed for feminists like Firestone and de Beauvoir to embrace a scientific project unencumbered by a moral law and to promote the march of technology against any sense of the sacred ordering of a creatively designed universe. This opened the door for the hatred of biology itself, here most poignantly elucidated by the view of woman having to be freed from the shackles of procreation; a phenomena formerly imbued with mystical significance, now seen merely as a biological process, i.e. as reproduction.
In light of all this, might we go so far as to suggest that in their aggression toward nature and in their desire to dominate over it through the use of medical technology, especially in this area of “reproductive control” that modern-day feminists are in fact white supremacist in their thinking? After all, is the baby itself not seen as in competition with the happiness of the mother, or “birthing person?” And is seeing things through a competitive lens not a fundamental feature of “whiteness,” according to critical race theorists like Kenneth Nunn? Perhaps contraception and abortion are not acts of liberation but acts of racism.
Redeeming Nature: Procreation as Sacred Mystery
In a 2014 essay, Catholic philosopher Michael Hanby writing about same-sex marriage had this to say about the link between feminist theory, same-sex marriage, and technology:
To appreciate this, we must first understand that the sexual revolution is, at bottom, the technological revolution and its perpetual war against natural limits applied externally to the body and internally to our self-understanding. Just as feminism has as its practical outworking, if not its theoretical core, the technological conquest of the female body—”biology is not destiny,” so the saying goes—so too same-sex marriage has as its condition of possibility the technological mastery of procreation, without which it would have remained permanently unimaginable. [emphasis added]
Hanby further demonstrates what, according to Nunn, are the very “white European” features of this approach to human biology:
Underlying the technological conquest of human biology, whether in its gay or feminist form, is a dualism which bi-furcates the person into a meaningless mechanical body made of malleable ‘stuff’ and the affective or technological will that presides over it. The person as an integrated whole falls through the chasm. This is the foundation of the now orthodox distinction between ‘sex’ which is ‘merely biological’ and ‘gender’ which is socially constructed, as well as the increasingly pervasive (and relentlessly promoted) idea that freedom means our self-creation of both. Technological dominance over procreation imposes this bi-furcated anthropology upon parents and children alike, and codifying it implicitly makes this anthropology the law of the land. [emphasis added]
Instead of trying to gain domination over nature, again as some critical theorists have rightly evaluated, the Christian approach to nature should be one that takes into account the real, yet contingent, disorder of nature because of sin, but that seeks to work in a process of redemption as one participates in God’s grace. Nunn is right that we must not see God, as white racists14 I am using “racist” here in the same manner as critical race theorists might use it, not necessarily as an internal disposition of hatred or feeling of superiority toward another race, like Africans, but just as the exemplification of these fundamental European modes of thinking and behaving. like Firestone or de Beauvoir did, as removed from creation, “banished to a separate spiritual realm” where “s/he has no effect on quotidian human affairs.”
Instead, we can offer a better view of nature, one, as Hanby suggests, that takes into account the person as an “integrated whole,” a whole which includes the inherent goodness of life, all life, and the sanctity of a very real human nature. This view of nature, unlike that of these racist feminists, is very much a “sacralized” approach to nature. John Paul II put it this way in his 1981 Consortium on the Family:
As an incarnate spirit, that is a soul which expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit, man is called to love in his unified totality. Love includes the human body, and the body is made a sharer in spiritual love.
Of course this view, which assumes far more than mere biology with regards to human nature, does not reject the use of technology to aid in the enhancement of biological life. However, because nature is not reducible to mere physics, the use of technology must be tempered with wisdom and love for the whole person, body and spirit. Trapped in their “whiteness,” modern-day feminists like Firestone rejected the inherent goodness and mystical nature of procreation, the bringing into being not just a biological organism, but of a new soul. Again, John Paul emphasizes what could only be called today a very “non-white” view of marriage and procreation when he says,
This totality which is required by conjugal love also corresponds to the demands of responsible fertility. This fertility is directed to the generation of a human being, and so by its nature it surpasses the purely biological order and involves a whole series of personal values. For the harmonious growth of these values a persevering and unified contribution by both parents is necessary.
And also when he says,
In its most profound reality, love is essentially a gift; and conjugal love, while leading the spouses to the reciprocal “knowledge” which makes them “one flesh,” does not end with the couple, because it makes them capable of the greatest possible gift, the gift by which they become cooperators with God for giving life to a new human person. Thus the couple, while giving themselves to one another, give not just themselves but also the reality of children, who are a living reflection of their love, a permanent sign of conjugal unity and a living and inseparable synthesis of their being a father and a mother.
In conclusion, it is an unfortunate development that it would take a critical race theorist like Nunn to correctly point out something corrosive about modern Eurocentric culture: its post-Enlightenment materialism; reliance on instrumental reason; its desacralization of the world and aggressive stance toward nature; and its truly selfish individualism to help us see why the modern feminist movement, and by the same token the current LGBTQ+ movement, is inherently flawed. Of course, I have been using the term “white” and “racist” here rather tongue and cheek, because I do not actually believe these things have anything really to do with whiteness or racism. Rather, they simply have to do with sin, an inheritance common to all cultures, white and non-white.
That said, Critical Race theorists who think they can throw out the entire project of the Enlightenment just because it emerged in Europe and was, in part, associated with a horribly faulty view of race15 One that genuinely lead to incredibly human suffering. should be careful not to cut off the branch on which they sit. They need modernism as much as their feminist predecessors and counterparts. Their own liberation, after all, may be at stake, if they believe that liberation will also come through the throwing off of the shackles of the traditional Christian worldview, replete with its ornery “sexual ethics.” Of course, there may be a way for CRT folks to have their metaphysically enchanted world back without a corresponding return to biblical morality. But, about that I have written elsewhere.
- 1Kenneth B. Nunn, “Law as a Eurocentric Enterprise” in The Minnesota Journal of Law and Inequality, December 1997 (333)
- 2Nunn, 332.
- 3Nunn, 323 [emphasis added]
- 4Nunn, 323-337
- 5Nunn, 337.
- 6Max Weber, Science as Vocation
- 7Nunn, 338
- 8Simon de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (New York: Vintage, 2011), 139; quoted in Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 258-259.
- 9see Trueman, 259.
- 10Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970: repr., New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) 11. Quoted in Carl Trueman, 261, emphasis mine.
- 11Nunn, 338
- 12This is assuming we take “materialism” to mean more than just a naive consumerism, which I think Nunn clearly does. Both de Beauvoir and Firestone (as far as is known) were atheist materialists.
- 13Jaques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, (New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1973) 39.
- 14I am using “racist” here in the same manner as critical race theorists might use it, not necessarily as an internal disposition of hatred or feeling of superiority toward another race, like Africans, but just as the exemplification of these fundamental European modes of thinking and behaving.
- 15One that genuinely lead to incredibly human suffering.