A rising cult of humanism is in danger of moving down a dark and sinister road — and theology needs to respond with powerful demonstrations of the enduring relevance of religious belief.

Theologian Fr Neil Vaney, SM, sounded this warning when delivering the graduation address at the degree conferral ceremony for Good Shepherd College in Auckland on June 9.

“There is a danger today that theology is speaking into the void, addressing issues that are not the battlefields on which modern men and women are fighting,” Fr Vaney warned.

He noted a claim by sociologists that “from the dawn of human history, religion has served three purposes; it has claimed to explain the origins of the world, how humans can be saved from evil and suffering and what happens to the human spirit after death. Christianity also offers solutions for these questions”.

But in the last century, advances in science and technology have by and large pushed back the great human nemeses of famine, plague and death.

Astrophysics and evolutionary theory have contributed to greater understanding of how the universe and humans came to be, although there are still large questions to be answered, notably around the origins of life and the phenomenon of consciousness. “Gains in human security and comfort . . . are having a major impact on the way in which those, especially in affluent nations, now view the three great ques tions about origins, suffering and death,” Fr Vaney said.

There are even scientific resources being committed to the battle to overcome death itself, Fr Vaney noted, adding that when he [Fr Vaney] was doing his doctoral research, Ray Kurzwell’s 1990 work The Age of Spiritual Machines “frightened me more than any science fiction or horror novel I have ever read”. Kurzwell won the US National Medal of Technology in 1999.

While there are plenty of scientists who do not accept humanity will be able to evade death totally, nonetheless, the human lifespan is capable of being greatly extended, it is theorised.

“This is the climate of thought in which we are now living, one that increasingly believes that everything religion once promised is now under human control and is being delivered by human ingenuity,” Fr Vaney continued.

“Over the last five centuries, an enormous change has come over humanity. It might be summed up by saying that humans are now the ultimate source of meaning and authority. Education is designed to maximise such convictions and the autonomy of each individual. What is right for each person will emerge from following their deep seated feelings.

“As more and more people accept that life has no built-in or God-given meaning and purpose, but only what they inject into it, the place of personal achievements and possessions grows inexorably.”

Therefore the dominance of economics and production in every realm of life  follows.

“Commerce is the heartbeat of this new faith and malls and supermarkets its new temples. Virtually all cultures and ideologies bow down before it,” Fr Vaney said.

Seeds of destruction

Nonetheless, this new humanism contains within itself the seeds of destruction.

Citing author Yuval Noah Harari, Fr Vaney pointed to the future unequal access to new genetic treatments in an aging population and the loss of many jobs through techonology.

He also warned of the re-emergence of eugenics, “in which many elderly and those considered handicapped are culled”.

In parts of Europe, people with Down Syndrome are seeing themselves as a threatened group as more and more “at risk” foetuses are aborted.

Other predictions are of increased cyborg engineering of limbs and of all organic processes being taken over by super smart robots and computers.

“As Harari acknowledges, most of this change will be driven by powerful and wealthy elites and the gap between rich and poor will grow immensely. Life for the poor will become more and more degraded as individual identity and rights become submerged as unhindered free flow of data dominates whatever remains of humanity,” Fr Vaney said.

He qualified all this by noting the admitted great difficulty in accurately predicting future trends. There is also considerable hubris in the notion that humans control nature, when earthquakes, volcanoes or collision with a comet “could spell an end to all such dreams of control overnight”.

So, what should the response of theology be in the modern humanistic context that Fr Vaney described?

“Surely . . . theology must find within its own resources, insights and values that are impervious to such human diminishment,” Fr Vaney said.

“Many scientists believe that we know much about the human brain and intelligence, but that consciousness itself is still very mysterious. Theology and spirituality can light up whole areas of human awareness of realms of existence not accessible to physical control or testing. This is especially true as we explore the realm of inter-subjectivity, the unique human ability to share insights experiences and beliefs and which has given us domination over this planet and all that dwells on it. Where else do we find a more perfect paradigm for this interdependence and uniqueness of relationship if not in the Christian understanding of the Trinitarian God.

“Beauty, which also transcends ages, cultures and purely utilitarian calculations should likewise be a field where theology delights to play.”

“It is not the role of theologians to give scientific answers,” Fr Vaney concluded, “but there is a pressing urgency for theologians to connect mentally and spiritually with the world that is emerging to show that faith and religion are vitally needed to soften and humanise the dark ‘drivenness’ of science and technology.”