The Sacrifice of Sagging Flesh

My great-grandmother’s flesh was soft under my 5-year-old fingers. Standing beside her as she spent time playing cards or dominoes with her grandchildren—my father and his brothers—or her children—my great aunts and uncles—I would hold onto to her arm, laying my head on her shoulder, touching the loose, sagging flesh of her arm. What today is considered grotesque—wrinkled and sagging flesh—felt good under my young fingers.

I remember this scene fondly, because it was played out on numerous weekend evenings playing cards or dominoes into the wee hours. The laughter and banter around the card table was joyful, as she unleashed her dry wit in an attempt to out-wit my father and uncles in cards or dominoes.

She had been a teacher in rural Texas, where my family has been since Texas was a Mexican state. She was born in 1893, and she had been a teacher from age 20. She walked 12 miles each way to teach at one of the rural schools that peppered the southeast Texas landscape in the early 20th century. Her body was marked by the work she had done, and the work done on her by the harsh Texas soil of the farm she ran for nearly 30 years after her husband’s death in 1960. Her fingers and toes were gnarled, bending in odd ways; her knees were arthritic and knobby from the wear and tear of the years. They bore traces of her life.

If time is the endurance of things in relationship to themselves and to events around them from moment to moment, then ageing is a different kind of time. It is the endurance of a body from moment to moment, but also in relation to change. To some extent, we understand ageing as something intrinsic to the body, a kind of decay endured from within. Yet mostly, it seems that we imagine ageing as primarily a price exacted on the flesh from the pressures of living, the endurance of the flesh undergoing change in relation to the miles walked or the hours worked against the resistance of soil. Ageing is the wear and tear on the body, the endurance by the flesh of the onslaught of insult and injury.

Yet, the biogerontologists tell us that ageing is not intrinsic to the body. There is no genetic code that leads to death, or even ageing. It is just the failure of the body to repair itself in relation to the onslaught of insults and injuries to the body. The telomeres shorten as cell division occurs, which it does in response to injury. Ageing then is really a kind of marking on the body that the body cannot erase through healing. The world inscribes itself on a body, leaving marks that cannot easily be erased. On this biogerontological reading then, death is not really a reality. Thus, the work of biogerontologists is not a work against death. It is work against ageing. Death is no longer the enemy; the enemy is the traces of living inscribed on the body.

The Dragon Tyrant

In 2005, Nick Bostrom—bioethicist, futurist, and transhumanist—published a fable about ageing. It was published originally in the Journal of Medical Ethics, which normally publishes scholarly papers with philosophical arguments under peer scrutiny. It is a sign of the times that a normally sophisticated journal like the Journal of Medical Ethics would publish a fable. I suspect it would not have seen the light of day in a peer-reviewed journal if the fable had not been consistent with the regnant mythology of our day. Bostrom has since published the fable again in Philosophy Now: A Magazine of Ideas. There is even a YouTube video of the Fable.

The fable goes something like this: Ten thousand people per day are slaughtered in a city by a terrible dragon. Priests and magicians called down spells to battle the dragon to no avail.  Political leaders organized military actions against the dragon tyrant, only to be rebuffed. These primitive forms of technology are ineffective against the dragon. In despair, cultural systems arose to cope with the reality of the dragon. The citizens of the village noticed that if 10,000 people per day were eaten by the dragon, the dragon would be sated. Thus, an elaborate system of sacrifice to the dragon was established. The political authorities round up 10,000 people daily and they are delivered to the dragon as a daily sacrifice. Wise men and priests begin to preach, convincing people that ending up in the dragon’s belly is not only the fate of every human being, but humankind’s calling. Death by dragon, the religious leaders taught, is a constitutive part of being human.

The dragon grew bigger with the daily sacrifices, and as it did, more and more people had to be delivered to the dragon, with a train-load arriving every 10 minutes now. Dragon-related expenditures began to dominate the economy; every aspect of every person’s life was dominated by the dragon.

A few truly wise men—men of efficacy, men of science—began to believe they could defeat the dragon tyrant, but it would take years to convince the government to fund the project. Even after society accepted the research and development endeavor of the scientists, bureaucratic inefficiency would disrupt and slow down their work.

Meanwhile the numbers of men and women delivered to the dragon to placate its appetite were increasing; more misery, more death. Finally, resources were poured into the project to destroy the dragon, resulting in a missile, a magic bullet that could possibly kill the dragon tyrant. The day finally arrived when the missile was launched against the dragon tyrant. The fable continues:

As a ball of fire enveloped the launch pad and the missile shot upwards, the spectators rose to the tips of their toes. For the masses and the king, the young and the old, it was as if at this moment they shared a single awareness: an experience of a white flame shooting into the dark, embodying the human spirit, its fear and its hope, striking at the heart of evil. Then the dragon’s silhouette on the horizon tumbled and fell, and a thousand voices of pure joy rose from the assembled masses, joined seconds later by a deafening thud from the collapsing monster. After centuries of oppression, humanity was at last free from the cruel tyranny of the dragon![1]

Of course, there was much jubilation in the destruction of the dragon. A new age is born; humanity enters into a new childhood, with an open future. “We shall go into this future,” the king announces at the death of the dragon, “doing better than we have done in the past. We have time now: time to get things right, time to learn from our mistakes, and time for the slow process of building a better world. I believe,” the King concludes, “we have some reorganizing to do!”

Bostrom tells us the moral of his story. The dragon tyrant is not death; rather the dragon is ageing. Bostrom’s anti-religious bent is obvious. Religionists require sacrifice. At best, religionists sedate the people into passivity and resignation that the dragon cannot be defeated; at their worst, religionsists coerce humanity into participating in sacrifice in order to appease the dragon. The violence of the dragon had to become ritually assuaged through an orderly sacrifice of the elderly.

For this vision of sacrifice, perhaps Bostrom can be forgiven. It is a common misconception today that religion is inherently violent, as William Cavanaugh has shown us.[2] Still, even in Bostrom’s tale, there must be sacrifice, even while it is a sacrifice of a different type—sacrifice of time, energy, and resources to overcome, to outdo, the power of the dragon.

Bostrom interprets his fabled dragon to be ageing; it might best interpreted as chaos or entropy. Human ingenuity and human compassion—true scientific ingenuity and technologically effective compassion—will overcome ageing. Yet, if ageing is really the trace of life left on the body, it seems to me that it must overcome the body; indeed it seems it would have to overcome life itself by overcoming chaos, through an exertion of a greater power on the body. Any attempt to destroy ageing technologically is aimed at the heart of not only the imagined anthropology that justifies technological manipulation of the body, but also the imagined ontology that sustains the modern mythology of power; call it a “power ontology.”

Power and the Modern Mythos

Let me explain what I mean by power ontology. John Richardson uses the term in relation to Nietzsche’s will-to-power.[3] The most fundamental element animating being is power. By will-to-power, Nietzsche did not mean will in quite the way that we ordinarily mean it. Contrary to popular notions of will, there is little in the way of agency in Nietzschean will-to-power. The deep will-to-power throws up beings into existence; these beings thrive for a time given a set of circumstances. Once the form of being in existence cannot withstand the circumstances of its existence, those beings collapse into the ground of being, into the eternal return of the power ontology. Motion begins in the abyss of power, being rising into existence, and then decaying, once again into the abyss.

In his book, Philosophy, God, and Motion, Simon Oliver describes the way in which a premodern understanding of motion and being changes into the modern understanding of motion and being.[4] For St. Thomas things tend to their proper places for the kind of beings that they are. In early modern physics, motion became primarily locomotion. In fact, the laws of motion were not really laws of motion so much as they were thought to be forces: how one body forces another body to move. Thus, physics became the science of power, or, energy forces that made locomotion possible. Thomistic conceptions of motion, which understood motion as a welling up from within and a moving to a proper place, gave way to gravitational forces, electrical forces, magnetic forces, nuclear forces, and the chemical forces found in long-chain carbon bonds.

Thus, at the heart of modern cosmology is a power ontology. Energy and matter are interchangeable. The simplest unit of being, the most fundamental “entity” that cannot be further divided is not the atom, or proton, or neutron, or electron, or any sub-atomic particle. The final common denominator shared by all entities is energy, force, power.

The relation of the earth to the sun is one of gravitational forces; the sun’s nuclear and radiant energy is captured by living beings in the creation of carbon bonds in plant life, allowing energy to be stored against the chaos of entropy. When an animal eats a plant, the animal establishes a kind of power over the plant, taking from the plant the power-filled energy bonds held in long-chain carbon molecules. When packs of animals bind together socially to hunt their prey, a different kind of power is established. The hierarchy of power relations within the pack allows the pack to more efficiently overpower their prey and to survive at the expense of the prey.

This power ontology even animates the creation of human communities in the modern mythology. The establishment of political power permits the formation of groups bound together for the work of surviving against the onslaught of pressures from enemies, all for the securing of food and the procurement of healthcare. Constitutive of our social relations and constitutive of our very being are a set of power relations, alliances made for the securing of food, energy, and fundamental resources for living. It is this understanding of being as power, as will-to-power that animates the modern technological imaginary. Everything exists and thrives as a result of this power ontology. This power ontology is the result of the contemporary cosmological imaginary. Technology is an effective form of power.

Technical Beings and Technical Becoming

In his book, Technics and Time, Bernard Stiegler sheds light on technological beings—the machines, and tools, and toys we fashion to do our work and to divert us from our labors.[5] Yet, technological beings are not merely inert things, like rocks. Technical beings sit somewhere between natural nonliving beings (sun, earth, rock) and natural living beings (bacteria, plants, animals, human animals). Even as technical beings are nonliving begins, they still possess something of living beings. They possess a kind of directedness, a kind of willfulness, and carry some semblance of autonomy and freedom with them, which is built into them by the human animal. They are, thus, distinct from natural non-living beings. But they are also distinct from living beings. Technical beings are constructed by humans for human purposes, but they take on a life of their own.

Drawing on the work of the historians of technology, paleoanthropology, and the philosopher Gilbert Simondon, Stiegler notes that the human does not so much construct technical beings for humankind’s own purposes, as technology evolves according to its own principles.

Technology has its own tendencies with much less human influence than meets the eye. In fact, the human animal co-evolves with technology; indeed the human evolves through the mediation of technical beings. Humankind, then has become less a bearer of tools that it creates, and it becomes the servant of the machine. The human has become “either the machine’s servant or its assembler: the human’s relation to the technical object proves to have profoundly changed.”[6]

Let me give some examples of the way in which technology escapes human agency: think of assembly lines, in which the human is not part of the production so much as she is on-call for the service of the machine, assuring its smooth operation. We valorize figures like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as geniuses in research and development, when in reality the technology was there awaiting someone to pull all the elements together, elements which others have been developing through trial and error for years. Thus, there are in technicity certain tendencies, tendencies that human actors read and assemble together.

Even our schools are coming to the service of technological sustenance and innovation, through their emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Other forms of learning—literature and philosophy, for instance—are justified because of the needs for communication and critical thinking in service to future jobs that will be created by technology.

Or, think of the political and economic structures that develop to assure the smooth operation of technological innovation and evolution through international trade, international capitalism, and the political treaties needed to ensure the smooth operation of the means of technological production. Thus, the technical system is also a set of political and economic relations, where trial and error stumble along until there arises a stable technological system, bound together by stable political and economic relations. It is the technical system (including its global, political, and economic dimensions) that drives us forward, not so much as human genius.

Even Marx, on the reading of Jacques Ellul, did not resist the drivers of technological innovation and production, so much that he encouraged workers to participate in the technical means of production. Even while workers might lose their jobs with the technological innovation, and even while there is a tendency to think that technological innovation should be halted for the sake of workers, “Karl Marx rehabilitated technique [the technical system] in the eyes of the workers,”[7] claiming that it can be liberating from the masters who enslave the workers.

Stiegler’s insight is that the “what” of technology, escapes the agency of the “who” of technology. In fact, the “what” of technology comes to constitute the “who.” As with evolutionary failure, where a species comes to an end, there is a trace of that failure concretized in the solutions that result in the selection of those that survive. Innovation is born of failure; failure is inscribed in what survives. Innovation is the permanent feature in power ontology.

The same is true for technological apparatuses, which are more than the products of machines. The whole existing apparatus is the concretized memory of past failures, which are memorialized in the technological solutions that have solved the problems not only of humankind, but of the technology itself. Technological prowess rides on the back of the power ontology, shaping the beings that are evolving into some open future.

Thus, Stiegler is not interested of technics in time, technics as evolving; rather he sees in technics itself the constitution of time. The open-ended future of permanent innovation, recursively comes to shape the contemporary anthropological imaginary. Technics create anthropos. Anthropos is unstable, decaying and in need of technical stability. Death is not the enemy; the trace of life and unstable endurance are the real enemy.

One only has to think of Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near, where he acknowledges a kind of co-evolution of technological being with human being, where he attempts to justify the idea of a perpetually growing and sustainable economy that sustains and enables the technical explosion of information, and the stability of silicone over carbon. Silicone is less prone to decay. Of course, that means that silicone is less likely to age. The traces of work and life which plague carbon-based life are unlikely to leave their mark on technological bodies. Technological prowess culminates in the fusion of the human and the machine in a singularity of stable being. The trace of having lived and grown in the face of work is erased, sacrificed on the altar of technicity.

Bostrom imagines sacrifice to be a sacrifice of expiation, a sacrifice to placate the power of the dragon. He rightly sees that the sacrifice of the elderly is problematic. Yet, his solution of technological mastery is still a kind of sacrifice of expiation, in that his technological response to ageing not only does overpower ageing, but it also erases life’s markings on the body, all the body’s frailties and injuries and memories. That is because his cosmological imaginary has been formed through the modern techniques of techno-science founded upon the power ontology of techno-science.

Technique and Cultivation in Liturgical Sacrifice

I accept Stiegler’s insight that the human being has always participated in its own creation through the mediation of technē. The myth of our time is that some form of scientific reason cuts through symbol to deal directly with reality. Stiegler is in a long line of thinkers that challenge the idea that only epistēmē  [knowledge, understanding] and not technē [craft, art] is at work in scientific rationality. Stielger shows us that technē is at work in modern rationality, and that the technological has out run and separated itself from what he calls the ethnic, and what I will call the spiritual.

Yet, Christianity has within its resources the centrality of technē in shaping the cosmological, social, and moral imaginaries. Technē is the cultivation of habits of the perception and the knowing of reality. Our practices of symbolic mediation in language and in ritual continually shape our perception of reality, and what we imagine reality to be. The Roman Missal, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the Rule of St. Benedict, and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola are all techniques that shape our perception and our cosmological imaginary. They are in fact techniques that teach us to see, to listen, and to comport with reality.

Let me give an example in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Wheat and grapes, through the work of human hands, become bread and wine; through the work of God, they become the bread of life and drink of salvation. Nature—wheat and grape—are transformed by culture—the work of human hands—into bread and wine. But wheat and grape are already products of culture; they are the work from time immemorial of the trial and error of technē, of cultivation. It is already the work of the people even before it becomes Liturgy (the work of God for and on the people).

The excess of nature, already cultivated by a donation of culture, is transformed into the good that is bread and wine. And the goodness that is bread and wine are transformed again by the work of the people, through a donation by God, into body and blood, which in turn gratuitously transforms our body and blood into life eternal. As in any habit of cultivation, in acting—offering their work—the people are acted upon.

This bloodless sacrifice of the Mass, as St. John Chrysostom’s liturgy calls it, is not fundamentally a power ontology that must lord it over entropy in order to make it new. The ageing body, with all of its marks and traces of having lived are not overcome in the eating of the body and blood of Christ so much as they are transformed and taken up into the resurrected body of Christ.

The resurrected body is not a cyborg, as some Christian transhumanists imagine. It is the resurrection of the frail material that has captured the traces of its life. The particular wounds and injuries, the particular marks of its having lived under the brutal Texas sun, in the hard Texas soil, for instance. All of living, then is a kind of ageing, where the marks of having lived are inscribed in flesh, lovely, wrinkling flesh, and knotted knees and disfigured toes.

The sacrifice of the Mass originates in excess and ends in transforming materiality into what it is and will be, not by replacing it or overcoming its frailties, but by taking them up and completing them such that they become more fully what they are—particular bodies bearing the traces of their insults and injuries and frailties. In this sense, the sacrifice of the Mass is not an overwhelming coercion of expiatory power, removing these frailties and insults and injuries.

Rather, the sacrifice of the Mass results in a resurrected body, which is always an aged body because the marks of its having live are transformed.


Natural Family Planning and the Myth of Catholic Contraception

Editorial Note: During the month of March, Church Life will be considering the many ways in which the sacrifice of the cross shapes all aspects of the theological imagination (click here for the other pieces in this series).

Featured Image: Hans Baldung, Three Ages of Man and Death [detail], c. 1544; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

[1] Nick Bostrom, “The Fable of the Dragon Tyrant” Philosophy Now Accessed 3/14/2018.

[2] William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford: OUP, 2009).

[3] John Richardson, Nietzsche’s New Darwinism (Oxford: OUP, 2008), 63-65.

[4] Oliver Davies, Philosophy, God and Motion (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 213)

[5] Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, Volume 1: The Fault of Epimetheus (Stanford, CA: SUP, 1998).

[6] Ibid., 23.

[7] Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage, 1964), 54.

Jeffrey P. Bishop

Jeffrey P. Bishop is Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. He also holds the Tenet Endowed Chair in Health Care Ethics and directs the Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics. He is the author of The Anticipatory Corpse Medicine, Power, and the Care of the Dying published by the University of Notre Dame Press.