The greatest invention of Romanticism was the invention of the reinvention of the self. Before Romanticism, in Christian culture, and even the Enlightenment, the goal of the self was to conform to external reality. In the case of Christianity, that was God’s revealed law. In Enlightenment, that was universal human reason and experience. With Romanticism, and its famous “inward turn,” the individual man, not the collective man (as ancient Greece and the Renaissance had posited), became the measure of all things. For the Romantics: every man gets to measure, is the measure. The Romantics were all artists, tortured artists, and they held the artist in the highest regard. Why? The artist alone, not the engineer or scientist or politician, can create — out of nothing. The artist devises his own world, and the highest work of art is man himself. Man is the quintessential work of art.
If this late 18th century sentiment sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Romanticism is the root of postmodernism, which claims that all of human society is a social construction. We are the makers of our society, of ourselves. And in making ourselves, we make the world. The most popular example of this self-invention is “gender,” the postmodernization of sex, which once meant male and female, while gender today necessitates literally infinite variations, from transgender to bigender to gender nonconforming to pangender to androgyny. Facebook now offers 51 gender identifications, but surely this is far too few. Gender is no longer a given. It is an invention. In principle, every single individual should be able to invent his own, unique gender. The number of genders could conceivably equal the world’s population.
But increasingly in recent years, the socially constructed reality of postmodernism was itself found to be too constricting. It still implicitly acknowledged that there was a “given” in (or as) the universe, available for human reinvention. Humanity had control over the use of this given, but not its existence. In old philosophical language, ontology (being) was that given. This given was what in Christian terms had been called nature or creation.
Over the last few years, ontology itself has been forced to surrender its givenness. As Brian Mattson commented to me, “Ontology is now a social construction.” Not merely human society, not merely culture, not merely categories of life, but reality itself. Not merely whether one will be a man or woman, but how a man and a woman and any other gender is defined or, for that matter, whether man and woman or any specific gender should exist at all. Ultimately, this means not simply the reordering of the given reality, but the re-creation of reality. “What imparts order by binding and unbinding,” writes Guignon of Romanticism, “is neither something in the cosmos itself nor a transcendent creator and source of being. It is the human mind that defines and creates the order of being it encounters.” Man is himself the re-creator of the universe.
It is hard not to see in aspects of the digital revolution, in “virtual reality,” a blatant gnostic element that makes this socially constructed ontology such a panting hope for progressives. The human body is one of the greatest barriers to re-creation (God, after all, the Creator, is spirit), so the body must be circumvented. But the present human body seems to have been adapted (the old, outmoded, Christian word would be “designed”) for Earth. Therefore, overcoming the limitations of this planet will also be on the ontological re-engineering agenda. Autonomous human imagination – the body and its terrestrial environment = a new universe.
All of this is simply the outworking of human autonomy launched in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), the serpentine promise that man will be as God. It is the same impetus reflected collectively in the erecting of the Tower of Babel recorded in Genesis 11. Sinful man is not content to be human. In order to be human, he must be God. The ultimate act of human autonomy is to do what only God can do: create. The irony is that, in attempting to become God, man becomes inhumane (see Genesis 6). The quest for utopia always ends in dystopia.
Because the universe is God’s universe, because it is, in fact, God-rigged, these plans for re-creating the universe will inevitably and invariably fail, and the more spectacular they are, the more spectacularly they will fail. All those who hate God and his wisdom love death (Prov. 8:3). We need not worry, therefore, whether the grand universe-re-creating plans will succeed.
We only need worry how disastrous will be the fallout when they fail.