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The ghosts that haunt us

Last month, the live-action remake of the 1995 anime film Ghost in the Shell hit theaters.

Set in a future when many humans are augmented with cybernetic enhancements, the story follows Major Mira Killian, whose body was mortally injured in a terrorist attack. Her brain is experimentally integrated into a robotic body called a “shell.”  With no memory of her life before the attack, Killian uses her enhanced abilities as part of a counter-terrorist team.

Both films explore themes related to integration of biology and technology, what makes us who we are and the mystery of consciousness (referred to as one’s “ghost”). A central theme in the 2017 film is Killian’s struggle with identity and purpose heightened by her memory loss and cybernetic body. In a way, she is haunted by her own “ghost” as she experiences “glitches” or flashes of memory, leaving her feeling isolated from herself and others.

She longs not only for understanding of who she is, where she came from and her purpose but also for connection.

Stories like this feel like explorations of our modern age, trying to make sense of life in a secular culture, particularly the isolation and a nagging sense that there is something more than what’s offered by a materialist worldview.

Recently, I ran across James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Smith guides us through A Secular Age by Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, who gives us a map of our current age by chronicling the changes in the last 500 years that have led to an age where the default worldview is a self-sufficient humanism, absent of transcendence or religious belief, and secular has become equated with areligious.
Taylor argues for an expanded view of our age, and I particularly resonated with his position that we live in an age with a plethora or “nova” of worldviews, religious and quasi-religious beliefs regarding what it means to be human (as well as meaning itself)—all of which are contestable. As a result, says Taylor, “we never move to a point beyond all anticipation, beyond all hunches, to the kind of certainty we can enjoy in certain narrower questions, say, in the natural science or ordinary life.”
That can leave us feeling isolated and “cross pressured” between faith and doubt and belief and unbelief, believers wrestling with doubt and unbelievers periodically nagged by the sense that there might be something that transcends the immanent—a “fullness of the cosmos that keeps pushing back on us,” as Smith puts it in an interview with Brett McKay, or “the inadequacy of … [the] flattened, immanent accounts of where we are.”
This leaks through in Ghost in the Shell. Stories like this confront us with glitches in our age’s default worldview and reveal pervasive longings and questions—and that can be valuable not only when we contemplate how all this affects the way we understand the world but also how we think about and live out the gospel.

People are asking how to make sense of the hungers and longings they experience, Smith observes. “I don’t think the gospel is offered primarily as a set of intellectual answers to propositional questions. I think it brings us to an encounter with a person who is the lover of our souls and answers to the deepest hungers and longings of who we are as humans.”

In his book, Smith says if we are to counter the narrative of secularism that the march of reason and science has enabled us to leave religious beliefs behind, “it’s not enough to offer rival evidence and data, you need to tell a different story.”

And live it—so that together we are like a haunting glitch that wakes people to the reality of Jesus.

A shorter version of this post first appeared at MWR.