Not Yet Been Made Known: Transhumanism and the Search for Salvation
Jim addresses the transhumanism movement and what it could mean for us as Christians in how we think about our lifespans here on earth.
This article has been adapted from a public lecture given by Jim Stump in October 2019 in Holland, Michigan.
In 1 John 3 it says, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.”
What we will be has not yet been made known. According to Christian theology, we’re going to be something different than we are now. We have already been “saved from our sins,” we’ve been “born again,” we’re “new creations.” That is some of the language the New Testament uses to try to describe what has already happened. And there is language about what is going to happen in the future:
“we will not all die, but we will all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51)
“he will transform our humble bodies so they conform to his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21)
“God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Revelation 21:4)
That picture of peace and transcending the predicament of our flesh seems to be a common longing among humans. We recognize that in our present state, our lives are finite and fleeting. We know all too well that life on this planet is precarious—that our bodies are susceptible to death both from disease within and accidents from the outside.
But we Christians have hope. And it is not just wishful thinking, it is grounded on the Word of God and on the work of Christ. We believe that this is not the end, that death has been defeated, that our bodies will be resurrected to new, imperishable life. That we will be reunited with loved ones, and with that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, to live forever in the presence of God.
To many people in our culture today, that hope sounds like a fairy tale. Too good to be true. And they think the proper attitude is resignation to our lot—that we were an accident that arose by chance on this lucky planet, that we might get to enjoy ourselves for awhile if we were born into the right circumstances. But then we die. The universe will go on, barely taking notice that we were here. That’s just the way it is. No sense wishing for anything else.
There are others who also think our faith is a fairy tale, but instead of resignation to our short and limited existence, they think we should do something about it. Yes, the universe itself will eventually fizzle out, but we’ve got a few billion good years left in our sun, so let’s take matters into our own hands. We’ve inherited these frail and humble bodies from our evolutionary past, but we can improve them. Our big brains have figured out some remarkable things about how matter works, and we can apply that to enhance ourselves—and maybe even cheat death itself. These upgrades will take us beyond what humanity is now, keeping just the best parts and transcending our natural limitations.
That is the goal of a movement known as transhumanism, which Wikipedia describes as:
“an international philosophical movement that advocates for the transformation of the human condition by developing and making widely available sophisticated technologies to greatly enhance human intellect and physiology.”
What kinds of enhancements and sophisticated technologies are we talking about here? Our imaginations have been stoked by science fiction and Hollywood, of course, with ideas and ideals of what we might become.
The DNA of the X-Men has mutated, so it gives them superhuman powers like telekinesis or the ability to summon the weather. I wouldn’t hold out much hope that our DNA could be manipulated to produce such powers, but we’re starting to see what we might be able to do.
One company claims to be able to screen the DNA of embryos for how intelligent they will be. Other research that is banned here is progressing in other countries, and it doesn’t just screen the DNA that is already there, but actively edits that DNA for specific traits. We’re in the very early stages of understanding what will happen, and our technological ability has outpaced our collective moral sense of whether we should do such things. Right now we’re essentially experimenting on little babies, and if we perfect this technique so we do know what will happen, we’ll be into Gattaca territory, the movie where you go to a genetic counselor to order a designer baby with all the traits you want and none of the “imperfections.” This might not yet be fully-realized transhumanism, but it is on the path.
Another aspect of the movement might be illustrated by Ironman, who gets his powers not by a change to the DNA but by the integration of technology with his body. Would it be so bad to integrate some technology with our brains? To give ourselves a little more memory? Have we already done this? How many phone numbers do you keep stored in your brains these days? How dependent on spell check are you? Remember when we used to have some innate sense of direction so we could follow a map to get where we wanted to go? We have offloaded these things into our phones. They might not be physically implanted in our brains, but they are performing a host of functions our brains used to, and they are better at it. Have we enhanced ourselves in this way?
Black Mirror is a Netflix series that explores what our relationship to future technology might be like. The episodes are often kind of creepy and dystopian, taking some technological innovation that might seem interesting, but then playing it out in what I think are frighteningly realistic ways.
One episode is called “The Entire History of You.” In it, most people have an implant to their brains that records everything they have seen and heard, and they can play these back on a monitor, or just straight to their own eyes. You might think, isn’t that basically what Instagram is? No, those are just the carefully curated memories selected to project our happiest times to the world. What if everything was preserved? Is it part of being human that we should forget and move on from some things? In this episode, the characters should have.
In another episode called “Be Right Back,” a woman’s boyfriend is killed in a car accident and she tries out a service that combs through all of his social media posts and almost perfectly emulates him as an artificial intelligence bot. He responds just like the real guy would have, and even with his voice, so you can carry on a conversation with him over the phone. Then she upgrades and orders the robot that looks and feels just like him too. What could possibly go wrong?
Sound crazy? Maybe just crazy enough to be real. There is a company called Eternime, that will preserve your memories and let you live forever as a digital avatar, becoming “virtually immortal.” The fine print says, “Eternime collects your thoughts, stories and memories, curates them and creates an intelligent avatar that looks like you. This avatar will live forever and allow other people in the future to access your memories.”
What we will be has not yet been made known. Is that it?
That’s not really you, right? But what if we could take you, your consciousness and digitize it and upload it to a computer where you can exist independently of your body. This is the holy grail of transhumanism.
Another sci-fi series is HBO’s Westworld. On its surface, Westworld is an old-west amusement park that has been populated with robots that look, feel, and act just like humans. They are called the “hosts,” and real humans pay a lot of money to come and stay at the park and live out their fantasies. It is a rather grim look at human nature, as it seems that the fantasies of the guests tend toward violence and sex. Where are the people whose fantasies are for world peace?!? Evidently Hollywood has decided that not that many people would tune in to watch that kind of fantasy!
In the first season, we’re drawn in to seeing how remarkably the company has been able to make the robots behave just like us. Then, of course, like every one of these shows, some of the robots seem to take on genuine consciousness. Throughout the season we’re forced to consider what it would be like if we really could make machines that are just like us. Would we treat them differently? But then as the show progresses further, we see that the true goal of the creators has flipped: instead of trying to create machines that are just like us, they’ve been trying to figure out how to get us to be just like machines. Because machines have one tremendous advantage over us: when they die (which they often do in this amusement park), there is a digital copy of their consciousness stored in the server just waiting to be rebooted. A technician repairs the physical body if it has been damaged, and then just downloads the consciousness into it again, and its life starts over.
So if we can create a digital version of consciousness that faithfully replicates human consciousness, why couldn’t we take my human consciousness and make a digital version of it? Here is the ultimate in the transhuman transformation of humanity: we could make ourselves into beings who never die (as long as there is a power supply to keep the servers running).
What we will be has not yet been made known. Would digital consciousness satisfy that longing?
I hope all that at least gives us pause and some concern about the direction things are headed. As a first response, we might critique transhumanism by saying:
- We should not play God.
- It’s fine to use technology for therapeutic goals to relieve suffering, but not to enhance ourselves, to make us into something we are not and were not intended to be.
- Our transformation comes from God through Christ, not from technology.
If all you’re looking for is take-away bullet points, those are pretty good. I think such criticisms are largely correct… but they’re a little too easy.
What does it mean to “play” God? We don’t just sit back and let God do things. We feed and protect our families, and give them medicine. Is that playing God? Can we really draw a line between therapeutic uses of technology and enhancing uses? Aren’t vaccines an enhancement to our natural abilities to fight off disease? I’ve already suggested we enhance our cognitive abilities by using our phones (though maybe that reduces our abilities in other ways… we don’t know yet what the long-term effects to our brains are for playing hours and hours of Candy Crush Saga and Farmville).
I first want us to think a bit about a technological culture and our response to it. There are different, legitimate approaches Christians have taken toward culture. Christ and Culture is a classic book by Richard Niehbur where different positions are outlined with respect to culture. One of those is “Christ against culture,” in which Christians separate from or even oppose the culture around them. Perhaps there are cultures where that is appropriate, but I don’t want to rush to that option for transhumanism and the technologies associated with it.
It’s tempting to simply refer to the scary technologies and say, “the way this culture is going is bad. We must stand up and resist.” That might be the best way to rally supporters, but I’m not convinced it is the right approach for us to live up to our calling. Instead, I want to be involved in working out what it means to be a follower of Christ in the culture in which technologies are rapidly developing.
The opposite approach is what Niehbur called “Christ of culture.” According to it, what we do now is just a seamless continuation of God’s work, and it is up to us and the tools of our culture to finish what God had started and bring creation into its intended state. At first blush that might sound ridiculous, but let me try to show the grain of truth in it.
I think it is a legitimate reading of Genesis 1 to say that in his creation work God set limits on the chaos, transforming chaos into order. But in that creation week God didn’t entirely eliminate the chaos. Even at the end of day 6 when things were pronounced to be very good, God still commands these humans to take up the mantle as image-bearers, to fill the Earth and subdue it. God didn’t create the world filled and entirely subdued, so now it’s up to us, and as we do that, we are fulfilling our mandate.
Some of that lingering chaos is within these bodies we’ve inherited from our evolutionary past. Our eyes sometimes go bad, and our visual field turns chaotic; we have no problem subduing that chaos through technology that brings things back into focus. There are chaotic cancers in our bodies, and we rightly want to subdue them with the best medicine and treatment money can buy. And now we can put an electronic implant in our brains to keep them from exhibiting the symptoms of Parkinson’s. All this is a straightforward extension of the healing mission of Christ to which we’ve been called to participate, and all but the most radical faith healers agree that we rightly employ technology to rectify these problems and restore our capabilities to their natural state.
From our charge to subdue the chaos in Genesis 1, I think we can draw a line to Jesus in Luke 4, where he reads from the scroll of Isaiah about what will happen in the Kingdom of God, saying, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” We were commissioned to carry on his work of proclaiming freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and setting the oppressed free.
These are still examples of relief of suffering, but if we are not yet what we were meant to be, is it such a stretch to think maybe we have a role in that too? Much of the aspirations for a Christian transhumanism could be understood as an application of this charge for us to continue the work of creation to make this world and its people into what they were intended to be. God wanted a filled and subdued world, but instead of doing it himself he told us to do it. God wants us to have eternal life, so maybe this is how God wants to accomplish that? He made us smart enough to figure out how to do it, so shouldn’t we try?
That’s my attempt to make the best positive case for incorporating transhumanism into Christian faith. Time for a rebuttal.
My concern about this approach to transhumanism, is that in drawing the line from Genesis 1 to Jesus’s commision to us to take up the work of the Kingdom of God, that line bypasses Genesis 2 and 3, where we have a second creation story that highlights the inevitability that we humans are going to mess things up. We sin, and even the good things that God created and gave to us can also be used for evil. We have a pretty consistent track record on that, and I can’t help but think the same will be true of the technologies that fuel transhumanism. Left to our own devices, we will not transform humanity into what we were intended to be.
We are not yet what we will be, but before I trust us to do the work of God the way he wants it done, I think we need to be more like Jesus. I hope we’re in that process, but we’re not there yet. Back to the verse in 1 John: “But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him.”
I’m not big into making end-times predictions of exactly how it’s all going to go down. The coming of Christ the first time was radically missed and misunderstood by the Bible scholars of the day, and I have no reason to think it will be any different for the second coming of Christ. But I will say that our faith—our hope of glory—hinges on God doing something else, of transforming this order of things into the age that is to come.
So what does this mean for how we might use these developing technologies? I don’t know… I can’t give you a formula that says here’s what we ought to do about all of these specific proposals. But let me try to give a few general principles that might guide our thinking about this.
Principle #1: Are they conducive to the abundant life?
Jesus said that’s what he came to bring. Not just a healthy life or a life of ease and pleasure. Technology has gotten better at delivering these. But an abundant life? How do you know if you have that? I’d suggest that the Fruit of the Spirit is a good place to start. Are our lives marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and all the rest? Can technology deliver these?
I think it is important here to say that technology itself is neither good nor bad… but neither is it neutral. It does something to us.
Think about cars. Cars are a particularly impressive piece of modern technology. Cars can be used for good or bad. They used to kill a lot more people than guns do in our country; then we made some sensible reforms restricting our freedoms just a bit and got people to wear seatbelts. Now cars don’t kill so many people. And, of course, they can be used for good. Most of us have one parked in our garages, and we can get in it anytime we want and go where we want—to get food, to visit our friends and families, or the, to go to church. Cars in themselves are neither good nor bad… nor are they neutral. What do I mean by that?
I have a European friend who just moved her family to the US for a job in St. Louis, Missouri. She’s very thoughtful about the culture shock she’s been experiencing, and posts about it frequently on Facebook. One of those differences is our car-based culture. She has never owned a car or learned to drive. Living in most places in Europe, that’s not necessary because there are elaborate systems of public transportation. That’s perhaps neither good nor bad in itself, but neither is it neutral. It does something to your lifestyle. She has reflected that there is a way of interacting with lots of different people that is lost when you don’t take a bus or a subway. You don’t get to know your neighbors when you merely walk from your living room to your garage and get in your car and drive away, instead of walking to the end of the block with your neighbors to catch the bus. And now when we do take mass transportation like an airplane, we sit inches from other people for hours and never even acknowledge their existence. Isn’t that weird? Has technology fundamentally changed the way we interact with people?
Of course we could say similar things about how the internet and cell phones have affected us. So as we consider technologies like gene editing, or integrating electronic devices with our brains, the temptation is to say, well the technology itself is neither good nor bad, it’s just how we use it. OK, yes, and there are definitely possibilities to use it for good or for bad things. But let’s also remember that the technology itself is not neutral. What will it do to us? What habits of mind will it encourage? Will it help to make us more loving, or joyful, or patient, or kind?
Principle #2: Will they promote Christian community?
Will they help us love our neighbor more? Will they help us take better care of the least of these? My chief concern here is whether the development of fabulous new technologies will accelerate the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Will only rich people get to have babies without any “flaws,” or get to upload their consciousness and live forever? We already have this problem for technologies that are merely trying to relieve suffering. Will it get worse for enhancements? If only the rich get enhanced, do the rest of us start to seem sub-human and unable to live up to the ideal that is created? I can’t help thinking this is already happening through plastic surgery that creates unrealistic ideals of how we should look as we get older.
Now, I totally understand that at the beginning of a new technology, it is really expensive. For example, last year it was announced in the New England Journal of Medicine that the first customized treatment was developed for a genetic therapy for a single individual. No one else will ever use this treatment, as it was tuned precisely for her genome. The price tag? We’re not sure, but her mother had to raise $3 million on GoFundMe in order to stay in the treatment program. How long until that kind of treatment trickles down for people without insurance—let alone people who don’t have networks of people from whom they can raise $3 million? I guess they’re just out of luck.
Does this mean I’m suggesting we shouldn’t spend money to develop new medical technologies? No, not at all. Just that if we Christians don’t ask whether these advancements will only make life better for the wealthy and leave behind the least of these, who will ask that question?
Principle #3: “Does it work alongside the Good News, or does it act as though there is no Good News, or that the technology itself is the Good News?”
I am totally in favor of us fulfilling our role as stewards and image bearers, of working for the betterment of society, and I’m not opposed to living a longer life than my ancestors were able to. But for too much of the transhumanist movement, their proposals and their dreams seem not only to bypass the all-too-real possibility that we won’t use this technology for good, but also bypass the Good News that Jesus brought.
Eternal life is not merely this life continuing indefinitely. Jesus said that eternal life is to know God (John 17:3). That is a qualitative difference, not merely quantitative. The transhuman vision of radical life extension is just more and more and more of this world. Have you seen the news lately? How many more presidential elections do you want to live through? I want something better.
In John chapter 6 it is recorded that Jesus gave some hard teachings, and this caused many of his disciples to turn back and no longer go about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” And Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom can we go? You alone have the words of eternal life. We are all in on you.” That’s a bit of a paraphrase. But actually not much. And it’s not just that they lived two thousand years ago and didn’t know about Eternime or our other technologies today. I fully believe that you could explain all the hopes of the transhumanist movement and these wonderful technologies to those disciples and they would still say, “Nope, Jesus alone has the words of eternal life.” We’re sticking with him.
I hope that might be our response too.
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