Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished between positive and negative freedom: freedom to be what we are meant to be versus freedom from constraint. The technological society in which we live, bolstered by centuries of the development of expressive individualism, has clearly come down on the side of negative freedom. Freedom equals choice, and technology expands the set of available choices, offering progress understood as increased control and mastery over nature, including human nature.
The Christian teaching that humanity is made in the image of God pushes back against this narrative, suggesting that we can coherently talk about what we are made to be and how we ought to live. Approaches to describing exactly what the image of God is, however, have varied: some have spoken of human capacities for rationality or worship, while others have focused on our being always already embedded in webs of relationships, and yet others have pointed to a covenantal vocation initiated at creation.
In this essay, I want to argue that current reflection on transhumanism can help sharpen our understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God. In particular, deliberation over the application of nascent technologies that offer control over our own selves draw attention to the importance of the body, reminding us that whatever else the image of God may denote, we cannot think of it apart from the embodied existence of a humanity that shares materiality with the very “dust of the earth.” I want to repeat what I said in the introduction to this Areopagite: the meaning of the doctrine of the imago Dei is fundamentally exegetical, and my argument here is not that reflection on transhumanism will change the meaning of the text. Rather, what I want to explore here is how theologians and biblical scholars can gain from the reflections of technologists and bioethicists on transhumanism, particularly as they think about how the teaching that we are made in the image of God functions on a practical level—not only what the doctrine means, but what it does.
In our modern, efficiency-focused, results-driven society, it’s often said that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. But conversely, it’s also the case that we tend to pay attention only to the things that we measure, so that what begin as indicators of the things we care about in pursuing the good become ends in themselves, obscuring the real goods for which they proxy. One example of this phenomenon is Robert Kennedy’s famous speech pointing out that GDP includes the output involved in building prisons and military spending, things that most would prefer to see diminish.
We see something similar when we consider what it means to be human and find ourselves focusing on measurable, quantifiable attributes, whether rationality, creativity, language, tool-making and -using, or brain activity. Take a conception of humanity that focuses on such measurable characteristics and combine it with the ideal of negative freedom,Transhumanism is a relatively new word, but the desires and drives that underlie it are hardly such. and it’s not surprising to see developments along the lines of transhumanism that aim to remove constraints and push beyond limitations, seeking an enhanced humanity: smarter, stronger, healthier.
Transhumanism is a relatively new word, but the desires and drives that underlie it are hardly such. Oliver O’Donovan’s lectures published under the title Begotten or Made? Human Procreation and Medical Technique were occasioned by the advent of artificial reproductive technology in the early 1980s, but contain insights of great prescience and relevance to our contemporary questions. Similar remarks could be made about John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, or the midcentury work of philosopher Jacques Ellul, just to restrict our attention to the twentieth century. Each of these works enters into dialogue with a much older tradition; it is clear the questions we are wrestling with here are not fundamentally new, even if they find fresh expressions with the introduction of new technologies.
It’s not hard to see why this is the case. At its essence, transhumanism involves the effort to transcend the limitations of being material, embodied creatures, bound to space and time and to the givenness of the natural world and our natural selves.
The biblical record suggests that this drive is as old as humanity itself. The fall was motivated by the desire to become “wise,” “like God.” The tendency to place our trust in technology is evident as early as the generations immediately following Cain, who domesticate animals, develop musical instruments, and forge tools from bronze and iron. There’s nothing in the text to suggest that the technology itself is the problem, but what does come in for sharp critique is the boastful application of technology to amplify the self and dehumanize the other—the violence of Lamech, the hubris of Babel.
Running parallel to the line of Cain, we find the line of Seth. No mention is made of their having developed any sort of technology; instead, we simply read that the line of Seth called on the name of the Lord. The contrast between these two lines, then—the one cursed, the other carrying the seed of the promised Messiah—isn’t that one pursues technology and the other doesn’t; it’s that one lives in a relation of dependence on God,Transhumanism, at its core, views the limitations of creaturely finitude as obstacles to be overcome. while the other devotes constant energy to escaping the bonds of that relationship.
Here is where reflection on transhumanism can clarify what it means to bear God’s image. Transhumanism, at its core, views the limitations of creaturely finitude as obstacles to be overcome; it is fundamentally allergic to dependence and, therefore, allergic to the limitations inherent in embodiment. But what this posture misses is how integral those very limitations are to our experience of being human.
There’s a scene in the original Matrix film where the main character, Neo, having come to understand the nature of his reality as a grand illusion electronically mediated to his mind, is training for battle with his mentor, Morpheus. The two are about to square off while in the Matrix’s virtual reality, but Neo lacks the requisite skills. The solution? A few associates, back in the real world and with access to Neo’s mind, type a few commands at a terminal; Neo’s eyes flutter momentarily, and as they regain their focus, he intones with equal parts astonishment and gravity, “I know Kung Fu.” (Later in the film, another character “learns” to fly a military helicopter in the same way.)
In the real world, the process of acquiring practical wisdom cannot be so forgetful of the body. On the contrary, the acquisition of many skills actually involves physical repetition to the point where there is a degree of cognitive forgetfulness involved, as actions become habits. A pianist practicing her scales, a shortstop fielding a ground ball to start a double play, a speaker of a foreign language who has achieved true fluency, all share in common the feeling of doing something which once had to be thought through step by step, but has now become “second nature,” and which indeed must have done so in order to be done with any degree of excellence.Reflection on transhumanism offers us the opportunity to consider the goodness of creaturely limitations. We don’t often notice how much of the process of navigating our world day to day is done in this way, thinking with our bodies, and so we are prone to forget how much of our competence to live in the world depends on our being embodied, with all of the limitations involved.
Reflection on transhumanism offers us the opportunity to consider the goodness of creaturely limitations. Even to consider such goodness is deeply counter-cultural in the modern world, which values freedom above all else and defines freedom as avoiding any obstacles in order to pursue whatever direction it seems will lead to my own happiness and fulfillment. The approach of transhumanist technologies is inherently embodied—they work at the level of biological and physiological structures. Deliberation over what lines should not be crossed implicitly assumes that in changing our biology, we risk changing ourselves in ways that we should avoid; whichever side of the debate one lands on, one assumes by entering the discussion that the body matters, that it is inescapably part of what it means to be human. Reflection on transhumanism offers the opportunity to reflect deliberately on aspects of our embodiment that we so often take for granted, and in so doing to elucidate more of what it means that humanity bears God’s image as embodied beings.
And if such limitations are inherent in what it means to be human, then this has implications for the meaning of the imago Dei. In his seminal Resurrection and Moral Order, published not long after Begotten or Made, Oliver O’Donovan points out that Christian reflection on ethics always presumes an unambiguous affirmation of the body and the material world because it begins with the incarnation and resurrection of the Son of God. If the second person of the triune God not only took embodied human nature to himself but, having defeated death, was raised, ascended, and seated at the right hand of the Father still inseparably united to that same nature, then Christian moral reflection can never treat the body as a distraction or an obstacle to human flourishing. “He was made man,” with all the limitations that entails, and he is man even now, reigning in heaven. Scripture says of him that he is not only made in the image of God but that he is the very image of God, and he has not chosen to reveal himself apart from the same material stuff that was made by, through, and for him in the very beginning.
…he has not chosen to reveal himself apart from the same material stuff that was made by, through, and for him in the very beginning.
All of this calls for deeper reflection on the body as part of our understanding of what imago Dei means. Transhumanism may venture into territory that Christians find suspect, but the questions it raises provide fertile ground for us to understand even more deeply what it means to be integrated creatures of mind, strength, heart, and soul.