Can reflection on transhumanism help refine our understanding of the imago Dei?

The teaching that humanity is made in the image of God is regarded as core to Christian doctrine and the bedrock of Christian anthropology—arguably, it is the reason we can speak of theological anthropology at all. But there is a surprising diversity of views on what the doctrine actually means. Historically, the imago Dei has been defined in terms of capacities such as rationality, language, or worship;See, for example, Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1984), 80. in terms of humanity’s intrinsic relationality (between God and humanity, between one another, specifically between male and female);See, for instance, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/1, edited by Geoffrey William Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 183–92. and in terms of functions—the kingly, priestly, and prophetic vocations many see initiated in the opening pages of Genesis.See, for example, Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 23; David Kelsey, “Personal Bodies: A Theological Anthropological Proposal,” in Personal Identity in Theological Perspective, edited by R. Lints, M. Horton, and M. R. Talbot (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 139–58. These differences matter. On the one hand, if the imago Dei is central to what it means to be human, then how we define it may subtly, or not so subtly, influence how we include and exclude persons from the community of humanity. How we conceive of this core doctrine will certainly affect how we envision what humanity is for and the contours of the true, good, and beautiful in human lives at both the individual and societal levels. Most Christians would agree that the imago Dei constitutes the starting point for ethical reflection on humanity.

Transhumanism represents an increasingly significant field for such ethical reflection, particularly the biological aspects of transhumanism that are the focus of this series. By biological transhumanism, I mean that collection of topics within the life sciences, currently being researched and implemented in laboratory and clinical settings, by which humanity exercises a significant degree of mastery over itself. These include advances in gene editing, research into longevity and anti-aging, and complex questions surrounding end-of-life care and death. Some would characterize such pursuits as altering human nature, for good or ill. Others would disagree, saying that human nature is fundamentally beyond our power to change, but would contend that we are attaining the capacity to change humanity into something at variance with that nature; most such voices sound a warning, while some focus on the benefits of transcending the limitations of human nature as we know it. Already, some ethicists and theologians have tried to apply the doctrine of the imago Dei to questions of biological transhumanism: what we can do, what we should do, what lines should not be crossed, what pathologies can and should be overcome. These reflections, of course, depend on how the imago Dei is defined, and so we can expect the diversity of views on the doctrine to be reflected in a diversity of responses to the ethical challenges raised by transhumanism.

In this Areopagite, we put this question on its head and ask: can reflection on transhumanism help clarify what we mean by imago Dei?

This is not necessarily to ask if scientific reflection will improve our exegesis of the text. The imago Dei is inescapably an exegetical question: we believe that humanity is created in God’s image because we are told as much in Genesis 1 (as well as Genesis 9 and James 3). The answer to the question ofCan reflection on transhumanism help clarify what we mean by imago Dei? what the imago Dei means must ultimately depend on what these texts mean. The meaning of the doctrine is not necessarily dependent on modern scientific reflection on transhumanism.

But consider that doctrines do not merely mean something—they do things. Our beliefs don’t just contain and convey information; they motivate action, as we move from dogmatics to ethics, and from knowledge to wisdom. The actions we take are driven by the commingling of beliefs, affections, habits, and moral imagination—and here it is eminently plausible that reflection on biological transhumanism could clarify the doctrine of the imago Dei, in at least one of three ways. Transhumanism could expand the scope of the doctrine of the imago Dei by opening up new modes of being human. On the other hand, it could restrict the doctrine’s scope, closing off possibilities for lives lived bearing God’s image. And such reflection could refocus our attention, giving us eyes to see the image of God where we had previously overlooked it—or blinding us to the imago Dei staring us in the face. These are just three possibilities, not by any means an exhaustive index of ways in which our understanding of the imago Dei could be shaped by reflection on transhumanism, but meant only to suggest possible lines of contemplation.

Such are the promise and pitfalls of biological transhumanism for our conception of how God’s image is borne by humanity. I am eager to interact with the other scholars we have invited to respond to this question, in eager anticipation of a fruitful discussion.