The question before us is not: how does reflection on transhumanism inform our theological anthropology in general? Nor is it: what role does the interpretation of the imago Dei have in the construction of our theological anthropology in general? It is specifically about how reflection on transhumanism helps us refine our understanding of the image of God. These remarks are not idle. Critical reflection on transhumanism might induce us to refine our theological anthropology most particularly in areas other than the interpretation of the imago. Further, biblical and systematic theologians have asked as a question in its own right what role the interpretation of the imago has in the construction of theological anthropology. All this said, I agree with Nathan Barczi both that it is important to understand the meaning of the ‘image of God’ aright and that its meaning must be exegetically determined. I should add only that consulting a wider range of biblical materials than the texts in which the phrase is actually used also helps us to understand its meaning.
Biblically, to be human is to be constitutionally religious, if I may use such an anodyne characterization for the human relationship to the living God. The transhuman is not so. He or she may be conceived of as the bearer of religious possibilities, but the transhuman is not conceived of as essentially religious. This immediately has a bearing on the second of the three ways Barczi specifies in which reflection on the imago could be affected. The doctrine of the imago Dei closes off the possibility of the transhuman bearing it. In essaying this dogmatic statement, I assume a standard account of transhumanism as envisioning a radical enhancement and modification of humankind to the point where, if the language of ‘species’ is retained, the post-human is a new species. (Where the post-human is distinguished from the transhuman, the latter is strictly understood as en route to the former.) The trans- or post-human may have features that overlap with the human; it may be capable of religious consciousness. But if it is not essentially constituted so that (a) dominion belongs to it, (b) it participates in the Adamic condition, and (c) it is summoned to salvation in Christ, then it is not in the image of God. The transhuman is just not so ordered, and reflection on it helps us refine our understanding of the imago by grasping the restriction on the image.
That takes us to the first way Barczi suggests in which reflection on the imago could be affected. Theology has long grappled with the theoretical status of both pre-Adamic hominins and non-angelic extra-terrestrial beings, whatever we believe about their existence, non-existence or possible existence. A key question is whether their putative or actual existence forces us to expand our notion of what it is to be in the image of God. Do my above remarks on restriction entail a wider unwillingness to expand the notion of imago beyond its specific application in the Bible, and does it have this questionable entailment—it eliminates a priori the possibility of any extension of the imago, whether to hominins, extra-terrestrials or any other entity?Reflection on transhumanism indicates that, however we exegete the biblical imago, matters of dominion and salvation are implicated in its possession. The answer is: “not necessarily.” I have claimed only that transhumanism specifically is the human construction of beings not made in the image of God. If we were to ask about the potential extension of the imago to hominins or extra-terrestrials, we should have to establish their relationship to the dominion mandate and to soteriology before trying to answer it. Reflection on transhumanism indicates that, however we exegete the biblical imago, matters of dominion and salvation are implicated in its possession.
What of Barczi’s third way: transhumanism re-focusses our attention? I think it does. Francis Fukuyama called transhumanism the world’s most dangerous idea, because it undermines the proper egalitarian foundation of society by aspiring to create a superior breed of post-human being, co-existing alongside homo sapiens sapiens. One striking feature of the imago Dei in Genesis, especially read in its ancient Near Eastern context, is that it applies to humankind and not just to kings or an elite set. Rightly understood, care for the poor and underprivileged is one implication of egalitarianism, though it is not the only implication, and egalitarianism is not the only basis of care. Transhumanism is a luxurious indulgence. Its focus is not on our many human equals who live in deprivation, but on a privileged few in a position to take a practical interest in enhancement. Of course, transhumanists tell us that we should invest in those privileged few so that they save the world for the rest of us. And it must be granted that transhumanism may be part-grounded in radical global anxiety and not just in radical personal hubris. Be that as it may, reflection on it certainly helps us to re-focus on the egalitarian truth enshrined in the biblical announcement of humankind in the image of God. This announcement in turn directs to One who refused to grasp equality with God, but humbled himself in the form of a servant, and revealed what it is to be not only uniquely savior but also truly human.
Reference to radical anxiety as well as radical hubris takes me to my own considerations, independent of those advanced by Nathan Barczi, who tells us that his are not exhaustive, but exemplary. Whether or not the dominion status of humankind indicates the actual meaning of the Genesis phrase, “the image of God,” that phrase is tied most closely in Genesis 1 to the dominion mandate, a mandate proclaimed prior to the announcement of the distinction of the sexes. Dominion is extended to God’s works of the fifth and sixth days, but does not apply internally, within humankind itself. Does the ambition to enhance humankind to the point of producing trans- and post-humanity fall within or exceed the scope of the dominion assigned to humankind? In another context, we would address that question directly; in the present one, however, I attend to the story of Genesis 1–11 as a story of dominion gone awry. It culminates in the building of the Tower of Babel, a massive form of early technological enterprise. “Let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:4): it has been well said that this is the expression of both pride and anxiety, which are twin drivers of culture. Reflection on transhumanism helps to refine our understanding of the imago Dei by highlighting its connection with dominion and asking what lies within its scope.
Bland truism as this sounds—and is!—we are being led here to theological reflection on Western technology in light of the narrative in Genesis 1–11. Of course, such reflection has long been familiar. When we propose to alter our very being as humans in the direction of creating a transhuman alternative, we seem to be inviting a different set of questions from those which apply when we consider the application of technology to what is external to our own bodies. However, reflection on Genesis 1–11 encourages us to suppose that transhumanism, for all its technological novelty and introduction of novel ontological questions,When transhumanism is placed alongside Babel, it rather looks like the same clash. is the extension of an underlying technological impulse and drive which comes to light in it (transhumanism), but is not optimally understood simply by fixing our attention on it. Babel was not a misappropriation of dominion which came completely out of the blue.
In interpreting the phrase “the image of God,” we reflect on theological anthropology, pondering exactly what kind of relationship to God is involved in that image. But, in pondering the phrase, we need equally to direct our minds to the God in whose image we are made, whatever it means to have been made in that image. It is when juxtaposed to this God that transhumanism appears so pathetic. The lowliest, saddest and least externally attractive of human beings possesses a glory, beauty, and worth infinitely greater than anything belonging to the transhuman. Why? Because the former is made in the image of God. Some transhumanists claim Friedrich Nietzsche as an inspiration. Nietzsche’s self-empowered Übermensch is actually a very different creature from the technologically created transhuman, dependent not on the masterful power of will but on the economic privileges afforded by technology. Nonetheless, Nietzsche declared that Christianity could be overcome only by an entire re-evaluation of values and transhumanism ultimately drives towards that. Admittedly, I have oversimplified transhumanism here and my account of it lacks nuance and balance. And, of course, I have the idea of transhumanism in mind; what is scientifically or technologically possible is a different matter. But even if Christians often neglect the importance of the social and economic roots of ideas, it remains that a clash of ideas—better, a collision of truth-claims or contrast of visions—marks our time. So it did in the times in and of which Genesis was written. When transhumanism is placed alongside Babel, it rather looks like the same clash.