Ray Kurzweil’s documentary film “Transcendent Man” should be required viewing for anyone who wants to learn more about transhumanism.Robert Barry Ptolemy et al., Transcendent Man, Documentary (Ptolemaic Productions, Therapy Content, 2011).
Kurzweil crosses off every box we have come to associate with the movement: he believes we should fix Mother Nature’s mistakes; he sees aging and death as unnecessary; he believes that technology can and must save the day by alleviating all human suffering. He takes hundreds of pills a day to keep himself alive long enough for technology to turn him into the first of a new species of human: the ones who reach eternal life without having to do that “messy dying thing” first.
In his opening remarks, Nathan Barczi reminds us that beliefs “do things.” They motivate action. Part of what this means is that we can learn what people actually believe from studying their actions. Applying this “reverse route” to transhumanism will teach us quite a bit about where we need to refocus our attention with regard to the imago Dei. This is especially true because the underlying assumption of transhumanism—that we must do everything we can to “solve” human suffering and death by taking it into our hands—is part of the dominant consciousness of all advanced technological societies. The contemporary Western church, sadly, has imbibed and not fundamentally challenged this dominant consciousness. There’s a lot at stake here.
It is especially useful to work backward from the actions of those who identify as Christian transhumanists. Much of what they strive for is fundamentally no different from transhumanists who are atheists. There are several ways I could go with this, but I will focus here on their primary goal: to use technology in order to alleviate human suffering, with the ultimate result being our ability to participate with Christ in the bodily resurrection of humans. What does working for this goal reveal about what the church is missing in our operative understanding of the imago Dei?
First, note that very little about either a capacities or function-based understanding of the doctrine is fundamentally inconsistent with the goals of transhumanism. Indeed, the Christian Transhumanist Association (CTA) argues that God made us in his image precisely so that we can have the ability to share God’s mission by imitating Jesus in his work on earth: healing the sick, and, eventually, raising the dead ourselves. The first of the organization’s affirmations reads: “We believe that God’s mission involves the transformation and renewal of creation including humanity, and that we are called by Christ to participate in that mission: working against illness,The Christian Transhumanist Association (CTA) argues that God made us in his image precisely so that we can have the ability to share God’s mission by imitating Jesus in his work on earth. hunger, oppression, injustice, and death.” The last of the affirmations continues: “We believe that the intentional use of technology, coupled with following Christ, will empower us to become more human across the scope of what it means to be creatures in the image of God.” It is inside of this last phrase that we can see what has gone wrong. Will the intentional use of technology really empower us to become more human?
If we recover the interpretation of the imago Dei favored by many church fathers, our answer will be a resounding “no.” John Behr explains that we become more human only by imitating Christ’s most human action: his sacrificial death. Suffering and death must be our teachers, not something to be “working against,” as if death was merely a problem to be solved. He writes, “through Christ’s work, we need no longer be passive victims of the mortality into which we have been thrown, for now we can actively ‘use’ death as the beginning of a new mode of life, a birth into existence as a human being.”John Behr, Becoming Human: Meditations on Christian Anthropology in Word and Image (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2013), 57. To “use” death to become more like Christ is the nearly exact opposite of using technology to escape death or to participate with Christ in our own bodily resurrection. We learn from death that it is only in our weakness that Christ can do the work of making us more like him. We have been made in God’s image to learn how to become more like Christ, and learning requires struggle. So now let’s consider the ramifications of viewing suffering and death this way instead of the transhumanist way.
Transhumanism permits only a very thin view of human suffering—as a problem to be solved. While it is not Christian to seek out suffering or not try to ameliorate it, suffering is nonetheless essential for the sanctification of human beings. We simply cannot grow into Christ-likeness without the work that only it can do. There are numerous places where the scripture makes this clear, not the least of which is Paul’s boasting in his suffering:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Rom 5:1–5).
Paul wants the church to understand that suffering is a way to grow in character, to become more like Christ and to share the glory of God thereby. His remarks here also reveal how little regard we are to have for our own suffering as something we should fix. To be like Christ means to focus on alleviating the suffering of others. But the technologies that transhumanists support, especially life extension and working for resurrection, tend toward solving our own suffering. How can we focus on curing the “disease” of aging when millions around the world are facing humanitarian crises that we already have the means to address? A true understanding of the imago Dei—as the starting point of our becoming more like Jesus, not just having the capacity to do the things he did—would lead us to turn to these crises first. The focus would be on how to ameliorate the suffering of other people, also all made in God’s image.
The Quest for Control and the Fear of Death
One of the things that transhumanists refuse to learn from suffering and death is our need for grace. We need God’s grace precisely because we are not God. To be made in God’s image means first of all to be created by God and for God. Christian transhumanists conveniently lay this aside in their quest for technoscientific control, and it might be the most consequential of their errors.Our technological society constantly seduces us into believing that the end of disease, suffering, and death is just an invention or two away. We need not go any further than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to see that it is this desire for control that turns us into monsters. Victor’s problem is not that he wants to end suffering. It is that he wants power over life for himself. Why? Because he is afraid of death.
God acted in perfect love when he made us in his image for the purpose of bearing Christ-likeness. And this perfect love casts out the fear of suffering and death. “Where, O death, is your sting?” Paul asks. Although Victor claims to believe in God, he acts out of fear of losing his fiancée just as he had lost his mother. The entire transhumanist agenda is likewise motivated primarily by fear, a fear that is sometimes hard to see because it is covered with a veneer of optimism that looks like hope. But it is a very poor imitation of the hope that Paul discusses above. The real hope of the Christian is in the glory of God. The hope we gain from Christ’s work in us does not disappoint. The hope of attaining perfect health and eternal life by our own hands inevitably disappoints.
It is this kind of misplaced hope that we need to guard our hearts from. Our technological society constantly seduces us into believing that the end of disease, suffering, and death is just an invention or two away. And what that does is slowly and quietly turn us into people who are unable to grow through suffering and contingency when it does come our way—which it inevitably does. COVID-19 hit, and instead of boasting in the chance to grow in Christ-likeness, we panicked and despaired. To be clear: it is not wrong to search for, and be a part of, technoscientific solutions to disease and suffering. But it is wrong to put all of our hope in those solutions, as if God is not present in our suffering, producing endurance, character, and hope. What would happen if, instead of scrambling around in anxiety about the future, we let God be present with us in our suffering so that we can become more like Christ? Now is a good time to find out.