What does it mean to be human?
This is a question with increasing complexity. And the future doesn’t look like it will make the answer any easier. For instance consider just a few challenges facing us today. Recently a baby sheep was grown in a synthetic womb, raising the specter of human hatcheries, something out of Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World. Prior to this experiment, two chimpanzees were momentarily granted human rights by a court in New York, before reversing course. Before that cloning has been a much-debated topic since the name Dolly became a household name—she was the first sheep animal cloned in 1996.
In such a world, where designer babies and decoding death are part of an increasing cultural conversation, and lawyers and policy-makers chalk up new ways to define gender, sexuality, and humanity, Christians need wisdom to think biblically about what it means to be human.
Thankfully, there is help. For instance, in their book Christian Bioethics: A Guide for Pastors, Health Care Professionals, and Families, C. Ben Mitchell and D. Joy Riley give us eight coversations about various topics in biomedical ethics. Organized under the taxonomy of taking, making, and faking life, they consider topics like abortion, euthanasia, infertility, cloning, and transhumanism. As the subtitle suggests, they write for more than medical professionals, and their conversational style helps the reader digest complex subjects.
On the whole, therefore, I commend this book. It should be required reading for anyone in ministry or medicine, and should probably be on the shelf in any family raising children in this complex world. But the reason I point to this book today is to consider the topic of transhumanism—a subject they report on in chapter 8 and one Christians will likely face just after the transgender movement runs its course.
What is Transhumanism?
Transhumanism is a movement that believes that humanity can and is evolving. Through the development and use of technology, the human race which has seen remarkable gains in longevity–U.S. life-expectancy has soared from 47.3 years in 1900 to 78.2 in 2009 (173)—will be able to continue to improve and prolong itself. As Riley observes, The World Transhumanist Association (WTA), founded in 1998, “claims that the human species is in transition, hence the ‘trans’ in transhumanism” (174). Explaining their beliefs Riley cites part of the Transhumanist Declaration.
- Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.
- Transhumanists advocate the moral right for those who so wish to use technology to extend their mental and physical (including reproductive) capacities and to improve their control over their own lives. We seek personal growth beyond our current biological limitations.
- Transhumanism advocates the well-being of all sentience (whether in artificial intellects, humans, posthumans, or non-human animals) and encompasses many principles of modern humanism. (cited on p. 174 from Humanity Plus)
So, even though this second trans- movement is well-hidden behind the train of the transgender movement, this train of transhumanism is rolling right on down the tracks. Quietly, Google is pumping millions of dollars into ‘ending death’ through Transhumanist pursuits. And transhumanist leaders, like Ray Kurzweil, are capturing the hearts of ex-evangelicals through their false visions of the future.
All that to say, transhumanism is not just something obscure and isolated to places like Silicon Valley? No, along with all the others ‘transitions’ erasing what it means to be human, transhumanism also threatens humanity And it does so because it shares so many essential truths with Christianity. For example, the quest for the good life, longing for immorality, pursuit of the relief of human suffering, and appreciation for technology’s benefits are some of the “common concerns” Mitchell notes (181). And so, to a world steeped in scientific materialism, this technologically-driven, secular utopia will seem more than plausible. It will be attractive.
So what should we do?
Responding to Transhumanism
To start, we can acknowledge many of the desires expressed by transhumanists. C. S. Lewis once remarked that when we find truth in another religion, we do not need to reject that religion wholesale. Rather, like Paul in Acts 17, we can wisely appropriate what is true in a false system of belief and begin to show how such desires are best (read: can only be) fulfilled through the biblical gospel. Such is the case with the transhumanists’ desire for more (out of) life. The Bible speaks with God’s authority on these matters. It reminds us why our lives have been shorted (“the wages of sin is death”); it offers us hope of eternal life through relationship with God (“this is eternal life that you may know me”). But the Bible also chastens us and calls us to remain human.
One of transhumanism’s promises is the same lie that Satan offered to Adam and Eve—if you eat of this tree, you can be like God, knowing good and evil. In truth, transhumanism is not just a pathway to improving humanity; it a another gospel which promises security and longevity through self-elevation. This is what drove construction at Babel (Genesis 11). And now again, mankind is offered through man-made bricks (or nanotechnology) a way of elevating itself above death. But ultimately, under God, this aspiration will fail, resulting in the same confusion experienced on the plains of Shinar.
Indeed, salvation via technology only loses humanity and the hope that God offers to people who long for eternity. To this point, Mitchell and Riley offer both specific and general counsel that we need to hear.
Remember the Hope of the Resurrection
First, our specific response to transhumanism must clearly affirm our human limitations. Second, it must lead us to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as our only hope. As Riley writes,
Because we are creatures and not creators, we accept most limitations as gifts from the One who made us. We are not sovereign; we are finite. In fact, omniscience would be a terrible burden for a human to bear. To know all things without the power to alter them would be torture. Since we are aware, to quote Lord Acton, that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” we know that we could not bear the burden of omnipotence. Although it might be nice from time to time to be in more than one place, omnipresence is not for humans. We are located, embodied creatures.
So, say the transhumanists, we must give up our humanity-become posthuman. But for Christians that would only make matters worse. Our salvation was purchased by the God-man, Christ Jesusfully God and fully human. His humanity was offered for our humanity. His resurrection is the guarantee of our resurrection. (181–82)
Indeed, this is the human response we must give to transhumanism. Our hope is not found in super-sizing fallen humanity or elongating life on a sin-cursed planet. Our hope is in resurrection from the dead. Yes, on the one hand death is our enemy; but on the other, it is the means by which we will leave behind all the sin, sorrow, and sickness of this world. Man can come up with all sorts of purported remedies to postpone death, but only Jesus Christ has defeated the grave. Only he offers true life, on the other side of death.
Embrace the Limitations of Your Humanity
The resurrection of Christ is our specific hope. But more generally, as we abide on this earth, we must work to esteem our humanity and the limitations God intends for us to have. We should work to humbly accept our finitude and realize that endless automation and infinite technology does not give what it promises. In fact, it may actually deny or dissolve our humanity, even as it promises comfort, ease, and longevity.
Here again Mitchell and Riley are wise. Appealing to the work of Leon Kass on food (The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature), they observe the way commodification of food exemplifies the way we’ve commodified humanity in general. Quoting Kass, they write, “In an effort to increase power and efficiency . . . we have accepted and even encouraged the demystification of life and the world” (193, from The Hungry Soul, 230). Such caloric commodification, which turns occasions for conversation into mechanical refueling, erodes what it means to be human. When we simply grab a meal from a machine or eat a meal replacement bar alone, we lose something that distinguishes us from other animals.
Turning back to biomedical technologies, Mitchell and Riley conclude,
More often than not, the reason we adopt new technologies is because they allow us to do more work in less time. Technology, whether information technology for biotechnology, promises us two things: efficiency and power. These are often good things. But when we allow efficiency and power to be our most important values, we diminish our humanity. (192)
Being human. If you are a Christian, this is your calling. If you are not a Christian, this is why God made you. And in this technological age, with transhumanism offering a cornucopia of alternative futures, we must say this loud and clear: life is more than living; life is about being human.
Being Human: This is Our Christian Calling
Let us make no mistake, human beings were created to live forever. But in this fallen world, we are called to do more than exist forever and amplify every opportunity for productivity. Made in God’s image we were created to magnify his glory by enjoying God’s love, caring for our fellow neighbors, being fruitful with the resources God has given us, and sharing the hope of grace found in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.
Still, to fulfill this calling means wisely appropriating technology and not becoming slaves to it. It means intentionally resisting the pull to go beyond our humanity and embracing the limitations and afflictions given to us. For transhumanism is not just a movement on the horizon of the twenty-first century; it is a spirit of this world that goes back to the Garden of Eden.
To that lisping spirit, we must fight the offer to go beyond our humanity. We must embrace our humanity by drawing near to the enfleshed Son of God. We must draw life from his life, so that we have power to say no to other offers of life. Indeed, only by drawing close to the man Jesus Christ will we learn what humanity is; only then will we have something to offer the world, when the prospects of transhumanism, transgenderism, and every other boundary-crossing transitions fail to satisfy what only God can supply—life abundant and eternal.
Dear Christian, let us not take offense at our humanity. Rather, with confidence in Christ, let us embrace it fully—from cradle to grave, from grave to glory.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds