Transhumanism and the Image of God

Last week Apple unveiled the newest iteration of the iPhone. Interestingly numbered, the iPhone 11 represents the thirteenth generation of a device which has only been around for twelve years. It is hard to describe, however, all the ways in the past twelve years that our society has been shaped by these flashcard-sized screens abuzz in our pockets and purses. The time before live videos casts, instant likes and dislikes, and scrolling through endless feeds, articles, and inventories seems like a distant memory. Indeed, ours increasingly is an era shaped from the ground up by the technologies into which we have fully integrated our lives.

We’ve sensed for a while that continual technological change has significant impact on the way we approach our lives and on how we spend our leisure time. We’ve even begun to realize that exponential technological advance influences our very social order, changing the nature of how we relate with others and how we organize our society. Yet the assumption has often been that despite these changes, the human person remains by and large the same. We are the ones who shape technology—we drive its form and determine its function.

But is this really the case? In his new book, Transhumanism and the Image of God: Today’s Technology and the Future of Christian Discipleship, Jacob Shatzer argues that the reality is far more complex.

In the early 1960s, Hanna-Barbera produced a space-age counterpart to their animated sitcom hit The Flintstones. While that show had been set in the distant past, they set this new show, The Jetsons, in the “distant” future: the early 2060s. The Jetsons live in Orbit City, with its houses, stores, and office buildings rising into the sky on pillars. Cars fly. Robots clean and crack one-liners. Family life is filled with the same gaffes that make up your normal sitcom, but technological advance (and sometimes malfunction) provide fun distractions.

Even though we see that The Jetsons got a lot wrong, we’re constantly tempted to think about technology this way. Gadgets will continue to evolve, but humans will stay basically the same. Michael Bess calls this “The Jetsons Fallacy” and argues that it pulses through many influential sci-fi visions of the future. Alien species and intelligent robots coexist right alongside unmodified humans, who grapple with challenges and often emerge as the heroes. Yet this is a fallacy because radical technological change will radically shape humans as well. As Bess puts it,

“The only problem with this comforting picture of the future is that it is probably not true! We are headed into a social order whose most salient new feature may well be the systematic modification of human bodies and minds through increasingly powerful means. The process is already underway today and seems unlikely to slow down in the decades to come. The prevalence of the Jetsons fallacy suggests that many people in contemporary society are living in a state of denial, psychologically unprepared for what is actually far more likely to be coming their way.”[1]

In other words, technology changes us, so our future probably isn’t one where humans are exactly the same and robots just come alongside us. The change will be deeper.

The admission that technology changes us, even as we work to develop greater and more complex technological achievements, should for Christians comes with a startling recognition. Sin affects every inch of God’s creation. Not only do the technological advances of our day present opportunities to inflict greater forms of violence against our neighbor, spread slander far and wide, and to grow oppressive surveillance states, they also bring the temptation to transcend the limitations of our nature. We can redefine what it means to male or female, to be present in a given place, or even to be mortal, so the argument goes, if we just apply the power of our ingenuity.

Whether we realize it or not, Shatzer argues, we’re currently on a course towards transhumanism—redefining through the power of technology, what it means to be human:

….much of modern technology tends toward a transhuman future—a future created by the next stage of evolution (the posthuman), moving beyond what it currently means to be human. This argument might initially startle you: most people would not say they want to become posthuman, or to have their brains uploaded to a computer, or some other sci-fi scenario. Yet technology disciples us. And if we look closely, we can see that uncritical use of technology can shape us to be more attracted to transhumanism than we might think we are—or want to be.

How should Christians respond? Some may suggest we need to oppose our technologically-driven direction outright. There may be a half-truth to this, but retreat misses the point that we are already so immersed in a transhumanist current that to disengage from the issue leaves us unwittingly open to being influenced by the trends around us. Instead, we need to engage in a way that is well-informed and well-rooted in a biblical understanding of what it means to be human before God. As Shatzer argues,

We have to pay attention to our technology use, and we should be careful not to adopt categories for evaluation that will simply reaffirm our existing patterns. As journalist Michael Harris argues, “Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life. That is its job. Your job is to notice. First notice the difference. And then, every time, choose.”[2] In short, I argue that Christians must engage today’s technology creatively and critically in order to counter the ways these technologies tend toward a transhuman future. If we ignore this need, pretending instead that technology is neutral and that we can easily bend it in the way that we choose, we will be caught up in tendencies that will not benefit us because they aren’t truly human tendencies. Human making is happening, and technology is a powerful part of that making, sneaking its values into us at almost every turn.

Interested in learning more about transhumanism and a biblical approach to understanding human nature and technology? Join us on October 4 at 2pm (EDT) for an in-depth discussion on the topic with Dr. Jacob Shatzer and Dr. Benjamin Quinn. Register here.

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[1] Michael Bess, Make Way for the Superhumans: How the Science of Bio-enhancement Is Transforming Our World, and How We Need to Deal with It (London: Icon, 2016), 7.

[2] Michael Harris, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection (New York: Penguin, 2014), 206