Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement.
Transhumanism is a scientific-philosophical movement that desires to use biotechnological enhancement to bring humanity into a “posthuman” state. According to the movement’s website it “seek[s] to make [humanity’s] dreams come true in this world, by relying not on supernatural powers or divine intervention but on rational thinking and empiricism, through continued scientific, technological, economic, and human development.”1 Some of its goals are uncontroversial, such as seeking cures for disease, but others are far more problematic, like the desire to replace the natural body with a fabricated one that will be immune to death.
Not surprisingly, most of the volume’s essays take a critical stance towards transhu-manism, either critiquing one particular point or criticizing the movement’s philosophical approach in toto. However, many of the authors are sympathetic towards transhumanism’s “[refusal] to be satisfied with human nature within the horizon of its natural limitations” (183). What then emerges from the volume is tempered critique: Christian theological sup-port for transhumanism’s desire for transcendence, but criticism of how transhumanism seeks to achieve that transcendence. Because of transhumanism’s strong endorsement of human biotechnological enhancement, bioethicists will be most interested in the volume.It also raises questions about human nature, human evolutionary development and God’s role in it, and the role and limits of technology, so it should be of interest to philosophers, theologians, anthropologists, biologists, and others.
The volume begins with Ronald Cole-Turner’s essay in which he nicely plots the trajec-tory of the volume, but we need a more complete explanation of transhumanism than the essay provides. Considering that transhumanism only claims a few thousand adherents, it is likely that even some readers familiar with bioethics are unaware of it. Before reading this book, I would suggest reading Nick Bostrom’s “The Transhumanist FAQ” at humanityplus.org to become familiarized with transhumanism’s major claims.
Also, the Christian reader unfamiliar with transhumanism needs more convincing at the outset why she should be at all interested in a movement that discredits the importance of the human body and denies any role for God in achieving a posthuman future. Cole-Turner does offer one suggestion for why we should be interested, claiming that “transhuman-ism is forcing us to ask uncomfortable questions about our deepest desires, the means we use to achieve them, and the final outcome of all our technological transformations” (14). However, we need more convincing at the outset that transhumanism is weighty enough to deserve our time and attention.
The volume continues with essays by eleven different authors before Cole-Turner’s conclusion. Chapters 2 and 3 explore Christian theological precursors to transhumanism, focusing on Francis Bacon, the Russian philosopher and theologian Nikolai F. Federov, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Chapters 6 and 7 assess the merits of the transhumanist use of the cyborg as a metaphor for human nature. The remaining seven essays do not divide neatly into thematic categories although most take a critical stand against different points of transhumanist doctrine.
The strength of the collection lies in the breadth of theological figures and traditions represented. Besides the historical figures mentioned above, some others discussed in detail are Athanasius (by Todd T.W. Daly), Augustine (by Celia Deane-Drummond), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (by Michael L. Spezio), and Karl Barth (by Gerald McKenny). Also, there are many contemporary theological perspectives brought to the debate, including feminist and queer theology (by J. Jeanine Thweatt-Bates). Despite the diversity of figures and traditions represented, one notable oversight is the lack of any discussion of recent mainstream Catholic theology aside from a brief mention of Pope Benedict XVI by Celia Deane-Drummond. This is unfortunate as Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have written much on technology and its proper role in human life. Despite this omission, the virtue of includ-ing such a broad approach is that a critical theological consensus emerges in response to transhumanism. I will detail some points of consensus and other strengths of the volume later, but first I will address some of the volume’s shortcomings.
The editor should be lauded for attempting to include as many Christian theological perspectives on transhumanism as possible. However, while this conclusion may reflect my own biases, I found that two of the essays most open to transhumanism are among the weakest in the volume because their conclusions do not follow from the offered evidence.
One such essay is Michael S. Burdett’s “Contextualizing a Christian Perspective on Transcendence and Human Enhancement: Francis Bacon, N.F. Fedorov, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.” The author insightfully exposits these three historical Christian figures who all encourage the “enhancement of humanity through technological means” (32). But then he attempts to argue on the basis of these thinkers that “[w]hen considering the contemporary issues of bio-enhancement and technological transcendence from a Christian perspective, it is instructive to remember that the Christian tradition is marked with a multiplicity of positions and that a simple reactionary stance is not the only strand within Christian history” (33). But has Burdett proven a tradition? It seems rather that he has attempted to establish a tradition that would be open to transhumanism simply from three (unconnected) theological outliers.
Karen Lebacqz similarly favors openness to human technological enhancement in her essay, “Dignity and Enhancement in the Holy City.” She bases her position on the biblical evidence of Jesus’s raising of Lazarus from the dead and Revelation’s vision of the new heaven and new earth. Because Jesus transcended the limitation of death and Revelation provides a glimpse of our future life free of death “there is reason to embrace enhancement that takes away pain, death, and limits on human life” (58). But we cannot make the move so easily from Christ’s miracle or our eschatological reality to technological enhancement of the human person. To do so requires rigorous ethical arguments about why we should accept particular technological enhancements in the here and now, but the essay provides none.
Despite the weakness of some of the essays supportive of transhumanism, Michael Spezio’s provocative essay, which is cautiously supportive of some technological enhancement, is one of the finest in the volume and will likely be of interest for readers of CSR. Spezio enlists Dietrich Bonhoeffer, along with recent developments in evolutionary biology, to critique transhumanism’s goal to eradicate negative emotions like shame and guilt because eliminating negative emotions eventually undermines transhumanism’s stated desire to create more loving, compassionate, and rational people. At the same time he appeals to Bonhoeffer’s later work, in which Bonhoeffer is open to scientific progress and criticizes Christian overemphasis on weakness and limitations, in order to draw support for a limited Christian appropriation of technological enhancement. Readers looking to engage a well-reasoned theological position favoring some biotechnological enhancement would do well to start with Spezio’s essay and work back to his sources in Bonhoeffer.
Another strong essay, one more critical of transhumanist biotechnological enhancement, is Gerald McKenny’s. McKenny compares the transhumanist desire to transcend human limitations to humanistic naturalists who argue that human goods are found within human vulnerability and weakness. (How would we be sympathetic if we did not suffer ourselves?) McKenny places Christianity at a mean between these two positions, arguing that Christian-ity shares with transhumanism the frustration with current human vulnerabilities as well as the claim that the human ideal involves transcending these vulnerabilities. However, contra transhumanism, Christian theology should claim that it is only through our natural human capacities that we can receive the gift of transcending our human vulnerabilities from God (185).
As I have indicated, the virtue of including so many historical and contemporary theological perspectives is that a broad critical consensus in response to transhumanism emerges from many of the authors. I will mention just three of the major critiques that emerge from the volume. One is that transhumanism deemphasizes the human body. In “Whose Salvation? Which Eschatology? Transhumanism and Christianity as Contending Salvific Religions,” Brent Waters asserts that “[t]ranshumanism echoes a Manichean disdain of a corrupt, if not evil, material body from which the soul must be rescued” (171). In response, Christian theology should refocus on the good of the body. Many other authors share Waters’ appraisal that transhumanism ignores or even denies the good of embodiment.
Another significant critique that emerges from the volume is that transhumanism and Christianity differ over how we achieve our future good. Transhumanists believe we achieve the eschaton through the application of human engineering and science, whereas Christians await the eschaton as God’s doing (74). While there certainly is an emphasis in many Christian traditions on our cooperation in bringing about the eschaton, humans cannot ultimately achieve it on their own. It takes God’s kingdom breaking into this world.
The most important Christian critique of transhumanism concerns the goal and focus of human life. Christians and transhumanists may agree that in the ideal human state we will not be subject to death, aging, or other natural limitations we suffer from now. However, for transhumanists, overcoming these limitations is the goal and focus of life. Christianity disagrees and instead claims that the focus of life should be on submitting to death. As Cole-Turner nicely summarizes, “[t]he paradox at the heart of Christianity is that by losing our lives, we gain true life” (198). While transhumanists argue that we can achieve the best possible future only by developing technologies to counter death, Christianity holds that the only way to overcome sin and death is by God’s gift of grace that allows us to develop the virtues of faith, hope, and love. In an “age of technological enhancement,” reminding us of the Christian imperative to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” is the best service that this volume renders.