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Ronald Cole-Turner
Technology and Eschatology: Scientific and Religious Perspectives on the Transformation of Human Nature


This paper compares two views of human transformation. The first is religious, specifically Christian, and grounded in traditional theological perspectives on human nature. The second view is technological and specifically recent transhumanist, the view that new technologies will soon allow us to modify the biological and material basis of human bodies and capacities. The goal of the paper, beyond merely comparing the two views, is to suggest ways in which they may benefit each other.

Section one draws upon classical Christian theologians such as Irenaeus of Lyon, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, and John Scotus Eriugena, as well as more recent scholars, to explore four themes. First, human beings are essentially enigmatic or mysterious, hidden from themselves. This is true not simply in the sense that our motives may be hidden from our awareness or that our subconscious depth exceeds our conscious knowledge, but in the more profound sense that our nature is essentially mysterious, reflective of the divine inexhaustible mystery. Second, the human self is relational in nature, reflecting a relational God. Third, human nature changes over time yet is persistently “human,” with its greatest change yet to occur at the end or “eschatologically.” The changes that are part of the future of human nature include, among other things, immortality. Fourth, these various themes come together in Christianity in the doctrine of the assumption of human nature into union with the divine person of Christ, who is of the very being of God. Through this doctrine, Christianity elevates humanity not just to the pinnacle of creation but to participation in the life of the divine. The future of humanity and the being of divinity merge, in some sense, in the consummation of history.

Section two describes recent transhumanism, first by providing a brief description of the most likely technologies by which human transformation will occur, then by exploring some of the visions and values that characterize transhumanist rhetoric, focusing on projections for enhancing human health, longevity, cognitive ability, and social connection.

The third section brings these two sources together in a transciplinary exploration of theological and technological visions of the long-term human future. The first task of section three will be to point out the similarities between the two visions of the future, such as the fact that both foresee an enhancement of those very traits that set us off from nonhuman animals. The paper continues by offering a detailed assessment of the differences between technological and theological transformation. For example, it is often said that technology is in human control while the transformations of grace are in God’s control. The paper will argue that beneath such surface similarities and differences lie complex and contradictory sub-themes, which in the end brings the two (theology and technology) much closer together than often thought. It will be argued that the two actually need each other and that by the re-viewing and re-visioning of these two as-yet-incommensurate eschatologies, we might imagine a new form of technological spirituality.

Ronald Cole-Turner is the H. Parker Sharp Professor of Theology and Ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a position that focuses on the relationship between science and theology.  His research specialization is on biotechnology and other emerging technologies and their significance for human understanding and modification.  He is the author and editor of several books, including Design and Destiny: Jewish and Christian Perspectives on Human Germline Modification (edited, MIT Press, 2008).  He is currently at work on a volume on emerging technologies such as synthetic biology, stem cell advances, and variant forms of embryonic life, and their impact on our understandings of human nature and of the human role in nature.  Professor Cole-Turner serves as a Vice President of the International Society for Science and Religion and as a member of the Academic Board of the Metanexus Institute. 


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