Technology and Eschatology
In this paper, I want to compare two views of human transformation. The first is a religious view, specifically Christian, while the second is associated with the movement called transhumanism and is based in new and emerging technologies. While these two visions are different, they share important similarities perhaps because to a large extent, the technological vision has grown up in the context of theological, if only as a kind of technological means by which a religious vision might actually be achieved.
This paper is intended to contribute to a growing list of studies that compare religious and transhumanist views of human transformation.1 Rather than retracing the same ground as these other papers, however, our focus here is on a specific religious claim made in some strands of Christianity to the effect that the goal of human life is “to be made gods,” also referred to as "divinization" or theosis, and to ask what parallels might be found between this religious concept and some of the proposals made by transhumanists. The theme of theosis fits theologically within a larger area of Christian doctrine called “eschatology,” which is a study of last or final things (the eschaton), including the final or fully realized state of humanity.
The first section of the paper explores the theological theme of theosis by introducing it within the context of related themes, such as the essentially enigmatic nature of the human in the image of God, the natural history of the human species, and the meaning of eternal life. These themes are explored through a brief examination of three major thinkers: Irenaeus of Lyon, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine of Hippo. It must be stressed that no effort is made here to present even the anthropological views of these thinkers in anything like a comprehensive way. Only a few selected features are noted.
Section two looks briefly at the definition and the goals of transhumanism in reference to our theme of divinization. Section three reflects critically on some recent discussions of this theme and offers a few suggestions for future reflection.
As John Passmore makes clear in his comprehensive discussion of “The Perfectibility of Man,” the question of enhancing or indeed of perfecting humanity is nearly a human universal question, pursued by philosophers and religious thinkers for thousands of years.2 The first section of this brief paper, by contrast, focuses somewhat narrowly on selected themes in one strand of Christian theology. The hope, however, is that light from the past might illumine our present and guide our future.
I. Divinization in Christian Theology
Irenaeus of Lyon (second century) was one of the first Christian theologians to pick up and explore the possible meaning of the biblical notion that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26). The biblical text refers here to Adam and Eve, understood as including all humanity, and thus for Irenaeus the phrase "image of God" refers not to an individual human or to our properties such as rationality but to our unity as a species. Furthermore, for Irenaeus, humanity in the beginning is immature, almost adolescent, and must be completed by the culmination of the creative process, which is concluded in Christ. Indeed it is Christ who is in the full or complete image of God and who brings the human species to its ultimate destiny. Here, of course, Irenaeus is thinking of Christ as risen and ascended or seated in glory at the right hand of the Father (to use traditional Christian terms). The human species as a whole is on a pathway of transformation from our present incomplete form to a unified, glorious, eternal, and transcendent form, participant in a new and transformed or divinized nature.
It is important to note that for Irenaeus, salvation is not primarily a pathway to God. It is a process by which humans become gods. But the process is not merely human, as if human beings initiated and completed their own transformation. Rather, for Irenaeus, divinization of the human is a process that begins and ends in God. The Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky opens an essay on “Redemption and Deification” with these words:
“God made Himself man, that man might become God.” These powerful words, which we find for the first time in St. Irenaeus, are again found in the writings of St. Athanasius, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa. The Fathers and Orthodox theologians have repeated them in every century with the same emphasis, wishing to sum up in this striking sentence the very essence of Christianity: an ineffable descent of God to the ultimate limit of our fallen condition, even unto death—a descent of God which opens to men a path of ascent, the unlimited vistas of the union of created beings with the Divinity.3
Irenaeus does not think, of course, that human beings become God. There is only one uncreated Source, and whatever the degree of transformation, human individuals remain creatures, each distinct from each other and from God. But they become godlike, sufficient to dwell eternally in God’s presence, participating in the divine nature by the transformation of their own nature, so that the attributes of humanity that separate us from each other and from God (immorality, ignorance, and most of all mortality) are set aside in a new and glorious humanity.
Gregory of Nyssa (335- after 394), mentioned above by Lossky, was one of the first theologians to write at length "On the Making of Man."4 Here and elsewhere in his theology, he stresses the relational nature of human personhood. To be a person (hypostasis) is not to be a separate or independent nature or being (ousia) but rather to stand out as a relationship within a shared being (our common humanity) as an individuated or distinctive self. This is true of God (three hyposteses in one shared divine ousia, otherwise known as the Trinity) and equally true of humanity. Strictly speaking we are not human beings (there being only one, which we share) but we are human persons or individuals each distinctly expressive of the one human being. This humanity that we share exists in relationship with God, mirroring or imaging the creator. As God the creator is rich beyond knowledge, an inexhaustible mystery, so human nature images this mystery by being inherently and essentially unknowable.
According to Nyssa, human nature changes in the course of history. The first great change comes as a result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Nyssa is not alone in offering an allegorical interpretation of the “garments of skin” with which God was said to provide as clothing for fallen humanity. These skins, from dead animals that lacked human intelligence, symbolize the change from human nature as created (immortal and rich in understanding) to a fallen nature. “Therefore mortality, derived from the nature of beings lacking intelligence, was by God’s dispensation imposed on a nature created for immortality.”5 According to Nellas, “That man clothed himself with mortality coincides with the fact that he clothed himself with irrational nature.”6 Before this event, “the human soul was open to the angelic powers and to God. It offered no resistance and communicated with ease alike with the angelic spiritual world and with the Spirit of God. There then existed, writes St Gregory of Nyssa, a unified choir of intelligent nature, both angelic and human, ‘gazing towards the one Head of the choir and singing in harmony with the Head.’”7
It is not just mortality and relative ignorance that are included in the allegory of the garments of skin, but nearly everything that makes up human life as we know it. “The laborious cultivation of the soil, then, the professions, the sciences, the arts, politics, all the operations and functions by which man lives in this world, make up the content of the ‘garments of skin’…”8 Our vulnerabilities to nature (hunger, disease, aging) are “given” together with the means of mitigation by work and invention. This view, which was widely held by early Christian theologians, points specifically to human scientific and technical skills as gifts of God that are meant to allow humans to make their lives easier and safer. With the difficulties of the fall comes a means of some escape, and with the clouding of intelligence comes a disciplined method (science) by which a level of knowledge might be attained.
A deeper theological question, however, seems to be left unsettled by Gregory. Does the fall constitute a change in human nature itself? It is clear that for Nyssa, God created human nature in a far different state than we now find it. But is the change merely a garment that covers an unaffected inner nature, or does the change go to human nature itself?9 The theological significance of this question of the fall of human nature lies in the right response to the correlate question of the redemption of human nature. Is redemption a remaking of humanity into its final state, a restoring of humanity to its original state, or merely a cleansing and a reclothing of humanity so that its true state is revealed?
In the theology of eastern Christianity, from Irenaeus to Athanasius to the Cappadocians (including Nyssa) and beyond, there is a shared affirmation that the full meaning of human redemption is expressed in the word theosis, sometimes translated as divinization. The Romanian theologian Dumitru Staniloae defines theosis this way: “This greatest possible union with God wherein the fullness of God is stamped upon the human being, yet without the human being thereby being dissolved into God—this is the human being’s deification.”10 While the image of God means that humanity at every stage is destined for theosis, the full realization of union or participating in divinity is not known until the end or until the eschatological state. It must also be pointed out that the eastern theologians do not all mean exactly the same thing but the process of theosis; Nyssa in particular held some dissenting views, for instance by seeming to grant a larger role for human freewill in the process of salvation than some of his counterparts. But the real divergence on theosis or divinization is between eastern and western Christianity. In the west, Christians from the beginning until today are reluctant to hold to such a dramatic view of human transformation. As a result, for western Christians, the transformation brought about by salvation or redemption is mostly understood as a moral transformation, consisting in forgiveness of sins and the renewal of the moral self so as to live a progressively less sinful life. While eastern theologians understood the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the transformation of our natures, western theologians interpret these themes more in terms of forgiveness and moral reconciliation. These differences, however, are only tendencies and not major divisions.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the most influential theologian of western Christianity, agreed that we human persons are a mystery to ourselves, but (compared to Nyssa) he located the enigma not so much in the mystery of the God we image as in the way we blur that image and, by so doing, become opaque or hidden even to ourselves. A major theme of Augustinian anthropology is self discovery and reunification of the fragmented self, a process achieved only by God’s grace and completed only in the resurrection. It is a process of self-discovery but not one of self-help, for it can only be initiated and sustained by the grace of the Holy Spirit working within. By the hidden movements of healing grace the self first comes to awareness of what it has hidden from itself through its own self-deception, coming then to a progressively restored coherence of will and action that makes it possible to act with goodness and integrity. Knowledge of self and knowledge of God for Augustine (just as for John Calvin a millennium later) are intimately tied together. We are most like God when we are most focused on God, reflecting what we image. But in the western tradition from Augustine onward, while it is good to be godlike, being so is understood mostly in terms of the category of the holy, which is realized through submission to the divine will rather than through proximity to the divine being.
In quite a different context, Augustine argues for the directionality of human history against a backdrop of a universal history of creation. History for Augustine is theological; that is, creation comes from and returns to God, and its purpose, however frustrated at every moment, lies in its inevitable movement toward its pre-determined end. History is neither cyclical nor futile, but one-time events of history propel its movement forward toward its final goal.
When we put together some of these themes from Irenaeus, Gregory, or Augustine with the more general or common themes of Christian theology, the following theological picture of human nature begins to emerge. First, human nature is a mystery and human persons are enigmatic or hidden from themselves. This is true in two ways. The very nature of the human reflects or images the nature of the divine. While for Christianity the actions and indeed the Persons of the triune God are revealed, the essential nature remains inexhaustible mystery. Because human nature reflects the divine nature, the mystery of the human is not just the actual experience but the necessary correlation of the divine mystery. But in a second way, unlike God, human beings in their current state are hidden from themselves because we are both unwilling and unable to achieve perfect self-awareness. This secondary form of hiddeness is neither essential nor permanent.
Second, according to Christianity, the human self or individual person (hypostasis or persona) is not an individual being but a relationship within an underlying shared being. This is not to deny the reality of the distinctiveness of the individual. Christianity never denies the reality of individual human persons, nor does it say that individual identity is an illusion. Precisely on this point, the ancient theologians went to great lengths to expound a view of God as one being or substance in which subsist three distinct individual hypostases, surely not as three individual substances (and therefore never as “three gods”) but as relationally over against each other in individual identity. So it is with human individuals, who are not just psychologically but ontologically individuated (hypostasized) but never separated in their individual identity. These themes of classic Christianity, east and west, have largely been forgotten especially in the modern west, where Christianity is nearly as individualistic in its ontology of personhood as modern philosophy. Deeper in the traditions of Christianity, however, is a more relational understanding of the self, which is now being recovered by some contemporary theologians.
Third, Christianity from the beginning has seen human nature as changing over time, primarily because of the profound changes that occur in history in the relationship between God and humanity. The original intimacy of relationship between God and humanity was rejected by Adam and Eve, according to the general Christian interpretation of Genesis 1-3 (see Romans 5-6, which is the canonical Christian exegesis of Genesis 3). Before “the fall,” humans would have been sustained forever in health and agelessness by the regenerative presence of the Holy Spirit. Because of our action taken representatively by Adam and Eve, the grace of this regenerative presence is removed, and humans become vulnerable to aging and death as well as to all the other distresses of life. This consequence of course is reversed by the coming of Jesus Christ, who restores in his own person the unity of the relationship between humanity and God and whose own resurrection represents the first of what is to come for all. At each stage, human life is transformed, first by loss (the fall), then by restoration (redemption), and finally by transfiguration or theosis. With the rise of modern science and especially the impact of evolutionary consciousness, the historical events (recent creation, historical fall) that underpin these transformations are no longer credible, but in various ways recent theologians have continued to understand human nature as transformed over time, for instance through their evolution and emergence as a species.
Fourth, it should be noted perhaps especially at a conference on human nature that early Christianity did not regard humanity in isolation from the rest of nature. Dumitru Staniloae puts the point nicely: God’s plan for the creation “consists in the deification of the created world....Salvation and deification undoubtedly have humanity directly as their aim but not a humanity separated from nature, rather one that in ontologically united with it.”11 Here again, however, western theology has tended to isolate God and the human (or more precisely, according to Augustine, God and the soul) as the primary axis of theological interest, with creation as little more than a presupposition for salvation of souls. But here, too, western theology is changing, renouncing soul/body dualism so basic to Augustine and Calvin and also the anthropocentric focus.
Among the differences between east and west, it bears repeating that western theologians have been far more reticent about terms like theosis or divinization than have their eastern counterparts. “In general, the Greek fathers, most notably Gregory of Nyssa, stood closer than did, say, Augustine to the neo-Platonic concepts of perfectibility.”12 But beginning in the 1700s with John Wesley and others, a renewed interest in moral (as distinct from ontological) “perfection” sweeps Protestant theology, not just in Methodism but in various evangelical and new religious movements, perhaps mostly in the United States. While the Protestant establishment regarded these movements with suspicion, they thrived nonetheless and reflected the optimism of the 19th century, and optimism that found its echoes in many non-religious programs of human improvement or perfection, including government reform, educational reform, and quasi-scientific programs such as eugenics. What these programs had in common is that they all set out to improve the behavior and performance of human beings. During these centuries, eastern theology maintained that human nature itself, and not just our moral capacities, must be transformed so that in the end humanity becomes godlike, participating in the divine nature itself.
II. Transhumanist Goals
James J. Hughes defines transhumanism as “the proposition that human beings should use technology to transcend the limitations of the body and brain.”13 Among other documents, Hughes refers to the Transhumanist Declaration, where we read: “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.”14 Another definition is offered by Nick Bostrom: “Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution. Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman, beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have.”15Elsewhere, Bostrom writes:
Transhumanism is a loosely defined movement that has developed gradually over the past two decades, and can be viewed as an outgrowth of secular humanism and the Enlightenment. It holds that current human nature is improvable through the use of applied science and other rational methods, which may make it possible to increate human health-span, extend our intellectual and physical capacities, and give us increased control over our own mental states and moods.16
What technologies are identified as serving the transhumanism goals? The usual list includes such things as genetic modification (including but not limited to human germline modification with enhancement as a goal) and regenerative medicine through various means, including cell therapy and bionics. Also included of course are advances in computer processing that might allow “mind uploading,” the transfer of the contents of the human brain to an enduring computer substrate. Advances in cognitive neuroscience will also be required, and nanotechnology will no doubt play a role. The rapid pace of advance in these fields, indeed the exponential growth rate in many of these areas, compounded by what is sometimes called “convergence”17 or the accelerating effect of advances in one area on advances in other areas, have led to the suggestion that technology is reaching a take off point of “the singularity.”
The term “the singularity” is most famously associated with Ray Kurzweil, who defines it this way: “What, then, is the Singularity? It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed. Although neither utopian nor dystopian, this epoch will transform the concepts that we rely on to give meaning to our lives, from our business models to the cycle of human life, including death itself.”18
Transhumanist statements endorse a commitment to a process—human transformation via technology—without specifying a goal or a final state, except to say that we will be “irreversibly transformed.” One reason for the lack of specificity is that the technologies of transhumanism are only in the earliest stages of development, which means that their full impact cannot be predicted. Quite justifiably there is a range of opinions on what the outcomes might be and how they might be achieved. Even so, certain features of human nature are routinely marked by transhumanists for enhancement, for instance as in the statements quoted previously. These include our lifespan and our mental abilities. Other features, such as “unchosen psychology”—which perhaps includes mood disorders or attention disorders—are sometimes mentioned but raise conceptual complexities not associated, for instance, with the ideal of more years of healthy life.
The question of the telos or goal of the transhumanism project is another way of asking the question of the meaning of enhancement or improvement. The most common transhumanist answer to the question is procedural, not substantive. An enhancement is what the individual desires and freely chooses. Autonomy must be protected, including in the choice over whether to use reproductive technologies for enhancement purposes, in which case the enhanced person (who might not yet be conceived) cannot give consent. It is precisely for that reason that many are not entirely comfortable with leaving enhancement to be defined by parents.
Another reason for the lack of a specific goal is that transhumanist technology is undergirded by a view of the cosmos without a goal. According to Hughes, “The most common transhumanist cosmology is that the universe is impersonal and purposeless. The emergence of intelligence is a chance occurrence, with no inevitability or pre-ordained end.” Needless to say, if the cosmos is purposeless, technology has no purpose beyond what we give is; and if the emergence of intelligence has not telos or end, then its enhancement is likewise without a final state.
Or is there more to it than that? Quoting Hughes:
So materialist transhumanism can, through certain logical steps, come full circle to the idea that we live in a created universe, perhaps a natural universe infused with the quantum mind of God, perhaps because we are a simulation being run in the mind of gods, or a resurrection of ourselves at the End of Time. None of these materialist ideas of a created or intelligent universe necessarily argue that God is unitary, benevolent or even aware of our existence….[W]e may be intended to evolve towards a posthuman apotheosis, or we may choose to become gods ourselves in order to challenge the Creator(s) for dominion.19
The question of the goal comes round in the end to the question of God or gods, whether traditionally defined or emergent in the process of nature and perhaps created by the technologies themselves.
More often, however, the question of transhumanism and God comes up in response to the challenge put to much of today’s technology that it represents an overweening impulse to “play god.” While some people of religious faith use this label to criticize technology, it is used most often by journalists or others who wish to divide religion and technology. Theologians have questioned the religious usefulness of the phrase, and some have sought to reclaim its meaning as referring not to arrogant action that we must avoid but to God-like, compassionate, and obedient action that we must undertake. 20 Not too different is the embrace of “godlike” in recent transhumanism rhetoric. In response to an interviewer’s question about whether transhumanism is “playing god,” David Pearce responded by saying: “What could be more “godlike” than creating new life? . . . I think it’s hard to reconcile transhumanism and revealed religion. If we want to live in paradise, we will have to engineer it ourselves. If we want eternal life, then we’ll need to rewrite our bug-ridden genetic code and become god-like.”21
Commenting on the relationship between religion and transhumanism, Mark Walker asks: “In what direction and how far should we pursue excellence? A very traditional perfectionist’s answer is that we should seek to become as godlike as possible.”22 With some reticence, transhumanists speak of the final state of transformation as a godlike state. For instance, Kurzweil: “Once we saturate the matter and energy in the universe with intelligence, it will ‘wake up,’ be conscious, and sublimely intelligent. That’s about as close to God as I can imagine.”23 It is clear that Kurzweil is speaking here of a distant point, not necessarily in terms of years, but in its technological advance over the present. Just as theology speaks of theosis as an eschatological realization, so transhumanism speaks of godlikeness as a condition of a future far different from the present.
Proximity to God seems most applicable when intelligence is being enhanced. Walker notes that
Transhumanists on the whole are more sanguine about the view that human reason is godlike; nevertheless, using technology to alter the biological basis of our reason opens up the possibility of at least achieving a higher and more godlike reason or intellect. This is why some transhumanists should be very interested in at least some religious thinking, for if the goal is to achieve what we can in the way of perfection, and God is thought to be a perfect being, then religious through on the question of why God is said to be a perfect being is very relevant.24
Walker claims that the idea of “using technology to make ourselves more godlike” is a “perfectly consistent transhumanism-religious hybrid.”25 While some would agree, not everyone does, as we see in the final section of this paper.
III. Two Views of Theosis
A recent issue of The New Atlantis carried an article by David B. Hart contrasting the theology of transhumanism with that of the late pope, John Paul II. Hart could not be more stark in drawing the contrast: “The difference between John Paul’s theological anthropology and the pitilessly consistent materialism of the transhumanists and their kith—and this is extremely important to grasp—is a difference not simply between two radically antagonistic visions of what it is to be a human being, but between two radically antagonistic visions of what it is to be a god.”26 Hart, who writes as an eastern Orthodox theologian with an interest in the theology of Pope John Paul II, recognizes that the “desire to become a god” is a proper aim for Christians. However,
Theologically speaking, the proper destiny of human beings is to be “glorified”—or “divinized”—in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, to become “partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4), to be called “gods” (Psalm 82:6; John 10:34-36). This is the venerable doctrine of “theosis” or “deification,” the teaching that—to employ a lapidary formula of great antiquity—“God became man that man might become god”: that is to say, in assuming human nature in the incarnation, Christ opened the path to union with the divine nature for all persons. From the time of the Church Fathers through the high Middle Ages, this understanding of salvation was a commonplace of theology. Admittedly, until recently it had somewhat disappeared from most Western articulations of the faith, but in the East it has always enjoyed a somewhat greater prominence; and it stands at the very center of John Paul’s theology of the body.27
Hart insists, however, that for John Paul it is not enough to say that humanity in general is on its way toward theosis. Rather it is the case that each individual human life from conception “is already, potentially, the strength of ‘the body full of power’….”28
Divinization is not something that lies beyond, especially in the sense that some future humans will cross a technological bridge, leaving all previous humans and all lesser humans behind as merely human. Hart insists:
For the late pope, divine humanity is not something that in a simple sense lies beyond the human; it does not reside in some future, post-human race to which the good of the present must be offered up; it is instead a glory hidden in the depths of every person, even the least of us—even “defectives” and “morons” and “genetic inferiors,” if you will—waiting to be revealed, a beauty and dignity and power of such magnificence and splendor that, could we see it now, it would move us either to worship or to terror.29
For this reason, Hart argues, theological and transhuman versions of divinization are essentially and fundamentally incommensurate. They are “divided not by a difference in practical or ethical philosophy, but by an irreconcilable hostility between two religions, two metaphysics, two worlds—at the last, two gods.”30
With this analysis comes a warning of the necessity of a moral choice between what Hart might see as a God of life and an idol of death:
And nothing less than the moral nature of society is at stake. If, as I have said, the metaphysics of transhumanism is inevitably implied within such things as embryonic stem cell research and human cloning, then to embark upon them is already to invoke and invite the advent of a god who will, I think, be a god of boundless horror, one with a limitless appetite for sacrifice. And it is by their gods that human beings are shaped and known. In some very real sense, “man” is always only the shadow of the god upon whom he calls: for in the manner by which we summon and propitiate that god, and in that ultimate value that he represents for us, who and what we are is determined.31
Perhaps it is indicative of the early stage of this conversation, but Hart’s uncompromising rejection of any compatibility between theological and transhumanist divinization is completely contrary to the stance taken by a self-appointed group who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, more widely known as the Mormons. Their organization, aptly named Mormon Transhumanist Association, has issued an Affirmation that advances these views:
- We seek the spiritual and physical exaltation of individuals and their anatomies, as well as communities and their environments, according to their wills, desires and laws, to the extent they are not oppressive.
- We believe that scientific knowledge and technological power are among the means ordained of God to enable such exaltation, including realization of diverse prophetic visions of transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of worlds without end.
- We feel a duty to use science and technology according to wisdom and inspiration, to identify and prepare for risks and responsibilities associated with future advances, and to persuade others to do likewise.32
In their publications, the Association describes the basis for these views in the traditional beliefs of Mormonism, particularly the idea that it is our human destiny to be changed suddenly and completely into the children of God and thus to be like gods.
On this basis, the Mormon Transhumanist Association responds to various critics of transhumanism, defending especially the goal of aspiring to divinity. “This desire is evil, according to these critics, who claim it is immoral to aspire to Godhood. The religious critic asks: to what end do we pursue these improvements over past states of being? Mormonism answers: Godhood. The desire to work together toward Godhood is the highest and most righteous desire, and the fullest manifestation of charity. The Mormon view complements the Transhumanist view by providing a spiritual justification for the desire to better the human condition – to become Gods.”33
No doubt the views of the Mormon Transhumanist Association are likely to remain in the minority among Mormons and among Christians. While Hart’s views are perhaps a bit overstated, the following comment is probably a good predictor of where the religious public might stand. Michael E. Zimmerman writes that in comparison to Kurzweil’s view of post-human transcendences, “traditional Christians see something quite different from what they mean by theosis, the transfiguration of the human being into the glorified body of the God-man Christ. Instead, the God-like post-human amounts to a creature that has become divine, and that has thereby attained the status of cosmic Logos. Seeking after such an astonishing ‘reaching up’ is clearly impossible to square with orthodox Christianity.”34
Looking ahead, James Hughes has noted that “In this future religious landscape there will be bioconservative and transhumanist wings within all the world’s faith, and probably new religious traditions inspired by the transhumanist project.”35 There will be those who oppose transhumanism on any grounds, including religious, and they will do so by stating (and perhaps overstating) the differences between the religious and the technological visions of the future. There are real differences, and they should not be ignored. The religious passion for social justice, for instance, should never be downplayed in its willingness to join in giving birth to a technological future. But if there are differences, there are also similarities, all the more so if we hold to a form of faith that desires to be a living tradition. Of course Irenaeus of Lyon and Gregory of Nyssa were not transhumanists. But the tradition they helped establish and which lives on today may, as Hughes suggests, have a legitimate “transhumanist wing.”
If so, the “transhumanist wing” of Christianity might endorse the idea that we humans are on a pathway of transformation. We cannot know whether this pathway leads in the end to distant descendents who do not age, who have access to all information, who live in transparent relationship with the rest of life, who have transcended the needs of our biology, and who have been released from all evil compulsions. Probably not. But it is almost certain that we and our descendants will make incremental but significant movement along the pathway toward some or maybe most of these transformations. Will we become gods? We will not become God, not in any recognizable sense of that word, but neither did the ancient Christian theologians assert such a destiny. Becoming more godlike is always relative, a movement from where we are toward a transcendent destiny.
Of course, for Christians to think along these lines is to introduce new themes into an ancient tradition. God is no longer merely the source of action but also the effect, transformed by the encounter with a creation which shares creative power. This is a theme developed in the past century by process theologians in the Whiteheadian tradition and more recently by trinitarian theologians, who see God as both cause and effect of creation, interactively becoming who God is as a result of creation becoming what it is. The more traditional view would look at eschatology, including the divinization of the human, as a result of sheer divine intrusion. Human effort plays at best a supportive role, prompted by grace. But it is wrong to drive a wedge between divine and human action, as if only that which has no creaturely cause can be said to be God’s work. Especially today we might begin by recognizing that technology is not just a means of tinkering with a fixed creation but a way of creating something new. For Christians this can only mean that despite all that goes wrong with technology, it is in the end a means of divine creation by which an interactive God evokes something new. If we are “divinized” in any sense by technology, it is God equally with technology itself that is the cause of this process, and it is God along with creation that is affected by the process.
It is perhaps surprising but not objectionable that transhumanists speak of “the Singularity,” which is of course a product of technological processes, as in the end becoming a power greater than technology. It would be too simple, of course, to say that the Singularity is God and that our transformed descendants are God’s children, divinized at last. But it is clear that a creative power is emerging and that for all monotheists, creative power can only be one.
1 For example see the work of James J. Hughes, including “The Compatibility of Religious and Transhumanist Views of Metaphysics, Suffering, Virtue and Transcendence in an Enhanced Future,” or the various essays in the August 2005 issue of the Journal of Evolution and Technology 14(2) on the theme of “religion and transhumanism.”
14 The Transhumanist Association, “The Transhumanist Declaration,” 2002, at http://www.transhumanism.org/index.php/WTA/declaration/
15 Nick Bostrom, “Transhumanist Values” (http://www.nickbostrom.com/ethics/values.html)
17 See Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, editors, “Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science,” available at http://www.wtec.org/ConvergingTechnologies/1/NBIC_report.pdf
20 See Lisa Sowle Cahill, "'Playing God': Religious Symbols in Public Places," The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 20(1995):342 and Allen Verhey, "'Playing God' and Invoking a Perspective," The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 20(1995):347‑364.
21 David Pearce in “Interview with Nick Bostrom and David Pearce,” Cronopis (December 2007) at http://www.hedweb.com/transhumanism/index.html
32 Mormon Transhumanist Association, “Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation,” available at http://transfigurism.org/community/content/MormonTranshumanistAffirmation.aspx
33 Mormon Transhumanist Association, Parallels and Complements between
Mormonism and Transhumanism, p. 31, available at www.transfigurism.org.
34 Michael E. Zimmerman, “The Singularity: A Crucial Phase in Divine Self-Actualization?”, an unpublished paper at www.nchu.edu.tw/~hum/download/Posthumanism_s_Eschatological_4.doc
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