Transhumanism and the Christian story
When I was a kid, I discovered humanism and was thrilled. Here, somebody had gone through Christianity, and packaged its most essential concepts for the secular world. 1
I soon discovered that other people did not see this the way I did.
The same thing happened when I discovered transhumanism. In transhumanism, I found the full expression of what my Christianity meant to me. So I was astounded to discover that many transhumanists were not only non-religious, but considered transhumanism and Christianity to be antithetical.
Humanists often see things in the same way. One person told me that humanism was the bastard stepchild of Christianity, and that the two hadn’t been on speaking terms since humanism left home.
I think there is a better way to frame this, both historically and sociologically. I suspect that all cultures and worldviews must periodically send off expeditions to explore specific ideas, in ways the mother culture is unable to. If the expedition is successful, the explorers will return with tales of vast uncultivated ground, and maps of how to get there. And then mainstream society will begin to colonize this new territory.
This is what happened in our history. Christian Europe sent off an expedition to explore the ideas of humanism. The result was the discovery of new worlds, new ways of acting and forming society. In the last centuries, this ground has been colonized by mainstream society, and many of us now live in liberal secular democracies fueled by world-wide capitalism.
Now humanism has sent off its own expedition, pursuing the ideas of transhumanism. And I think it’s time for this expedition to return home, and tell the mother culture what we’ve found.
Unfortunately, the first wave of returning explorers is often so affected by their discoveries that they are unrecognizable to their mother culture. They have seen things and had experiences that the mainstream cannot relate to, and they often speak in a language that is rough and frightening. Sometimes they are so foreign, they are never accepted back.
The first religious explorers of transhumanism often related to their faith very differently than the mainstream world. So when they began to engage in the process of translation, they started by lining up sets of religious and transhumanist ideas, trying to connect the dots. By finding superficial similarities, they were able to cobble together somewhat interesting translations. But the problem was that this translation didn’t relate well to either side — because it misunderstood both at a fundamental level.
For example, it is possible to take the account of Elijah’s ascension to heaven, and see something superficially similar to space flight. Erich Von Daniken made exactly this connection, arguing that these sorts of biblical stories match very well with a description of vertical lift-off. 2
But though some religious people view this account as literal, and others view it as metaphorical, few believe that the primary significance of this account has to do with lift-off. That translation misconstrues both the modern impulse towards space exploration, and the ancient meaning of a great prophet’s ascension.
A better place to start is the beginning of the Hebrew Bible. The Jewish scriptures came into existence in a world which saw everything as part of the great wheel of time, the eternal return, everything repeating like the seasons. In this world, there was no individual significance, no personal value, no chance of accomplishing anything, because time was simply on repeat, and nothing could ever change. 3
This world was full of creation myths that looked a little like this: there were some gods, and they needed someone to do their menial tasks, so they created human beings to be their slaves. 4
Jewish scripture is a revolt against this understanding. Right at the beginning, in Genesis 1, we have one of the most significant statements ever made:
So God created man in his own image…male and female…and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” 5
Human beings were not slaves, but were embodiments of the divine. Humans reflected something deep and significant about reality.
The next chapters describe God planting a garden, placing man inside, and giving him the task of cultivating it. This was not to be the eternal home of mankind. Outside was a wild, untamed world, and humanity had been placed within a cradle until they could learn how to cultivate and grow and create as God himself had done. 6
Humanity was intended to be creators, and God was training them to take on the task themselves.
Abraham is significant in just this way. He was called out of his country, with the intention of building a society he could not yet foresee. In a world where nothing ever changed, and things continued as they always had, Abraham ventured out to create something new, breaking the wheel of time, and writing his personal identity into the world. This is why he is called the “Father of Faith”, and is important to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In a certain sense, history begins with him. 7
When we arrive at the Christian scriptures, the story intensifies. In the same way that consciousness is not a rejection of life, but an intensification and return on the concept, the Christian scriptures see themselves as continuous with the Jewish scriptures, but intensified to an order of magnitude. 8
Where the Jewish scriptures begin with humanity intended to bear the image of God, the Christian scriptures begin with a man who is bearing that image in all its fullness and completion, and who intends that image to take root and become embodied in all of humanity.
This means the radical redefinition of just what a human being is. In a world defined by political, social, religious, and racial boundaries, Jesus and his earliest followers are in some ways the first transhumanists, arguing for a human identity outside and beyond all of those things. This is why Paul says there is no “Jew or gentile, male or female, slave or free” — he is breaking the constraints on human identity along every dimension of the ancient world. 9
A Jewish professor once explained to me that in a certain sense, Christianity was the world’s first religion. It was the first group in history to create an axis of identity distinct from the circumstances of your birth. It was the first group to divorce geography from belief. 10
This is exactly how the first Christians saw themselves. They were bringing into being a world which would no longer be defined by temples, kings, empires, and social strata. Without knowing what that looked like, they believed in that future. They saw that to be human was to be something dynamic and unconstrained, constantly creative, always requiring the moving of the boundaries, and the redefinition of things previously seen as constants.
This is the proper starting point for engagement with the religious world at large — not far-fetched ideas about what we may become, or superficial similarities between Christian terms and transhumanist ideas, or “the rapture of the nerds”, or the singularity as second coming — but the recovery of the scriptures’ powerful and incendiary idea of what it means to be human.
By humanism, I am primarily referring to the streams of thought that emphasize rationalism, independent thought, and the elevation of the status of the individual. By transhumanism, I am using a universalized version of the definition cited by Wikipedia: “Transhumanism…affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition…to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transhumanism ↩
Elijah’s ascent is described in 2 Kings 2:11. Erich Von Daniken begins drawing these sorts of comparisons in Chariots of The Gods? See page 58 for a mention of Elijah, pages 37-39 for a similar interpretation of Ezekiel’s vision. ↩
In this section, I am largely relying on the work of Thomas Cahill in The Gifts of The Jews. See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_mythology#Perception_of_time for authors who discuss the ancient Jewish view of history. A deeper background to my thought-process here is The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of The Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. ↩
See, for example, the Sumerian creation myth. http://faculty.gvsu.edu/websterm/SumerianMyth.htm ↩
Genesis 1:27-28, NIV. Some people misunderstand this passage to be a mandate to destroy the environment. See Daniel Quinn’s implied reading of Genesis 2: http://www.ishmael.org/Vision/. But this is a modernist reading of the original text, not part of the original author’s intent. ↩
Genesis 2:15 and context describe humanity as being given the task of cultivating the garden of Eden. Genesis 1:27-28 describes their larger purpose and task, which would eventually require moving beyond the garden. ↩
For a glimpse of how Christianity interprets Abraham, consider Hebrews 11:8-12, and Romans 4:13-22. ↩
My reading of the New Testament is heavily influenced by the work of Andrew Perriman and N. T. Wright, modified by the anthropology of René Girard, and the systemic analysis of Walter Wink. ↩
Paraphrase of Galatians 3:28, with an interpretation provided by Peter Rollins, Insurrection. ↩
Amy-Jill Levine, private gathering ↩