What’s up with the word Transhumanist?
Many of you know that I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to support and grow the Christian Transhumanist Association, an organization devoted to creating a better relationship between religion and technology. I’ve talked before about what Christian Transhumanism is, and what it means, and what our organization is about. But a question that I get from a lot of people is: why the name?
“Transhumanist” sounds weird, maybe even scary. So why use it? Why not call ourselves futurists, or technologists, or some other less bothersome word?
There are a lot of factors at work here, and I won’t go into all of them (yet!), but one thing that draws me so strongly to this word is its poetry and its history.
In its very essence, the word invites us to engage with humanity, but also to reach beyond it. It suggests that humanism was right to focus on the glory and possibility of human life — but also that stopping there was stopping too soon.
“Transhumanism” is currently a mostly secular movement. But in this fundamental orientation, I think it finds more in common with Christianity than traditional humanism ever did — certainly more than secular humanism ever did.
Jesus opens his greatest commands with just such a call to the transcendent:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength…and love your neighbor as yourself
In saying this, Jesus shows us what it means to be human. It is to connect outward to those around us, inward towards coherence, and upward towards God. As human beings, if we are unable to anchor ourselves in that which is beyond us, we lose something significant.
Throughout Christian history, this call toward transcendence has been fundamental. And so Christians have struggled over and over to express this idea in new ways—and sometimes—in new words.
Perhaps it was just this kind of confrontation with the limits of language that led Dante in 1320 to write:
Words may not tell of that transhuman change:
And therefore let the example serve, though weak,
For those whom grace hath better proof in store (The Divine Comedy, Paradiso, Canto 1)
…seemingly coining the word in the midst of one of history’s most significant works of religious literature.
This, of course, is not where things end. Other writers have worked with similar language to express these kinds of concepts. Theologian Paul Tillich expresses the core of Christian theology:
Here we have a profound doctrine of what I call a transcendent humanism, a humanism which says that Christ is the fulfillment of essential man, of the Adamic nature.
But perhaps most significantly, the language shows up in the work of Pierre Teilhard De Chardin. Chardin was a Jesuit priest, a paleontologist, and a mind-expanding theorist of the future. Some people credit him with foreseeing the internet, and discussing the possibility of accelerating technological progress leading up to a Singularity…in 1941.
In 1949, he explains what we mean by human freedom:
Liberty: that is to say, the chance offered to every man (by removing obstacles and placing the appropriate means at his disposal) of ‘trans-humanizing’ himself by developing his potentialities to the fullest extent.
And later, in contemplating whether humanity would ultimately vanish beneath the waves of time, as many philosophers and scientists were arguing, he uses the term trans-humanity to describe the spiritual vision that calls to us from beyond the boundaries of the world as we know it.
And this is where we rejoin the mainstream discussion of transhumanism. Because Chardin was good friends with a biologist named Julian Huxley; and in 1957, Huxley is credited with introducing the term transhumanism in its modern secular form:
The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself —not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.
That, as they say, is history. A concept from deep within Christian history had passed over, through the language of a secular biologist, into a new area of culture. Later, secular futurists would pick up the term and run with it, creating the movement known as “transhumanism” today.
For us to use the word “transhumanist” is to reconnect with a set of aspirations and visions that began in the Christian tradition. And it is to simultaneously open the door to people looking for a way back to Christianity—which is what I want to talk about next.