First it is important to remember that technological advance per se is not wrong. Indeed, it is good to have technological development that will help us to heal and do good. After all, we remain under the covenantal obligations to ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it’ (The Bible, Genesis 1:22.).
Stewardship of our created world requires some form of technology – even if it is no more sophisticated than a sharpened stick with which to plough a field for planting seed. So technology will always be with us.
We have an ethical requirement to reach out and heal the sick, and to make every effort to help the sick and handicapped to have a fuller experience of being human. In other words, we have to use technology, but at the same time we also have take responsibility for making sure it is used for good purposes and not for unethical ones.
We cannot oppose all biotechnology, now and in the future, whilst benefiting from the medical advances of the last century. Jesus himself healed, but only that which was lost by illness or the effects of sin. He did not make people more intelligent, stronger, and taller nor encourage them to pursue immortality.
Left completely unrestricted, advances in human enhancement technologies could potentially lead to the complete remaking of humanity.
Advocates of this approach regard technology as a means to free themselves – and indeed humanity – from the physical limitations of the human body and is often referred to as transhumanism.
Transhuman is short for transitory human. Transhumanists believe that technology is the key to achieving the perfect society of perfect people on a perfect earth.
There are some striking similarities between transhumanism and Christianity. In his book, From Human to Posthuman: Christian Theology and Technology in a Postmodern World, Brent Waters identifies two theological themes in transhumanism.
First, there is the theme of salvation: if humans are to maximize their potential, they must be saved from the severe limitations of their bodies and the means of this salvation is technology.
The second theme is an eschatological theme: death is a tragic fate that we should strive to overcome and, again, technology is the principal weapon to be deployed in the war against ageing and death.
Christians also believe that humans are imperfect and must be saved from their imperfect lives and world, and Christians also believe that death will be overcome; it is not the end of life.
Despite these similarities, there are some crucial differences. The new technologies are presented as means for saving the world from hunger, disease, disability and ageing, yet the idea of immortality and perfection through technology is based on a distorted and limited view of life and living.
While transhumanism offers a ‘religious’ vision of humans trapped within the finite and temporal limits of their bodies, Christianity affirms these very qualities as features of fallen humans who are created in the image and likeness of the Creator.
Transhumanists believe that humans can save themselves through their own work of transformation, however this is incompatible with a biblical view of humanity where only Christ can save. The task of Christians is not to transform human flesh into data that can be improved through technological manipulation or engineering, but to understand that we are saved in response to a divine gift and initiative.
Importantly, Christians believe that all human persons have worth and dignity regardless of what they can or cannot do: humans are of value not because of what they can do but who they are. Man is not simply a collection of biological parts and functions, or a ‘property-thing’ that has been put together in the right way and that we can do what we like with.
Because human dignity is grounded in the view that all humans bear the image of God, consequently every member of our human family is of inestimable worth and must be protected and treated with respect.
Christians do not place their hope in somehow cheating death; rather, they believe that the final enemy of death is overcome not by avoiding it, but by being resurrected in the eternal life of God.
The Bible is also clear that God loves us as ourselves in our weakness, not our strength; He wants us to rely on Him, not ourselves, nor drugs we might take, nor our own abilities. Moreover, suffering for Christians is not only to be expected, but is for a purpose and reason – to increase our reliance and dependence on God himself (The Bible, 1 Peter 1:3,6).
Professor John Wyatt, in his book Matters of Life and Death, uses the ethics of art restoration to illustrate how we might attempt, as Christians, to analyse controversial biotechnological advances:
If we see our bodies as wonderful, original artistic masterpieces reflecting the design and image of God, but marred by biological and moral flaws, what is our responsibility to this masterpiece and what can we do with it?
Ethical intervention is that which seeks to protect, maintain and restore to the original, operating within the parameters fixed by the artist. Unethical restoration is that which seeks to enhance, alter or attempt to improve the original design.
This is not to say that it will necessarily always be clear what is ethical or unethical intervention, nor easy to resist temptation. For example, Cameron asks what should a pastor do if a chip comes out that would enable him to have the whole of the Bible immediately available to his memory? Or if Christian publishers make their latest titles available in brain chip versions?
It could be argued that a Christian doctor who has neural augmentation to maintain alertness and instant access to databases of information would be better able to help treat his/her patients.
It will be hard to say no to some of these opportunities for the same reason that it is always hard to resist temptation. As Eareckson & Cameron note:
“The temptation to do one better than God – to become superhuman by adding computer chips and using genetic engineering to enhance the species – may be the hardest temptation we sinners ever have to face.”
However Joni Eareckson Tada encourages Christians to stand firm:
“We must not allow ourselves to be intimidated by an intellectual elite who insists on ‘progress’ at the expense of the human race. To be a Christian in this brave new world, we have to shine light, shake salt, serve with longsuffering mercy, tell the truth and keep pointing people to Jesus Christ. After all, he is the One who is fully human.”