November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
February 5, 2009
he earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
Ours is a world of our own making. The emergence of technologies that were once the subjects of science fiction has given us a “freedom” of choice that is unparalleled when compared to any other time in history. In mall-like fashion, we now continually encounter a vast assortment of products and services designed to elicit our desire. But what is most interesting, if not sobering, is that this freedom of choice is not confined to products and services: it penetrates deep into the biological sphere. Given the vast array of biotechnology—such as human cloning, fetal tissue transplantation, in vitro fertilization, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, and a slew of abortion and euthanasia methods—humans can exercise a frightening amount of control over circumstances that in previous centuries were confined to the dictates of nature. Indeed, choosing the personality, appearance, and abilities of our children has acquired an almost point-and-click simplicity, and the promise of immortality looms just over the horizon.
Biotechnology, however, is not something that in itself needs to be feared or eschewed. We should welcome technological advances that extend life, treat harmful disease, and alleviate pain. At issue in this essay, therefore, is not the question of whether or not biotechnology (broadly speaking) should be pursued. What I worry about is a type of culture-lag that uncritically derives the proverbial ought from an is. In other words, biotechnology is advancing at such a rate that it is becoming difficult to discover ethical uses for new technology without falling into the facile mind-set of “we should because we can.”
Part of the reason for this culture-lag is the competing philosophies of human nature that are on the table. What it means to be human has become as ambiguous as what it means to be good. The merging of technological advancement with this kind of ambiguity has resulted in the birth of current trends in human enhancement. By enhancement I mean the use of biotechnology beyond the limits of therapeutic utility. We are moving beyond treatment and restoration of a patient to a state of “normality” into biological augmentation, often, for egoistic purposes such as social competitiveness.1
Again, underlying this culture-lag and subsequent rise of human enhancement is an ambiguous account of human nature and, as I shall argue later, a fear of death. It is here that we come face to face with the greatest challenge that biotechnological enhancement poses for Christian ethics and the church. That is, Christian theology presents a systematic account of human nature that is at odds with the accounts that have led to these ideas of human enhancement and posthuman evolution. In what follows, therefore, I briefly discuss the challenges of one specific area of technological advancement, namely transhumanism and posthuman evolution. Drawing on the work of the theologian and bioethicist Brent Waters, I argue that only orthodox Christology and anthropology can respond to and overcome these challenges. I then conclude by using some thoughts from Stanley Hauerwas to suggest that care for the terminally ill is one way to practice the resurrection that is our human destiny in Christ.
Becoming Better than Well: Visions of a Posthuman Future
The ideology of transhumanism has not arisen out of a void, but it is rather a convergence of the many threads running from the birth of modernity through Darwin, Nietzsche, postmodernity, and the technological revolution.2 As these threads are considered, it is important to keep in mind that transhumanism is most concerned with the overcoming of human “limitations,” that is, human conditions in general, and finitude and mortality in particular. Transhumanists, who deplore such human conditions, believe that these so-called limitations can be transcended through the use of biotechnology, thus allowing for a transformation of human beings into posthumans.3
This posthuman future is believed to be the next logical stage in human evolution. Humans are reaching a limit in their quest for mastery over nature—for the purpose of self-enhancement—in which human nature must now be overcome in order to allow for the emergence of a superior species, of “creatures that are better than human,”4 creatures who are not confined by temporality or death. This next evolutionary stage, they believe, can and must be advanced through human assertion, because on the one hand, natural evolution has failed to do so, and on the other hand, we now possess technology that is potentially capable of achieving this goal.
Two avenues of technology are promising for the posthuman vision. The first is regenerative medicine, which has already proved instrumental by increasing life spans, and through developments in stem-cell research, prosthetics, genetic manipulation, and pharmacology it holds out promise for even greater longevity. As Waters keenly observes, “The singular benefit of regenerative medicine is that many individuals will live longer, healthier and more productive lives.”5 For the transhumanists, the one problem with regenerative medicine, however, is that it does not go far enough in overcoming the human condition; death and finitude are still inevitable.
Therefore, the second and ultimate avenue of posthuman hope is in the realm of computers and robotics. At first glance, this seems to be a fanciful juxtaposition of incommensurables. However, with the continued advancement of neural implants, the possibility of downloading one’s mind into a supercomputer or cyborg not only seems to be a more and more likely possibility, but it also begins to redraw the border separating the digital from the natural.6 This redrawing of borders is predicated on the transhumanist belief that the mind is both the essence of human subjectivity and that it is fundamentally an information-producing entity;7 in other words, the mind is simply data. If inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil’s prediction that by 2020 machines will be more intelligent and possess higher computational speeds than the human brain is at all correct, then, as he argues, our very survival depends on a convergence between humans and machines.8 By separating the mind from the brain and downloading it into a superior medium like the supercomputer, humans can achieve the very thing that Christianity has been promising all along—eternal life. The optimal conclusion of the posthuman future would be complete mastery of nature insofar as the mind would be free from all natural limitations, allowing for a seemingly limitless self-enhancement. The other conclusion would be what Waters has described as the “disappearance of humans as embodied creatures.”9 Waters explains that according to the narrative of evolution, “When an old species is forced to compete with a new superior one, the former must either adapt or become extinct. Humans will soon face the same junction with artificial life.”10 In short, the endgame of transhumanism is either the singularity or the extinction of the human species.
Transhumanism as Parodic Soteriology
Transhumanist ideology is nothing other than a parody of orthodox Christology and anthropology. What transhumanism seeks to do through biotechnology, Christianity claims is already being done through Christ. Waters writes that because God became incarnate, Jesus, therefore, experienced “the finite and mortal limits of the human condition, yet in being raised from the dead into the eternal life of God these limit are transcended.”11 He goes on to write that “in raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicated Jesus’s life and ministry” and that “since God is incarnate in this human life, the vindication extends to all of creation.”12 Thus, instead of mastery over nature, Jesus vindicates humanity, reconciling humanity to God and to all of creation. And instead of a continual disembodied consciousness, he gives us the hope of embodied resurrection.
Through the resurrection of Jesus, it is revealed that nature is more than material: it is a creation. The theology of creation implies an ordering13 of all things toward their creator, a creator who is none other than the triune God who calls creation to be relational as God is relational. Further, it is through Jesus’s resurrection that creation’s present reconciliation with God and with itself is affected, and it is through his resurrection that creation’s future resurrection and renewal is revealed. This narrative offers an alternative vision by revealing that the ultimate destiny of humankind is to live in relation to God, each other, and all God’s creatures in the new heavens and new earth, the world of perfect love. Because this is our destiny, we can embrace the limits of the human condition knowing that they have been “taken up into the eternity of our creator and redeemer.”14
Our task, then, is not mastery over nature for the sake of transcending creaturely conditions and achieving immortality. Instead, it is to embrace our status as dependent creatures,15 to conform our lives to the underlying order of the vindicated creation, and to participate in the task that humans were given in the beginning, which is to subdue the earth and exert dominion over its creatures. Waters reminds us that our creaturely dominion is a limited dominion and consists mainly in tasks that order creation toward its creator.16 Biotechnology can be utilized in performing this task, but it is never to be used to usurp the work of Christ.
To sum up this point, the narrative of Jesus Christ reveals that nature is creation vindicated and teleologically ordered toward relationship with the Creator. Humans are creatures who have been elected to bear witness to this ordering and to participate in it through the task of limited dominion. It is such an understanding, with its multifaceted practices of limited dominion, that can save humanity from a reductionistic, disembodied posthuman future.
Overcoming Alienation through Hospice
Christians can bear witness and live into the narrative of a vindicated creation in redeemed relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We start, however, with a warning from Waters who urges us not to romanticize nature because, though vindicated, it is still a source of futility, pain, suffering, and death, and it will be so until the eschaton. The fear of these experiences will continually be at the forefront of human anxieties, inspiring more and more projects like the one proposed by the posthumanists. As a result, we will continue to see demands made on the medical industry that affect its overall nature and purpose. For example, biotechnology mixed with a fear of death and suffering has already caused the focus of medicine to shift from care to cure and beyond. The Christian medical ethicist C. Ben Mitchell notes that in the original Hippocratic Oath the idea of cure is not even mentioned.17 Yet our culture has demanded so much from the medical industry due to its access to advanced biotechnology that it has effectively substituted the hospital for the church, seeking immortality and eternal life from within the walls of the former rather than the later. For posthumanists, this is a welcome change insofar as their goal is to eliminate the need for medical care and seek an existence in which sickness and death is overcome.
However, given the inevitability of suffering and death (for now), I believe that the church can offer an alternative to the parodic soteriology of the posthuman project through increased involvement in hospice care—hospice care is one tangible means of helping people to die well. By dying well, I mean dying with dignity, facing the inevitable with as little fear and as much hope as possible.
The philosophy behind hospice care makes this possible. Hospice18 is a service designed to help people face death with dignity by providing continual care to people diagnosed with a terminal illness and having less than six months to live. People are usually referred to hospice once a doctor determines that the disease has progressed to a stage beyond curable treatment. People can then choose to face death at some place other than the sterile environment of the hospital, usually in the comfort of one’s own home or at a supervised care facility such as a nursing home.
Once a person has entered hospice care, a network of volunteers and medical professionals is assembled to attend to the whole range of the person’s needs—physical, mental, emotion, and spiritual. Doctors and nurses provide medical care that is intended to relieve pain and suffering, while counselors, therapists, and clergy help the person and their family understand and prepare both emotionally and spiritually for the moment of death. This “circle of care” also provides continual grief counseling and support for the people who survive the dying family members. What I find most interesting about hospice care is that although hospice staff provide a significant amount of care, hospice is designed in such a way so as to equip volunteers and family members with the proper resources and abilities to be the person’s primary caregivers. Hospice staff work closely with family, friends, and volunteers to develop care plans tailored to the person’s needs and to provide training that allows family and friends to carry out the daily routines of bathing, feeding, turning, and even administering medications and monitoring changes in a person’s condition.
The fact that hospice is designed to enable this kind of personal interaction in the final stages of life is important because the product of pain and suffering experienced in the final stages of disease is the fear of alienation from God, others, and self. The ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas can be extremely helpful here in helping us to understand this phenomenon. Hauerwas observes that “pain isolates us not only from one another, but even from ourselves.”19 Pain isolates people from others because pain and suffering cannot be communicated, and it must therefore be endured subjectively. We may be able to relate to the pain that someone else is experiencing based on our own personal experiences, but the exact nature of a person’s pain must be experienced privately. But pain, as Hauerwas states, also causes a self-alienation in the sense that these painful experiences are now creating a history that is altogether foreign to the person, one that causes the person’s self-understanding to be completely out of their control.20
That what people most fear about suffering and death is alienation should not be surprising; our Christology already reveals that what it means to be human is to be in relationship with one another and with God. This is why I am convinced that hospice provides a tangible opportunity for witnessing to the salvation accomplished in Jesus Christ. Insofar as Christians become more involved in hospice, volunteering with those who are terminally ill, they thus become more connected with the very people who are in danger of losing that sense of connectedness. Through their presence they extend the community of Christ to those for whom community is quickly being taking away.
The church is being confronted with new and exciting challenges due to the continued advancement of biotechnology. These advancements provide humanity with improved standards of living and many opportunities to confront various forms of sickness. They also raise many questions, forcing us to continually ask ourselves “Who are we as humans?”, “What do we fear most?”, and “What are we willing to risk to overcome that fear?” I have argued that a fear of death underlies the transhumanism of the posthuman project, a fear that transhumanists believe can be overcome through a merging of humanity with technology in order to provide humanity with ultimate control over its natural limitations and mortality. I have also argued that this control is a form of soteriology and that the church is to live out an alternative soteriology that witnesses to the ultimate reconciliation of all things to and with God and each other. Hospice care is one way that this soteriology can be put into effect.
One of the church’s great gifts to those who are facing death is that, like Job’s friends who sat in silence with him for seven days while he was suffering, the church knows how to simply be present. This is because, as Hauerwas points out, the church knows how to confess sin, forgive, and even welcome strangers into its midst.21 The church is a community that does not (or should not) fear suffering and death, a community that knows (or should know) how to overcome division and alienation of all types because it believes that suffering and death have been overcome and that God is active and present in the world, reconciling all things to himself. Through sacrificially caring for those who are in pain or approaching the end of life, Christians can help people to die well, knowing that there is ultimately hope in the coming resurrection. Such care, through the resource of hospice programs, is a manifestation of the beauty and goodness that stands over and against the reductionistic ugliness of a posthuman future.
2. The details of this development are beyond the scope of this essay. For a nicely detailed chronology, see the first two chapters of Brent Waters, From Human to Posthuman: Christian Theology and Technology in a Postmodern World (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2006).
3. Ibid., 50.
4. Ibid., 50.
5. Ibid., 61.
6. Ibid., 37.
7. See “What is Transhumanism?” World Transhumanism Association, http://www.transhumanism.org/index.php/WTA/faq21/46/. Here is it argued that human nature lies in psychological experience and consciousness, not in biological boundaries.
8. See Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (New York, NY: Viking Press, 1999). See also Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York, NY: Viking Press, 2005).
9. Waters, From Human to Posthuman, 64.
10. Ibid., 64.
11. Ibid., 106. [my emphasis]
12. Ibid., 106.
13. According to Oliver O’Donovan, the objective world exists as an “ordered totality” by virtue of the fact that there is a creator. Therefore, all things exist related to the creator and to each other. He argues that it is within the context of deliberation about this reality that morality exists. Also, because all things are interrelated to each other and the creator, human flourishing directly depends on the flourishing of creation. Therefore, humanity proper orders itself in the act of ordering all things toward the creator. See Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994), 31-43.
14. Waters, From Human to Posthuman, 110.
15. Sarah Coakley, “Creaturehood before God: Male and Female,” in Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 55-68. She argues that “at the heart of any Christian doctrine of creaturehood must surely lie, as perhaps Aquinas’s theology illuminates above all, the notion of a radical, qualitatively distinct, dependence of the creature on God,” 55.
16. Waters, From Human to Posthuman, 136. The task of limited dominion consists not in acts of destruction or consumption for the sole benefit of humanity. Instead, they are to be tasks of cultivation that lead to creation’s flourishing. See footnote 13.
17. They note that the original Hippocratic physicians acknowledged their limits and sought to simply reduce the suffering caused by disease. With the coming of modern technology, cure became a possibility, but this did not affect the overall telos of medicine, which is, as Mitchell argues, still a disease-based approach and not the enhancement of human nature as such. The goal of clinical medicine, he argues, is “treating and preventing disease [. . .] in individual patients, as well as alleviating pain and suffering due to physical and/or emotion disease.” Mitchell et al., Biotechnology and the Human Good, 118.
19. Stanley Hauerwas, “Salvation and Health: Why Medicine Needs the Church,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 549.
20. Ibid., 550.
21. Ibid., 553.
Eric J. Speece
Eric J. Speece serves as the director of music and the arts for the Church of the Good Shepherd in Davidson, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Laura, and their three children. He holds a BA in philosophy and has recently earned a Master of Theological Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.