I reviewed Kevin Vanhoozer’s Pictures at a Theological Exhibition a few days ago. I forgot to include an item in that review that I was planning to include. Maybe that’s for the best, as you will see below.
Basically, the deal was this: I was watching an episode of Ancient Aliens not long ago, and that was generating in my mind some theological questions. Vanhoozer actually addresses similar questions and issues in an essay in his book. The essay is entitled “Enhancement in the Cathedral: Power, Knowledge and Smart Pills.”
Let’s be clear: Vanhoozer does not interact specifically with Ancient Aliens. I probably did well not to include a reference to Ancient Aliens in my review, since many scholars scoff at that show, or roll their eyes at it. Just tossing out the term “Ancient Aliens” in my review would be poison.
But allow me to share my thought process. I was watching an episode of Ancient Aliens entitled “The Next Humans.” It was episode 3 of Season 11. See here for somebody’s review of it. On that episode, people were talking about how we may be on our way towards positive breakthroughs, in terms of our health, lifespans, and intelligence increasing. Aging may be counteracted. Organs can be replaced. Cells will be repaired. Technology can play a role in a lot of this. According to the episode, we are actually moving in this direction right now.
How true this is, I have no idea. My Mom’s husband is a scientist, and he was disputing what Ancient Aliens said on another episode, about human and rabbit DNA being mixed together. He was saying that this was not what happened! In addition, when I am watching Ancient Aliens and see a person labeled a “Futurologist,” I wonder what the heck that is. Where do futurologists get their qualifications?
But suppose that there is some validity in what Ancient Aliens was saying about “the Next Humans.” Would that be a good thing? Would that be a bad thing?
I thought about the Tower of Babel story in the Book of Genesis. God stepped in to stop the people from building a tower that would reach to heaven, saying that, if they have started to do that, nothing they imagine will be impossible for them (Genesis 11:6).
Then there is the question of whether we would want a world without any suffering and death. You know the usual theistic theodicies: God permits suffering because that builds in us character. It gives us depth. People who have not suffered can be pretty shallow. Suffering makes us more compassionate. The possibility of death humbles us. Our limitations, in general, humble us.
Then there is the practical issue of over-population. If people are not dying, won’t there be too many people, but not enough resources? Maybe our augmented intelligence will be able to find a solution to that problem!
But my mind had its share of “on the other hands.” For instance, I have no objection to other inventions and devices that have reduced suffering and prolonged life. I use soap. I take an Aspirin when I have a headache. Looking outside of myself, I am happy that more women can bear children and live through childbirth, rather than dying. The mother can then enjoy her children. The children can have a mother. Should I oppose these things on account of some “no pain, no gain” belief system? I don’t think so.
Another question enters my mind. God is powerful, right? God is far more powerful than we are. Why, then, should God be intimidated by us trying to enhance ourselves? God would still be more powerful than us, even after we enhance ourselves! And, because of that, people may still feel some need for God in their lives, even after their enhancements. Yet, God did seem to feel somewhat threatened in the Tower of Babel story, and this was at the prospect of building a Tower. We know now that the Tower would not have even reached the heaven where God dwells, since there is so much outer space out there. Why would a great God feel threatened?
Now for the Vanhoozer essay. Like I said, Vanhoozer did not mention Ancient Aliens, nor did he really interact with anything that was on that Ancient Aliens episode. But he was talking about attempts to enhance human nature. He referred to smart pills, which would be like steroids for the mind. Vanhoozer was critiquing enhancements from a Christian and a bioethical standpoint.
Vanhoozer took great pains to distinguish enhancements from healing or medicine. Healing and medicine restore our bodies, rather than enhancing them. For Vanhoozer, enhancement is a bad idea for a variety of reasons. For one, God made us as we are, and we should not try to tamper with that. Also, our limitations build in us character. And, according to Vanhoozer, seeking to enhance ourselves in this life focuses on prospering in this life and this world, when we should be seeking treasures in heaven (a la Matthew 6:19-21).
I am still rather ambivalent in terms of how I feel about this issue. I doubt that God is threatened by anything human beings can do. At the same time, God may not feel that human beings are ready for certain things. He may believe that they lack the character to handle certain things properly. There are plenty of sci-fi stories about people attaining godlike powers, yet lacking the wisdom or the character to use them in a way that benefits themselves or others. I think of the Star Trek episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”
The New Testament teaches that God has a plan to exalt human beings, at least the ones who follow him (see II Timothy 2:12, for example). In a sense, Christianity itself is about human enhancement: God gives people the Holy Spirit, and they grow in wisdom and character and even gain eternal life. But that is enhancement God’s way, and it entails having a good moral character.
I have no plans to oppose technological advancements, even those that can enhance human nature. God will permit what God wants, and God will step in and stop what God wants. That does not mean there should be no bio-ethics at all. If we are to enhance our nature, we need to make sure that everyone gets enhanced, if possible, so that nobody is left out in the cold or gets stigmatized or marginalized.