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Mar 28, 2024

When Technology Becomes Theology

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Trueman Carl

Carl R. Trueman

Grove City College

Carl R. Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.

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When Technology Becomes Theology

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At the heart of many of the contentious debates that beset our cultural moment lies a fundamental question: Is there such a thing as normative human nature? Or, to put this another way: Is human nature something that transcends specific times and places and something in which all human beings share, or is it a construct, the product of social, material, and technological conditions? 

One glib answer to this is, of course it is the former: human beings can only reproduce with other human beings. But that is to miss the pungency of the point. It is not mere biology at issue. It is the larger question of whether human beings have an intrinsic moral shape and telos, which would mean that certain behaviors are right and others are wrong, that people flourish in some nonnegotiable ways and not in others. The question of biology is not merely a mechanical/reproductive one but also a moral one: Are human beings meant to engage each other sexually in some ways and not others? Is there, in other words, both a biological and moral significance to our sexed constitution? To answer yes is to affirm a given moral structure to what it means to be human; to answer no is to deny the same. And to do the latter is also to answer one of the pressing questions of our day: What is a woman? Exclude the moral significance of biology and this becomes an intractable conundrum. Affirm it, and the answer is simple and obvious.

The grounding of this moral significance to our biological constitution is, for the Christian, the claim that human beings are made in the image of God. Theologians may debate the precise nature and implications of this image, but all would agree that human nature not only is a given in terms of the basic biological species but also has a moral structure. This moral structure is inseparable from our embodiment. We are bodies, and our bodies make us interdependent, as the processes of reproduction and then child-rearing indicate. In these areas—reproduction and child-rearing—we have biological connections to others that carry moral significance. Parents are accountable for the baby that is dependent on them. And this indicates that the differences in the sexed bodies of men and women carry fundamental moral significance. Each has a different “end” in the reproductive act—the man fertilizes the woman; the woman gestates and carries the child to term. And both have obligations to the life of the child that they have created. This is, of course, a normative claim. The woman who is barren is still a woman as is the man who is sterile. Indeed, the language of barrenness and sterility supports this, indicating the absence of something that should normatively be there.

Given this, it becomes clear that for transgenderism to become plausible within a given culture, the reproductive telos of the human body has to become less important, or even of no importance at all. This is what marks off modern Western transgender politics from other forms of transgression of the male-female binary. Other cultures have their cross-dressers and those who present or identify as women—the hijras of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh being one such group. Indeed, hijras may even go as far as having their genitalia removed. But they are regarded as outliers and often as having special religious significance. It is precisely because they do not represent a causal dissolution of the distinction between male and female that they are important. The transgender question in the West is far different: it posits that the difference between male and female is either a social construct or something that can be eliminated by the use of technology.

In part, this is the result of the loss of sacred order in the West. Once the social order is detached from something that transcends it, it has to justify itself—its moral structure, its “reality”—on the basis of itself. This means that human beings, unmoored from the notion that they have a meaning given to them by a sacred order governed by God, become nothing more than biological matter with no intrinsic moral shape. They become, in a technological world, raw material over which technological power can be wielded without concern for the consequences. Human beings become whatever technology allows.

The connection between technology and what it means to be human lay at the heart of Karl Marx’s thought. If human beings are constituted by the way they make things, then as the latter changes, so does the former. When the village artisan was replaced by the worker on the factory production line, Marx saw human relationships to nature, to themselves as a species, and to each other as changing too. This was likewise evident in the distinction between men and women. As Marx and Engels opined in The Communist Manifesto:

The less the skill and exertion of strength implied in manual labour, in other words, the more modern industry becomes developed, the more is the labour of men superseded by that of women. Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labour, more or less expensive to use, according to their age and sex.1

The point is simple and in a sense irrefutable: once machines are used, raw physical strength becomes less significant. Where once a blacksmith needed to wield a heavy hammer, now the mere press of a button does the same thing. As this occurs, the basic physical difference between men and women ceases to play the same role in the workplace.

The power of technology to dissolve the social differences that have typically expressed the sexual differences between men and women has become a theme of the stream of modern feminist thought that flows from Simone de Beauvoir through Shulamith Firestone and Donna Haraway to contemporary thinkers such as Sophie Lewis. “Cyborg feminism,” as it is sometimes called, sees the use of technology as key to women’s liberation, particularly in the realm of reproduction, which one might identify as the most fundamental and intractable difference between the sexes. Now, however, with widespread and effective contraception,  abortion legally available in many places, IVF, surrogacy, and the aspiration to develop technologies that allow for womb transplants into men and even artificial wombs outside the human body, even this difference has been attenuated in the social imaginary, philosopher Charles Taylor’s somewhat awkward term for that set of cultural beliefs, practices, and intuitions that shape how we imagine the world to be and of which we are often not particularly conscious. That transplanted or artificial wombs may never become reality is not as important as the fact that they are at least plausible in the popular mind. The imagination is the important thing when it comes to how people think about the importance of sex differences. Reproduction once clearly differentiated men and women in terms of role and telos; technology allows us to imagine that differentiation coming to an end.

Key here, however, are not simply the sexual or physical-strength aspects of technology. Other, lesser aspects of the development of technology have served to attenuate the power of biological difference between men and women. Although physical strength and reproductive functions have been made less significant via technology, these are merely symptomatic of the wider impact that technology now has: time and space have been transformed by the advent of efficient high-speed travel and by such internet platforms as Zoom and Skype. Social media’s frictionless mode of interpersonal engagement inevitably changes what we mean by “interpersonal” and thus “person.” No longer are embodiment and physical proximity particularly important. We exist as ideas or opinions, interacting with others as the same. This is a clue to perhaps the biggest shift in the social imaginary: we are being trained to think of bodies—our real, physical bodies—as simply less important for determining who we are. Shorn of their various biologically framed ends, bodies have become mere lumps of matter, raw material for the realization of our selves—selves to be determined by our wills. The physical body is no longer who I am. It is something to be reshaped and even overcome in my quest for self-realization.

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This is where the transhumanist imagination is significant. If human beings are not special—not made in the image of God, not designed for some great purpose—but are merely the latest random species thrown up by the intrinsically meaningless process of evolution, then no authority should be attached to how we are constituted biologically, not merely in terms of our sex characteristics but across the board. We are an animal that can—that will—be transcended, and technology offers a pathway to that act of transcendence. To borrow Nietzschean terminology, it gives us the ability to overcome ourselves. This way of thinking is now termed “transhumanism.” It takes numerous forms: Some transhumanists envisage a future where humans are physically melded with machines. Others aspire to uploading their minds to a computer to defeat the mortality that attaches to physical human bodies. “Transhumanism” is too broad a term to be reduced to a single vision or set of aspirations, but at root it sees the human body as something limited and limiting that must be overcome. The body, in other words, is a hindrance to realizing our full potential, and it is a problem to be solved. The pervasive, disembodied nature of the technology that we all now routinely use tilts our imaginations and our intuitions toward believing this vision is plausible.

From this perspective, transgenderism is a species of transhumanism. It too exalts the will and the desires of the individual over the external authority of the body. It too sees technology as the means by which the constraints and limitations of bodily existence, in this case sexed bodily existence, can be overcome. And it sees no reason why these things, if possible, should not be made actual, given that the body is just raw material, at best the random product of an evolutionary process that has no telos guiding its direction or granting any given moment some kind of transcendent authority. It is thus no surprise that one of the great transgender pioneers and theoreticians of our day, Martine Rothblatt, is a biological male who presents as a female. The very title of his most famous contribution in this sphere, From Transgender to Transhuman: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Form,2 makes his thesis clear. Technology has rendered human nature plastic. And gender issues are only the most politically potent of the problems this has caused; they cannot ultimately be separated from the broader transformation of the social imaginary by the advent of the immense technological power that human beings have unleashed upon themselves.

Transhumanism also shares with transgenderism a basic commitment to divorcing human biology from specific human ends. To return to a point made at the start, the sexed nature of the human body is of vital importance to the process of reproduction. Sex speaks of an end, and the sex differences between men and women are significant because of their distinct roles in achieving that end. The distinction between men and women is not the same as the distinction between people with brown hair and people with ginger hair. Such differences have no real importance because they do not affect what the people concerned are for and what their role in achieving that end is. Differences in hair color are not teleologically significant, whereas the possession of a womb and the ability to produce sperm are. But transgenderism and transhumanism deny the teleological importance of biology. They are both species of the same phenomenon: the drive to deny and negate biological teleology—whether in the matter of reproduction (and thus gender), mortality, or any other bodily limitation.

Of course, all of this rests on a dissatisfaction with the notion of a normative embodied human nature and the givenness of what it means to be human. These are not technological questions, even though it is the technological experts who consistently present themselves as those qualified to answer them. Indeed, it is perhaps fitting to close with a quotation from Hannah Arendt, who predicted the dynamics of our current situation with uncanny precision in her great work, The Human Condition:

The future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself. There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth. The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific and technical knowledge in this direction, and this question cannot be decided by scientific means; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians.3

To which I might add: it is also a theological question. Given the absence of any sacred order in modern society, therein lies the problem. Where technology is our theology, human nature comes to be seen as nothing more than a technical problem to be solved or raw biological material to be used in whatever way we see fit. In effect, theology as an authority is, to borrow from C. S. Lewis, abolished. Transgenderism is thus a species of transhumanism. And transhumanism is thus a form of dehumanization. Therein lies the real tragedy of our current situation.


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