Transhumanism and the Image of God

Today's Technology and the Future of Christian Discipleship

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Jacob Shatzer
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , April
     2019.
     192 pages.
     $22.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830852505.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Jacob Shatzer’s Transhumanism and the Image of God offers a measured but generally cautionary critique of transhumanist theoretical positions, values, and applications. Writing from an explicitly “Christian” perspective (Shatzer does not identify his confessional basis more specifically than this), the author opens his text with the argument that technology is never value-neutral. Though we may easily overlook their pervasive influence upon our values, technological devices interact with the humans who use them in ways that steadily shape these humans’ moral views and everyday choices. Humans and technology thus exist in an ambiguous process of “making” one another (6), as we humans who design and build physical devices have our own values influenced by those very tools.

Troublingly for Shatzer, the values espoused by such tools tend to express “transhuman” perspectives that Shatzer believes oppose a Christian worldview and lifestyle. Thus, Shatzer argues that an appropriate “Christian” response to the reality of living in a technologically-saturated society is not to attempt to avoid such tools altogether, but instead to “engage today’s technology creatively and critically in order to counter the ways these technologies tend toward a transhuman future” (11).

Shatzer then devotes the rest of his book to aiding readers in this effort. Chapter 1 rearticulates the introduction’s argument about the pervasive influence of technology upon contemporary humans, while also defining technology and transhumanism and sketching their formative power. Chapter 2 delves more deeply into transhumanism as a philosophical movement that advances a particular set of agendas (largely harmful ones in Shatzer’s estimation) around what it means to be human and how to flourish as a human being. Chapters 3 through 5 each explore a particular outgrowth of transhumanist theory by examining implications for human biology (“morphological freedom”), the interface between human biology and technology (“augmented reality”), and nonhuman consciousness (“artificial intelligence and mind uploading”). After analyzing transhumanist theory and specific technological applications, the book’s focus shifts in its second half to examining how specific technologies may inculcate values supportive of a “transhuman future.”

In resisting such a future, Shatzer proposes particular “biblical themes, counterpractices, and an image” (13) intended to help Christians use technology without becoming deluded by the transhuman agenda Shatzer sees behind it. Chapter 6, for example, explores how the smartphone, while helpful in some respects, communicates a vision of reality in which the virtual is normalized and even valued more than physical, face-to-face interactions. Shatzer suggests certain practices and ways of thinking that can help smartphone users continue to cherish these types of relationships, resisting the pressure caused by smartphones to embrace alternate values. Chapters 7 through 9 address technologies of cosmopolitanism and global capitalism, robotics, and communications. Chapter 10 concludes the book with a summary of the author’s overall argument and a rearticulation of specific practices readers can take to use technology while resisting its attempts to change one’s moral views.

The strength of this work is Shatzer’s careful analysis of potential pitfalls in both transhumanist philosophical-ethical positions and in the overuse of technology that may result from an uncritical embrace of its possible benefits. Readers who share Shatzer’s particular confessional background are likely to appreciate the thoughtfulness of his critique, as well as the specific practices of discipleship he suggests as concrete ways of countering unhealthful technological engagement. Problematically, however, the text at times seems to suggest that a “transhuman future” (11) is necessarily incompatible with “Christian values” (171), and the dichotomy sketched between “transhumanism” and “Christianity” may be a bit too sharp. Transhumanism (as well as posthumanism) is a broad and nebulous concept, incorporating an array of views and values, some of which may oppose perspectives traditionally identified with “Christianity.”

Yet at the same time, other aspects of transhumanism—for example, the effort to reduce an individual’s suffering by embedding a medical device within his or her body—may harmonize quite well with traditionally-“Christian” values. Transhumanism as outlined by Shatzer (see chapter 2), and specifically his identification of transhumanist technologies with harmful “liturgies of control” (50) that impede human flourishing, thus runs the risk of casting a pall over the entire concept. Such a consequence occludes the many ways transhumanist theories and applications may offer creatively new avenues for those seeking to live out a Christian commitment (cf. the critique of Christian transhumanist views (97, 121)).

It should also be noted that technological advances like artificial intelligence or smartphones need not necessarily be interpreted as endorsing particular disputed transhumanist positions vis-à-vis anthropology (or theology). Smartphones do not necessarily communicate a “transhuman agenda” dedicated to undermining “Christian values.” Shatzer seems at times to recognize this, and therefore wisely urges caution and care in technology use (rather than rejecting it outright), yet the distinction could be made more explicit.

In sum, while more precision is recommended for avoiding reification, essentialization, and false dichotomies (e.g., around phrases like “Christian values,” “transhuman future,” and the “logic of technology” versus the “way that follows Christ” (175)), this book likely will appeal to readers of Shatzer’s confessional background, as it offers a very timely and thoughtful critique of a powerful theoretical movement, while also providing practical lifestyle suggestions for flourishing as a Christian in an increasingly technological society.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joseph Kimmel is a doctoral candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard University’s Committee on the Study of Religion.

Date of Review: 
September 7, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jacob Shatzer is Assistant Professor and Associate Dean in the School of Theology and Missions at Union University.

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