Gnosticism has haunted Christianity since the beginning, always offering an easy but escapist alternative to historic Christianity’s more rigorous calling. Now, with a new philosophy called Transhumanism appearing in movies, TV, and even the U.S. Presidential campaign—some Christians are afraid this is just Gnosticism in a new form. But what if that’s backward? What if American popular Christianity has actually unwittingly embraced Gnostic ideas, and Transhumanism is a movement striving to find a way back to orthodoxy?
“I don’t have delusions of grandeur, I have an actual recipe for grandeur.”
So says Eddie Morra, main character on the 2011 movie Limitless, and its current TV series spin-off. The series is based on the idea of a pill that can unlock all the power of the human brain and help ordinary slackers achieve things way beyond their wildest dreams.
This sounds like science fiction, but one of the reasons these kinds of stories are so compelling is that they wrestle with ideas that are slowly emerging into the real world.
We see headlines about CRISPR, the new cut-and-paste gene editing technology, or Google’s Calico Labs, a company founded to combat aging, or car manufacturers like Tesla, whose owners wake up to find that their cars have become self-driving overnight.Some Christians are afraid transhumanism is just Gnosticism in a new form. But what if that’s backward?
Along with these stories, we’ve started hearing about people called transhumanists, who are promoting these developments as well as many others even more advanced. Who are these people, and should Christians be concerned with the ideologies they promote?
Since its earliest moments, Christianity has been haunted by a philosophy called Gnosticism—a compelling alternative vision, which has always been as tempting as it was unorthodox. Gnosticism was one of the first teachings to be declared heretical, and yet it has never really vanished, always finding new ways to present itself to each generation.
To drastically oversimplify, Gnosticism tells us there are two separate realms: a physical, and a spiritual. The physical realm is bad and is destined for destruction. The spiritual realm is good and is the realm of eternal life. Being a spiritual person means ignoring the needs and desires of physical existence and learning to focus purely on spiritual values. Focusing on spiritual values will lead to seeing death as a good thing—as the doorway to real life.
Gnosticism is compelling because it has a clear answer to the Problem of Evil. When we see pain and suffering in the world, Gnosticism tells us this is exactly what we should expect. Physical reality is bad, so it produces bad things. The only answer is to escape.
If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because that’s what a lot of Christians actually believe. It’s so widely pervasive, that secular Americans often think this is what Christianity is about—and many Christians agree.
Nevertheless, this is not what historic Christianity has taught. Starting in Genesis, Christianity teaches us that physical reality is God’s good creation. Bad things happen, but God responds not by abandoning His creation, but by setting out on a divine mission to renew and transform it. In the resurrection of Jesus, God commits even more fully to this mission—to pushing back death from the cosmos and bringing life to the world. Being a Christian means participating in the mission of God—working to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and free the captives, working for life both now and later.
Compared to Gnosticism, Christianity has no good answer to the Problem of Evil. When we see pain and suffering in the world, Christianity cannot justify or rationalize it. The only answer is that it must be overcome.
Or as one person famously put it, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The contrast between these two value systems couldn’t be more extreme. Gnosticism says that physical reality is bad and must be escaped—Christianity says that physical reality is good and must be transformed.
Despite these extreme differences, Christians have often been lured into accepting, practicing, and proclaiming Gnostic values. According to the renowned Anglican theologian and New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, in Surprised by Hope:
“Some Western Christians have embraced something worryingly similar to second-century Gnosticism when they think of the present world as evil and the only solution being to escape it and to go to heaven instead.”
We see this worrying tendency in everything from the songs we choose to sing to the scriptures we choose to ignore. We especially see it in Christians who place a heavy emphasis on “going to heaven when you die,” while ignoring passages such as Romans 8:18–25, which talk about God’s mission to transform the cosmos. Colonel V. Doner explains it like this in The Gnosticism of Modern Evangelicalism:
“Gnostic dualism is a reverse Christianity; it is a defeatist, escapist, ‘bad news’ gospel that the early church and apostles consistently referred to as antichrist. This dualistic worldview that God’s physical creation (the world and all it contains) is evil, worthy only of destruction, and that only ‘spiritual’ pursuits are of true value, has influenced vast sectors of nineteenth- and twentieth-century evangelicalism.”
Wright recounts an experience of sending his book off to a translator. This book discussed the biblical doctrine of God’s mission to renew and redeem creation, and Jesus’ call for Christians to participate in that mission. On reading this, the translator wrote back in alarm, accusing Wright of not having read the Bible and of trying to create a new religion.
The fact that Gnosticism has been mistaken for Christianity is nowhere truer than in the United States. Wright says:
“I have heard it seriously argued in North America that since God intends to destroy the present space-time universe, and moreover since he intends to do so quite soon now, it really doesn’t matter whether we emit twice as many greenhouse gases as we do now, whether we destroy the rain forests and the arctic tundra, whether we fill our skies with acid rain.”
Growing up in a U.S. Christian environment, I was exposed to a lot of ideas that were a blend of traditional Christianity and creeping Gnosticism. Sometimes this would show up in the lyrics to songs like “This world is not my home” or in the opinion that Christians should not be concerned about the plight of the poor or about protecting the environment. Despite the fact that these ideas go directly against Christian teaching (caring for the poor is a big part of Jesus’ teaching; caring for the environment is a big part of the Genesis creation account), they were supported by Gnostic sentiments, like “Why should we worry about the environment, since it’s all going to burn anyway?” or “Why should we worry about people’s physical condition, since all that matters is their spiritual state?”
But as a teenager, I began doing a lot of my own study and research. And as I did, I discovered the depths and comprehensiveness of historic Christian thought. Along the way, I came to embrace resurrection instead of just immortality, transformation instead of just spirituality, and working for the redemption of the world, instead of just escapism.
Around the same time, I began encountering transhumanists.
Transhumanism is simply the belief that we can and should use science and technology to transform the human condition. As it was presented to me, transhumanists embrace every aspect of our humanity—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—and consequently, embrace growth and transformation along all of those dimensions.
I immediately recognized the similarities between this and orthodox Christian thought, and I began reaching out to dialogue with the secular transhumanists I had encountered.
But I soon discovered that not everyone was happy to talk with me. As a Christian, they insisted, I was intrinsically opposed to physical existence, was not interested in improving the world or the plight of the poor, and was against caring for the environment.
They could recount story after story to support this assertion. Many had personal “de-conversion” experiences, when they realized Christianity was working to destroy their community, to undermine progress, and to hurt people. But most of them seemed to trace their rejection of Christianity back to a sermon, a lesson, or a teaching which drove home the point that Christianity was interested in piety, but not in actually accomplishing anything.
Christianity, as they had encountered it, was a philosophy which said that physical existence was bad and must be destroyed.
In other words, these transhumanists had rejected Christianity for being too Gnostic.
I tried explaining that this theology was not representative of historic Christianity. But my explanations were not lining up with the theology they were encountering from other Christians every day. They insisted that I must not have read the Bible or I must be inventing my own religion.
It soon dawned on me that many of these people had fled the Gnosticism they saw in mainstream Christianity—and in transhumanism, were trying to salvage the few orthodox Christian teachings they had picked up from it.
This fact has bothered me ever since. Ironic, then, that when Christians encounter transhumanism, they often complain that it sounds too much like Gnosticism. I like to point out that, to the secular world, so does Christianity.
So what do transhumanists actually stand for?
That’s a difficult question to answer. Try to find two transhumanists who agree on anything in particular, and you’ll be looking for a long time. But what almost all of them have in common is an insistence that science and technology must not be understood as something foreign or alien to our humanity, but as an intrinsic part of who we are.
This leads to the definition of transhumanism I used previously: the belief that we can and should use science and technology to transform the human condition.
How that gets done, and what it means in terms of political or social structures, or specific technologies and projects that should be undertaken—are all fiercely debated. You’ll find transhumanists on all sides of the political spectrum, with widely varying ideas and priorities.
But most of them agree that we should live longer, healthier lives; that diseases should be defeated; extreme poverty eradicated; and discovery and exploration advanced.
It’s hard to escape the way this coincides with the biblical vision. A worldview which sees physical reality as God’s good creation and human beings as called to participate in the care and tending of that creation cannot avoid recognizing science and technology as a natural outgrowth of being human, made in the image of God.
No wonder, then, that the biblical story begins talking about human artistic and technological innovation from the very beginning . . . or that one of our best-known Bible stories involves a man named Noah, called to construct a giant technological artifact in order advance God’s purposes in the world.
No wonder, then, that Christians have historically insisted on using science and technology to improve human life, and that even today, so many hospitals are named after Saint Thomas, Saint John, or Saint Mary.
In the past few years, transhumanists have been increasingly showing up in movies, TV, pop culture, and now even with a candidate in the U.S. Presidential race. Many of those appearances are framed as scary or threatening—with discussions of killer robots, biological weapons, and rogue artificial intelligence.
But what’s really going on? Is this some kind of criminal conspiracy, as fringe religious groups keep insisting? Or a revival of ancient Gnosticism, as some conservatives confusingly claim?
I think not. I think what we’re seeing is a world increasingly grappling with difficult technological choices and desperately looking for positive, coherent, transformative ways in which to approach them. A world looking for options beyond the reactionary or the consumerist.
And when this world has looked to popular Christianity, it has found…nothing. Or rather, it has found escapism, consumerism, and apathy—the calling cards of a pervasive and creeping Gnosticism that has almost completely destroyed the ability of Christians to speak meaningfully into these issues.
Transhumanism is standing in that gap. And it is standing there brandishing the hallmarks of historic Christianity: Physical reality is good, and must be transformed; humans play a special role in the cosmos, with humble origins but vast potential; there is a better future possible, and we have the opportunity to participate in making it happen.
Transhumanism is a challenge to Christianity—a challenge to renew and reclaim the biblical vision, a challenge to abandon creeping Gnosticism, and to embrace the transformative nature of the historic Christianity worldview.
The question is whether or not we will listen.
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