Sunday, May 11, 2014

Transcendence or Transgression? Technological Enhancement and the Human Vocation

Everyone wants to get ahead. Who can blame them? For most people, the good things in life do not simply drop into their lap. Life is work—more often than not, hard work. The good life—in virtually all credible definitions—entails expending effort; sometimes engaging in intense struggle, and perhaps enduring suffering. If our conception of the good life includes not only doing right but also, more broadly, doing well, then we might understandably welcome any advantage on offer—whether from our family or socio-economic inheritance, natural or genetic endowments, divine grace or, more recently and increasingly, the promise of technological enhancement. What kind of enhancements are on offer? Among other things, “genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, nanotechnology, information technology, and neural interface technology… to alter human characteristics” (Gerald McKenny). This is a ‘brave new world’ indeed that calls for moral reflection.

The relationship between morality and ‘happiness’ is often confusing already—not least because the very notion of ‘happiness’ is hotly contested, the possibilities of everyone fairly attaining ‘happiness’ are problematic, and, frankly, we are liable to deceive ourselves when self-interest and moral obligations appear at odds. If the temptation to put our own well-being ahead of ethical demands has gnawed away at human consciences from time immemorial, then how might the newer powers available to us through advanced technology exacerbate that condition? How should we think about the relationship between moral life, ‘happiness’ and the promise of technology? What pressures, both overt and covert, are upon us to think and act in ways that are contrary to nature, wisdom or gospel?

According to McKenny, there are three different levels of thinking about technology. Most basically, we could simply be “inquiring about the development and use of devices and techniques—the new software program, the new diagnostic test, or, [a] new gene-transfer vector—that enable us to carry out desired functions.” Modern technology is here considered largely as though it is an application of scientific knowledge. As philosopher James C. Edwards cheekily puts it:

It takes the world chastely undressed in laboratories and journal articles and fashions it into light bulbs, napalm, soaring freeways, Viagra, television movies, [confectionery], and much, much more, all of which answer to some desire, deep or adventitious, of some human being, representative or idiosyncratic.
The fact that these technological processes, systems and artefacts are bound up with projects of human desire and forms of life opens us up to the complex reality of the second level of thinking. Considering, for example, the “mechanical respirator” leads McKenny also to consider “the intensive-care unit, the specialty of intensive-care medicine, policies regarding brain death, the army of bio-ethicists and attorneys who address the ethical and legal implications of abating mechanical respiration, the remarkable and often tragic power struggles between the medical establishment and patients or their surrogates that have altered the practice of medicine, and the widespread execution of advance directives.” At this level, we “include practices and self-understandings” in our understanding of technology.

But there is also a third level of thinking: technology “designates an entire way of relating to the world” characterized “by the immense scope of its effects and by the cumulative and irreversible nature of its interventions.” Technology may also

be viewed as a way of constituting the world as means to ends or as objects for human manipulation. Finally, it may be viewed as a fundamental attitude—a relentless refusal to accept what is as it is, a rejection of the given.

It is on this third level of thinking that I want to dwell for the moment, as it is here that our convictions about the meaning and purpose of human life and the impulse for technological solutions meet and perhaps struggle with each other.

How do we conceive of human life and its purpose? In (late) modernity, especially in pluralistic, liberal democracies, each human life is considered to be a kind of project. Every person or ‘individual’ has his or her own ‘life plans’ which he or she seeks to realise; each person has a vision of the good life that he or she is (supposedly) ‘free’ to pursue. Now, while this conception has been critiqued from numerous angles—e.g. for being individualistic, for underestimating elements of ideological governance, for failing to acknowledge liberalism’s disguised ‘communitarian’ ends, or democratic freedom’s requirement of allegiance, and so on—it strikes me that the notion of life as a project—my project or perhaps our tribe’s project—remains largely intact. As the word ‘project’ suggests, we ‘throw ourselves forward’—we assert our goals and plans upon the world; we impose our ‘values’ on an ostensibly neutral reality. Further, as Lesslie Newbigin muses:

a project gives us a sense of direction. As long as we are working for that project, we know where we are going. We are not going round in circles.

Unsurprisingly, technology is easily wedded to such a view of life; indeed it may thrive upon it. Technology is perhaps itself the project par excellence—“constituting the world as means to ends or as objects for human manipulation.” Untrammelled by substantive, binding views of the good life or ‘comprehensive doctrines’ concerning humanity (e.g. religion), technology is indeed freed up to follow paths of purely instrumental rationality, to find the most efficient means to solve technical problems, in order to make our desired benefits and enhancements quickly available to us. In the narrow focus of immediate or short-term goals, this may seem attractive. Give technology the room it needs to better the human condition! Get out of the way!

“But,” as Newbigin asks,

when we have got there—when we achieve the project—what next? How do we know whether what we have achieved is worth having? Has it brought us any nearer to a goal which is worth getting to? … Do we know what is the direction that will ultimately take us anywhere when we have finished all our projects? Is there a direction which is really forward? Is progress a meaningful word—taking the human situation as a whole?

There is no point denigrating the efficacy of technology. But technology’s impressive résumé need not intimidate us into sidelining the important but comparatively uncertain questions of religion and ethics. Technology must answer not simply to the pressing need or problem, or even to a narrow aspiration or goal. It must be answerable to and responsible to bigger, broader conversations about human identity and destiny. But can contemporary Christianity keep enhancement technology accountable when Christianity itself risks being absorbed into the ‘project’ mentality? Miroslav Volf warns of the problem of faith being seen primarily as a kind of spiritual “performance-enhancing drug” that energises our own predetermined plans, or else a “soothing balm” to help us recover when they go wrong. Instead, Volf urges that we recover prophetic Christianity’s vision of human flourishing.

In a Christian vision of human flourishing, the idea of ‘project’ need not be rejected—the emphasis on initiative, ingenuity, improvisation and creativity should be affirmed, albeit critically—but it needs to be enfolded into a sense of vocation. Actually, speaking of a “sense of vocation” may be too weak. We can see even here the dangers of the technological mode of thinking—theology, like everything else becomes a resource, something ready-to-hand to be used and manipulated in service of human projects, a commodity to be expended, a fuel to be exhausted, or a methodology to be applied in service of a desired outcome. Theology must not be reduced to a source of useful ‘metaphors to live by’ but must challenge the ‘myths we live by’, or what Charles Taylor and others refer to as the ‘social imaginary’. If we are going to take vocation seriously, it needs to have a vital and coherent place in our lifeworld—it must genuinely have weight.

Theologian James Gustafson articulated a “strong hunch” that “to be human is to have a vocation, a calling; that it is to become what we now are not; that it calls for a surpassing of what we are; that apart from a telos, a vision of what man can and ought to do, we will flounder and decay.” If this hunch was correct, there are possibilities for both critical and creative interaction between projects of human enhancement and Christian theology.

Both are oriented toward what Charles Taylor in A Secular Age characterises as a human quest for ‘fullness’. For those whose vision is bounded by materialistic and technological horizons, ‘fullness’ might be understood primarily as the realisation or maximisation of human powers—perhaps especially the faculty of reason through the scientific endeavour and technological ingenuity—or, in our terms, the realisation of the human project in a decidedly modern form. McKenny and others have referred to this as the ‘Baconian project’ where knowledge and power are combined and used for the “conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate” (Francis Bacon, The New Organon, 1620, LII). This project has clear echoes of the Christian vision of creation, redemption, and the imago Dei—but there are important differences.

For the Christian, ‘fullness’ is more likely to be understood as something received rather than achieved; oftentimes gratuitously—a gift of undeserved grace. The flip-side of the good news of grace is the recognition of the authority of God and this in turn entails a confession of human limitations and failures—a difficult pill to swallow: indeed it can be interpreted as a dampener to technological aspirations. However, it can also be interpreted as a recognition that the world is superintended by a loving God whose judgement and redemption of creation is our ultimate hope—that is, gospel. But theological ethics should not primarily be an exercise in putting up ‘conservative’ barriers to swift technological advancement—barriers that are likely to be toppled under cultural, scientific and economic pressures. We need a constructive ‘evangelical’ theology of technological development that is more winsome and wise than the promethean impulses of modernity.

Grace is also evident in relation to the blessings of obedience to ‘the way that leads to life’—a way that embodies the eschatological hope of Jesus and creational wisdom. Human beings are not simply elected to be passive recipients of God’s gracious action. Responsive relationship to God in the context of covenant is a Jewish and Christian conviction. Human beings, made in God’s image, are called and enabled to take on the task of dominion—neither as dominators nor merely caretakers—but as creative agents under God to express the character and purposes of the redemptive missio Dei. The technological project must be enfolded within this mission and vocation that exists in a tension between sheol and shalom—between the limitations of both created finitude and sinful brokenness on the one hand, and the shared call into human flourishing and something ‘more’—genuine, faithful, Christ-centred transcendence, on the other.

Despite eschatological hopes and technological know-how, what is often called ‘nature’—whether the world or our own bodies—is not infinitely malleable. As Oliver O’Donovan notes:

That which most distinguishes the concept of creation is that it is complete. Creation is the given totality of order which forms the presupposition of historical existence. ‘Created order’ is that which is not negotiable within the course of history, that which neither the terrors of chance nor the ingenuity of art can overthrow. It defines the scope of our freedom and the limits of our fears.

Our notions of created order have been problematized by our increased capacity to alter ‘nature’, but we remain answerable to the Author of life for the ethos, logic and aims of our technological capacities. In what sense do we live within created bounds? For human enhancement as project, ‘bounds’ are simply obstacles to be overcome. Within a conception of vocation, one must ask more difficult questions: is challenging certain bounds a matter of transcendence or transgression? As McKenny says, technology can become “a relentless refusal to accept what is as it is, a rejection of the given”—the given-ness of created order, divine authority, and grace. In effect, are we faced with a form of the struggle between Augustine’s two cities: a human city fuelled by hubris or the City of God infused with love for God and the world. But we can also ask: Can enhancement technology, enfolded within a Christian vocation, become an expression of partnership in God’s mission, an anticipation of eschatological transcendence? What convictions and character would be required to embody this?

A solely conservative or hesitant stance will merely hold up for short episodes the inexorable push of modernity’s enhancement project. Criticism of the effects of particular technologies will not cause a rethinking of the project overall. Instead, a venture into the ‘third level’ of thinking, into the deepest presuppositions and cultural narratives of our society, is required—that is the public task of theology; to articulate and announce the possibility of truly transcendent humanity with a ‘fullness of life’ that will only be found in the grace and ‘way’ of the Lord Jesus Christ; to mediate the call to true humanity to society and the innovative professions; and to continue to think hard about the relationship between Christian conviction and the emerging ‘enhanced’ realities.


Unknown said...

Hello Ian

I am Tom Holland and the author of a new book on the theology of Tom Wright. I wonder if you would be interested in reviewing it? If you are I can send you a link to a copy. You can see the early reviews at

ac to it by the internet. My email address is

Best wishes

Tom Holland

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