Future Shock or Future Hope?
Recently I’ve been reading a couple of books by a historian at Hebrew University in Jerusalem named Yuval Noah Harrari. In the first book, Sapiens, Harrari tracks the history of humanity from its infancy. The sequel to Sapiens is called Homo Deus. It is about the future of humanity. Harrari says that homo sapiens has been involved in what he calls the Gilgamesh Project ever since its earliest days: Humans have wanted to live forever. With the extraordinary advances that have been made in biology and technology, and that continue at such an extraordinary pace today, Harrari believes that humanity is on the verge of achieving its dream, or at least of living an incredibly long time. But more than that: not only can we extend human life indefinitely; we can also improve it. We can make technological and biological changes of a greater and greater sort, until we are no longer homo sapiens—we are homo deus, the human god.
Now for us Christians this is disturbing language, because the one thing we believe firmly is that the God business is best left to God, and humans need not apply. Nonetheless, Harrari presents a strong case that there is an inevitability to the creation of this new and improved humanity. Furthermore, there are many, many benefits to this brave new world—the ongoing eradication of disease, the already present diminution of war as a solution to human problems, new and effective solutions to the depletion of natural resources, and the overall improvement of life for everyone. If you have a pacemaker, or could avail yourself of gene therapy, or even get regular Botox injections, you are the beneficiary of this brave new world.
But Harrari also is waving a huge caution flag, because he sees innumerable moral dilemmas as we continue down this path of biological and technological advancement. For instance, who will have access to these biological and technological enhancements of the human person? As is already the case, as is always the case, the first people to benefit from it will be the rich and the powerful. We could be on the verge of creating the greatest gap between rich and poor in history, where the differences may not simply be economic—the rich and poor could well be different species from one another, with the poor remaining homo sapiens while the rich advance into presumed godhood.
Likewise, as technology leads us almost inexorably toward a time when not only is our technology linked, but humans themselves can be technologically interconnected, many obvious problems abound. Harrari warns of the very real risk that humanity could one day decide basically that certain human traits or behaviors are like computer viruses and eliminate them from the entire race. It might not on the surface seem bad—perhaps we can eliminate greed from human nature! But with as little as we still know of the human mind, we cannot begin to guess the side effects of such a decision—eliminating greed could seem good but end disastrously. Or people might just as easily decide that religion is the world’s great problem, so let’s eliminate whatever it is in our makeup that makes us religious. On and on. To a certain extent, Harrari says, what kind of human beings—or human gods—we will be in the future is really about which of the many human wills, ideas, philosophies, hopes and dreams, desires and passions, will be chosen, and by whom, to shape the way we understand human purpose. We could entirely change human nature if we wanted to. Do we want to? And is that a good idea? And what about free will?
Reading Harrari has made me aware that we Christians have bigger fish to fry than we often think we do. We get caught up in these hot-button culture war debates of our day, and I’m not saying they aren’t important. But in the meantime, the future of all humanity is not being shaped by theologians or philosophers or politicians or “thought leaders”—it is being shaped by biologists and technocrats. There’s nothing wrong with that—but it’s not enough. Something larger, something transcendent, must also play a role in what humanity is becoming.
In the light of what I’m reading in Harrari, Paul’s words in Romans take on special potency for me. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” In many ways, one could argue that via better living through science “creation itself” is being “set free from its bondage to decay.” We are eliminating decay altogether, some would say. But the decay that Paul means isn’t simply physical, biological, ecological—it is spiritual. At this critical time in the formation of the human race, it is vital that the children of God reveal themselves in their actions and critically, in their values.
We Christians have a vital role to play as humanity turns itself into a human god, by pointing to the One who was God and became Human, Jesus Christ. For us Christians, Jesus is the model of godly humanity—Jesus who stood up for the poor and lived and worked among them; Jesus who cared for the weak rather than trying to eliminate them by biological process. Jesus who did not seek to serve his own interests, but to humbly serve the needs of others, and to treat all people with respect and dignity.
Jesus taught us to be humble, and it wasn’t just because bragging is so socially embarrassing. He taught us to be humble because we tread dangerous ground when we think we are better than others; we tread dangerous ground when we believe that we have the authority to straighten out other people’s lives; we tread dangerous ground when we tamper with things that we don’t yet fully understand. It is dangerous to play God.
Jesus taught us to love. If there is a value that a new, improved humanity needs to have, it is love, and especially love of those who are disadvantaged, those who thwart our will, or those whom we hate or distrust, and perhaps most importantly, those who are different from ourselves. I think a good rule of thumb for us Christians as we try to figure out this brave new world is always to raise the question, “Is this the loving thing to do?” That is the question that the children of God must always raise: Is this the loving thing to do?
It is vital for us to realize that many of the advances of technology and biology present amazing opportunities for us to love our neighbors in new and exciting ways. They are already alleviating human suffering, healing once intractable diseases, creating new opportunities in education and in the economy for disadvantaged people, and helping us to build better communities. One great thing that science is doing is creating new food sources that can eliminate one of humanity’s great crimes against nature: the way we cause animals to suffer in order for us to eat. There are plenty of other ways that technology can better our relationship with the natural world.
Our job as Christians is to continue to ask: “Does this serve the purpose of love?” and to challenge ourselves to remember that even as we grow in knowledge and understanding and control of the natural world, we need to remain humble. If we are to be the children of God, we shouldn’t let the temptations of human advancement make us forget the needs of others; we mustn’t advance ourselves at cost to others. And as Christians, we need to challenge the world to be humble. As much as we know, we never know enough. As far as we advance, whether we call ourselves homo deus or not, we are still not God. We need to stand tall for the values of the true God/human, Jesus Christ.
Yesterday I was blessed to do a memorial service for a wonderful woman. I was able to sit with family, friends, and former employees beforehand and hear wonderful stories about her life. Her life was hardly perfect. As a child she faced poverty and her parents’ divorce; as an adult she had countless struggles. But what made her the strong and inspirational person she became was her ability to take life’s lemons and make lemonade. Nobody gave her anything—she had to accomplish it for herself and for her children. It was not her perfection that made her inspirational—it was the imperfections of her life, her struggles, the obstacles she had to overcome, even the mistakes she made. As for all of us, her imperfections made her incandescently and unmistakably human.
This finally is what we Christians need to make sure never leaves the intersubjective reality of whatever humanity is to become. It’s not perfection that makes us what we are, it is imperfection. And no matter how much we improve, how great we imagine ourselves, we are only fooling ourselves if we believe we have overcome our imperfections. If we strive for the perfection of homo deus, but leave the imperfect behind, we will perhaps lose our need for one another, and we will imagine that we lose our need for God—but we most certainly will lose our humanity itself. Some people might think this is a good idea. But for us Christians, we find wonder and amazement in the miracle that God chose to become a human being—with all the flaws and shortcomings that we humans are heir to. No matter what we accomplish, it will remain true that we will be limited, flawed, shaped by our shortcomings, in need of God and of one another. In our imperfection is God’s glory revealed. God redeems us out of our imperfection; and we are our best selves because we learn to overcome or transform our imperfections into the raw material of character, courage, kindness, grit, selflessness, and decency.
As humanity strives to become God, it is essential for us believers to tell the world that for some glorious reason, God chose to become human. No matter what we become in the future, let us choose to be human, as well. Instead of being God, let us glory in being Children of God.
— Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
November 17, 2019
Romans 8: 18-27