We are called to transform our humanity, not flee from it or alter it though technology
I’ll admit it: I’m a perfectionist. I recently got a small stain (sandwich; dripping mayonnaise) on the pants I wear to the office. So small you’d never notice it. But I notice it, and the blemish bothers me. As I write these words, I know I’ll review them. Again and again. Checking and double-checking them for proper grammar, punctuation and clarity. I hate being late. I cringe when I break the binding of a favorite book. I actually enjoy cleaning the house. Like I said, I’m a perfectionist.
But what does it mean to aim for perfection? The question is up for grabs. According to one group of scholars and amateur theorizers called transhumanists, aiming for perfection means aspiring to a life that is longer, smarter, faster, prettier. How? Typically through the use of new technologies. Smartphones, pharmaceuticals, space travel, brain zapping, genetic tweaking: bring it on, plead the transhumanists. The transhumanist agenda often reads like a sci-fi novel, invoking complex and novel avenues for achieving its goals. Yet the basic transhumanist idea is simple: perfection means transcending (hence: transhumanism) grubby human existence.
You may never have heard of transhumanism. Still, I guarantee you have stumbled on their ideas. The titans of Silicon Valley—with their promises of efficiency, youthfulness, speed, and longevity—often endorse transhumanism outright. But the rest of us also (knowingly or unknowingly) often channel transhumanists ideas. When you purchase a new smartphone you admit don’t need; when you are tempted by an anti-aging cream; when you experiment with YouTube life hack to dial up your attention span: that’s transhumanism. Or, at least, your actions are motivated by transhumanist-flavored ideas. Transhumanism is not confined to the dust-free halls of Apple and Facebook and Twitter HQ. It shows up in our day-to-day lives.
Transhumanism may initially strike you as attractive. The movement admittedly captures how many of us understand “perfection”: flawless in appearance, sanitized in daily life, flashy, efficient, and intelligent in action. Yet transhumanism faces deep problems. Most crucially: in claiming that we should aim for a perfection distinguished by longer, prettier, and smarter lives, transhumanists implicitly endorse the idea that shorter and scrappier lives are overall worse lives. That the lives of…ahem…you and me inevitably fall short. Worse: that the most vulnerable among us are furthest from a good life. That’s an idea that should sit uncomfortably with everyone.
But especially for the Christian. Christ preached that the meek and the persecuted and the hungry are blessed (Greek: makarios). That they are—to translate makarios differently—happy. He praised the poor widow’s offering over gifts offered by the wealthy. He dined with those on the margins. Today, the Church calls us to live out a preferential option for the poor, not a preferential option for the tech entrepreneurs. These exhortations flip the transhumanist dream on its head.
The problem with transhumanists, however, is not their aim for perfection. Christ, too, calls us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). What kind of perfection is Christ calling us to? And how does it differ from transhumanist perfection?
We can get the beginning of an answer by looking to the life of Christ. God, becoming man, did not transcend our humanity. He instead chose to step down—to condescend—to our human condition. God did not aim to eclipse grubby human existence in the manner of the transhumanist. He rather deep dove into our existence, becoming one of us, born into as humble (and yes, grubby) conditions as you can imagine: laid in a first-century manger and raised in a poor, out-of-the-way, modern-plumbing-free corner of the Roman empire. And ultimately, executed as a common criminal.
Christ could have become incarnate in the 21st century, poised to take advantage of the life-lengthening, IQ-bumping, future-bringing technologies transhumanists tout. He could have been born into the ranks of Silicon Valley or Wall Street or Buckingham Palace. But in his perfect will, he didn’t.
The choice speaks loudly: to follow Christ in becoming “perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect,” we would be misguided to set our sights on using technology (or anything else) to transcend our humanity. Christ teaches by example that a perfected human life is not something other than human. It is rather something more human. Christ is, after all, humanity made new—he is the new Adam (Rom 5:12-21)—and as brothers and sisters of Christ, we are called to join him. In a restoration of humanity. Not a flight from it.
How to pursue perfection? We need not ditch the quest for it altogether. Rather, we must redefine for ourselves what perfection means. A kind of perfectionism that can embrace the stained pants and broken book bindings and dirty homes that make up day-to-day human existence. One that dives deeper into our humanity rather than runs from it. If you want to save your life, you must lose it. And if you want to achieve perfection, you must flee from it, at least as it is offered by the world. Christ’s example offers something better. Something more human. Something more perfect.
Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.
“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love,” said the Christian medieval mystic Meister Eckhart.
An interview with Christopher White, Vatican correspondent for NCR