What Is the “Image of God” in the Human? A Place for Christians to Begin Thinking about the “Transhuman”
In my most recent post here I raised ethical questions about the idea of “transhumanity” or “posthumanity”—technology being used to transcend normal humanity into “humanity plus.” So far as I can tell there are no examples of this yet; only ideas that seem possible to some people given the tremendous technological enhancements created and offered to persons with physical disabilities and disadvantages. An example is cochlear implants. Another example is prosthetic limbs manipulable by mind power. These are not examples of transhumanity; they are technological creations that some people take as encouragement to believe in further technological advancements that would essentially take persons from being “merely human” to “human plus.”
I am a Christian ethicists, so my first concern in such questions is to advise Christians and churches how to think about them. My first piece of advice is not to panic just because someone calls a technological innovation a step toward the creation of the posthuman or humanity plus. No doubt some people will tout some scientific innovation as such when, in fact, it isn’t that at all. Advertising, especially of technological innovations, often exaggerates. My second piece of advice is to develop sound thinking about “the human” based on Christian theological reasoning. That shouldn’t be taken for granted.
A place to begin is with the biblical and Christian traditional doctrine of human beings as created in “God’s image and likeness.” Scripture mentions it several times including Genesis 1:27. However, nowhere does the Bible precisely define what it means. As I often remind my students “The Bible is not always as clear as we wish it were.” That’s why theology is necessary. In theological reflection we develop a model, a complex metaphor, based on Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.
That serious communal Christian reflection on the “image and likeness of God” in humanity is lacking is demonstrated by the wildly conflicting theories of what such a model should look like. What we need is trans-denominational theological reflection aimed at developing a consensus Christian view of the “image and likeness of God.”
Most Christians will argue that the doctrine that human beings are created in God’s image and likeness is the foundation of unique human dignity among animals. But so long as we radically disagree about it our words are likely to fall on deaf ears. Our efforts to promote the continuing special treatment of humans above other animals are threatened when we cannot even agree about the doctrine that underlies them.
On the one hand we see among many Christians a folk religious view of the image of God. I recently saw a slogan posted on Facebook that said “God created man in his image. You are God’s ‘selfie!’” No Christian theologian I know of would ever claim that the image and likeness of God doctrine means human beings look like God. Profounder reflection on the doctrine is needed.
My experience of teaching theology for thirty-four years is that very few young Christians, including those who grew up in church and even in pastor’s homes, can even begin to explain what “the image and likeness of God” means. I doubt their elders are much better prepared to explain it.
On the other hand we see Christian theologians developing and promoting radically different meanings of the image and likeness of God in humanity. Some explain it as reason or capacity for reason while others explain it as community or capacity for community. Other theories (models) are dominion-having, responsible freedom, conscience, having an immortal soul, etc. Very little consensus exists among Christians about what being created in the image and likeness of God means. And that means, since this doctrine is crucial to the Christian view of what it means to be “human,” very little consensus exists among Christians about what it means to be human (beyond being homo sapiens biologically).
Modern (or postmodern) visions of scientifically altered homo sapiens should cause Christians of all denominations and traditions to think very hard together about what we mean by “the human” and “humanity”—beyond DNA. Without such a consensus we will find it very difficult to identify the needed and called for identification of that “line not to be crossed” by technology in fundamentally altering the human species.
I will dare to step forward and into this needed but so far lacking conversation with this suggestion: We theologians have too often argued for one particular idea of what being in God’s image and likeness means. I think those make a mistake who insist it means only or even primarily reason or conscience or having an immortal soul or dominion or community. What I suspect we need is a more eclectic and inclusive vision of what the doctrine means. Unfortunately, theologians often fall prey to a mentality where they feel it important to promote a unique angle or insight—which leads to what I call “either-or” thinking in theology. The result is that the “image and likeness of God” means “either this or that” and not both.
Having a consensual Christian definition of the image and likeness of God, and therefore of what makes humans unique and special among animals, would go far toward identifying lines that Christians, anyway, must not cross in endorsing and practicing biomedical-technological innovations that have the potential fundamentally to alter the human.