Empathy or Entropy? The Promise of Christian Transhumanism.

Does the future need faith? Do we have a future, as a species? Will we merge with artificial intelligence and experience unfathomably long lives, or will we go extinct before we even get the chance?

In his sweeping historical analysis The Empathic Civilization, economist and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin summarized the millennia-long human drive of innovation as one of entropy versus empathy. Each successive technological adaptation—the printing press, radio, telephone, airplane, computer, internet—has the paradoxical effect of being more and more resource-intensive, consuming precious elements of our environment (depleting us entropically), while also making it more and more possible to connect to each other across difference, drawing the circle of compassion ever-wider (enriching us empathetically). Rifkin—at least, a decade ago when The Empathic Civilization was published—expressed hope that the very powers of increased empathy would mobilize humanity to create energy solutions that would transcend the depletions of entropy for the foreseeable future, averting climate catastrophe and social disintegration.

How are we doing on this score? What’s ‘winning’—empathy or entropy?

The Christian Transhumanist Association is seeking to answer this question as a part of Team Empathy. Founded by my friend Micah Redding in Nashville, the CTA sees the human drive to innovate, learn, and grow, as part and parcel of the continuing work of Jesus on planet earth—the Christ Whose incarnation re-affirmed that this world, this life, as very good, and Whose resurrection affirms that death in all its forms is a condition whose days are numbered. And thus, the CTA is made up of members—in science, technology, theology, philosophy, biblical studies, spirituality, teaching, and everyday life—who are keenly interested in a robustly life-affirming spirituality rooted in a creation-affirming theology, paired with an innovation optimism that often characterizes the growing, global Transhumanist movement.

When I was asked to join the Board of Directors of the CTA a year and a half ago, I couldn’t resist. I find myself deeply ambivalent to the broader ideals of Transhumanism, to be perfectly honest. One the one hand, I love the infectious optimism that looks with wonder on advances in science, technology, and creativity to respond to humanity’s oldest questions and greatest challenges. But sometimes, the promise of progress can be dangled in front of us as a panacea, a form of social bypassing that enables us to externalize our responsibility to show up for change in the here-and-now. Why hold corporations responsible for their outsized role in creating our current climate catastrophe (for instance) when these same corporations promise that they’re working on nanobots that will be able to clean up our atmosphere and re-set carbon in our atmosphere, ‘any year now’?

For all the ways that some of my pubic sparring partners might wish to paint me as a ‘raving liberal,’ the truth is, when it comes to the life and planet I envision, I’m actually quite conservative…or conservationist, at least. While honoring our human drive to innovate, I vastly prefer channeling our creativity in the direction of learning from the ancestral grace of our deep past, gleaning from 200,000+ years of our species being immediate-return foragers, aka hunter-gatherers. The global, growing slow food, slow money, co-housing, transition town, foraging, garden church, dinner church, food and faith, freedom farming, regenerative agriculture and permaculture movements speak to a resurgence of moving forward by drawing deeply from what’s come before, to be sure we don’t lose the humanity amid all the transcendence. We’re becoming civilized to death, as Christopher Ryan outlines in his incisive, just-released book. In order to survive and thrive as a species, we need to let go as much as climb up, to descend as much as ascend.

Thankfully, the Christian Transhumanist Association is open to these concerns. Indeed, the CTA often acts as the conscience of the larger transhumanist movement, holding it accountable to its own highest values of ubiquity of access, and inclusion of the wonders it foresees. Indeed, it’s part of the CTA’s mission to “work against illness, hunger, oppression, injustice, and death”—not an emphasis you’re likely to see at Humanity+!

Which brings us to right now. In just a couple weeks, the Christian Transhumanist Association will be hosting our second annual gathering—all day on Saturday, October 19th at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. We’re setting the table for a far-ranging conversation on everything from radical life extension to transhuman and transgender futures to Christian eschatology and pluralism to—yes—the ethics of our rapidly-transitioning world. Presenters include my friend ‘Science’ Mike McHargue of The Liturgists fame, ‘Human GMO’ Liz Parrish, BioLogos Vice President Jim Strump, filmmaker, activist, and educator Cheryle Renee Moses, Professor of Theology and Ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Ron Cole-Turner, queer Mormon transhumanist philosopher Blaire Ostler, and a bunch more. I’ll be emceeing, helping get this party started.

Here’s a taste of what you can expect. Last year, I participated in a roundtable conversation on Douglas Rushkoff‘s controversial essay Survival of the Richest: The wealthy are plotting to leave us behind. It’s a candid chat about the promise and perils of innovation that offer to enrich life on Earth…and take us off-planet. Tune in here:

Sound interesting to you? Then come to the CTA Gathering this October 19th, and let’s continue a conversation like no other! It’s vital to our future as people of faith, and people on a planet…period.

2 Responses to Empathy or Entropy? The Promise of Christian Transhumanism.

  1. Firefly October 8, 2019 at 8:54 am #

    Fascinating discussion, thank you The idea of “The Rapture” being an escape plan, rather than a reward, is intriguing and recasts much of what hasn’t made sense to me about some evangelical Christians. If it isn’t a reward for some, then we better start working together.

  2. Bart Campolo October 8, 2019 at 2:46 pm #

    Dear Mike,

    As always, I love your spirit but am mystified by your worldview.

    The essence of those things you love – “the ancestral grace of our deep past, gleaning from 200,000+ years of our species being immediate-return foragers, aka hunter-gatherers. The global, growing slow food, slow money, co-housing, transition town, foraging, garden church, dinner church, food and faith, freedom farming, regenerative agriculture and permaculture movements” – is our terrestrial life cycle, which is based on the mortality of every living thing. Indeed, the foundation of human love itself – not to mention the seed of every myth of eternal life – is our awareness that we all must die. As Robert Ingersoll puts it:
    “The idea of immortality that like a sea has ebbed and flowed in the human heart, with its countless waves of hope and fear, beating against the shores of time and the rocks of fate, was not born of any creed, nor of any religion. It was born of human affection, and it will continue to ebb and flow beneath the mists and clouds of doubt and darkness as long as love kisses the lips of death. It is the rainbow – hope, shining on the tears of grief.”

    And yet, there is one thing of which I am certain, and that is that if we could live forever here, we would care nothing for each other. The fact that we must die, the fact that the feast must end, brings our souls together and treads the weeds out from the paths between our hearts. And so it may be after all that love is a little flower that grows on the crumbling edge of the grave.”

    If death’s days are indeed numbered, then humanity is doomed. That may be why no author or artist yet has been able to compellingly describe eternal life as anything but a curse.

    Christian Transhumanism, eh? I think Ernst Becker might call the ‘promise’ of that worldview a double dose of the denial of death. You’re better off trusting your instinctual – and I mean that quite literally – inner humanist, and investing in the perilous future of love, both before and after The Event.

    Hopefully,

    Bart

    PS Maybe it’s time for you to join me for an episode of Humanize Me, to see if I can straighten you out in person 🙂

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