Imago Hominis: Our Brave New World: A Review Article

Gregory E. Reynolds

Transhumanism and the Image of God: Today’s Technology and the Future of Christian Discipleship, by Jacob Shatzer. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019, viii + 184 pages, $22.00, paper.

I called to ask a question that the website of a particular company would not be able to answer. The artificial intelligence answering service asked, “How may I help you?” Unfortunately for me the reason for my call can only be understood by a person, not a machine. There is no “I” there, only a sophisticated computer known as artificial intelligence, and inadvertently diminishing the exceedingly complex idea of intelligence.

Shatzer’s book gives us an accurate analysis of the amalgam of transhumanism and technology, and forms the basis for an alarming description and penetrating critique of that complex movement, along with a useful roadmap for navigating it faithfully as Christians.

The introduction shows that Shatzer understands technologies in a McLuhanesque way, as extensions of man with the tendency to transform their creators, often in almost undetectable ways (2). This is not a new perspective. But Christians generally did not understand this until recently.[1] I began researching and writing on this topic over two decades ago. It is heartening to see many scholars are now writing from this deep critical perspective. Our inventions alter the way we perceive and thus experience the world.

Shatzer contends that “modern technology tends toward a transhuman future—a future created by the next stage of evolution (the posthuman), moving beyond what it currently means to be human” (10). The continuous and pervasive involvement with technology cultivates a mindset that assumes that humans are constantly upgrading (11). Transhumanism is the technological mechanism or technique that transforms humans into the next stage of humanity—the posthuman (12, 16).

In chapter 1, “Technology and Moral Formation,” Shatzer contends that because each tool has a governing logic, our technologies tend to shape us according to that logic (16–17). Technology, particularly electronic technology, changes not only our minds, but also our brains at the “neurological level” (19). Shatzer demonstrates the discipling power of communication technology due to “the speed of access and the immersion many experience” (21). The addictive, attention commanding genius of our digital devices alters behavior in significant ways. Shatzer tackles a very important question: “What is it about humans that makes us ‘formable’?” He answers the question by referring to James K. A. Smith’s concept of “cultural liturgies.” Thus, he uses Smith’s metaphor, “liturgies of control,” throughout the book. Smith contends that we follow our loves in an effort to live out our perception of the good life.

I think that Smith tends to diminish the importance of thinking in relationship to desire. In highlighting the biblical emphasis on love, Smith at times comes close to eclipsing the important place of knowledge. But the point that proves valuable in cultural criticism is that love or desire is a habit that involves formation through the patterns or liturgies of life that orient and cultivate our desires.[2] Smith’s most compelling example is the mall; it “reflects what matters and shapes what matters.” It promises the good life achieved by consumption (27–28).

But what of ethics in particular? Here Shatzer turns to A. J. Conyers, The Listening Heart.[3] Conyers contrasts the Christian covenantal ideas of vocation or calling with the modern priority of power and control (30). Oddly Shatzer does not mention one of the Bible’s most prominent concepts by which to understand fallen culture: idolatry. Idolatry offers a liturgy of control in rebellion against the calling of the living and true God. But Shatzer is quite correct in observing that since technology offers control it lends itself to the idea that we are evolving toward a post-human future.

Morally, technologically, especially “online communities,” tend to undermine real communities.

If we want technology to serve the community, then, it must be useful to move people toward an ultimate good not defined by technology itself. … True flourishing is not found in a technological worldview but in subordinating our tools to truly human ends. (35)

Shatzer concludes this seminal chapter with a brief “Theological Framework for Human Flourishing” (37–38), pointing to the cultural mandate of Genesis 1–2 and Jesus’ great commandment to love God above all and your neighbor as yourself.

In chapter 2 Shatzer elaborates on transhumanism. It seeks to take control of humanity through technology moving it towards its evolutionary destiny (40). This assumes that human nature is extremely malleable.

The first enumeration of transhumanist principles in 1990, composed by the 1980 Extropy Institute, is optimistically entitled “Principles of Extropy.” Its seven principles may be summed up as a continuous effort by humans to improve intellectually, ethically, and physically (43). In 1998 the World Transhumanist Association (now known as Humanity+) published “The Transhumanist Declaration,” which asserted its ambitious mission:

Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth. (48)

Transhumanism “at its root is not a notion of perfection but one of progress led by personal autonomy” (48). One of this movement’s greatest weaknesses is its assumption that moral values may be derived through reason, science, and technology (51–52).

Chapter 3 deals with morphological freedom, the ability to alter our physical natures though technology. Shatzer makes the important distinction between therapy and enhancement (56). It is remarkable that he does not mention or interact with Leon Kass, whose 2003 book Beyond Therapy offers a penetrating ethical analysis by distinguishing between medicine’s true task, therapy, and the dangerous pursuit of human enhancement, or transformation.[4] Morphological freedom is essential to achieve transhumanism’s goal of self-actualization (59). Shatzer argues that this freedom lacks the true freedom of rejecting enhancement. His argument would be strengthened by observing that a Christian anthropology limits technology to therapy due to man’s fallen condition as mortal.

Shatzer concludes this chapter by contending that our involvement in technology, especially virtual reality, disciples us in the concept of morphological freedom, one of the major tenets of transhumanism (66). Social media’s tools for self-presentation foster the illusion that self-transformation is possible (68). These “liturgies of control” remind us of Peter Berger’s plausibility structures, those cultural assumptions that are so woven into the fabric of a culture that they sail under our perceptual radar.

Chapter 4 introduces augmented reality; eyeglasses would be a nonintrusive form of this. The intrusive is what is new. For example a cyborg is the result of adding material technology to the biological, extending normal limitations by mechanical elements built into the body. “Wearable and embeddable technology can have major effects on the experience of reality, altering behavior and adaptation patterns” (73–75). The resultant “enhanced reality,” may be compared to viewing the world through rose colored glasses. Such human malleability stands against, and seeks unsuccessfully to alter, the givenness of reality itself. In his critique Shatzer notes the danger of avoiding “difficulty and pain” in life’s journey; human growth and development depend on facing these realities (84).

Having noted that the “soft self” is malleable Shatzer could have enhanced his critique by mentioning what we might call the hard self, that aspect of the imago Dei that cannot be altered. Scripture teaches that God is impinging on the consciousness and conscience of humans perpetually, while they are in the cognitive business of suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18-20; 2:14–15). This among other things, like the sensus deitatus, is unalterable. McLuhan maintained that “no matter how many walls have fallen the citadel of individual consciousness has not fallen nor is it likely to fall. For it is not accessible to the mass media. … Christianity definitely supports the idea of a private, independent metaphysical substance of the self.”[5]

Chapter 5 explores and critiques artificial intelligence (AI). This technological development is distinct from the biological and seeks to alter and replicate human thought (90). There are two types of AI: 1) narrow AI, focusing on specific tasks, and 2) artificial general intelligence (AGI), “functioning much like a human mind, which can learn and adapt to different scenarios” (91). While my automobile’s ability to sense oncoming headlights and turn my high beams down is an excellent safety feature of AI, AGI goes far beyond this by seeking to create a synthetic intellect in order to eliminate mundane tasks, overcome human cognitive limitations, and more (96). Breathtaking is the existence of the Christian Transhumanist Association, which claims “the intentional use of technology, coupled with following Christ, will empower us to become more human” (97). Christian transhumanists, like Jeanine Thweatt-Bates, tend toward open theism and process theologies, which see God as developing. Shatzer wisely responds, “we must resist liturgies of control, not because God is open and risky but because God is in control and we are not” (97).

The belief that software minds can be created by mindfiles, a digitized database of one’s life, in order to create a mind clone involves a serious misunderstanding and underestimation of human intelligence. But such is fallen man’s quest for immortality apart from the Christ of Scripture (102). Shatzer’s critique focuses on the danger of reducing human intelligence to digital technology. Transhumanism “and its views on artificial intelligence are built on materialist approaches on what it means to be human” (105). AGI assumes materialism and is thus doomed not only to failure but to causing much damage. To ignore the invisible or spiritual aspect of human intelligence guarantees that human intelligence can never be duplicated by AGI. Furthermore, depending on artificial intelligence, like Paro the robot companion for the elderly and Siri, will tend to disengage us from real human interaction (106).

Chapter 6 deals with determining what is real. In medicine the increasing reliance on technology distances physicians from the people they serve, treating them more like machines than human beings (110–12). Shatzer argues that the incarnation will provide a “better understanding of the proper place of virtual reality in the life of a disciple” (120). This section is one of the most theological in the book, calling us to embrace the reality of embodied life as central to Christianity (120–22). Our physical fallenness may lead us to think poorly of our bodies, but the resurrection should disabuse us of that misunderstanding.

Chapter 7 explores the changing notion of place. This is a fascinating chapter exploring what ought to be a truism: that cyberspace is not a place. I rarely use GPS because I like to cultivate a sense of place or location in the space-time continuum. Shatzer never mentions Joshua Meyrowitz’s profound treatment of this subject, No Sense of Place (1985).[6] He points out that even mapping alters our perception of place. Colonial powers used maps to control people and land. Such abstractions of place tend to obscure the particularities of places (130–31).

The technologies of transportation and communication have cultivated globalization; combined with the centralized administrative state and the autonomous individual, they weaken local community (133). Virtual reality undermines locality and tradition (134). Thus, Shatzer calls for “placemaking practices” such as gardening, homemaking, and the local church, where “public worship is significant and irreplaceable” (138). Shatzer is refreshingly insistent and clear on this topic:

There will certainly be ways of doing church using virtual technology, but to the degree that we neglect physical presence with other believers, we neglect the form of being the body of Christ that has shaped Christianity for the past two thousand years. (139)

Sadly, the present pandemic has exacerbated the church’s tendency toward the virtual as it has extended and instituted practices that foster discarnate Christianity—an oxymoron for sure. Shatzer concludes this chapter with a discussion of the necessity of place in relationship to the neighbor (140–41).

Chapter 8 explores the changing relationships engendered by robotics. Shatzer relies on Sherry Turkle’s germane research on this topic from her 2011 book, Alone Together.[7] Turkle offers a stark example in the relationship between robotics and the elderly, “We ask technology to perform what used to be ‘love’s labor’ taking care of each other” (144).

Robotics, the virtual, and social media have one thing in common, as Michael Harris astutely observes in his 2014 book The End of Absence:[8] These technologies blur the boundaries between what is real and what is not. “Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life. This is its job. Your job is to notice. First notice the difference. And then, every time, choose” (145). Choosing to avoid alienation from the real also means letting go of the control with which technologies tempt us, as they enable us to distance ourselves from what we find uncomfortable or difficult. Real relationships are messy and require negotiation, cooperation, humility, and sometimes, repentance.

Returning to Turkle’s next book Reclaiming Conversation (2015)[9] Shatzer makes a plea to reclaim solitude, self-reflection, and thus, conversation, which is irreplaceable (151). “Not only does time in the digital world take away from face-to-face social interaction, but it actually makes us worse at it” (152).

Shatzer closes this chapter with an excellent discussion of the cultures of the Lord’s Supper, the table, and friendship. The Supper connects believers with the covenant people of the past as well as “the present realities that are to shape the Christian community” (153). Communion, along with dining together and developing deep friendships, forms an effective antidote to the poisons of the digital world.

The final chapter, chapter 9, discusses changing notions of the self. Shatzer traces the ways in which technologies have historically altered self-perception. Neil Postman,[10] in Amusing Ourselves to Death, noted that Plato observed that writing shifted the means of processing communication from the ear to the eye (159); Lewis Mumford, in Technics and Civilization,[11] observed that printing liberated people from the “domination of the  immediate and the local” (160). But whatever negatives, like the weakening of memory with writing and printing, and nationalism and individualism with print, the negatives connected with digital technology often seem to outweigh the positives.

I have observed that we are captivated by the immediate and thus tend to skim surfaces of texts, being guided by sound bites, thus undermining thoughtful public and private discourse. Our present social ferment is a tragic extreme example of this new cognitive environment. There is little place for a civil discussion of issues; due process, which demands thoughtful deliberation, is disappearing, and brief, out of context, smart phone videos lead us to immediate judgments.

On the personal level Shatzer wisely concludes: “Virtual and social networking technologies provide the tools for constructing a self and presenting a self, both of which have consequences for how we consider ourselves and what we think identity is” (163). Such control leads us to believe that everything about ourselves is changeable (165) from our genders to our resumes. All of this supports the narrative of transhumanism. Shatzer concludes with a call to seek our true identity in Jesus Christ, the new identity which Christians have in him as he is the firstborn of a new humanity (168).

Shatzer’s conclusion sums up, and adds to, the practical advice he gives throughout the book. These nine pages are well worth pondering.

Transhumanists, like the supporters of the utopianism of the Green New Deal, know there is something wrong with humanity, but without acknowledging the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, they seek to transform creation and culture through merely human, deformed means, after the image of fallen humanity—imago hominis. The pilgrim kingdom of the church anticipates the coming heavenly reality of a new heavens and a new earth—this is the alternative reality, the only alternative, because it deals with the way things actually are in God’s world.

Shatzer’s book gives profound insight into the dangerous movement of transhumanism; but more than that it penetrates the technological context in which this movement was born. Written from a sound theological and ecclesiological perspective, I highly recommend it.


[1] See Gregory E. Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2001).

[2] See Gregory E. Reynolds, review of You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, by James K.…A. Smith, in Ordained Servant 26 (2017): 107–109.

[3] A. J. Conyers, The Listening Heart: Vocation and the Crisis of Modern Culture (Dallas TX: Spence, 2006).

[4] Leon R. Kass, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness (New York: HarperCollins, 2003). Shatzer has also overlooked David VanDrunen, Bioethics and the Christian: A Guide to Making Difficult Decisions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009).

[5] Quoted in Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures, 169.

[6] Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[7] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

[8] Michael Harris, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection (New York: Penguin, 2014).

[9] Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin, 2015).

[10] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985).

[11] Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1934).

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, October 2020.

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