Susan is an author with a long-time interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology’s online magazine. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member for the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our Bodies Are Selves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.

Knowing who we areIn thinking about a view of an individual’s life and how it’s lived, the new movie The Tree of Life offers an interesting take. One of the early lines in the film (spoken as a voice-over narrative), is, “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”

This distinction pops up in discussions within the religious naturalism movement, the nature vs. nurture debates, and can even be found in the current questions posed regarding Transhumanism. [See this month’s Q&A with Dr. Phil Hefner for definition and more description]. In thinking about Transhumanism Hefner and others are pondering the past, present and future of humanity. They are considering the way of nature and the way of grace. They also are thinking about relationships; the relationships we have to one another, to this earth, and most importantly, to God.

If human beings are made in God’s image do we have the right to change how our species looks and how our bodies function? Do we have the right to lengthen dramatically our own lives via technology of our making? Do we have an obligation to create our own immortality?

According to a recent Reuters article scientist Aubrey de Grey predicts that the first person who will live to their 150th birthday has already been born. He also believes the first person to live for 1,000 years could be less than 20 years younger.  As chief scientific officer of the non-profit California-based SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) Foundation, de Grey aims to find a cure for aging and he is convinced it will be found in his lifetime.

Much of de Grey’s work has been on stem cell therapy as a way to replace cells that are damaged or die as a result of the aging process. For example in the case of heart disease, there is a build-up of waste in cells that cannot be broken down in the body’s routine metabolic process. De Grey told Reuters that he was working with colleagues in the United States to identify enzymes in other species that can break down the garbage and clean out cells. The ultimate goal is then to devise genetic therapies to give this capability to humans.

Whether these techniques produce a 1,000-year-old person or not is not the only concern in religious and ethical questions. Other concerns are many. On the one hand, some of the technology will be useful in treating heart disease and other disease that tend to affect older adults. At the same time, these technologies may mean a significant change in a person’s biological make-up. It also could be that these services would be available to only a select few who are able to pay personally for these newer, costly procedures.

On more of a day-to-day level, these advances may spark an interesting debate of what it means to live as humans. They may mean that in the future only a certain percentage of us may be “natural” with some percentage using external enzymes and cell tissue and another percentage composed of titanium steel in new knees and joints, etc.

These discussions should cause us to revisit passages that point to Jesus as the Good Shepherd watching over his flock. Jesus says in John 10:10:  “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Does “abundance” mean living forever or does it mean the good life of some measure in between? More importantly how much of this abundance are we to find for ourselves and how much do we rely on God to give us in a set allotment of days on this earth?

It may well be a balancing act. But placing faith only in my cells to enliven and lengthen life seems only part of the equation of who I am. Beyond my tissue and bone, is there housed in my being something more?  Is there something more than just material parts?  Doesn’t scripture tell us this something more [sometimes called the soul] comes from God and God alone?

In distinction from one’s physical self, the soul is in need of an “extreme” makeover from time to time too, and it is a fair question whether the Transhumanism movement has seen this something more as important when talking about creating a high quality of life. There is a rich abundance available from the one that gave us the “breath of life” that cannot be found in a genetic therapy, stem cells or in any medical procedure.

This interdependence of our cells and our souls (that something more) and how they change through time is perhaps why rewriting one’s biography can be exciting no matter one’s age. Perhaps this interdependence is why taking drastic measures with one’s biology seems much more invasive and permanent and not so full of the grace that offers the fullest abundance we need.

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