Response to the "Mormon Transhumanist Problem"
19 November 2007 (updated 12 March 2011)
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I recently responded to a Mormon blogger, Jettboy, who expressed concerns with Mormon Transhumanism. I’m going to post my response here, too, for additional readers.
Jettboy, I’m happy that you consider the intent of the Mormon Transhumanist Association to be noble, even though you have concerns with its theological grounds. I’ll try to address the concerns you’ve mentioned here, and hope you’ll express any others you may have, or that may arise from my response, so that we will improve understanding.
I agree, as you’ve stated, that faith in Christ is essential to the Mormon understanding of salvation. You rightly point out that Christ is at the center of the teachings of the Book of Mormon, and emphasis on Christ has redoubled in modern teachings of the LDS Church.
I’m sure you’ll agree, however, that faith in Christ, for Mormons in particular, is not passive. Rather, faith in Christ, ideally, is active and practical. Mormons have long emphasized an understanding of faith exemplified by the teachings of James in the New Testament, wherein he argues that real faith is manifest in works. It is not helpful to tell the naked and hungry to be warmed and filled; rather, we must actually give them that which they need. It is not enough to speak the words of prophecy that all shall hear the gospel of Christ, and we do not wait for Jesus to fulfill the prophecy; rather, we go out into all the world to proclaim that gospel. Moreover, it is not enough to claim we are disciples of Christ; rather, as expressed by Elder Jeffrey R Holland in a recent LDS Church general conference, we should in as many ways as possible try to take on us the identity of Christ. You are called, as each of us are, to have Christ in you, as expressed by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. With Paul, we are called to fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in our flesh, that we may be joint heirs in the glory of God. In this calling, we are to become, as Joseph Smith taught, the saviors of men.
For members of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, faith in Christ moves us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, share the Gospel, and engage in good causes without being commanded. It also moves us to seek to leverage all the means, including modern science and technology, with which God has inspired and endowed us to forward his work and glory.
You point out, accurately, that the scriptures don’t mention modern technology when addressing topics such as transfiguration and resurrection. Instead, the scriptures generally address such topics in simple and almost magical terms. I value such passages of scripture for many reasons, not the least of which is their ability to inspire us and provide hope.
That said, we have substantial reason to believe that the scriptures are not the last word on the technicalities of transfiguration or resurrection. As they don’t mention (at least not explicitly) future technologies related to transfiguration or resurrection, they likewise don’t mention contemporary technologies (again, at least not explicitly) like airplanes or computers. However, they certainly do contain passages intended to prepare our minds for new knowledge and accompanying power in the future. For example, here is one of my favorite scripture passages, from Joseph Smith:
Doctrine and Covenants 121 26 God shall give unto you knowledge by his Holy Spirit, yea, by the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost, that has not been revealed since the world was until now; 27 Which our forefathers have awaited with anxious expectation to be revealed in the last times, which their minds were pointed to by the angels, as held in reserve for the fulness of their glory; 28 A time to come in the which nothing shall be withheld, whether there be one God or many gods, they shall be manifest. 29 All thrones and dominions, principalities and powers, shall be revealed and set forth upon all who have endured valiantly for the gospel of Jesus Christ. 30 And also, if there be bounds set to the heavens or to the seas, or to the dry land, or to the sun, moon, or stars— 31 All the times of their revolutions, all the appointed days, months, and years, and all the days of their days, months, and years, and all their glories, laws, and set times, shall be revealed in the days of the dispensation of the fulness of times— 32 According to that which was ordained in the midst of the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods before this world was, that should be reserved unto the finishing and the end thereof, when every man shall enter into his eternal presence and into his immortal rest. 33 How long can rolling waters remain impure? What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints.
Each time I read this passage, I feel the words like lightning running through my body. It’s the sort of experience that moves us, in the Mormon tradition, to boldly proclaim of truth. Likewise, I feel that spirit as I read of other teachings from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, calling to mind processes by which our immortality can be realized:
“Now the doctrine of translation is a power which belongs to this Priesthood. There are many things which belong to the powers of the Priesthood and the keys thereof, that have been kept hid from before the foundation of the world; they are hid from the wise and prudent to be revealed in the last times. Many have supposed that the doctrine of translation was a doctrine whereby men were taken immediately into the presence of God, and into an eternal fullness, but his is a mistaken idea. Their place of habitation is that of the terrestrial order, and a place prepared for such characters He held in reserve to be ministering angels unto many planets, and who as yet have not entered into so great a fullness as those who are resurrected from the dead.” (Joseph Smith, Teachings 170)
“I have friends on the earth, for God would raise them up for me to do my work. That is not all; by and by the Lord will say to the sleeping dust, awake and come forth out of your graves. I am on hand; the Lord wakes me up or sends somebody to do it that possesses the keys of the resurrection. My dust is waked up; my spirit is re-united to it, and it is made a celestial body filled with immortality and eternal life.” (Brigham Young, Addresses 2: 100)
At the end of your post, you mention two critiques that I would like to address. First, you state that the scriptures portray the enhancement of the human body as something instantaneous, in contrast to your view of slow biotechnological enhancement. Second, you state that Joseph Smith’s teachings of eternal progression should be understood to be about inner spiritual development rather than outer physical development.
Regarding the first critique, I contend that the scriptures actually do portray enhancement of the human body as something progressive, although with moments of dramatic (but not necessarily final) change. For example, the Book of Mormon describes the transfiguration as a step between mortality and the kind of immortality attained in the resurrection. As another example, the Doctrine and Covenants describes persons alive during the Millennium as living to the age of a tree before being transfigured to immortality, while dead persons are progressively resurrected to immortality. Finally, Joseph describes even the recipients of immortality themselves as varying one from another in glory (which, as Joseph taught, is all in the elements) as the stars of the heavens differ in glory. As I consider the body of Mormon scripture and tradition, I see transfiguration and resurrection to immortality as a progressive process, with moments of dramatic change. This, in my estimation, is quite what we should expect to see as advancing biological, miniaturization and information technologies are applied to the human anatomy.
Regarding the second critique, I understand eternal progression to be something both physical and spiritual, the one exalting the other. The scriptures teach us that the fullness of joy is possible only with physical bodies, and that even God has a body. They likewise teach us that the glory of these bodies progresses, along with our spirits, as they are increasingly filled with light, to use the scriptural phrase. Indeed, the scriptures seem to suggest, as I read them, that there may be little to no distinction between the spirit and body, inseparably connected, of immortals.
I acknowledge that my responses to your critiques (as the critiques themselves) depend heavily on scriptural interpretation. You may well interpret the passages to which I allude in different ways, and we could perhaps long discuss the nuances of interpretation. There is, I feel, value in our mutual recognition of this.
I’ll add, however, that this is also more than a matter of scriptural interpretation. It seems quite reasonable to suppose that there may be practical consequences to our decision to interpret the scriptures one way or another. Suppose, for example, that the only way to attain immortality actually is for us to learn how to do it ourselves; perhaps, as is readily demonstrated in other matters, God simply isn’t going to do the work for us. If that is the case then we had better get to work. Unless we know otherwise, it seems prudent to suppose that we should use our God-given talents and means to pursue salvation in all ways, spiritual and physical. I’ve sometimes heard Mormons respond that we do know, from the scriptures, that God will give everyone immortality. That may be true (and my faith is such), but although the scriptures teach everyone will hear the gospel, we recognize that does not mean there is no work required – work we must. Consequently, I value practical faith in immortality, as in all matters.
To end, I will again express my agreement that faith in Christ is central to the Mormon understanding of salvation. Without charity, we are nothing. Without hope, there is no purpose. Without faith, there is no power. Without atonement, of the sort in which we are each invited to participate, all is for naught. Recognition of and respect for these principles is why I am a member of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. I am a Transhumanist. I am also a Christian and a Mormon.
Thank you, Jettboy, for calling attention to these increasingly important matters. I appreciate the time that you put into writing and making us aware of your thoughts.