Abundant Life, at Peace with Death

“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” 
The Gospel of St John

“Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory?”
St Paul, 1st Epistle to the Corinthians

The following is a response to Dylan’s Rage and Donne’s Sleep.

The Christian religion is fundamentally a paradox based on the spiritual faith of Jesus Christ. The Christian religion is about imitating the faith of Christ himself. This paradox is manifested in a number of statements found throughout the New Testament, such as “the first will be last and the last will be first” and “he who would save his life will lose it, and he who would lose his life will save it.”

When we approach the question of whether or not the Transhumanist goal of radical life extension and bodily immortality are consistent with Christianity, and whether there can be such a thing as “Transhumanist Christianity,” we must consider these paradoxes as our context.

My reading of the New Testament and the words of Jesus in particular, combined with the writings and lives of the Saints, lead me to the conclusion that Christianity is a life-affirming religion. Indeed, it holds that everlasting life is the ultimate reward. Christ emphasizes that he has come to bring life and to bring it more abundantly. St Paul, in describing the nature of man in Adam describes him as dead in trespasses and sin, but made alive again in Christ.

M. Scott Peck, in his book The People of the Lie, defines evil as “anything that seeks to destroy life or liveliness.” The ultimate Good, we can infer, is thus anything that promotes life or liveliness. Elsewhere, Peck defines Love as “the will to extend oneself for the spiritual growth of another person.” Growing things are alive, and thus the promotion of another’s growth is part of a pursuit of the ultimate Good, indeed, the pursuit of God and godliness.

When Jesus says “greater love hath no man than that he would lay down his life for his friends,” he is reifying the paradox of his faith — namely that from time to time it is necessary for one person to voluntarily sacrifice themself for more life to abound. This is, in my view, not only true of our physical life, but also of our spiritual life.

The Spirit of a human includes all of those characteristics which comprise the human’s identity. A person’s ego would be an example component of the Spirit. Thus, when St Paul writes that “to live is Christ and to die is gain,” it would seem to require more than a cursory analysis to understand what he is attempting to get us to see, namely a greater facet of reality than the merely perceptible. The death of one’s self identity on the Cross, and the substituting of the nature of Christ for the nature of Adam is the death that I believe St Paul is communicating about here. He is consistent in this thinking, it appears, when he writes elsewhere “I am crucified with Christ. Nevertheless I live. Yet it is not I, but Christ who lives within me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Again it would be rather shallow and even perhaps silly to presume that St Paul is talking about literal, physical crucifixion. He is obviously writing in the present tense, and not foreshadowing his own future martyrdom. He says “I am crucified with Christ” right now. Hence if we seek to manifest the living Christ in ourselves, we must die to ourselves now. We are to seek the Kingdom of God now and then “all of these things will be added.” We are to understand that the Kingdom of God is “at hand,” or as I prefer to read it “within reach.” This too is in the present tense. When Christ taught us how to pray, he taught us to say “thy Kingdom come, thy Will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” — again, right now!

Once we understand Christianity as principally a religion concerned with manifesting God’s Kingdom on earth, rather than one principally preoccupied with some ethereal afterlife. Once we see that Christ’s death on the cross was to illustrate that the clinging to the perceptible world comes at the expense of experiencing God’s Kingdom in our hearts and minds here and now, only then can we fully appreciate the nature of the debate about the compatibility of Christianity and Transhumanism.

As Transhumanism contains a number of different components, and the purpose of this essay is a response to the post linked at the beginning, I shall confine my final analysis specifically to the life extension and “immortality” aspects of Transhumanist goals and shall write about others at another time.

Responding to N.T. Wright and Peter Thiel, I would say that both of them fail to capture a sufficient understanding of the Gospel in their interpretation of the desirability of radical life extension. N.T. Wright in a sense errs almost on the side of gnostic heresy by diminishing the importance and centrality of physical, embodied existence.

This is not an uncommon error amongst Christian theologians due to the pervasive persistence of Augustinian/Platonic dualism which sees the body as a sort of unfortunate accident accompanying the superior soul. I would argue that this is decidedly a non-Christian viewpoint, even though it is probably held by the vast majority of Christians. The centrality of the bodily resurrection to pre-Augustinian theologians and particularly to St Paul himself, indicates that the faith cannot be interpreted as diminishing the importance of the body, but rather elevating it. The body is the temple of God, after all.

The attractiveness of religion for many people is that depending upon its interpretation, it provides an escape from the constraints and unpleasantness of material reality. This sounds rather nice. If you look out at the world and don’t like what you see, then the easiest thing to do is simply to pretend that it’s not real. Such a view will unnecessarily lead to a retreat from the concerns of the world, something that I contend is contrary to the active role Christians are supposed to play if they follow in the mold of Christ, whose physical death on the Cross represents the archetypal opposite of retreatism or escapism.

Thus to elevate the spirit over the body in importance would be to subordinate the physical death of Christ in importance. It seems to me rather difficult to achieve this and still take the totality of the New Testament story-arc seriously, especially if we take St Paul’s discussion of death and life in Christ with the multiple layers of meaning we have previously discussed.

On the other side, the obsession with the extension of physical life as the key concern or preoccupation of the Christian would seem to be equally problematic and to be precisely contrary to the commandment to “live by faith and not by sight.” Faith that there is something else going on, that there is more than meets the eye. It is to reject the materialist fallacy.

Materialism is indeed a fallacy — one that even defies the current models of the universe provided to us by physics. It is supposed that matter comprises only 4.9% of the universe, with 26.8% being dark matter and 68.3% dark energy. We know little about the latter two components, and so genuine humility, and therefore faith, is required when we are discussing these subjects (I resisted the temptation to say “matters” 😉 ).

It seems to me that the people who are most vociferous in their support of radical life extension and who appear to be obsessed with physical immortality are quite simply afraid of dying, and this could not possibly be conceived as being a Christian outlook. The coming to terms with physical mortality has historically been central to the individual Christian journey, and it is always preceded by a willingness to die to oneself, that is, an Ego death, as a precursor to not fearing physical death. Christian monks often kept skulls on display to remind themselves of their own mortality, and the entire liturgy of Ash Wednesday is the imposition of a visible reminder of death onto our foreheads.

Even if we are able to eliminate many of the causes of death — cancer, infectious disease, heart disease, etc. etc., I believe the complete elimination of physical mortality will be elusive. As with most forms of progress, it will appear as an asymptote. We will get ever closer to eliminating the causes of death, but never quite eliminate all of them. Thus, even though we will likely achieve the radical extension of physical life, the achievement of physical immortality seems unlikely, and I would predict with near certainty it will not occur within Peter Thiel’s lifetime, or my own.

If I am wrong, I have lost nothing by preparing myself mentally and spiritually for my death, for that process will have provided me the motivation to achieve things in the limited time it seems that I have, and those things I hope to achieve include supporting the cause of Transhumanism to radically extend human life and eliminate disease. The paradox manifested: he who would lose his life will save it.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in his poem “A Psalm of Life,” addresses the both the gnostic and materialist fallacies beautifully when he says —

Tell me not, in mournful numbers, 
Life is but an empty dream
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real, life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal — 
From dust thou art, to dust returnest
Was not spoken of the soul.

The Christian, being motivated by Love and opposed to evil, must do all things within his or her power to promote life and liveliness, and this is consistent with the Transhumanist goal of life extension and disease elimination. But this cannot be at the exclusion of being crucified with Christ, the taking up of the Cross daily, and of being ready for death, at whatever moment it may arrive, being pure in spirit and blameless in action, fearing nothing and living by the faith that death’s sting has already been removed and requires no additional action of man to have no victory over us, for that victory has already been achieved once, and for all.