Last month, we began to look at all the ways that man in his fallen reason tries to answer the question, “What does it mean to be human?” The Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal correctly commented that man is neither “an angel nor a brute.” Those two extremes, “angelism” and “brutism,” are convenient ways to categorize the ways man has used his sinful reason to answer the question and in so doing, deny what God says about man in His Holy Word. Last month, we looked at examples of “brutism,” which see man as nothing more than an animal or a beast.
But there are also plenty of philosophies that border on “angelism.” They see man as a type of benevolent demi-god, whose physical existence in secondary and non-essential next to man’s spiritual or psychological existence.
One famous example of angelism that was common in the ancient world but whose worldview persists today is called Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that the supreme God created the spirit world, but a lower “god” created the material world and all that is in it. Human beings, according to the Gnostics, are fundamentally divine spirits who have been trapped in the material world through our connection to our physical, material bodies. The goal of humanity, therefore, is to free ourselves from the prison of the material through gnosis (Greek for knowledge). The ancient Gnostics were either extremely ascetical, denying themselves material pleasures like food, drink, sleep, and sex, or else they were extremely libertine, indulging in all kinds of carnal pleasure because none of it really mattered anyway.
Gnosticism made its way into the Christian church, mixing itself with Christian teaching so that Gnostic “Christians” began to see the body as evil and the goal of Christianity to escape the body through death. Early church pastors and leaders worked very hard to combat these dangerous ideas, because they denied fundamental truths about the Christian faith: our bodies are God’s good creation, physical existence is not evil but God’s good gift to man and the goal of Christianity is not liberation from the body but in fact reunion of the body and soul in the resurrection.
Perhaps that all sounds interesting, but you’re thinking, “This isn’t a problem anymore.” While full-blown ancient Gnosticism isn’t really around today, many of their ideas still subtly cling to the thinking of the world and even some in the church, particularly the teaching that creation itself is somehow evil and the goal is to liberate ourselves from the physical so that we can be purely spiritual.
One very prevalent and growing philosophy that builds on the beliefs of ancient Gnosticism is called transhumanism. According to transhumanists, the definition of a human being should not be restricted to our current physical and biological existence. Transhumanists hope to use advances in technology to overcome human limitations that have been placed on us by our human physiology and anatomy. Transhumanists don’t see the human body as fundamental to the definition of a human being.
Experimentation with genetic engineering and artificial intelligence is often undertaken with transhumanist goals. Transhumanists hope that we will be able to transform our existence to give ourselves greater physical and intellectual abilities. Some even hope that we will be able to build new bodies for ourselves not only to improve how we live but even to cheat death by simply upgrading ourselves whenever an organ or tissue needs replacement.
If this all sounds a bit futuristic, the seeds for transhumanism have already been sown. In fact, there are elements of transhumanism already at play in modern cultural definitions of what it means to be human. In a fascinating article from 2018 called “The Transhumanism Revolution: Oppression Disguised as Liberation,” author Libby Emmons shows the link between transhumanism and the transgender movement. She writes, “The ongoing effort to change language, and redefine ‘male’ and ‘female’ so they refer to something other than sexual dimorphism, is designed to establish a Cartesian mind-body dualism in which the mind can dominate body to such an extent that personal subjectivity can decisively contradict biological reality. Transgender practice is the ultimate biohack. The claim that one has been born into the ‘wrong’ body is a total rejection of mind-body unification, and a statement that mind and body can be so disparate that the body must be thoroughly altered to match the mind’s perception of how it ought to be.” (Emmons, Libby. “The Transhumanism Revolution: Oppression Disguised as Liberation.” Quillette, 12 July 2018, quillette.com/2018/07/11/the-transhumanism-revolution-oppression-disguised-as-liberation/.)
By establishing that there can be a disparity between the biological reality of the sex you were born as and “who you really feel you are,” transgender advocates have sown the seeds for further rejecting the body as an important part of who we are as human beings. They have turned man into an “angel” by divorcing our mind from our bodies and putting the focus solely on who we perceive ourselves to be psychologically.
Thanks be to God, we know that this is not who God created us to be. Christ Jesus has freed us from our sin and death so that we may be truly human – with our physical bodies restored and free from illness, injury and death, and our souls freed from bondage to fear and captivation to ourselves. Man was created body and soul in the image of God, and in Jesus we are being restored in His image to the perfect free existence with God that He intended for us from the beginning.
I hope this series helped you to reflect on what it really means to be human. To know who we are, we cannot look to the world which is corrupted by sin and turned away from God. We can only know who we are by looking to Jesus, and to His Holy Word which reveals to us the true beauty and dignity of what it means to be human. There is nothing better to be. If angels were capable of jealousy, I suppose they would be jealous of man, because God Himself became a man so that He might redeem us and exalt us on high.