Feb 1 2013

Inhabiting the “Early Phase”

“Real people, real possibilities, real world,” our slogan declares. Come to the Candler School of Theology and discover real commitment, real change, and a real story. Some may find all this talk of “real” cheesy. But make no mistake—the human capacity for self-deception is infinite. Very often do we mistake our own inauthentic existence for real being. The question of what is real, we insist here at Candler, must be held ever before us. Only a relentless commitment to rigorous self-examination and to critical engagement with those around us can keep such deceit in check. The same is true in our classrooms, in our pews, and in our offices.

Perhaps now more than ever is critical reflection on what is real so urgently needed. The world is changing rapidly. New technologies are presenting unprecedented ethical and existential dilemmas. The not-too-distant arrival of molecular nanotechnology, super-intelligence, cryonics, genetic engineering, and uploading[1] will soon put our understanding of what constitutes a real human being to the test. We are slowly but steadily merging with our technology; some are already predicting that by the time our children are in college they will know people who are hybrids of the organic and inorganic. In these uncertain times it will grow progressively more difficult to look to the past for guidance in the future. It will be tough (but not impossible) to see how Paul, Augustine, Luther, or Barth can help us chart a faithful and responsible course. But this is not to say we are doomed to drift rudderless into a dystopian future.[2] There is still time to prepare. Enter MTS600T: Transhumanism/Posthumanism, a course devoted to identifying and dissecting some of the challenges that await us.

What is transhumanism/posthumanism? According to Humanity Plus, a leading transhumanist group, transhumanism is “a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.” Those of us inhabiting this “early phase,” they reason, are in dire need of improvement. The telos of all transhumanist thinking is to overcome or transcend fundamental human limitations, including susceptibility to disease, limited intelligence, physical weakness, and even death itself. Now, before you dismiss these people to the lunatic fringe, know that great progress is being made on each of these fronts.[3] What is being accomplished in laboratories today borders on the miraculous. Scientists, computer programmers, and theorists of great repute are among the transhumanist ranks. It is now only a matter of time before people of all faiths will have to come to grips with a technological existence unlike anything we have ever known.

David RanzolinThe religious implications of such technological advances are obviously enormous. What or where is the imago dei in this future? Does this technology represent a fundamental breach in the created order? Or perhaps its fulfillment? If we become fundamentally different beings than those originally addressed in Scripture, how do we appropriate and embody it? Again, crafting a faithful and intelligent response to such awesome technological power will be every seminarian’s duty. To that end, MTS600T: Transhumanism/Posthumanism is giving us a head start. Rest assured that there are astute, capable, and real people already thinking about these matters at the Candler School of Theology.      

- David Ranzolin

David is a second year MTS student from California and a Student Ambassador.

[1] For a more optimistic overview of these technologies see http://humanityplus.org/philosophy/transhumanist-faq/

[2] Theorists are divided on whether the advent of these technologies will usher in an eschatological utopia or cataclysmic dystopia. Based on what little I know, I side with the latter.

[3] For an informative overview of the current pace of technology see the documentary Transcendent Man: The Life and Ideas of Ray Kurzweil.

Oct 26 2012

The God Variable

I find the question, how did I get here? utterly fascinating. As a person of faith, tracing the myriad trajectories of my past becomes a theologically important exercise. How can I make sense of my life thus far? Where do I see God’s hand? See, we Christians are not free to believe that our lives are merely the sum of our choices. We really believe we worship a God that intervenes, even intrudes into our lives in subtle, unexpected ways. I cannot answer how did I get here? with, “because I as a free, moral agent willed it.” Sometimes, the chief culprit is most likely “the God Variable.” I recently became acutely aware of its influence, but only in hindsight. Let me explain.

How did I get here? The question comes rushing at me. I scan the classroom of uniformed women and glance at James, my teaching partner, dear friend, and fellow MTS student at Candler. We are in prison. Namely, the Arrendale State Prison about an hour’s drive from familiar, cosmopolitan Atlanta. Coming from California, living in the South is strange enough; teaching at a women’s prison in rural Georgia only compounds the strangeness. We’re also reading a strange story. “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson. It’s a story about a pleasant, homey town that holds an annual “lottery” in which the “winner” is immediately stoned to death. The reader doesn’t find out until the end of the story—which is now rapidly approaching. I chuckle nervously. The story suddenly seems inappropriate. I’m not entirely sure how the women will react to the story’s bizarre, violent denouement. Seriously, how did I get here?

See, being here at Candler is unsurprising. My father is a religion teacher, I majored in religious studies, Candler is a good school, I didn’t want to find a real job after college, etc., etc. But teaching here in prison—that is unprecedented. I just don’t do things that interesting. I came to Candler to get on the fast-track to a Ph.D; dusty scholarship was in my future. But something happened, or better yet, somethings happened, and the future is suddenly more mysterious than if I had been left to my own devices.

As it turned out my worry was entirely misplaced. The women in our class attacked “The Lottery” with gusto, incisively assessing the text from all angles. But still, how did I get here? The question lingered. I could point to a few things I remember: the women’s choir performance from the prison at chapel last year, James and I excitedly discussing classes we would want to co-teach some day in the future, seeing the ad soliciting teachers in the Candler Chronicle—none of these adequately explains how we got here. Only something as radical, as wonderful, as grace-filled as “the God Variable” can account for our presence here in this prison. The truth is, about a million different coincidences had to occur to lead me to this very moment. And like Jesus’ signs, if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Mathematicians may insist that attempting to detect patterns of divine prescience is absurd—what I imagine I’m seeing is merely the unraveling of an infinite series. Ergo, an unlikely event (even one as unlikely as a California boy teaming up with a North Carolina mountain man to teach literature at a women’s prison) is actually likely to occur. This illogical habit of theological retrospection is what makes me an “innumerate,” colloquially and pejoratively speaking. As the great Plutarch observes, “It is no great wonder if, in the long process of time, while fortune takes her course hither and thither, numerous coincidences should spontaneously occur.” I respectfully disagree. The God Variable is always present.

- David Ranzolin

David is a second year MTS student from the Bay Area of California and a Student Ambassador.