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Gnostic Nun, Cyborg Catholicism

Serious business with serious consequences

It looks like maverick Villanova theologian Katie Grimes has some interesting company on the theology faculty at the Catholic university. Sister Ilia Delio, a Franciscan nun, has been awarded an endowed chair in Christian theology there. She looks forward to transhumanism changing the Catholic Church. Excerpts from her essay:

It is interesting that a male, hierarchical church shares common ground with the male aims of science and technology. Could it be that science and religion are instilled with the same utopian ideal, the restoration of Adam to his divine perfection? Is it possible that each area is focused on the same goal and thus can respectfully keep one another at arm’s length? After all, what would be the point of the church embracing modern science and thus opening up to evolution and gender complementarity, if evolution points to an unknown future thus transcending the myth of Adam? Similarly, if science opened up to the values of religion what would motivate scientific and technological development beyond the myth of Adam? In other words, does the Adam myth constrain a new synthesis between science and religion?

To bring science and religion together into a new unity requires a new level of consciousness, a new type of person, one who is free of the Adam myth and its corresponding misogyny. This is where transhumanism can play a profound role. To guide my thoughts, I turn to the social philosopher Donna Haraway who, in 1990, wrote a cyborg manifesto in which she saw a way forward for gender equality through technology. A cyborg is a hybrid of biology and machine and can range from humans with pacemakers and prostheses to robo-humans. Haraway uses the hybridization of the cyborg as a symbol of overcoming the dualisms of Western thought, including patriarchy, colonialism, essentialism and naturalism. According to Haraway, the cyborg symbolizes a reconstruction of gender, moving away from Western patriarchal essentialism and toward “the utopian dream of the hope for a world without gender,” a world where gender is not defining of identity but transcended by lines of affinity. The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no origin story such as original perfection, bliss, falleness and death and is free from the defining limits of nature. Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. According to Haraway, cyborgs can now construct their own identity by choice and not fear.

Cyborgs can construct their own identity by choice. Therefore, to be fully free, we must use technology to make ourselves transhuman. More:

Transhuman technology signifies that reality is a process constituted by a drive for transcendence. Nature, in a sense, is never satisfied with itself; it always presses to be more and for novelty. When we participate in this drive for new possibilities, we participate also in God. This is the dimension of holiness in technology. When we are immersed in the drive for transcendence, we share in the ultimate depths of reality we call God. The myth of Adam has created enormous divisions in science and religion and has stifled human evolution. Transhumanist technologies, symbolized by the cyborg, provide hope for a more unified world ahead – if we develop and create technologies with this aim in mind.

Read the whole thing. You can almost hear that old familiar hiss.

Writing in First Things this month, Villanova philosopher Mark Shiffman has a very different take on transhumanism. The essay is behind the paywall. In it, Shiffman says that in the theology that leads to transhumanism, “We become
more godlike through our own efforts of self-transcendence, rather than through humble prayer and petition and self-giving love.” Excerpt:

Today, the most ambitious Cartesian dreams of life extension and enhancement set the agenda for “transhumanism.” Although it styles itself a philosophy, transhumanism is really a religious movement with a twenty-frst-century marketing campaign (under the brand “H+”). Like their prophet Descartes, transhumanists think of the human being as a consciousness hosted in a body, and of the body as a machine that the will can manipulate by means of reason. Transhumanism adds a new technological claim: Computing advances are on the verge of bringing about the “singularity,” a convergence of artificial, computer-based intelligence and human, brain-based intelligence. This convergence will allow us to transfer ourselves out of the “wetware” of the brain and into super-sophisticated hardware, thus enhancing our powers and possibly securing a kind of immortality. We are on the brink of transcending the bodily limits that have previously constrained humanity, thereby becoming transhuman.

It’s easy to write transhumanism of as a fringe phenomenon of science fantasy. But this is a mistake, for elements of it are already engulfing us.

Yeah, I’ll say — right there on that Catholic campus, holding an endowed chair in the theology department! More from this fantastic essay:

In [sociologist and transhumanism advocate Steve] Fuller’s interpretation, the Judeo-Christian doctrine that we are made in the image of God means that we have as-yet unrealized, godlike possibilities, and original sin denotes the weakness and drag of our non-godlike bodies. On this reading, Christianity mandates rebellion against our finitude through efforts to rise spiritually above the failures of the body.

This, in fact, is not Christian orthodoxy at all, but rather Gnosticism, one of the great heresies. Augustine explicitly rejected Gnosticism [Emphasis mine — RD] in the Manichean form he knew intimately. He understood original sin as the disordered will to self-exaltation. Far from being a source of sin, our embodied condition is
pronounced good in the first chapter of Genesis.

Like Marcion, a Christian heretic excommunicated in the second century, the Gnostics repudiated the depiction of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, beginning with the affirmation in Genesis 1 that the whole creation of earth and the heavens is good. According to Gnosticism, only pure spirit is good; the body and the material world are evil and the source of all evil. Gnostics wanted to purify and detach their spirits from material existence by ascetic disciplines, including abstention from sex and procreation. It was the culture of death calling itself Christianity.

The culture of death calling itself Christianity. Plus ça change. Um, I know we’re not supposed to talk about theologians being heretics, because it is “serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused,” but I’m pretty sure there’s a Gnostic nun sitting in an endowed chair of theology at Villanova, a school that prides itself on its “Augustinian spirituality.” Does this not bother the people who hired her? I know, it’s a naive question, but still.

See, this is why the effort from the Catholic left to police the theological discourse is so harmful: it prevents us from calling things what they are. And that is serious business that can have serious consequences. This is not a game.