Making sense of the body-hacking movement

What if we could improve the human body, rather than simply fix things that have broken? This is the motivating question for the so-called "body hacking" movement, also known as transhumanism. We have long since accepted the idea that we can use technology to repair and sustain our bodies — pacemakers to regulate heartbeats, artificial joints to enable movement, metal plates and rods to repair broken bones. What if we opened ourselves up to the possibility of other inventions?

The nascent body hacking movement is already beginning to suggest some of those possibilities, as a recent NPR article reported. Embedded microchips with personal information, smartphone passcodes, door lock codes and more may make life easier. LED light bulbs implanted into one’s hand may provide safety for those who run at night. Science fiction, of course, offers even more ideas, from data ports direct to the brain (Doctor Who) to Darth Vader’s cybernetic suit (Star Wars) to robotic endoskeletons enclosed in human flesh (Terminator).

At first glance, body hacking is so contrary to our expectations of “normal” behavior that there can be an almost visceral reaction. I have a hard time even looking at the image in the NPR story of LED implants in actual hands. Yet we need to move beyond a gut-level reaction and consider this trend thoughtfully. How do we make sense of body hacking and transhumanism, especially from a Christian perspective?

As Christians, we affirm that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and that we are created in the image of God. Christians also understand that that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and ought to be treated with respect. Yet I have no objection to those who choose to wear colored contact lenses or color their hair, both of which are, at their core, “body hacks” of a less technologically advanced variety.

I would suggest that a theologically sensitive approach to body hacking must begin by affirming the goodness of our created bodies. While we should not necessarily reject body hacking outright, the foundation of the goodness of our bodies will naturally put limits on what we are willing to accept. We must be willing to weigh carefully what the potential benefits and harms of implanted technology may be. How would an implant improve our ability to fulfill our created purpose and serve God’s kingdom in this world?

A thoughtful approach to body hacking will also take seriously that we should treat our bodies with respect. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price,” Paul wrote. “Therefore honor God with your bodies.” Lining up to receive a microchip implant from a booth at a tech convention strikes me as irresponsible at best and downright dangerous at worst. Without research, testing and consideration of the communal ramifications of implants, I have a hard time recognizing body hacking as something that honors God with our bodies.

The communal dimension of body hacking is, perhaps, the most challenging aspect. The prophets of the Old Testament call God’s people to act justly. The idea of implanting a microchip in order to save two seconds of time unlocking my phone is the sort of investment of resources that smacks of privilege. Cybernetic technology is likely to further the divide between those who have access and means from those who don’t. Without much difficulty, we can imagine such technology used to corral and control others. As Christians we should think deeply about the questions of justice that accompany body hacking.

“Our World Belongs to God,” a contemporary testimony of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, offers these words of wisdom regarding technological advancements: “Grateful for advances in science and technology, we participate in their development, fostering care for creation and respect for the gift of life. We welcome discoveries that prevent or cure diseases and that help support healthy lives ... approaching each new discovery, whether of science or of medical technique, with careful thought, seeking the will of God.”

This seems to me like sound advice for thinking about body hacking, too.

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All of these “modifications” have been around for at least a generation.

What say you about tattooes?

Owen - while some have been around longer, it seems that many are just now beginning to gather steam and become more “mainstream”

Jack - I would include tattoos among the sort of “low tech” body modifications to which I have no objection.

The only verse in the Bible that mentions tattoos explicitly is Leviticus 19:28 - “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.” Given the context, what is commanded here is not opposition to body art or self-expression but opposition to religious ritual and, particularly, worship of the dead.

I would subject tattoos to the same concern I lay out above: was the tattoo received in a way and for a reason that honors God with your body? I would have no qualms about receiving a tattoo from my friend Tim’s parlor - he is a highly trained, skilled artist whose facility is clean and professional (I almost did get one from him, actually, and have still not ruled it out). Tattoos can be a wonderful way of celebrative self-expression, of remembering pivotal points in one’s life, and of telling one’s story.

More could be said but I’ll leave it at that.

In Reply to Jack Dodge (comment #28063)
Jack, you might also be interested in this earlier TC piece: “Tattoos and resurrection”.

Interesting. From one point of view any surgery is interventionist - and in particular, a surgery that implants something, like an ICD or pacemaker, is body-hacking, as well as some solutions to deafness. Tough issue. And different folks will draw the lines different places. What makes this tougher for us is our weak theology of creation, and our gnostic leanings. I’d be looking outside evangelical circles for a helpful biblical approach - maybe Anglicans!

Incidentally, the scholar/theologian doing some great work in this area is Stephen Garner at Laidlaw in Auckland.

Would you say that this topic is included in the Theology of the Body conversation? Also with resurrection of the body discourse?

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