Frailty, Embodiment and the Politics of Immortality
My body recently gave up on me.
Living and working in Washington, DC, means learning to survive in an environment where it seems that everyone is younger than you, smarter than you and always just slightly better than you at whatever you are working on or talking about. The pressure to never slow down is enormous—if you take a day off, you’ll fall behind for the rest of your career. You need to be deliberate about self-care in this city. Taking a real sabbath here can be a wildly counter-cultural act.
Because sabbath rest is a spiritual discipline I’m chronically terrible at, my body eventually gave up and forced me to a screeching halt for the past few weeks. In succession, I’ve been dealing with persistent fatigue, allergic reactions to what should have been minor bug bites, and strep throat. It’s been hard to stay awake, let alone work, and emails have been piling up, tasks have gone undone and articles for this very website have gone unpublished.
Each unfinished task I’ve thought about over the last couple weeks has felt like one more rock piled on top of my chest. When facing that kind of backlog of unfinished work and deadlines are looming, it’s easier to understand the appeal of transhumanism—a movement of people who want to leverage technology to modify their bodies and eventually transcend their bodies entirely. The movement is having a bit of a moment in the zeitgeist this week, with a recent article on Vox providing insight into how it works and another in the New York Times providing a heartbreaking glimpse at how its members hope it will develop.
It’s easy to dismiss the transhumanists as whack jobs, or idealists, or wild zealots. If you watch Orphan Black, you may even think that they are shadowy villains with shifting-to-ambiguous motivations. But their movement stems from impulses we all probably experience. Like many in DC, they are frustrated with the limitations their physicality places on their productivity. Like anyone who reads tech blogs or watched the recent Apple keynote as it was streaming live, they are in awe of what the future might have to offer. And like so many of us, they want a way around death.
The gospel tells us that our human bodies are good, important and even essential to our being. It tells us that the human form is sacred and should be cared for and honored wherever it is found. And it tells us that our physical limitations are important to embrace, because they are a constant reminder of our need for a God who was never encumbered by them—but took them upon himself anyway for the sake of bringing us to him.
I’ve been slowly getting back on my feet the past few days, and as I have, I’ve realized that the world didn’t burn without me. My office is still standing. My emails didn’t delete themselves before I could get to them. This website is still online and you’re still reading, ready to rub the gospel into your civic life in new ways. None of us are as essential as we like to flatter ourselves that we are, and our basic human frailty is a feature of our design that reminds us of that fact, rather than a flaw in our design preventing us from reaching our true potential.
But the very fears and idolatries that tempt people to transhumanism are potentially lurking behind our votes. Most of the country won’t vote again until deep into next year, but many of us are already thinking about whether we will vote and, if so, whom we’d like to support with our vote. Over the next year, many candidates will promise to deliver to you a particular vision of the future, or a solution to your perennial frustration, or even invoke your fear of death. It’s fine to vote. I would even argue that it is good and important to vote, but that’s another blog post for another day. But if you do, don’t let your vote be decided by which candidate appeals to your idolatries most efficiently.
Father, you know my deepest fears, frustrations and desires even better than I do. I look at the transhumanist movement and scoff, but in many ways, I am subject to the same idolatries that I see in them, and I probably allow those sins to carry on in my heart unchecked. As this election season heats up, I want to be able to acknowledge the amazing hope you’ve given me in ways that bring you honor and glory. So, search my heart and know me. Show me my sin and idolatry in ways I haven’t noticed it before. And help me to walk into the world this election season humbly and joyfully because of the work your Son has done on my behalf, securing me a new body and a new future beyond what our political process can offer. I pray these things in his name and for his glory. Amen.
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