“For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” —Ephesians 2:10
In an essay entitled, “Enhancement Technologies and Identity Ethics,” Dr. Carl Elliot reflects on the impact technology has on us given our obsession with identity, self-fulfillment, and “finding” ourselves. Since we desire happiness above all else, how will we use technology to change our bodies to achieve our vision of a happy life?
There are good examples of using technology to bring happiness and wholeness to human life. Take, for example, a disabled person who has lost the use of their arm or their leg. Modern technology might allow us to replace the disabled limb with a robotic one, or to repair the damage so they can regain use of the limb. There are also a myriad of bad examples, as in the example of “amputee wannabes,” or people who pursue amputation of a healthy limb. In such cases, these folks describe their otherwise healthy limb as a “wrongness,” or “not a part of who I am.”
The presenting issue here is freedom for self-determination when, perhaps, the individual’s concept of the good is at odds with the consensus view of health, wholeness and happiness. Though I am no licensed psychologist or psychotherapist, I think we can see the problem (incidentally, courts in the UK facing such cases also see the problem). Sometimes, mental illness distorts our vision of what constitutes a “good” life. While we might want to deny it, constraints are part of the fabric of existence itself. To put it another way, our sense of being ourselves must comport, in some way, with the physical constraints of reality. Identity isn’t just a construct foisted upon us by society and its norms, and it isn’t always a matter of choice. I would love to be able to leap tall buildings, but I’ll never be able to do it while operating under the constraints of gravity on planet earth. I would also like to be a professional football player, but I do not have the requisite physical capabilities to achieve that goal.
On a deeper level, the modern conviction that our lives are projects to be managed, and that we, heroically and alone, shape our destinies insidiously warps our conceptions of self-fulfillment and identity. The mantra most of us have lived and shaped our lives by is that we are in charge, that we have the final say. Thus, we must be very careful to make the “right” kinds of choices to achieve the “right” kind of life – the right grades, the right test scores, the right schools, the right jobs, the right size of bank account, and the list goes on. Under these conditions, technological enhancements create a moral minefield we are still trying to sort out. For example, why shouldn’t professional baseball players be allowed to take anabolic steroids? Who gets to decide? When must their desire for personal and professional fulfillment take a back seat to communal concerns like fairness? To sum the questions up: is it right for us to choose, to construct ourselves (our bodies, our identities, our mental states, etc.) in a way that transcends what life presents us with?
Given the challenges technology poses in light of our modern sensibilities, Elliot cuts through the confusion with a sobering inquiry: “If my life is a project, what exactly is the purpose of the project? How do I tell a successful project from a failure?” Elliot is skeptical that technology and culture will ever allow us successfully answer those questions. In fact, he warns the reader: “Once self-fulfillment is hitched to the success of a human life, it comes perilously close to an obligation—not an obligation to God, country or family, but an obligation to the self.” From there, the “train” of our lives leave the station with no destination in sight, but only the conviction that we need to get there in a hurry. This might explain our collective exhaustion because we chase at illusions of ourselves — illusions of who we think we are and phantoms of what we perceive, at the moment, to be happiness and self-fulfillment.
As Christians, however, we possess fundamental convictions that guide us through the fog and towards the happiness for which we yearn. These convictions are not a matter of mental construction, and are instead received from outside ourselves. Our core convictions are that we are creatures, and God alone is creator. We are dependent, God is independent. We belong to God, and in Christ, God has become our own. God is sovereign, we are not. To St. Paul’s point in Ephesians, “we are what he has made us.” What God has made us for is to glorify God, and to share in the fellowship of God’s love through worship and service to others. Quite literally, we are made to love others for God’s sake. Love as way of being is the way of life God prepared beforehand for each of us.
This isn’t to say that we will always we happy all the time. Life is often filled with sorrow. However, in our search for happiness and fulfillment, knowing what we were made for and where we are going is our only real hope when we have lost our way. In fact, our lives and their fulfillment come not as the conclusion to an endless series of choices, but rather as a gift. We moderns have a real problem with this idea. As we ceaselessly strive to transform ourselves and our environment, it is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that our very being, itself, is a gift, as is the entirety of the created order. As gift, existence isn’t always malleable, but must, instead, be received, treasured and valued for what it is.
As we make a ton of choices, some good and some ill, in 2019, don’t forget that you are what God has made you to be. You are a gift, a gift of love given by the One who is love. Glory be to God, Amen.