I saw the Avengers End Game film last week. What’s remarkable about this film, is not just that it’s on the way to becoming the highest grossing film of all time, but that it’s doing so at a record pace. Now, if you’ve never heard of the Avengers End Game film, let me just confirm to you what I think you already know, that you are culturally irrelevant.
The Avengers are this group of superheroes that come together to rescue the universe from different forms of catastrophe from time to time. And in this End Game film, they come together to settle a score with one of their oldest, most scary, most vile enemies from across the whole time that they’ve been defending the universe. And you’ve got Iron Man. Iron Man is actually just the human Tony Stark wearing a really cool suit, which lets them do cool things, including flying. You’ve got The Incredible Hulk. This is actually Dr. Bruce Banner, who in his human life is quite weak and a retiring kind of character. But when the Hulk comes upon him, he is able to summon superhuman strength and do amazingly powerful things that he could only dream of in the status of being Dr. Bruce Banner. You’ve got Black Panther. He leads the world in terms of scientific knowledge and his development of high-tech gear and different forms of technology that the rest of us can only dream of. So, the Avengers have all got their individual strengths and different things they can do. But what they all have in common is the fact that they are, on the one hand, humans with very kind of ordinary lives, and the film gives us a little bit of an insight into some of their ordinary lives and their characteristics. They are, on one level, human, but they are on another level humanoids; integrated with various forms of technology which help them transcend their normal weaknesses, their normal limitations, so that they become these kind of next level beings upon whom the future of the whole universe depends.
Now, we’re all waiting to see whether Avengers will overtake Avatar, which is the second highest grossing film of all time. I haven’t seen the data today. Maybe it has actually overtaken. Let’s wait and see what the next week brings. But Avatar, I’m sure many of you have seen as well. This was the 2009 epic directed by James Cameron. Set a few hundred years in the future, when humans are now using these genetically engineered so-called Na’vi Bodies to live on a distant planet called Pandora. And the reason that humans are interested in Pandora is because Pandora has got lots and lots of a particular semiconductor called Unobtainium. And the humans need to get their hands on this unobtainium so that the rate of technological development back on Earth can be protected and with that the future of the human race.
Now, I wonder what you would say is the reason for the amazing popularity of these kinds of films in our culture. What would you say to that question? One answer that I would offer. One reason that these films strike such a chord is because they tap into and reflect back to us an idea which many of us are either explicitly or implicitly committed to. An idea that the future of the human race rests with technology. That we must super-engineer ourselves in different kinds of ways, maybe on the one hand to eradicate disease, on the other hand to enhance our strengths, our abilities, the things that give us power in life. We have to do this in order to somehow raise the status of our being, perhaps one day even to make ourselves immortal. The perennial quest of the human race. It’s no coincidence that the arch enemy in the Avengers film is called Thanos. Greek enthusiasts will know this sounds like thanatos which in Greek means death. The Avengers set out to defeat death. And the film hinges on the moment where Thanos says, “I am inevitable”. And then Iron Man says, “No”, because “I am Iron Man.” And then some kind of laser comes out, and that’s enough to settle it. Death versus mankind. The perennial quest of humanity at the heart of the two highest grossing films in all history. And in both cases, the solution is linked to technology. Our culture is obsessed with the idea that hope for the human race is contained in technology. And this is an idea which is starting to be based much more on science than on fiction.
One technological area, which is becoming particularly advanced, and which I’m going to focus on for the time we have today, is the area of genetic enhancement. We’ve seen the success of the Human Genome Project and billions of dollars invested and lots and lots of discoveries coming out of that pioneering piece of scientific research. We’ve seen the success of that. And we’ve had technology such as CRISPR developed (an acronym for six words I’m not going to try and pronounce from the stage), but you can read it (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats).
Scientists have realized that many of our genetic illnesses, weaknesses, limitations, many of these genetic frailties, can be eradicated from the human future. If we have the desire to eradicate them. And we would do that through various germline interventions. In 2017, the BBC reported that scientists have for the first time successfully freed embryos of a piece of faulty DNA that causes heart disease to run in families. So, 10,000 different kinds of disorders have now been eradicated from that particular germline. Those disorders will no longer be passed on to future generations. We can cut out pieces of the human genome that we don’t want (genes that might cause disease), and then we can paste back in genes that we do want (genes that might enhance some of our strengths and our abilities, enhancements to our memories, our intelligence, our physical performance, or maybe even just to follow a particular preference that we might have in the area of eye color, for example).
We’re living in a really unique time. A really unique time where the decisions taken by generations not living could, and probably will, have direct, possibly irreversible, impacts on future generations. The advancement of modern science is presenting immensely challenging issues. And is calling into question some of our most basic assumptions about what we thought human life was and about the nature of our existences. And the force of the argument that is felt in our culture because we have for several decades behaved in such a way as that, when the possibility of doing something arises, it becomes the moral obligation to do something. If something can be done, something must be done.
Now that we know it is possible to eradicate genetic conditions from the human future; genetic conditions like Down Syndrome, like Cystic Fibrosis conditions (which some of us may well be living with, or people that we love and know in our family live with). These conditions, we are told, that because it is possible to eradicate them from the future, we absolutely should. We have a moral obligation to do so. Or at the same time know that we know how to make ourselves more intelligent or have better performance or better memories or be able to do lots of things that we can only dream of right now, then we should absolutely enhance ourselves to be able to do those things as well. It just makes no sense to willingly accept limitation. Nick Bostrom, who is the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, says “our bodies are death traps”, which we should, “absolutely strive to escape from.” Another key voice is the philosopher, Julian Savulescu. And Savulescu says that “we simply must enhance ourselves because to willingly accept limitations when something could have been done is just the other side of the coin of deliberately inflicting disability on ourselves or on our children.” He says that “we have significant moral reason to select the best children through the screening of embryos or children in the womb and we should discard, or abort as required.”
This is powerful language. These are emotive debates. And we’re not far removed from questions of who or what we really are and of what our responsibility for the future really is. Are we Avengers, who, with technology, must one day defeat death and all kinds of threats and illness along the way? Or are we as humans barging our way into a conversation which is just a little bit above our pay grade? For Christians, this feels like a very difficult one. We perceive something of an inherent attraction to the idea. We do want to see less pain and suffering in the world. We do want our children to have the best lives possible. Perhaps God has endowed us with these abilities and given us this knowledge for precisely these reasons. But still, something doesn’t feel quite right. Let me say clearly that we’re not primarily talking about the cure of disease in the future or better care for people suffering in the future. We are talking about the prevention of people coming to birth with forms of genetic disease. That is a very different vision. That seems to be something more destructive than creative. That seems to be less in line with human flourishing than with denying what is real and true about ourselves. That we are vulnerable creatures.
And what I want to do here is just try and paint the big picture for us. See if I can pick out some of the themes operating at a high level in this big debate. And from that vantage point, see if we can discern some things which might be the beginnings of our opinions on the matter and which might be the beginnings of seeing the incredible difference that the Gospel makes. And I do this primarily as a philosopher, someone who has reflected at length on the worldview issues at stake, not as a biologist. I’m not a biologist, but I do my best to keep up with what the biologists are saying.
So, three points to touch on quickly. Three worldview issues at stake and choices which must be made:
- firstly, in our view of the future,
- secondly, in our view of humanity’s problem, and
- thirdly, our view of what exactly happened at the cross.
So firstly, in our view of the future and a choice to be made between placing faith in human possibility or placing faith in the promises of God.
I don’t know how much time you’ve spent thinking about the future in a serious way, about the hope you might feel about the future or the basis of that hope, not just in terms of being home tonight in time for Britain’s Got Talent or to look forward to a nice Sunday lunch tomorrow. But the hope that you have in your view of what the future will contain fundamentally. What does the future contain fundamentally? What is the direction of travel of, not just your life, but of the whole cosmos? Of everything and everyone that you see around you? What’s it all for? Where is it all going?
The theologian N.T. Wright says that “what we think about the future is a matter of thinking straight about God and his purposes for the cosmos and about what God is doing right now already as part of those purposes. It’s the key to thinking seriously about everything else. Indeed, it is one of the main reasons for thinking seriously about anything at all.”
The idea of a future in the hands of human possibility and progress is deeply rooted in our culture, and it does underpin many of the arguments in favor of genetic enhancement. Cut and paste ourselves… cut and paste humans as we try to make ourselves better. The idea that we are all kind of responsible agents in this great cosmic project that can and will continue to develop towards perfection and maybe immortality. Perhaps a utopia of our own making. In the words of John Wyatt, “we now see politics as a way of making a better world and fashioning stronger communities.” Psychologists advise us how to build stronger relationships. Business entrepreneurs create wealth. Oliver O’Donovan, “every activity is understood as making… every situation in which we act is just raw material waiting for us to make something of it.” To entrust our future, to put our faith in human possibility, means to refer our ethical questions to what mankind can do. And it is to restrict our ethics only by reference to what mankind wants.
But if we were to refer our ethical questions, not to the question of what mankind can do, but to the question of what mankind is for, we would have an opposite idea of the future. A future coming from the other direction. Not driven by what mankind can fashion out of its lot, but by what the imminent God has done, is doing, and will do. This would be hope not in what mankind discovers to be possible, but in what mankind discovers to be true of the promises of God, of his character, and of His action in history. A future not of mankind’s utopia, but of God’s kingdom, a kingdom where it is promised that there will be no more sickness, illness, death, or pain. That is the direction of travel in the universe. But the point of entry is not with our own making, it is through relationship with the God whose kingdom it is. Jesus says, I promised you this. This is going to happen, but we don’t need kingdom 2.0. Instead, you concentrate on entering my kingdom and bringing as many people and extending to them an invitation to be part of it as well. Your view of the future and the balance of the hope that you feel between mankind’s progress and God’s promises will, to a large extent, inform the urgency you feel about the need for genetic enhancement. Which is connected with the second world view issue.
Our view of whether humanity’s deepest problem is material or moral. Is it a problem with our bodies or with our hearts? Because that goes such a long way to informing the type of solution, we think we need. Luke chapter five is very instructive here. Remember when some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and they tried to put him in front of Jesus. They ended up having to put him through the roof to get him there, and they lowered them right in front of Jesus’ nose in the middle of the crowd. In everyone’s hearing, Jesus said, “friend, your sins are forgiven.” What?! It was as startling to the Pharisees and the teachers of the law then, as it is to us now; to hear that, Tony Stark, the problem is not with your suit, it’s with your heart. No matter how far human progress may take us, it is powerless to address our biggest problem, sin and estrangement from the God who created us, who knows us, who loves us. Relationship with him is the source of flourishing in this life and the next. Scientific progress cannot stop human evil. It can’t do anything about human evil in the past. Hope is not found in mankind becoming God, but in the God who became man. He has seen our pain. He’s seen our sorrow, and he’s given us hope for the future.
So thirdly and finally, this will hinge on what you think happened at the cross. Is it tragedy? Nothing more hopeless in all the universe. A man who lived a better life than any of us ever could. A better moral life but still vanquished by physical death and failure of the material body (like the rest of us). A man who claimed to be the Son of God, on a mission he said, to set humanity free from disease and illness. Not primarily, although He did bring healing to everyone He met as He went along, but to set us free from sin and the consequences of estrangement from God at the heart of our problem. Was His death on the cross a tragedy or was it triumph? Because, ladies and gentlemen, what happened next is the surest foundation for all our hope in the future.
“There in the ground His body lay
Light of the world by darkness slain
Then bursting forth and glorious day
Up from the grave He rose again.
And as He stands in victory
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me
For I am His and he is mine
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.”
The return of this risen, glorious, resurrected Christ is our hope, our security for the future. He’s addressed our biggest problem through his death. And in his resurrection, He has secured for us the possibility of fulfillment, health, joy, life everlasting.