Jens Zimmermann is the J. I. Packer Professor of Theology and director of the Houston Centre for Humanity and the Common Good at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He’s written or edited numerous works, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christian Humanism (Oxford, 2019) and Incarnational Humanism: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World (IVP, 2012). This conversation is edited for length and clarity. Listen to an extended version at modernreformation.org/human.
Jens, in your conclusion to Incarnational Humanism, you say that one of your main goals is to help others see “the enormous theological, philosophical and social implications of the incarnation.” Why is the incarnation so central, not just for Christian doctrine but for Christian thinking?
I believe this occurred to me when I started reading the church fathers, particularly Irenaeus. But think about it: What is the gospel? How does God save the world? It’s by becoming human. It’s actually through humanity that all creation is reconstituted, renewed, and saved. (Whereas today, if we want to save the planet, we usually think we need to get rid of humanity or diminish it because we’ve so rapaciously exploited the world.) If the incarnation is at the heart of the gospel, then obviously it must be totally central for all our thinking.
It was quite a mundane occasion that triggered my interest in Christian humanism as a philosophy that rehabilitates the value of creation and embodiment, built on the good news that God became human so that we could become fully human by becoming Christlike. I was teaching undergraduate English classes at a Christian liberal arts college, and I was confronted with a deep-seated dualism in student’s attitudes to learning. I kept getting business and professional students who didn’t want to read poetry. The basic issue for them was a perceived gap between “real stuff”—you know, real knowledge that business conveys or the natural sciences—and the “airy fairy” stuff that literature and poetry convey. So, I had to come up with a defense, a way of saying, “Well, if you dismiss poetry, you’re also dismissing your own faith. You’re dismissing theology.” My defense of literature as real knowledge was the incarnation as the unifying center for all human knowing. The integration of all things starts with the incarnation, with the apostle Paul’s statement in Colossians that Christ is the center of all reality: “In him all things hold together” (1:17). And “all things” means all things, including the arts. Sometimes it’s good to read the Bible literally!
As we think about the relationship between modern digital technology and personal identity, what are the dangers we should be sensitive to—especially as those who believe the fullness of human being and flourishing is Jesus himself, glorified at the right hand of the Father?
In the ancient world, a “person” fundamentally meant somebody’s social status. The idea of personhood that we have nowadays—that it’s my deepest interiority, who I am with my feelings and convictions, possessing irreplaceable dignity and worth—that idea is new in relation to all the millennia of human history prior to the biblical tradition. It arose through Judaism and Christianity. We believe in a Creator God who has made all things and is therefore the ground of everything, which makes him awesome and unknowable. Yet, as Jewish philosopher Martin Buber pointed out so well through the story of the burning bush, this personal Creator God addresses us and calls us to respond. This personal relationship between the transcendent God and individual human beings is totally, radically new in philosophy and theology. This Creator God, who is the ground of everything (even the very ground of Moses thinking about him), singles out Moses as a person and addresses him as a person. The Bible is the beginning of human dignity and personhood in that sense.
We can apply this insight to the dangers of technology. The person whom God addresses and dignifies is body and soul. The early church fathers were often accused of being body-hating Platonists. What is often overlooked, however, is that they recognized—based on Christ’s bodily resurrection—that you’re incomplete without your body. We also have personal identity and value because we’re made in the image of God, and not because we possess certain capabilities (like rationality or freedom). You can’t reduce the person to mental or physical capacities. A person has to reveal him or herself, just like God has to reveal himself. There’s a secret depth and opacity that we can never fathom.
We’ll never get to the point in the new heavens and earth where we say, “Okay, I guess I’m done growing in my knowledge and experience of the Lord.”
No, not at all. This is what Gregory of Nyssa called “constant expansion.” Can it be that in glory I expand every day and God fills me every day with a little more? There’s so much more—infinitely more! We can’t even imagine that. So, the question for any technology, particularly the digital technologies we have now, is whether it supports this rich biblical notion of the embodied and dignified person or diminishes or atrophies our imagination of what a person is and what we’re made for.
In the broadest sense, everything we’ve ever invented to accomplish a goal is a technology—from the alphabet to the airplane. Some technologies have been wonderful and some destructive. Most of them are both, depending on whose hands they’re in. So, what’s distinctive (and perhaps distinctively problematic) about recent developments in digital technology?
When we reflect on technology, it’s important to distinguish between the idea of devices or tools we employ to make life easier and the idea that technologies may change our worldview and even our self-understanding, and therefore change the way we interact with one another. Technology is never neutral; it always changes how we perceive reality. Some technologies do so more than others. Martin Heidegger, for example, in his famous essay “The Question of Technology,” says that modern technology frames our relation to the world in terms of commodities. We no longer consider the mystery of life as something we need to surrender to or conform to. It’s not something we need to explore in awe and wonder with an openness that says, “You teach me. Let me see.” With technology, our comportment changes; our framing of nature and reality changes. We increasingly look at nature as a huge warehouse of commodities available for our projects—the trees are made for chairs, that kind of stuff. Eventually, we start looking at each other in the same objectifying, commodifying way.
Another good example of this comes from Gabriel Marcel, a French Christian philosopher, who said that technology frames our thinking about reality in a way that replaces mystery with problem solving. Life, including human life, now becomes a problem to be solved by technological means. We see this today in a movement called “transhumanism,” a movement mainly founded by computer scientists and engineers. Here humanity is conceived in completely functionalist terms. You and I are sophisticated machines. Our brains are basically computers. We can be reverse engineered, and our consciousness can be uploaded onto a digital platform. What is consciousness? Simply the accumulated patterns of emotional and behavioral activity inscribed into our memories. Transhumanists are fundamentally gnostic, in the sense that they want to get beyond the limits of the body to engineer humanity into a new species no longer reliant on this flesh. So, with this technological mindset, we move in our imagination from the paradigm of incarnation to digitization.
For Christians, transhumanism isn’t a cool creative reimagination of life but a violation of what nature actually is. My point is that this reimagination of reality through technology is a metaphysic. That sounds pretty abstract, but this metaphysics is present in the gadgets that are conceived and built in order to instantiate the metaphysics that transhumanists believe. The use of our smartphones every day, or being on Zoom rather than meeting with others in person–these things are hugely powerful for how we think about reality. Our imagination is being changed by our use of these technologies. It’s the most powerful influencer, I think, that humanity has ever experienced en masse.
Is there any silver lining to these tensions for a Christian approach to identity and personhood? Is this pushing us in any good directions?
One simple point to be made is that technology should be our servant and not our master. That technology can be helpful is without question. I’m old enough for my parents to have experienced the end of the Second World War. In postwar Europe, there was so much displacement; people had to find their families across Europe by posting notes on Red Cross bulletin boards, hoping that somebody would see it. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes people didn’t locate their families for decades. If they’d had WhatsApp or even a cell phone, it would’ve taken seconds. What misery that would have saved!
Yes, technology can be helpful if we can use it in such a way that we preserve our souls. One of my favorite tech writers is Steve Talbott, who wrote Devices of the Soul. He’s a former computer programmer who asks, How do we use technology without being suckered into the framing of technology? Think about when people say things like, “Oh, this new online service (ChatGPT) wrote an essay for me.” Nobody wrote an essay for you. What happened is that an algorithm capable of sifting through an enormous amount of data in nanoseconds is playing a statistical game of finding the appropriate parts to put together into sentence patterns. What’s the endgame here? As I tell my students, you would have this algorithm write your essay for you, then my algorithm would grade it for you, then another would create the grade report for you. And meanwhile, have you learned how to write? Have you learned how to think?
Toward the end of Incarnational Humanism, you say something that starts to get at our answer as believers to some of these issues: “The social imagination of the early Christians was filled with this vision of Christ as the first true human being, to whose image we are molded by the work of God’s Spirit, a Spirit that does not deny our own efforts.” And then you end with the Lord’s Supper: “This is the heart of incarnational humanism, into which we’re drawn every time the Lord invites us to the Eucharistic table.” Please reflect on that.
You have to believe in a real presence; otherwise, this doesn’t work. And I can accommodate the Calvinistic spiritual presence—that’s all good, as long as it’s a full presence! If it’s Christ, the new creation, a Person who is really there, and we really are feeding on his flesh and blood in that spiritual yet real sense that Jesus talks about in John 6:53–59, then we are ingesting life and being sustained by it. The Christ in whom all things were created, in whom all things hang together, is there! So, when you come to the table, what you experience is the materiality of the new creation. That new reality has come, and it’s there in our midst. We’re tasting all that is good, true, and beautiful. It connects you to your activity as a poet, as an artist, as a scientist, businessperson, or pastor, whatever your mission is, whatever your work is, because here is the transforming power that gives your mission its energy. This is the origin and the completion of all that we are given to be and to do.
As I get older, I pray that God will make that reality more real to me than the desk I’m sitting at and the world I’m experiencing, because that’s where we’re all going. That’s what sustains us. If I have that, then why would I fear death? The absence of the fear of death is what set the early church apart. If you read Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, he says, in effect, “I have presented my argument for the incarnation. But if you want real proof, look at us Christians: we’re not afraid of death.” Unlike the transhumanists, who attempt to find a technological way of overcoming death without the body, Christianity embraces death because Christ made it the gateway to life.
And at the table is where I should learn not only who I am but also what my relationship with my smartphone should be.
As Rowan Williams has said, when you take the elements, you should see the glory of the new creation dripping from the bread and the wine, knowing that you’ve been drawn into that reality. It’s not the minister you see. It’s Christ you see. You’re truly eating life.