Relatively small alterations of the human body are nothing new. People have gotten used to hearing of organ transplants, prosthetics, tattoos, and cosmetic surgery.
But future advances in bioengineering, robotics, and computer science have the potential to drastically alter not only the physical makeup of human beings but also how they come into the world. Recent articles in this newspaper have explored some of these possibilities.
According to at least some experts, the human body, virtually unchanged for thousands of years, may be about to undergo a bewildering variety of modifications. If these experts are right, 21st-century technology may stretch the very meaning of the word human beyond all previous limits.
Perhaps we can only guess at the cultural, legal, and ethical questions this will raise. But there will have to be inspired, logical thinking about the nature of humanity if our children and grandchildren are to deal with these challenges.
Defining humanity by its current physical characteristics, or by biological evolution - in any case by materiality - will not address the questions raised by human intervention in these areas. What about a concept of who we are that is not affected by any of the alterations that may come to the physical and biological realms? A spiritual concept, you could say, that's not rooted in physicality at all.
Many people look to the Bible for such a spiritual view. However, the conventional interpretation of the creation story, in the second chapter of Genesis, doesn't actually give us that. It depicts God creating a material body and putting life and intelligence into it - a view that can only leave us wondering when a modified or manufactured body might start or stop being culturally, legally, and ethically human.
But this material view of ourselves is hard to reconcile with that of the previous chapter. In Genesis 1, we find instead that "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them" (verse 27). An image, or likeness, has no qualities of its own; it only reflects the qualities of its original. Furthermore, the qualities expressed by an image, or likeness, are not put into it so much as they are reflected by it.
Mary Baker Eddy, who studied the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures very carefully, saw those two descriptions of who we are as alternative views of creation. And she concluded that "the Science of the first record proves the falsity of the second" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," pg. 522). In this first account of creation, men and women do not have life and intelligence in themselves, or in a material body. They are not material at all. They are spiritual - that is, they reflect the life and intelligence of God, who is Spirit.
A growing spiritual concept of ourselves will be the touchstone that is needed if humanity is to find intelligent ways to address inventions that the 21st century may bring.
Human beings appear to combine a physical and a nonphysical nature; both a material and a spiritual identity. The Christian Gospel preaches putting off the material nature, while attaining an always-better approximation of God's image and likeness. An early letter to the young church at Ephesus counsels "that ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; and be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness" (Eph. 4:22-24).
The Bible also promises that, with God's gracious help, we will eventually know ourselves as we are known by Him - as His spiritual sons and daughters, as beyond the limitations of mortality.
Knowing that God alone is in control of all creation can bring divine guidance to those who will make decisions about the future use of technology. Our prayers can help ensure that whatever technology comes along will always be used wisely and beneficently. They will bring assurance that the real essence of humanity will continue to be each individual's reflection of God. And the Bible's message of spiritual growth and redemption will continue to speak to those who long to express more of the divine image.