Lesson 10: Hope

cover of Dan Brown's book, Origin.A friend suggested Dan Brown’s latest novel, Origin, deals with science challenging religion much as our book does. When I took a look, it was obvious Edmund Kirsch, one of the main protagonists, is based on the futurist Ray Kurzweil whom we use as the epitome of technological expectation. Kirsch predicts the beginning of a new stage in evolution he calls the Technium when by 2050 technology will absorb humanity. Kurzweil speaks of a Singularity taking place in 2045 when computers become smarter than humans.

At the crisis in the novel Kirsch delivers a speech that begins, “Tonight, let us be like the early explorers… those who left everything behind and set out across vast oceans. The age of religion is drawing to a close, and the age of science is dawning.”

Later in the talk he explains, “Human beings are evolving into something different… We are becoming a hybrid species—a fusion of biology and technology. The same tools that today live outside our bodies—smartphones, hearing aids, reading glasses, most pharmaceuticals—in fifty years will be incorporated into our bodies to such an extent that we will no longer be able to consider ourselves Homo sapiens.”

The plot of the book revolves around religious institutions being so afraid of this message that they take action to suppress its truth. In the talk, Kirsch attempts to calm these fears with an amazing vision of the future: “Edmond persuasively described a future where technology had become so inexpensive and ubiquitous that it erased the gap between the haves and the have-nots. A future where environmental technologies provided billions of people with drinking water, nutritious food, and access to clean energy. A future where diseases like Edmond’s cancer were eradicated, thanks to genomic medicine. A future where the awesome power of the Internet was finally harnessed for education, even in the most remote corners of the world. A future where assembly-line robotics would free workers from mind-numbing jobs so they could pursue more rewarding fields that would open up in areas not yet imagined. And, above all, a future in which breakthrough technologies began creating such an abundance of humankind’s critical resources that warring over them would no longer be necessary.”

My face-to-face discussion groups acknowledged this vision of the future echoes Christian ones that promise peace, justice, and love; however, they thought it was utopian because it bypasses human nature. It sees no need for meaning, purpose, value, and community because technology will enable everyone to have and do whatever they want. My groups thought it was more likely that the powerful would create a greater separation of haves and have-nots and expressed the need to control and direct a decent use of technology. 

One of our frequent commenters, Paul Wildman, shares this concern. He warns that we ignore to our peril that we have already entered a trans-human age in which we overcome human limitations with bio-mechanical bodies. If we are not to sink into a post-human age in which we lose all of our humanity, we need to address the situation before us. Paul does this by engaging in conversation with others willing to discuss possible reconciliations of these apparent dualities, such as his bush mechanics. He seeks to find a vertical dimension, a bringing together of shaman and mason.

Dan Brown leaves us a bit in the dark about Kirsch’s perspective. Although he presents himself as an atheist who announces an evolutionary determinism carrying us into this new Technium, he ends his talk with a “Prayer for the Future”: “May our philosophies keep pace with our technologies. May our compassion keep pace with our powers. And may love, not fear, be the engine of change.”

Whether intentional or not, Kirsch’s prayer calls for the kind of meaning and purpose, wisdom and compassion the Christian story provides. However, in a sense it promises the Christmas story’s vision of the future in which peace and justice are found in shepherds and wise men coming together, without acknowledging they come together in recognition of the Divine’s presence among them. Because of this divine participation, Christians are able to make promises against the background of the Augustuses forcing insignificant at-risk young pregnant mothers to travel and Herods self-righteously massacring innocents.

The Christian story proclaims Christ as the gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and promises that, in him, history will finally be resolved. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

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