Transhumanist Advent: Jesus and the Anti-Christ

I see your God who has done everything already, and I see the Anti-Christ. Its message is that the work is done, or the work is permanently reserved for Him. Jesus accomplished His part, which, as it happens, was all that needed to be done.

In an ironic twist, Jesus is turned, and used as the pacifier to keep us from doing the work of Christ. Jesus, the model of taking on all burdens, is invoked as a reason to not take on burdens--because He already took them all on.

Jesus is twisted, and used as the pacifier to convince us that reading sacred texts, performing rituals, and obeying leaders and rules is the whole of the work. But no one believes it; we can sustain it only for a time. The texts, rituals, leaders and rules themselves point to something more, and betray the attempt to lull us. Moreover, the suspicion that we are responsible only grows with time, even as the harsh prospect that the burdens are ours is frightening.

Here is where Jesus, the Savior, the Model, offers not so much comfort as hope and faith and encouragement. The burden is great. The work is real, and daunting. And that cliché phrase that isn’t even scriptural suddenly resounds as if from Christ: It won’t be easy, but Humanity and what it may become is worth it.

-Ben Blair

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Transhumanist Advent: The man who had been mute spoke

(image sourced from video below)
"While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, "Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel." " (Matthew 9:32-33)

While maladies such as mental illness or muteness are now rarely superstitiously reduced to demon possession, miracles of tools which can help the mute speak are emerging. These technologies are in early stages, but they can already begin to break down the barrier of muteness. Here, the autonomy and leadership of deaf communities is an asset as they can create, direct, and use these technologies to foster greater communication and connection. Here are two such approaches.

SignAloud is a gesture glove which a signer can wear which will send the signing information to a computer over bluetooth which will then interpret the signs and vocalize them.

MotionSavvy takes a different approach. Rather than wear a glove, MotionSavvy uses a sensitive motion detector. The signer can then sign above the sensor which, connected to a tablet, can then interpret the signs and vocalize them. It also has the ability to do speech to text so deaf and mute individuals can use it to communicate both ways:

While our attitudes towards and tools used to address and heal muteness have changed, the desire to help the mute speak remains just as worthy a goal for Christians and non-Christians alike.

-Caleb Jones

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Transhumanist Advent: Christ as Invitation

(image source)

"Suppose that the world’s author put the case to you before creation, saying: “I am going to make a world not certain to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition being that each several agent does its own 'level best.' I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real adventure, with real danger, yet it may win through. It is a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done. Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?”" -William James, Pragmatism

A pretend basketball game will never bring out the best efforts of participants. If it is fixed, and the end is already decided, no matter how important you tell the players the game is, they won’t, they can’t “leave it all on the court”. Or, wait. Perhaps this is wrong. Perhaps the game is real, but the tactic is to convince the players that it's not, that the end has already been decided. Now there is no real pressure, and the players, like Ender Wiggins, may do crazy things they wouldn’t consider in a real game, because that is what we must resort to now.

Jesus’s life constituted a radical expansion of morality and ethics. It was not a suspension of the ethical, a la Abraham, or the God of Moses, where Jesus did something that, except God commanded it, was evil. No, Jesus never suspended our morality, but rather deepened and broadened it beyond anything that had hitherto been suggested or tried. His life was a continual widening of circles whenever others (particularly the Pharisees) tried to draw lines and boundaries. Until the end when He recognized the burden for what it was: everything; all of it; nothing left behind; and swallowed it up.

Jesus’ mission isn't yet complete. Christ hasn’t yet overcome all evil. Christ hasn’t yet conquered all death. Those monsters are still ravaging, kicking and screaming. But, thanks in significant part to Jesus, their power and influence are diminishing. He drew the boundaries, or rather showed that there were no boundaries, and boldly proclaimed that nothing short of everything would do. And until His followers in deed join in completing His work, and overcome all evil, including death, His life will remain short of its mission.

Jesus’s mission was as much an invitation, as a completed monumental individual task. The final outcome is still in question. We have reason to hope for victory. But we may yet lose. Perhaps the greatest respect God can give humanity is this: We haven’t been put in a fixed game whose end has already been determined (or if we have, it's a ruse for a bigger, real one). And the formerly metaphysical ideas of resurrection and redemption, once left to an abstract future life, like all prophecy, are flooding into the physical, current life.

If there is still time on the clock, we do no favors to participants by telling them that their team has already won unless the game itself is pretend. No. Overcoming all evil and death will only happen when humans or their descendents, joining Christ, actually overcome them.

-Ben Blair

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Transhumanist Advent: They did all eat, and were filled

"And Jesus saith unto them, How many loaves have ye? And they said, Seven, and a few little fishes. And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks, and brake them, and gave to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets full. And they that did eat were four thousand men, beside women and children." (Matthew 15:34-38)

The story of Jesus feeding the multitudes is a story of multiplying limited resources. One way our food resources have been multiplied is through modern agricultural practices. In the last 50 years wheat yields have doubled and significantly increased global food security. And while the Green Revolution, which multiplied food production, also has problems such as environmental impact, biodiversity, pollution, and nutrition, it's positive impact on hunger can't be denied. As nobel-winning  biologist and humanitarian Norman Borlaug pointed out:

“The green revolution has won a temporary success in man's war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades.”

Decades later, facing increasing challenges of pollution, climate change, and disease, we are beginning to develop new techniques in genetic-engineering, hydroponics, aeroponics, and vertical farming which have the potential to increase food production, food security, and prevent disease. These certainly face their own challenges, but they also provide methods and tools for us to emulate the works of Jesus as they can multiply food. And as this can better lead to feeding the hungry, this is a worthy goal.

-Caleb Jones

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Transhumanist Advent: The Role of God

When Joshua led the Israelites to Canaan--a land where they could settle and grow their own food--manna from heaven ceased to appear (Joshua 5:12). God didn't disappear; after all, it was God who had kept them whole in the wilderness and delivered them to the promised land.

We couldn’t have known that people were starving or trafficked in different parts of the world 100 years ago. We likely couldn’t have known that people were starving or trafficked 5 miles from us. And if we could know, we couldn’t do much about it. Perhaps there is some excuse for evil that we recognize hypothetically, but that it is impossible to do anything about.

But what do we say about evil that we recognize, and that we understand we can do something about, but that we refuse to? Or, that we forget to, or don't think to? Or find too overwhelming?

We live in a world where we know of many evils, and we know how to address many of them, at least in initial ways. And we can recognize, triage-like, that some evil is bleeding out life and hope faster than others and so requires more intensive care, even while many evils seemingly remain far beyond our current abilities to address. The more we work to address the evils, the better we become at addressing them, and the more miracles and surprise discoveries attend our work. We will certainly make mistakes early on, and throughout, but we will also become more effective and efficient through the work if we're humble and mindful.

So what is the role of God in a world like this? Where we--the children of God--have everything we need to start to address clear evils, and most of what we need to fix them? It’s a rhetorical question.

-Ben Blair

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Transhumanist Advent: She is not dead but sleepeth

"While he yet spake, there cometh one from the ruler of the synagogue’s house, saying to him, Thy daughter is dead; trouble not the Master. But when Jesus heard it, he answered him, saying, Fear not: believe only, and she shall be made whole. And when he came into the house, he suffered no man to go in, save Peter, and James, and John, and the father and the mother of the maiden. And all wept, and bewailed her: but he said, Weep not; she is not dead, but sleepeth. And they laughed him to scorn, knowing that she was dead. And he put them all out, and took her by the hand, and called, saying, Maid, arise. And her spirit came again, and she arose straightway: and he commanded to give her meat." (Luke 8:49-55)

Modern advances in medicine and technology have blurred the line between life and death as we progressively reach to the dead using our tools, technology, and desire to heal as we call them to "arise".

  • We now have the ability to preserve life in vegetative or comatose states allowing doctors and family to explore many types of treatments. These states, which would have meant almost certain death -- if not interpreted as death -- in ancient times have become increasingly treatable.
  • Cryonics is an emerging field with successful outcomes performed on animals. This offers hope to some who may be able to "sleep" until treatment can be found for their illness.
  • Certain types of surgeries involve stopping the heart and lungs for hours at a time.
  • Doctors and nurses follow rituals of defibrillator use to restore heart function.
  • CPR techniques save the lives of many, bringing them back from death.
  • We use the organs of the dead to preserve life for the living -- which would have been unfathomable and likely objectionable to ancient and even relatively modern peoples.
  • Some engage in early, crude efforts to replicate the consciousness and intelligence of loved ones from their digital artifacts.

Certainly, along with these tools and technology come the ethical questions of how & when to administer them. But as we seek to ethically preserve life and to recover our dead we can follow the example Jesus set in healing, even when that healing crosses (and blurs) the line between life and death.

-Caleb Jones

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Transhumanist Advent: Blood

(photo credit - text added)

The approach of attesting: “Jesus understands you. Jesus will heal/comfort/lift/unburden etc. you.” can work to deceive the attesters that the burdens of others are Jesus’ to carry. This approach can, ironically, separate us rather than bind us together--because we would-be healers and healed, throw our hands up (even if in prayer) rather than extend them to another.

This approach can work to soothe and trick the evil doer into thinking he’s not responsible for the evil he carries out or facilitates (even through inaction); and if he is somehow to blame, it will be fixed by Jesus anyway. But these interpretations are misreadings that deceive us away from the work of Christ. We all have blood on our hands. Christ’s true followers are doing something about it.

-Ben Blair

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Transhumanist Advent: He touched the man's ear and healed him

Recent trends indicate that organized religion is declining in many developed western nations (source). One way to respond to trends like that is to become zealous about defending faith. This approach often has disastrous results as religious zealousness pits its own righteous desires against others (including their own). Ultimately, it divides the Body of Christ through contention. An example of this is Peter’s defense of Jesus as he was arrested. The defense of Jesus was a righteous desire. Unfortunately, his zeal that lead to contention was out of line.

"Jesus asked him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him." (Luke 22:48-51, NIV)

Currently, I’m saddened and ashamed of all the ears being cut off in the name of religion today. Swords are drawn on various sides as authoritative exercises of religious institutional power cuts off members who are hurting. And swords of indignation are swung at the flaws of religious institutions. We even see this play out in families where faith can become a contentious wedge rather than a healing balm.

Contrast this with Jesus’ response to Peter and Malchus as he stops Peter and heals Malchus’ ear. Can we see in this example how Christ is perhaps calling us to put away our religious and institutional weapons and instead see and heal the suffering of others? Will we stand up to destructive zealotry and say, "No more of this!" as we then seek to be healers? With so many who are hurting today, we have a much greater need for healers and peacemakers than we do for zealots. I think we all have the responsibility to find ways to put injured ears back on and begin listening to one another.

Abraham Joshua Heschel in "God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism" makes this observation:

"It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion--its message becomes meaningless."

Perhaps the challenge for religion today is for it to produce more healers than zealots, to listen rather than attack or contend, and to re-commit ourselves to better emulate the works of Jesus, the Master Healer.

-Caleb Jones

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Transhumanist Advent: The Divine Ledger and Taking up the Cross

Statue on the grounds of The Bishop's Palace in Wells (photo credit: Stewart Black)

A beautiful Christmas video from the Mormon church describes a world without a savior--where we couldn’t take back mistakes; where every heartache lasted forever; where wounds never healed. Without Jesus’ acts, so the argument goes, humanity would be infinitely and permanently deficient on a divine ledger.

With Christians, I believe that Christ restores the balance on such a divine ledger. But this belief is not in reverence to past abstract metaphysical acts. If it were, I see no moral value in it. I can’t comprehend it; no one can. It’s strange to even try to be grateful. I take it the only way anyone can: I take it for granted. I trust He’s not offended by this. We can understand Jesus’ acts as past abstract metaphysical tasks (i.e. having compensated on a divine ledger), or as present motivation to join the work and take up the cross of the world. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but only one moves us.

There were wounds that didn't heal, such as polio and smallpox; but we learned to heal them. And there are mistakes that we are--if ever so slowly--learning to overcome, such as sexism, racism, materialism, and turning a blind eye to those we oppress or allow to be oppressed. And we can just now imagine a future where there will be no heartaches that will last forever; where death, the last enemy, may finally be swallowed up. But these improvements have not come about, nor will they come about simply because of ancient metaphysical acts, even if such acts were necessary.

As abstract ideas, Jesus’s acts to compensate on a divine ledger are by definition part of the setting or backstory; they are not characters in the current plot that we must continually prop up to remind the audience. It’s not blasphemy to claim that Jesus’ acts haven’t directly cured any diseases. Nor is it right to say that His acts--and the mindset that they introduced--had no influence on such progress. No, the progress has come from humans following the example of Jesus (in deed if not in word), and joining Christ by taking responsibility for wounds, mistakes, and heartaches.

There may be a metaphysical need for a savior, but the only work we need concern ourselves with is not adoring that savior from afar but with joining His current work of healing all wounds, overcoming all mistakes, and making all hearts whole, forever.

-Ben Blair

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Transhumanist Advent: He maketh the deaf to hear

"And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him. And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain... And [they] were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak." (Mark 7:31-35, 37)

Whether through an unexplained miraculous healing in ancient times or through utilizing the efforts of those who have developed modern technology, acts like bringing hearing to those who seek it emulate the works of Jesus.

-Caleb Jones

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Transhumanist Advent: The Christmas Night

On this night the universe tipped its hat to humanity. The animals, the angels, and the stars all joined in proclaiming: We hereby entrust this to you. It was on this night. Though made sure in Gethsemane and on the cross, this was the moment. Not the moment of creation. Not any other moment of any other person, prophet or prophetess. This was the moment the universe gave the torch to humanity--through the child born, the son given. And Christ responded by accepting, or taking responsibility for it all, through His life and faith in the efforts of those who would follow. And His human followers in deed will continue to carry the torch until the trust is fulfilled, or it reaches a race more worthy.

-Ben Blair


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Transhumanist Advent: Jesus rebuked the fever

"And he arose out of the synagogue, and entered into Simon’s house. And Simon’s wife’s mother was taken with a great fever; and they besought him for her. And he stood over her, and rebuked the fever; and it left her: and immediately she arose and ministered unto them." (Luke 4:38-39)

Certainly there are many cases where fevers are life-threatening even today, but we often think of fevers as an inconsequential symptom of illness. Today we have largely "rebuked" the fever through  antipyretic drugs and therapy. But how did this happen? And what does that tell us about the role science and technology can play in emulating the works of Jesus?

While the origin of antipyretic therapy is not known, ancient people's have long known about the antipyretic properties of plants like the leaves or bark of willow and myrtle plants. These treatments were diluted in their efficacy, however, without concentration of the ingredient with the antipyretic property. It wasn't until 1763 when the first scientific, clinical application of these properties was studied by the Reverend Edward Stone as he systematically administered willow bark to 50 patients suffering from ague (malaria) with positive results.  He submitted his findings in letter to the Royal Society of London.

In 1829 the French pharmacist Henri Leroux isolated pure salicin from white willow and demonstrated its antipyretic properties. Building on that work, in 1838 the Italian chemist Raffaele Piria hydrolyzed salicin into salicylic alcohol from which which he produced salicylic acid. Then in 1874 the Scottish physician Thomas MacLagan conducted one of the first clinical trials of salicin as he treated rheumatic fever.

With the chemical process and formulae defined and pharmaceutical application studied, industrialization began immediately. In 1829 Kolbe and Lautemann began commercially synthesizing salicylic acid which lead to its commercial form: sodium salicylate which gained widespread popularity. However, adverse side-effects limited its application.

In 1897 the German chemist Felix Hoffman who worked for Friedrich Bayer and Co., in trying to derive a substance from salicylic acid which could avoid these side-effects, succeeded in acetylating the compound's phenol moiety to produce acetylsalicylic acid into a stable form. This was then commercialized as a drug called “Aspirin” in early 1899. One theory of why the name "Aspirin" was used is that it comes from the patron Saint of headaches, St. Aspirinius.

The the turn of the century many variations of the compound had been created which include: antipyrine, antifebrin, phenacetin, acetaminophen, and pyramidon. These were followed by phenylbutazone, the fenamates, and indomethacin, developed in the 1900s. However, the exact mechanism by which these drugs exhibited their properties was unknown.

By the 1970s experiments showed that aspirin-derived drugs limited the formation of prostaglandins by disrupting the cyclooxygenase (COX) activity of prostaglandin endoperoxidase synthase. A hypothesis was formed of the existence of multiple forms of COX with various tissue distributions by observing that acetaminophen inhibits prostaglandin synthesis in the central nervous system but not in other tissues. It wasn't until 1991 that this was proven. Today, work continues to lessen or eliminate the toxicity that still remains in aspirin. And nano-technology promises even greater possibilities in drug administration on the horizon.

The history of how we have developed modern medicine is fascinating as it has relied on the joint effort of physicians, chemists, industrial technology, and biological sciences. It is through the persistent use of these tools that we have come to regularly "rebuke" fevers which was a work that Jesus exemplified so long ago. And it illustrates how technology, science, and industry are instruments for us to use as we seek to do the works of Jesus to heal the sick. Science and technology hasn't replaced God. Science and technology is enabling us to become more like God and Christ.

-Caleb Jones


Source: 'Brief History of Antipyretic Therapy' by Philip A. Mackowiak, Oxford Journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases

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Transhumanist Advent: On Claims

We are either the children or creators of God. Either way, we have a claim on God. As a race, we have matured beyond worship as obeisance to stem violence or cruelty.

Jesus’s life focused our worship from a scattered scene of offerings and rituals to turn our attention to taking responsibility for death and evil.

Our claim is that God won’t haphazardly rain down death and evil on us. These happen because of humans or nature. And God’s claim on us is that we will make death and evil less likely, less damaging, less frequent, and less permanent; until, with Christ, we vanquish them.

-Ben Blair


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Transhumanist Advent: Take up thy bed, and walk

"And a certain man was there, who had been thirty and eight years in his infirmity. When Jesus saw him lying, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wouldest thou be made whole? The sick man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me. Jesus saith unto him, Arise, take up thy bed, and walk. And straightway the man was made whole, and took up his bed and walked." (John 5:5-9)

While many find peace and independence operating with their physical limitation, for many who are disabled, independence is a significant struggle. This can especially be true when use of resources, locations, and facilities is limited due to lack of accessibility. This dynamic comes through in the story of the "infirm" man Jesus encountered. His desire to seek out a form of healing available in his day was repeatedly rebuffed as others with greater access would rush in ahead of him. He felt alone and helpless saying, "I have no man" to help him.

This feeling of isolation and loss of independence can be just as powerful to heal as the physical limitation itself. This can be healed through outreach and creating greater accessible spaces, environments, and communities. However, this can also be done through creating accessible technology which can aid in overcoming the physical limitation. A walking exoskeleton is one technology which parallels this ability to heal as people begin to "take up [their] bed, and walk". This video showcases how this can restore both independence and mobility and how family, doctors, technicians, engineers, and our communities can become that man or women to bring greater healing to others enabling them to "take up [their] bed, and walk".

-Caleb Jones


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Transhumanist Advent: On Dogma

With Jesus, I am against dogmas and dogmatic thinking, religious or otherwise.

-Ben Blair


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Transhumanist Advent: He gave them power to heal all manner of sickness


In the gospel account of Matthew Jesus performed many healings of the sick:

"they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed... then saith he to the sick of the palsy, Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. And he arose, and departed to his house." (Matthew 9:2-7) 

"a woman, which was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years, came behind him, and touched the hem of his garment: For she said within herself, If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole. [Jesus] said, Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour." (Matthew 9:20-22) 

"there was a man which had his hand withered... Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other." (Matthew 12:10-13)

While the explanation here of the causes of these healings is decribed in supernatural terms, it's important to note that Jesus also gave this power to mankind:

"he gave them power ... to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease." (Matthew 10:1)

This mandate to use power to "heal all manner of sickness... and disease" has been a call  to many great Christian Saints through the ages as they sought to use the materials of their day to heal sickness and disease. Today this call continues in our hospitals, tools, and technologies which grow more sophisticated and more powerful. Our tools today, and the works of healing they can perform would be seen as supernatural to ancient peoples, but they are no less miraculous and remain very much at the heart of how we choose to respond to this great Christian mandate to heal.

We now stand at the cusp of revolutionizing medicine and healing as we know it through our understanding of genes and our development of gene therapies via our tools and technologies. While these tools and their mechanisms are certainly not supernatural, our radically compassionate application of them to heal the sick -- many of whom are marginalized in our societies -- is nothing short of a miracle. How will we choose to wield these powers which will also have power to destroy? How will we ensure their far, compassionate reach, especially amongst the marginalized and forgotten?

God continues to inspire compassion and charity in many who, through the use of tools and technologies of the day, seek to heal the sick. And as we see how these tools and technology "[give us] power... to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease", this great Christian mandate will live on.

-Caleb Jones


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Transhumanist Advent: Worship

'Pool of Bethesda' by Carl Bloch

Whatever the historical rationales were, worship today that doesn’t aspire to emulation is empty. We give altogether too much effort to describing how great Jesus was as a mark of the fixed gap between us and Him. The reason Jesus is worthy of worship--the reason any being is worthy of worship--is because that being has lived, or is living in such a way that is a significant moral step ahead of us and others; it’s a mode of life worthy of not only our admiration, but our aspirations, and we work to follow that lead and close the gap. In this way, we should hope that we would worship Jesus; for worthy is the Lamb.

-Ben Blair

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Transhumanist Advent: He anointed the eyes of the blind

Sourced from video below
"I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. When Jesus had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing."
As Christians we seek to do the works of Jesus. Whether clay and spittle or advanced medical tools and treatments, the tools available to us will always require people from any creed willing to do this work while the means and opportunity exist. Regardless, the ritual of giving sight to the blind is worthy of our worship, awe, reverence, and sacrifice.
Here is one way this miracle is performed today:
First Sight: Sonia & Anita from Blue Chalk on Vimeo.

-Caleb Jones

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Transhumanist Advent: The Christmas Message

Gerard van Honthorst

We get the Christmas message mixed up. We read it as a very special baby, and everyone comes to witness or see and point to, and adore the baby, who will grow to become the savior of the world. We read the child as the focal point, and our role as spectator: the classic carol O Come All Ye Faithful captures this sentiment in the refrain’s crescendo: ”O come let us adore Him! O come let us adore Him! O come let us adore Him! Christ, the Lord!”

It is a heavy burden this baby will take--the burden of all the sin, all the evils of the world. This baby will grow, and for the first time for humanity, this baby--now grown--will say: “I love humanity. I love this world. I will do what the highest aspiration and calling in me demands: I will swallow up everything that is evil, and take full responsibility for it all. I won’t single out the evil that only happens to me and my tribe. I won’t differentiate between tribes or individuals. I’ll accept responsibility for it all. I’ll take the full burden."

But what we should read in the whole scene: the shepherds, the wise men, the angels, the animals, and Mary and Joseph, is that we are there, seeing this baby, and imagining what it will later take on. And the witness we are making is not a spectator’s witness, but a witness as an oath to share in the burden. The image of the baby--helpless, naive, dependent, incapable on its own--should burn this oath on our souls.

There was nothing sacred at the time of Jesus’ birth, only potential. It became sacred when He taught and lived a radically, infinitely progressive and expansive morality, and ultimately took on the whole of evil and death. Those acts, which required his birth, were what made His birth sacred.

Our oath this season as we witness His birth is that we will carry the burden. We too will take responsibility for evil and death in the world, to the degree that we can, and recognize that our ability to take responsibility is, like the baby’s, more than we can currently imagine, and is continually increasing as our moral, physical, and technological horizons expand. A recent Norwegian version of O Come All Ye Faithful has a different refrain, but with (as I imagine it) the same escalating crescendo. It goes like this: We are His Thousand Hands! We are His Thousand Hands! We are His Thousand Hands! Be with us today!

(Norwegian text "Come Now in Freedom" by Erik Hillestad. Translated by Carl Youngblood)

-Ben Blair


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A Transhumanist Advent

The following meditations are from a variety of members of the Mormon Transhumanist Association as they individually reflect on the Christmas season and on a vision of transhumanism that can produce fruits worthy of Christ. Each meditation is the view of the individual author and does not represent the official stance of the Mormon Transhumanist Association.

The meditations vary in length from one sentence to a few paragraphs. Though each "meditation" has its own emphasis, some of the recurring themes draw from conversations had with family members, local Mormon congregation, and members of the Mormon Transhumanist Association: transhumanism, taking responsibility for death and evil in the world, the role of technology, theosis, etc. Some meditations will be purely Christian or religious in their focus while others will focus on how technology and transhumanism can play a role in advent meditations.


Bridging Free Will and the Knowledge of God

Mormonism, like many religions, involves free will and an all-knowing God. The combination of these two principles can lead to serious paradoxes and cognitive dissonance when certain forms of deterministic interpretations are used - see theological explorations of free will. Even scientific attempts at defining concepts like omniscience runs into problems - see Laplace's demon for a problem approaching this classically. While my own views are certainly not flawless, I do feel that as we step away from the deterministic interpretations which were often popular in the century Mormonism arose out of, a more robust approach to reconciling free will and the knowledge of God can be found.

My current view on agency and foresight of God is very much informed by more of a quantum interpretation. That in front of all of us lies an infinity of possibilities one could express as a probability wave with some outcomes that are more likely than others. Then as I make choices it sends ripples through that wave: opening increasing some possibilities or collapsing others making them less probable (or even impossible). From moment to moment, that wave of future possibilities is in flux. And I believe that what God is eager to tune us to is, through our use of agency, maximize this probability wave's alignment with the outcomes God desires for us: intelligence, love, immortality, and eternal life.

Perhaps what God understands and comprehends (computes if you will) is the total set of outcomes or at least a set large enough to God's knowledge to be omniscience for all of God's intents and purposes. When God learned/computed, learns/computes, or will learn/compute that I don't know. Whether God learns/computes it all to minute individual degree on everything I don't know, but God could have a superimposed understanding of how these possibility waves can expand and contract at individual and (likely more importantly) societal levels such that it creates a clear enough understanding of what actions are required of God to ensure God's purposes are met: again, maximizing intelligenceloveimmortality, and eternal life.

So, in this view there are an infinite number of possibilities within God's plan for all of us. This rejects classical deterministic notions of necessarily marrying "the one", binary "yes" or "no" approaches to whether something is God's will, sheds light on the fact that revelation is often contingent (e.g. Jonah), sees religion as a process rather than as a fixed destination, and highlights how God is able to call others in place of those who fall from their potential (see Matthew 3:9). We have an infinite set of possibilities ahead of us, though some that may be eternally prohibited. One could say that God may not know exactly what our choices will necessarily be and thus we have true, independent free will. However, God could have a clear enough understanding of outcomes of our possible choices and seeks to guide us to the best outcomes from where we are (practical omniscience).

This creates a perspective where our relationship to God is much more of a partnership rather than ourselves as deterministic pawns in God's plan. This partnership speaks strongly about the rather unique Mormon doctrine of co-eternality -- that we aren't automatons doomed to the prison of deterministic predestination and that we have a true in-born freedom (even radically so al la Sartre). This makes us much more masters of our own destiny where our choices are truly our own and yet to be determined. God, with sufficient comprehension of a multitude of possible outcomes, can fully project the reality of a possible set of choices and provide a warning not just based on a theory of what will likely happen but what will actually happen if that set of choices are made. God provides revelation, inspires prophets about impending possibility waves and prophets provide warnings as best as they can (limited by how they "see through the glass, darkly" as they decode revelation). But those prophecies are not deterministic edicts of doom but instead warnings to change course and exercise our free will. Revelation becomes an outstretched hand from God asking us to join with Them.

I believe this gives true free will (agency) to all, illuminates the Mormon theology of co-eternality, but also makes God the God of creation - seeing how God can know how to most optimally influence if some combination of possibility waves to maximize God's purposes.

What's interesting to think about is the combination of agencies from collections of people and that it gets even more complex than just comprehending the individual probability waves of free will for individuals. At a basic level you have the combination of wills through friendship, family, marriage, tribe, nation, etc. With each combination there is the possibility of the probability waves of free will aligning and magnifying possibilities (either good or bad). And there is also the possibility of the waves clashing canceling out possibilities which may be mutually tempering or which may lead to conflict.

Ultimately, I see God as a Society which has found a way to unite the wills of many to maximize towards righteous ends. This can be called Zion, the Kingdom of God, or heaven. And I find it interesting that Christ mentions the sacredness of this kind of combination ("where two or three are gathered in my name -- there I am").

A really fascinating quote from Wilford Woodruff in early Mormonism creates an interesting perspective on this whole idea of wills combining. This idea came about during a conversation he had with with Orson Pratt and Albert Carrington. Woodruff notes this in his journal on that day:

"June 26, 1847: During our travels today I walked most of the way with Professors Pratt and Carrington and our conversation turned upon the subject of the original formation of God, angels, man and devils, the begetting of spirits in the eternal worlds, and who by the begetting of children on the earth, the death of man and children and the resurrection of all. Each one gave his views, opinions, and reasoning and many interesting remarks were truly made." (source)

What I wouldn't give to have been on that walk with them!

Here's his musing on this notion of a combination of wills he discussed with Pratt and Carrington as being a possible environment out of which God emerges and which God encourages:

"It may reasonably have been the case with the first being formed which may be called God. An eternity was filled as it were with particules [sp] of intelligences who had their agency, two of these particles in the process of time might have joined their interest together exchanged ideas & found by perusing this course that they gained double strength to what one particle of intelligence would have & afterwards were joined by other particles & continued until they organized a combination or body through a long process & as they had power over other intelligences in consequence of their combination, organization & strength and in process of time this being- or God seeing the advantage of such an organization desired company or a companion and having some experience got to work & organized other beings by prevailing on intelligences to come together & may form something better than at the first and after trials of this kind & the most perfect way sought it was found to be the most expeditious & best way to receive there formations or bodies either spiritual or temporal through the womb." (Journal, June 26, 1847)

This perspective can create fertile ground which gives place for genuine free will of the individual, allows for God's omniscience (even if it is merely functional omniscience), and underscores the Mormon theology of co-eternality. It can go a long way in reconciling these principles which, through the lens of determinism, are often pitted against each other in paradox. And as I'm much more inspired by our taking responsibility for our own destiny while we seek a relationship with God rather than abdicating our responsibility to God, an approach such as this gives me more faith and a determination to create and be the good in the world.

Voting for Peace

Religion for Peace and Violence

In October 2002, Russell M. Nelson spoke these words:

Now, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, what does the Lord expect of us? As a Church, we must “renounce war and proclaim peace.” As individuals, we should “follow after the things which make for peace.”

I was a graduate student watching as the United States President was leading us to war on what was evident at the time, and confirmed beyond doubt in later years, bad or false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. I was motivated to work for peace and to understand how we might achieve peace. How should we respond to religiously justified violence?

In this period I went to a debate, moderated by a political science professor, between representatives of two politically active student groups. The topic was whether we should go to war to stop Saddam Hussein’s abuses of power, or whether we should stay out of Iraq. Mostly it wasn’t a very subtle debate, and while better informed than your average political discussion with friends, I didn’t get much out of it. Except for this. I submitted a question that the moderator selected for further debate. I asked, what ways might we peacefully intervene to resolve the problems? Neither side had anything to say to that. It was intervene militarily or stay out (or use coercive economic pressures, but both sides agreed that was failing). However, the moderating professor indicated pleasure in the question, and I went to talk with him afterward. He recommended a book to me: Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, by Mark Juergensmeyer.

Terror in the Mind of God takes you into the thoughts of perpetrators and proponents of religious violence through interviews with proponents of a variety of violent ideologies and with some who perpetrated the acts. One thing stuck with me from reading this book:

Space for New Transhuman Voices

What are we about as members of the Mormon Transhumanist Association? It is clear from past surveys that we have numerous individual purposes and goals, but here is a short description from the MTA website:

The Mormon Transhumanist Association is the world’s largest advocacy network for ethical use of technology and religion to expand human abilities, as outlined in the Transhumanist Declaration and the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation.

It appears that, as members of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, we aspire to be advocates. Advocates for whom and to whom? This is a question I think about on occasion. Clearly we are not an organization for everyone, but if we are trying to build a future Zion and lift up all of humanity, I think we would do well to make sure that we are including voices far beyond the middle class, white, American, Mormon corridor, tech savvy male that is heavily represented among the board, voting members, and MTA conference presenters and bloggers. There are some good things happening in this regard. We have at least two female board members. We have numerous, prominent non-Mormon and former Mormon members. We have heard critics of Mormon Transhumanism speak at MTA conferences. But if we are to reach significantly beyond our biases, we likely need to do much more to seek diverse voices and make room for them in Mormon Transhumanism.

I understand the ease of calling for diversity and the much greater difficulty of achieving diversity, but since I think this is an important discussion, I'm going to bring up what I see as some institutional barriers to giving voice to diverse voices in the MTA. Maybe others will suggest additional problems and possible solutions to problems I can't see, and maybe we can find ways to make this organization I'm proud to belong to even better.

3 days of Mormon Studies: a 'Transfigurist' author's adventures

The author made the rounds last month for three Mormon Studies-related functions.

A Prince in Provo

Historian Greg Prince spoke about Mormon history, research and writing when releasing his new book, “Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History.” Prince also has lent his beautiful home to young Washington, D.C. interns. (Benchmark Books)

Wondering if the LDS church has a secret vault in its office building?

Answer: yes.

What’s more, it’s on the first floor, east side.

How can you meet LDS general authorities?

On Sunday afternoons, go to airports in Dallas, Atlanta or Chicago. The high-ranking leaders use those airports when leaving an area of the United States during their ministration.

That was just a couple of the nuggets historian Greg Prince said during (and after) his presentation at Writ & Vision in Provo, when he announced his latest book, "Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History."

Here's more: He also said out at the event last month how his Jewish friend, a former Bill Clinton press secretary, re-found his faith later in life and that a friend endured a faith crisis only because he went to college.

On Arrington, he said that Arrington was wrong and Jerald Tanner, right on the Mark Hoffman forgeries of documents thought to be essential to Mormon truth claims (Arrington never found the documents to be fraudulent).

Arrington, Prince said, saw everything in the vault and nothing “bothered” him; and the church’s history department has changed significantly since Arrington due to the Internet.

“It’s changed everything,” Prince remarked.

Also, Prince said that his former secretary helped him with Prince’s book “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism.” She remarked that McKay was her hero and that “power corrupts.”

Three men and one woman walk into a bar...

Promotional images of June Mormon Stories podcast stars Dan Wotherspoon, Gina Colvin and Thomas McConkie. The three talked about living Mormonism in an emotional event. (Mormon Stories) 

John Dehlin is the founder of Mormon Stories. His podcasts have occasionally taken live status and residence at Club at 50 West in downtown Salt Lake City. Most recently was a particularly emotional podcast filled with authenticity. His stars: Dan Wotherspoon, Gina Colvin and Thomas McConkie.

How often does Dehlin have questions turned on him? That's exactly what McConkie did, asking Dehlin about his identity regarding Mormonism. (It was a strong vein of the larger theme of living the faith.) Dehlin responded: "In my heart, I still feel very Mormon." Shortly before that, he said that Utah Mormons were correlated to think that there was just one Mormonism -- the LDS church.

McConkie asked the question after Wotherspoon said that people are Mormon if they say they are, and that Colvin attested to this year's Sunstone theme, that there are many Mormonisms.

Then Dehlin asked the audience to tweet a quote from Colvin, a feminist: "The church is weighed down by the dead weight of semen."

Dehlin was excommunicated last year; Colvin "took a sabbatical" but returned (and even made a prophecy during the show); Wotherspoon settled in after 12 years of coming back from church angry every third Sunday; and McConkie, the great-nephew of famous Mormon apostle Bruce R. McConkie, converted to Buddhism as a youth before coming back.

Dehlin also asked about staying in a church that's "so flawed." Colvin said that she would need to be convinced that the church is "awful." Said Wotherspoon: "I will take goodness over correctness any time," when he noted that he would go for the people over intellectual concerns any time. (He also added this: "God doesn't care if you're Mormon.") McConkie called the church his "birthright."

Dehlin reported that Mama Dragons founder Wendy Williams Montgomery said that she goes to church to be a friendly face for the LGBTQ members who are going.

Wotherspoon, in one of his many self-admitted rants, said that he doesn't know if progressives "should" take over the church. Dehlin told the author that his frustration with being paralyzed in advancing in life due to faith crisis was OK because he was in the very time of self-discovery that would be necessary for the future.

And Colvin's prophecy?

The day will come when women will not ask for priesthood but will claim priesthood they already have, she said.

An all-star game of academics

Mormon historian Richard Bushman answers a question from CNN's John King in Oct. 2011. Bushman was a go-to media interview during Mitt Romney's campaign for president and was honored in June at a Brigham Young University colloquium. (CNN)

Sports leagues annually have all-star games in which their finest performers are put in display, among and against each other.

For Mormon Studies, that's basically what you had in June at Brigham Young University.

It was a BYU Maxwell Institute colloquium honoring Richard Bushman. Bushman authored "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling" a decade ago, but was recognized (a second time) for pioneering Mormon Studies to a new frontier.

Bushman may have been the LeBron James of the group, but there were plenty of Stephen Currys and Kevin Durants as well. University of Virginia Mormon Studies Chair Kathleen Flake, Matthew Bowman ("The Mormon People"), Utah State University Mormon Studies Chair Philip Barlow, Jana Riess ("Flunking Sainthood"), and Claudia Bushman ("Exponent II" co-founder) presented, as did dozens of others.

They all seemed to quite enjoy each others' company in between sessions as well. The author was astounded to find that most were practicing Mormons, and that, along with the event being hosted by BYU, may have fed into a conference that turned out to be fairly apologetic.

Nonetheless, it was interesting.
  • Mormon apostle Jeffrey R. Holland was spotted, as he watched his son David, a Harvard history professor, speak;
  • David Hall is regarded as one of the greatest contemporary historians. The Harvard professor spoke about his own faith journey that saw him solidify a strong faith in Jesus Christ after spending weeks in a hospital with his son;
  • Bushman said that Harvard "is all about talking";
  • Bushman was also asked how he can believe in Joseph Smith. He said that he is "the man he wants to be" when he lives "the Mormon way";
  • He also added that the strain of believing in modern times" is positive because it means that good scholarship will result.
  • The author asked Bushman what it meant to be the go-to figure for the media in answering questions about Mormonism during Mitt Romney's second candidacy. Bushman said that it felt good, especially since he had not done as well in his responses in the past. (This would presumably, primarily mean questions asked when "Rough Stone Rolling" came out in 2005 and/or during Romney's first campaign in 2007 and 2008.)