Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of a German church, kicking off one of the most significant movements in Christian history: the Protestant Reformation.
The movement was less defined by the content of those theses, and more defined by the act itself: the willingness to challenge ecclesiastical authority with the power of the written word.
Cutting-edge technology gave that power a significant advantage. With the printing press, the public had incredible access to the scriptures, and diverse religious views could be widely disseminated. Suddenly, anyone could challenge ecclesiastical authority with their own interpretations.
The written word had replaced the church as the arbiter of truth.
This new source of authority meant that literacy was no longer a luxury for the wealthy and educated, but a religious imperative. Reading and interpreting scripture for oneself became a core part of religious practice, and teaching people to read became part of the mission of the church.
This wasn’t the first time social and technological change had caused upheaval in Christianity. According to Phyllis Tickle, author of the ground-breaking work “The Great Emergence”, this is something that happens every 500 years.
Every 500 years, Christianity reboots. Or as Tickle would put it: Christianity goes into its attic, pulls everything out, and has a massive rummage sale. Every time this happens, Christianity emerges stronger than before—lighter, faster, cleaner. Rather than losing steam, it speeds up, becomes more resilient, more intense, more compelling.
What always emerges is a profoundly new form of Christianity, which proceeds to spread across vast new areas of geographic and demographic space—with radical implications for politics, science, industry, social structure, and technology.
“It saw the rise of the nation-state, it was the rise of the middle class…it also brought capitalism” Tickle says, describing the impact of the Protestant Reformation.
Of course, Phyllis Tickle is not the first person to suggest that Christianity goes through this kind of reinvention. G. K. Chesterton, a Catholic writer, suggested the same thing in 1925. Chesterton argued that this reinvention isn’t something foreign to Christianity, but is an intrinsic and natural part of a religion whose main theme is death and resurrection.
“Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” — GK Chesterton
In fact, as Chesterton sees it, it is exactly this ability to die and emerge as a new religion that makes Christianity so resilient. Every time it dies, it becomes stronger. Every time it dies, it gains ground.
According to Tickle, we should expect one of these upheavals and rebirths every 500 years.
Which means that we are due for a New Reformation right now.
Tickle argued that this is exactly what we are experiencing. From a certain religious perspective, everything seems to be falling apart. But from another perspective, we’re witnessing incredible new possibilities emerge—and some of these possibilities may lead past the downfall of Christianity, to its rebirth.
50 years ago, Julian Huxley announced a new philosophy:
“The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself—not just sporadically…but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.” — Julian Huxley
Huxley was deeply influenced by his friend, the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard spent his life working to reconcile science and religion, in the process coming to profound insights about the nature of the world and human life.
Although Huxley was deeply secular, his vision was in many ways an attempt to capture what he saw in Teilhard’s work. From the very beginning, transhumanism—though expressed in a secular context, for secular individuals—was an essentially religious vision.
5 years ago, I started writing about Christian Transhumanism, and the attempt to reconnect the transhumanist vision with its religious roots.
Phyllis Tickle says that there is one question every Reformation must answer: What is the authority?
1500 years ago, it was the creeds of the ecumenical councils.
1000 years ago, it was the Pope.
500 years ago, it was the Bible.
Now, it is TBD.
But I think that Christian Transhumanism offers a possible answer. The authority is in the future itself.
That, after all, is what faith is about: embracing God’s vision of the future, and pursuing it despite fear and danger. In the Christian faith, the future is where God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven”—where heaven descends to earth, the cosmos is renewed, and God and humanity are reunited.
Embracing that future casts a profound light on our present, changing our perspective on everything from the Problem of Evil to the nature of human life. It provokes us to challenge ourselves and our society, it calls us to a higher ethic and mission, it places us in a larger story with incredible meaning.
In a way that’s never been possible before, cutting-edge science and technology are allowing us to catch a glimpse of what that future might look like. Not completely, not fully—but in fits and starts, in vague forms and intimations.
The study of A.I. causes us to consider beings more powerful than we are. The construction of Virtual Reality provokes us to reflect on the creation of our world. The exploration of space allows us to contemplate our God-given reach. Radical longevity confronts us with questions about what life on earth is for.
For many secular people, that glimpse is—shockingly, surprisingly—opening the door to religion. For many Christians, it’s casting new light on the story of scripture. For many believers, it’s provoking exciting new expressions of faith.
500 years after Martin Luther, new technologies and new questions are once again disrupting the most widespread expressions of religion. We’re looking for a way to move forward, and we know that Christianity must arise stronger and more dynamic than ever before.
When it does, it will challenge our notions of humanity and society at a level never before seen. It will require a more courageous imagination, grappling with a much vaster world.
There’s only one thing I know confronting these questions, on a scale large enough for our times.
That’s why I believe Christian Transhumanism is the Next Reformation.