Biotechnologies have the ability to reshape the human body as well as our communities. Particularly within transhumanism, biotechnology is crucial for enabling humans to overcome their bodily limits (including finitude) and form ideal communities that are free from the restraints of time, place, and bodily stigma. The promise of transhumanism draws from the tradition of Baconian medicine, which seeks to end human suffering and limitation through technological control over nature. Although the telos of transhumanism has yet to be accomplished, advances in cellular biology, genetic editing, and prostheses ignite our collective imaginations concerning our future selves.
Christian theologians have begun to engage transhumanism as both adopters and critics. Some Christians believe the technological ambitions of transhumanism will help Christians use their God-given creativity to bring about the Kingdom of God. Christian transhumanists share with their secular counterparts, an abiding belief that disease and disability are not the ideal human state, and human ingenuity will bring about the redemption, not only of the body, but also of the world.
Disability ethicists warn that the transhumanist telos is ableist, as are various Christian eschatologies that imagine a future state free of disability. Despite biblical warnings that we cannot know how our bodies will appear in the resurrection (1 John 3:1-3), Christians are prone to understand bodies within this Kingdom as normalized rather than radically transformed. We desire the beautiful, young, able bodies that society tells us are good and we picture these bodies as our ideal state in the afterlife. The very characteristics that disabled people value about their embodiment are targeted as bodily states that will be ‘fixed’ in the resurrection. If the Kingdom of God is a place that eradicates disability, however, it may also eradicate our hard-won disability pride.
Recognizing resurrected bodies bear some resemblance to Christ’s resurrected body, disability theologian Nancy Eiesland counters the idea that resurrected bodies are blemish-free by noting Christ’s own resurrected body displayed the marks of his crucifixion. Disability theologian Amos Yong likewise encourages us to imagine a Kingdom in which differences, including disabilities, remain and disabled people are recognized for their proper role in God’s natural order and within the communion of saints.
Yet, it is not wrong in principle that we seek to mitigate or even eliminate certain bodily impairments in the here and now, particularly those that cause immense pain and suffering; states might make it difficult for people to commune with their neighbors or perhaps even God. Medicine and technoscience can play a role in relieving bodily pain and suffering as well as in creating the just society we imagine exists within the Kingdom of God. Our eschatological imaginations, therefore, can accommodate technoscience, as long it does not eradicate the disabled body, diminish the importance of communal dependency, or the reduce the requirements of radical hospitality. Technologies made for disabled people signal our ultimate hopes for disabled bodies: either through elimination or celebration. Two present types of biotechnologies signal each tendency: the exoskeleton and custom prosthetics.
The Exoskeleton: Disability Overcome
Robotic exoskeletons are wearable robotic frames that can increase their wearer’s strength. Although they are now advertised as solutions to the “problem” of paralysis, paraplegics were an afterthought to the design of these exoskeletons. The US military first began to develop exoskeletons in the 1960s to give soldiers a boost when running and carrying heavy equipment. In the early 2000s, exoskeletons were developed for factory workers who needed to carry large loads over long distances. Many technologies used to enable persons with disabilities gain access to our society were initially designed through military-industrial research.
Once tech companies set their sights on paraplegics, they reinforced the cultural narrative about the pitiable cripple to sell their products. Biotech companies positioned themselves as benevolent saviors, enabling wearers to overcome the confines of the traditional wheelchair. In a tweet from Ekso Bionics advertising their newest exoskeleton, you see an empty wheelchair in a rehab clinic. Barely visible on the righthand of the image is a person standing. The tagline reads, “Sometimes, care lives in an empty wheelchair.” Within the company’s accompanying video, the care taken by his rehabilitation specialist, not to mention the device user himself, are glossed over in favor of the exoskeleton itself as care-provider. Esko Bionics, appears to replicate the vision of transhumanists, who believe we should leave sidewalks in disrepair and instead “repair physically disabled human beings, and make them mobile and able-bodied again.” Disability, in other words, should be overcome through individual-based technologies, rather than accommodated through improved architecture and infrastructure.
The Prosthesis as a Site for Disability Justice
All too often, engineers, working without input from persons with mobility impairments made top-down assumptions about what disabled people desire. Technology theorists, however, point to the collaborative efforts of designers, artists, and disabled people as resisters and creators of biotechnology. Collaborative biotechnologies are a potent site for the realization of disability politics as well as our eschatological imaginary. Drawing upon the insights of posthumanism and disability and feminist techno-scholars, I propose four criteria that disability theologians can use to assess whether biotechnologies may enrich crip-eschatology.
1. First, eschatologically-oriented biotech should be justice seeking. The goal of biotechnologies should not be to “fix” or normalize the individual wearer, but to create dynamic partnerships wherein disabled people are seen as having critical knowledge to contribute to biotechnologies. Including disabled people in creative projects will produce structural change as well as improved products for individuals. Far too often, technologies are designed and implemented without input by disabled people. The result is technologies that cause pain, have undesirable side effects, are prohibitively expense, or are built merely to make the non-disabled more comfortable are disabled people. Crip technoscience, on the other hand, is committed to disability justice, which makes disabled people agents of technoscience rather than mere consumers. By privileging disabled people as knowers and creators, we can undermine the social systems exclude and oppress disabled people. Eschatologically oriented technologies must resist the normalization of bodies as well as the notion that disabled people must first be fixed in order to contribute to society. The Kingdom of God will be a place where both our bodies and our relationships will be changed.
Just technologies were on full display in 2016, when the White House hosted the Design for All showcase, which exhibited inclusive fashionwear, assistive technologies, and protheses designed and worn by disabled people. In the showcase, disability was celebrated as a source of creativity and not a medical problem to be fixed or cured. In the showcase, Paragrin, who works with the global Enable community of designers and developers proclaims, “I wear this hand because I designed it, I made it, and it’s me.” Paragrin’s prosthetic is not a product meant to fix their body, it is an innovative and collaborative project that celebrates their body, knowledge, and ingenuity. Through Paragrin’s creation and exclamation, we may be prompted to imagine a Kingdom in which disability is celebrated as a site for creative relationality.
2. In addition to being functional, disability engineers and artists also create assistive technologies that are queer (non-normative, creative, and pleasurable).
Lisa Bufano for example, a bilateral amputee, created prosthetic legs to feel both sexy and comfortable. In one of her most famous works, Bufano wears prosthetic stilts she made out of 28-inch curved table legs. Bufano’s legs are not made for capitalist efficiency, but for play. Working outside of biomedicine, Bufano’s creations are created for her pleasure, rather than exclusively for her functionality. Bufano also invites here collaborator, Shonsheree Giles, a non-amputee to wear the stilts as well, raising questions about who prosthetics are for. In the Kingdom of God, our bodies may be transformed in ways in which the dichotomy between disabled and non-disabled are no longer relevant. Compulsory able-bodiedness does not exist in this Kingdom; instead, disability is a creative and generative embodiment that allows for unusual relations.
3. Kingdom-inspired biotech should also be transfigurative. Rather than static, normalized, or idealized bodies, we might imagine our Kingdom-selves as bodies that are continually transforming as we relate to God, one another, and ourselves.
Artist Christa Couture, for example, sought to celebrate her pregnancy in ways that resisted the common narratives of normalized pregnant women. Couture’s cosmesis floral covering on her prosthetic leg represented her bodies’ transformation during pregnancy. “It literally decorated something that I’d be trying to hide” she writes “it became something beautiful. Once I started to love my reflection with that accessory on, I was more easily able to love my reflection with it off.” Couture’s pregnancy prosthesis highlighted her disability and helped her to love her body both with and without her assistive device. Once she was able to love her body, she was also able to love her transforming body. Disability technoscience must view the disabled bodied as desirable, generative, and transforming.
As Gregory of Nyssa describes, our journey toward God in the afterlife might be one of perpetual change— we continue to be transformed as we draw infinitely closer to the infinite God. Whereas many Christians believe they will receive permanent, perfect bodies in the resurrection, we might instead imagine our future bodies as continually changing as they approach God’s infinite and ultimately unknowable self. Disabled eschatology encourages us to unknow what we imagine to the perfect body, rather than seek to “fix” bodies by our current standards of perfection.
4. Finally, biotechnologies should also be relational. They ought to call forth deep relationships between people but also between user and the device, animate and inanimate, and the human and the nonhuman world.
Increasingly, companies are creating ecologically responsible, prosthetic limbs in collaboration with their wearers. Physicians, designers and prosthetic users come together to create bespoke wearables that incorporate clients’ needs, desires, and aesthetic. Such prosthetics are meant to be shown-off and enable their wearer to accomplish the tasks that make their life worthwhile. James, for example, requested a prosthetic to match his beloved motorcycle. Seeing James, it is hard to tell where he ends, and his motorcycle begins. This is not to suggest the Kingdom of God is a place where our individual earthly desires are fulfilled, but one in which the things that separate us the rest of creation fall way.
No one company, individual, or piece of biotechnology can fully capture the radical transformation that is promised in the Kingdom of God. Yet, certain technologies stand out as signaling a kind of alternative future wherein disability remains, even while individual impairments are mitigated. Within crip-biotech, we do not see a technological conquering of nature, but a seamless fit between creators and creations. As we imagine a world in which all of God’s creation is redeemed, restored, and reconciled, we ought to imagine that difference and disability remain.
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