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The Human Body and the Limits of Technology by Matthew Lee Anderson

“We like to hack hardware and software, why not hack our bodies?”

That’s Tim Chang, an advocate of the “self-quantifier” movement, which is dedicated to tracking individual lives through technological add-ons. The dream of monitoring not just our movements, but our emotions, responses and behavior is quickly becoming a reality, even while it might be a nightmare for those raised on The Thief in the Night. The Nike iPod, baseball’s sabermetrics and the obsession with quantitative investing by financial advisors are just a few examples in a ubiquitous trend of measuring every nook and cranny of life.

[READ: “Invasion of the Body-Hackers” from Financial Times and Slate.com]

The problem for Christians is the fundamental assumption of the body-hacking trend. Beneath the numbers, graphs, and computer-generated metrics lies an assumption that the body is no more than a machine. Sure, the body is machine-like—as any high school biology teacher can attest. As I argue in my book, Earthen Vessels, a Biblical understanding of the body suggests it’s far more than that.

The scriptures teach that we are the handiwork of a Divine Artisan. “For you created my inmost being,” the psalmist writes, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” In the first chapter of Genesis, God affirms that the physical substance comprising the human body is “very good.” The body in Christian perspective is intricately connected to our inner life. It shapes how we connect with the neighbors we are commanded to love, and it makes possible our public worship of the God who made us.

But the self-quantification movement rests on a story that may be antithetical to this. The notion that the “body is a machine” has a long and distinguished history, one that is inseparable from the emergence of our late modern world. The metaphor is often traced to Descartes, who believed that the body was nothing more than a tool used by the soul to get around in life. The scientific explosion of the 20th century and the emergence of Darwinian evolution as an explanation of human origins breathed new life into the metaphor.

Unfortunately, contemporary Christians have sometimes gone to the opposite extreme. We’ve often spiritualized our salvation at the expense of our bodies, speaking of the Spirit-indwelt soul without considering the temple in which that Spirit dwells. This reduction of the body to a shell that merely holds the more valuable (immaterial) parts is near the root of current Christian malaise. But more importantly, it undermines the good news of Jesus Christ to the bodies of those he came to save.

The heartbeat of Christian theology is person and work of Jesus, who demonstrated his own love and gracious acceptance of our bodies through taking one on, dying for it and rising again in the same body. The good news of our salvation holds out the promise that our bodies, as much as our souls, will be re-made according to the pattern of Christ’s salvation through the empowering presence of the Spirit. Rather than bodily transformation through quantification or hacking, the Gospel makes possible transformation by grace, the gift of God himself to our bodies, for our bodies.

We are not machines with “inputs and outputs,” but persons who live within and out of stories—especially the story of the cross and resurrection. Tim Chang’s implied suggestion that our bodies are no different than our computers fails to capture their uniqueness. As Gilbert Meilander puts it, the body is “the place of our personal presence,” and in St. Paul’s language it is “the temple of the Holy Spirit”—a place where the divine and human collide.

That collision rarely happens, if ever, with the sterility and precision that self-quantification holds out to us. The incarnation, cross, and Pentecost are events that resist quantification, yet are events which—either by rejection or acceptance—determine the very meaning and shape of our humanity. If the Gospel is true, then for all of its benefits, the incorporation of technology into our concept of the self will inevitably fail to fulfill our deepest hopes for transformation and flourishing.

While hacking, tracking and mapping our bodies might provide new data about ourselves, its benefits will be limited if we don’t consider that data in light of its spiritual significance. The rupture between God and humanity has severed the Potter from His beloved vessels and left His temple in ruins. And as with all our labor, unless the Lord rebuilds the house, our own attempts at restoration are vanity. May we remain humble as earthen pots while never forgetting that we are the work of the good Potter’s hands.