4 December 2023
The science fiction film series Avatar features a fascinating concept, where people are able to connect through technology to remotely pilot living, breathing alien bodies and interact with others. The second film takes the concept a step further, where a person’s entire consciousness can be copied and transferred into an alien body through technology alone.
Essentially, the films present the idea that a person’s true “self” is found in a person’s consciousness (or mind), which can be transferred from one body to another. One’s body is just like a vehicle that one pilots and controls.
Despite the complex concept, these films have become a massive international phenomenon. The two films released in 2009 and 2022 have made more than US$5 billion at the global box office, and director James Cameron currently plans to make three additional Avatar films.
The immense popularity of these films suggests that these ideas are hardly far-fetched for audiences. In fact, the opposite may be true.
Modern technology has developed in ways that potentially condition and alter our sense of “self” and of reality. It has become possible to think of our “true selves” as a kind of pure consciousness (or “mind” or “soul”) which is distinct from our physical bodies.
One form of this lies in our social media “avatars”, which are visual representations of ourselves (including photographs, illustrations or animated characters) through which we interact with others on platforms ranging like WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Bondee.
A professor interviewed by the Straits Times remarked that certain social media apps “can relieve us of any hang-ups we may have about our physical bodies and in a way, give us avatars which may be more representative of what we see as our true personalities.”
While the precise relationship between social media and transgenderism is complex, it is no longer far-fetched to think that one’s “true” identity is entirely separate from one’s male or female body, and to ask others to respect one’s self-defined identity.
Drawing this logical connection, in 2014 Facebook allowed users to choose from more than 50 gender identities and, in 2015, allowed users to add their own customised gender options. Other sites like LinkedIn allow users to add their own preferred gender pronouns.
Gnosticism, With a Technological Twist
These concepts are a technological variation of the ancient set of beliefs known as “Gnosticism”, which was rejected by the early church as heresy.
Based on the Greek word gnosis (meaning “knowledge”), Gnostic beliefs sharply divided between the spiritual and physical natures. The spiritual nature was seen as pure and good, while the physical world was seen as corrupt and evil, and the goal in Gnosticism was to transcend the physical nature through secret knowledge.
Modern technology-enabled Gnosticism like the kind described above shares many of the same ideas as its ancient counterpart, except that “the modern variety seeks to transcend the physical not through spiritual knowledge but through technology.” (Harrington, Feminism Against Progress, pp. 140-41)
Unfortunately, this world of ‘avatars’ has its range of problems.
A 2019 Barna-World Vision study found that many young adults aged 18 to 35 years said they felt lonely, despite being a hyper-connected and globally-minded generation. This was based on a survey of 15,369 respondents aged 18 to 35 across 25 countries, including Singapore.
On the more severe end, the virtual world can be a vehicle for real-world harm, ranging from fraudulent “catfishing” (using a fake identity to interact with someone) to online scams.
Studies have also associated the abuse of social media with various harms including eating disorders, self-harming behaviours, mental health risks, cyberbullying and exposure to inappropriate online content.
Furthermore, concepts of transgenderism which encourage people (especially youths) to live according to their self-identified genders may lead them to try to transform their bodies, which includes use of puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and even surgical interventions which cause irreversible long-term physical damage, such as infertility.
The Body of Christ’s Authentic Witness
The negative and harmful effects of these techno-Gnostic ideas allude to the truth that human beings are more than their souls, minds or consciousnesses. Instead, there is a deep human need for authentic connection with oneself and others. Even in a state of paradise, God saw that “it is not good for the man to be alone.” (Gen 2:18a)
In this fallen world, the answer to the separation that comes because of sin does not lie in secret knowledge or technology, but in the ministry of reconciliation that comes through Christ Jesus.
This calls us to a renewed appreciation for the dignity of the body, just as Jesus did not despise the human body but instead came as the Word made flesh (John 1:14), and the Holy Spirit regards our bodies as His holy temple (1 Cor 6:19).
We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14), even though our bodies are “wasting away” to some extent in this fallen world (cf. 1 Cor 4:16).
This immense value that God places on our physical bodies is a restorative message for those who wrestle with distress about their physical bodies for any reason, including medical conditions, body image issues and gender dysphoria.
Another essential part of the church’s witness is through authentic face-to-face connection, swimming against the vast tide of fleeting, disembodied interactions in a technocratic world.
This requires not only a continued commitment to physically gather as one body (cf. Heb 10:25), but also exhorts churches to be inclusive spaces where people are loved regardless of any “hang-ups” they may have about their bodies. Rather than ignoring the physical body, those who seem weaker or less presentable should instead be treated with “special honour” and “special modesty” within the church (1 Cor 12:23).
The church is called to embody Christ, bearing witness to the deep, authentic fellowship in His love. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “Since the ascension, Christ’s place on earth has been taken by his Body, the Church. The Church is the real presence of Christ.” (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 241)
This article is written in the author’s personal capacity, and the views expressed herein are the author’s own.
Darius Lee holds a Masters of International Law and Human Rights from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the Executive Director of Cultivate SG, an organisation dedicated to “cultivating culture together for the common good”. He has also published a number of peer-reviewed articles in academic journals on various issues in international and domestic law.