Interview with Goodwin Prize Winner Drew Masterson

What inspired you to pursue an advanced degree in theology?

A few years ago, I came into contact with the Christian Study Center movement, and the knack these spaces had for bringing together intellectual rigor, spiritual formation, and radical hospitality immediately drew me in. I felt a strong sense of call to help spaces like that flourish, whether around college campuses or elsewhere, and one clear way I could do that was to pursue further study. 

What do you hope to do with your degree?

I hope to be of service to God’s people in spaces that come alongside local churches and offer them ways to go deeper— intellectually, spiritually, and relationally— than their current capacities allow.

Where do you see connections between your personal faith, your intellectual work and the other aspects of your life?

“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Ps 24:1)! I find it wonderfully energizing to know that working towards a deeper understanding of the world around us can (and should) at the same time equip me to worship the Creator God more faithfully and to work for the flourishing of God’s creation more joyfully.

How would you summarize your paper for someone without a theological background?

We are all aware that technology is everywhere in our culture. Something which we might not be as attuned is how this proliferation of technology has shaped the way we view our bodies. It is becoming more and more common to describe our bodies as if they are not much more than highly complicated computers; we are “hardwired” for this and only have “bandwidth” for that. These are simple examples, but they represent a stream of ideas that has been on the rise since the Enlightenment: the idea that the core of our humanity, what really makes us people, are our rational minds.

The first part of my paper explores the long history of this idea, how it arose within Christianity from a particular understanding of being “made in the image of God” and how it eventually broke from its Christian moorings after the Industrial Revolution and can be found most clearly articulated in the contemporary Transhumanist movement. I then wanted to point out some of the ethical repercussions that flow out of this idea. In essence, once we come to see our ourselves as our minds and our minds as computers, we can begin to see our messy, needy, and decaying bodies as the primary obstacles keeping us from the continued advancement and preservation of our cognitive selves. So we look for technological solutions to upgrade ourselves or our children; we “challenge our limits,” as Transhumanists like to say. But this can lead us to be so focused on the possible future we might one day achieve that we overlook the already-present needs of those around us. If we are truly able to advance our statuses as humans through technological means, what happens to those who don’t have the money or the access to these technologies? Many ethicists are worried that these programs of human advancement will result in the sub-humanizing of whole swaths of the global population.

The final part of my paper addresses how two Christian theologians from the 20th Century, Karl Barth and Colin Gunton, offer interpretations of being “made in the image of God” that could be helpful to the church as we seek to offer a Christian response to Transhumanism’s view of the person. Barth argues that if you want to know what it really means to be a human, look at Jesus. Through his willingness to become a suffering and dying body, his lived pattern of healing and reconciliation, and his vision of an embodied eternal communion with God, Jesus’ life offers a powerful counter to Transhumanist visions of the good life. For his part, Gunton stresses that we are made in the image of a Trinitarian God. Because God is “made up" of his relationships as Father, Son, and Spirit, anything that such a God creates will similarly be “made up” of their own relationships. This makes us deeply connected to the lives of other people and creatures around us, which means that our own flourishing must necessarily involve far more than simply each of our own individual lives. Taking Barth and Gunton together, we can gain a fundamentally relational and embodied vision of human life and flourishing that cuts against the grain of Transhumanism’s emphasis upon the preservation of individual collections of cognitive tissue.

How might this award make a difference in your life?

This is a deeply meaningful honor that will play an important role in helping me discern my vocation as a scholar.

How do you spend your time when you are not studying?

My wife and I love to hike, explore local cuisine, and host movie discussion nights at our house.

Any other comments?

I am deeply grateful to my thesis advisor at Duke Divinity, Daniel Train, whose generous gift of time, attention, and advice were critical to the development of this paper.