Matters of Life and Death: Being Human

6

27 October 2013 by thaliakr

 

What should a doctor do when a terminally ill patient asks her to ‘end it all’ with morphine?

What are the implications of expectant parents having Down’s Syndrome screening for their unborn babies?

How do we cope and make sense of the world when our ageing parents no longer recognise us?

I’m filling in for a friend at the moment, preaching five sermons on bioethics at Wellington South Baptist Church, in a series I’m calling Matters of Life and Death. I thought I’d invite WSBC folks to join us here for some discussion of the issues as we go.

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Obviously, the sermons series is being preached in the context of a Christian congregation, and this blog community goes broader than that. My starting points and reasoning are rooted in a Christian worldview. With these posts, though, I’ll be aiming to provide some points of connection for anyone who’s interested in the issues, whether ideas from the Bible and Christian theology are compelling for you or not. I hope that works out ok for everyone!

Made in God’s image?

Yesterday morning at WSBC we began with a key doctrine of Christianity, still often referred to by its Latin tag: the imago dei. It’s the idea that human beings are made ‘in the image of God’ and that that tells us something important about who we are. It’s a foundation of bioethics for Christians.

[UPDATE: the sermon is now online at the WSBC website.]

However you understand the first three chapters of Genesis (where God creates the universe, and Adam and Eve administer the Garden of Eden and then rebel), they are foundational for the story of the Bible – the big story, the metanarrative, of how God interacts with humanity. Whether you think the creation and fall stories are history, science or poetry (or something else), the big ideas of the story set the stage for the rest of what happens in the Bible, and the rest of history.

The narrative, whether understood literally or symbolically, tells us at least these things: that God made us, that we somehow reflect God, that we are made to exist in life-giving relationship with God and the rest of the world, and that how we live now, where we have ended up, is a dramatic falling short of the ideal God has in mind. Everything that follows – God’s rocky relationship with Abraham and the nation of Israel, the arrival of Jesus and the establishment of the church – can only be understood in the context of Genesis 1-3.

And this is where we get the idea of imago dei:

1:26 Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

I gather from my reading of people who know rather more Hebrew than I do that when God is reported as saying human beings are made in God’s ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ that this is about essence, and it’s as big a call as it sounds. It’s not saying we’re just a bit like God, but that we reflect something essential and significant of what God’s like. I find that astonishing.

This is where Christians get the idea that life is somehow ‘sacred,’ bigger than and beyond us. But of course we don’t have a monopoly on that idea. There are plenty of people – you might be one of them – who think, or maybe feel, that there is something so inherently special about human life that the ‘life is sacred’ idea should be taken into account when we make bioethical decisions. [For many, of course, this idea extends to non-human life, but I’m not going there just now.]

This is a bit different from thinking life is extremely important. Most of us think that, and are happy with the ‘right to life’ being in human rights documents like the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the difference between important and ‘sacred’ is what leads to differences in opinion about things like euthanasia. If you think life is sacred (either because you think we are made in God’s image, or for some other reason), you may not be comfortable with people deciding when to die.

I’m trying to think of the commonality here between Christians relying on the imago dei idea and others who share the conviction that life is sacred (or another word, perhaps, with the same effect). Maybe you can help us out, by leaving a comment explaining how you see things.

I think there’s a sense, for both groups, that life is bigger than just us, and perhaps it is not appropriate for us as ‘mere’ humans to exercise authority over its boundaries. Does that make sense to you? Any other ideas of how to express it?

Now, you may have a very different idea about this stuff, and I’d also like to hear from you if so. You may think, instead, that humans have the ability and therefore the responsibility to make new choices with new technology, for instance, and to change our approach to social decisions as modern life changes. You may think that a right to life needs to be balanced with other rights and responsibilities and won’t always win out.

For me, and for our WSBC-based discussion, the imago dei idea is compelling, and will be the logical foundation for much that follows in this series. But I think there are is a variety of approaches to the different issues we’ll be covering, and I think, for instance, that a lack of consensus on the imago dei question doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t agree on how to tackle other ethical questions.

Anyway, watch this space, and please chip in with your thoughts, whatever perspective you’re coming from. As always, please be hospitable to others in the conversation who may hold different views.

Like a house and a prince

Back to the imago dei. If we are made in God’s image, and reflect something of the glory and wonder of the Almighty God of the Universe, I said on Sunday that two things follow. I suggested that humans are a bit like rented houses and a bit like Prince George.

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We’re a bit like rental houses, in that we have limited authority over our lives. Just as a tenant can rearrange the sofas but not knock down walls, perhaps human beings made in God’s image don’t have the authority to decide, for instance, when life should begin or end. Woah! Big call! Maybe we could all just sit with that idea for a few days and see what we think.

Secondly, we’re a bit like Prince George, who is royal without deserving it.

I don’t have anything against him, and I’m not saying he won’t be a good king one day, but he won’t ever be asked to demonstrate how good he’ll be – his royalness has nothing to do with anything he can do or not do. Nothing can disqualify him from being royal.

When it comes to thinking about what makes a person a person, this, I think, is a crucial idea. We are worthy of love and respect because we are human beings, made in God’s image. Not because we can speak or reason or fix a lawnmower. Not because we can feed ourselves or recognise our families.

Obviously this is an idea we’ll rely on when discussing disability, dementia, euthanasia and the humanness of babies.

I intend to be very careful in contributing to our conversations on these issues, and encourage you to do the same. But we’re not going to shy away from things that are crucial parts of being human in the 21st century. I’m looking forward to hearing from God and each other through the series. If you have particular questions or topic you’re interested in addressing, leave a comment below.


This is the first in a series on bioethics. The next two posts are on crisis pregnancy: Are You an Unborn Baby’s Neighbour and Facing an Unplanned Pregnancy. You can see the series list here.

A particular welcome to folks from Wellington South Baptist Church! Do feel very welcome to leave a comment. You can also share this post by clicking the buttons below, and you can follow the Sacraparental Facebook page for extras each day. If you’re new here, you might like to head to the Welcome page to see what we’re all about. Good to have you here!

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6 thoughts on “Matters of Life and Death: Being Human

  1. Andy says:

    The three examples listed at the start: terminally ill person, parents screening for downs syndrome, person in the latter stages of dementia. The common thread I picked up was that these people are less than perfect, and their experience of life may be filled with more pain or more inconvenience (for them or for others) than in an ideal situation.

    We try to shape lives that are as they “should” be, limiting our exposure to lives that aren’t as beautiful or enjoyable as ours. I don’t think the church as a whole does a good job of communicating a good theology of suffering and pain. so we know how to deal with it when it comes and how we can still praise God through the really really bad times.

    A tangential issue that I’ve mulled over for a while is that if we evolved from other species, at what point in our development did we get the image of God? was one generation of homo habilis (for instance, choosing one of the fossils randomly from my recollection of seventh form biology) not in the image of God, and the next was?

    • Hi Andy, thanks for this. I agree with you that we aren’t always well equipped to handle imperfection in ourselves or the people around us. I hope to address that in this series.

      On the evolution/imago dei question, I am far from expert in that area, but there are plenty of accessible theologians working on such questions. Have you seen RJS at Jesus Creed? She’s an academic scientist with a sideline in theology and writes on science and faith.

      Her JC posts are collected here, and organised by category:

      http://musingsonscience.wordpress.com/category/evolution/

  2. Michael says:

    Listening to your sermon on Sunday, two points struck me:

    – first, in your emphasis on humans made in the image of God, you did not give us much sense of how the marred or distorted nature of that image, as a result of sin, affects a Christian approach to issues such as these. Revelation offers a vision of no more sickness, or disease, or death – in that sense made like unto God – but that isn’t the world we inhabit for now.

    – second, it was a very very Baptist approach, with an emphasis on everyone reaching his or her own conclusion, and a lack of confidence in any ability to reach strong and confident conclusions (you used the term “100 per cent certain”, but perhaps one might think in terms of a standard more akin to “beyond reasonable doubt’). The faith and teaching of the church through 2000 years must surely provide us with some basis for being more confident of God’s ways with the world than each individual or local congregation (prone to splits and disputes) relying on their own discernment.

    • Hi Michael, great to hear from you! Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      Of course I agree with your point about how we are now living in a ‘fallen’ state, and as the series continues, that will be more of a focus. I think the challenge with these difficult issues is how to treat humans who are both a) made in God’s image but b) not perfect – not actually God. When we see someone suffering from a terrible illness, we are seeing someone who bears God’s image, but who is affected by living in a sinful world. How we fallen creatures treat each other is the challenge.

      When it comes to the question of certainty, I suppose on Sunday I was emphasising the point that the issues we’ll be discussing don’t appear directly in the Bible and we need to do extrapolating and theologising – together – to come to our conclusions.

      But I do also hold together with that idea the beliefs that a) there IS actually a right answer in each situation – I think I said on Sunday, something that can make a terrible situation as good as it can be b) with the resources of the Holy Spirit and the gathered community, we are able to make wise, God-honouring decisions.

      Of course, one reason we sometimes can’t be sure of some of these things – and learned people can in good conscience disagree – is that we don’t understand everything about our biology. For example, I know many Christian health professionals who believe that an unborn baby is to be protected, and who won’t assist in terminations. But what counts as a termination? When does life begin? Christian doctors of good faith fall into different camps – some won’t prescribe any contraception, some will do that but won’t prescribe the Emergency Contraceptive Pill, some will do that but won’t refer for terminations. The difference of opinion there is based, partially at least, on a different reading of the scientific knowledge we have of how an embryo is formed. So even if we think the Bible and church tradition/theological teaching is clear, we may still be faced with uncertainty in other areas.

      I do certainly believe, in a Baptist way, that God speaks through the gathered congregation (among other ways). But I think there are some issues we can be very sure about, and should all agree about – as you say, 2000 years of teaching and tradition have tested and solidified some crucial points, and we can be confident and united. There are other issues where we have more partial knowledge (‘we see through a glass, darkly’ as Paul says in 1 Corinthians) – and don’t have such long history of grappling with things that are recent developments – and need to be more respectful of our differences.

      What do you think?

      I’ll keep bearing in mind your comments as I prepare for this Sunday, and will be keen to hear more from you!

      Thanks again for joining the conversation. Great to have you on board.

  3. Michael says:

    Thanks for the response Thalia

    I guess I would tend to emphasise more strongly the authoritative core of Christian teaching in these areas, while recognising the uncertainty and imprecision (and perhaps even absence of one right answer) in issues of application at the margin. If abortion or infanticide (exposing unwanted babies) has been treated as wrong throughout almost all of church history, the ability to test for Down’s syndrome changing nothing about what is right, only about the temptation (infanticide remains illegal, while abortion is both legal and almost encouraged in these cases, even though as Peter Singer points out there is little or no logical difference between killing a child in utero or after it is born). Too often the church, including the evangelical church, has allowed itself to be swayed towards the easier or contemporary options, and reluctant to stand distinctively. And, of course, the fissiparous nature of Protestant churches reinforces the tendency – one group discerns one “truth” and another an alternative perspective, and splits happen and new denominations form. Of course, that wasn’t the Baptist (or congregational churches more generally) vision, but sadly it has too often become the practice.

    • Thanks, Michael, that helps me see where you’re coming from.

      I think we’re on the same page :)

      I agree with you about the Downs example, and I think we’ll be heading in similar directions as the series unfolds. Let me know what you think as we continue!

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