OPINION: by Bill MuehlenbergNews Weekly
Bioethics and the biblical worldview
, June 18, 2005
Hollywood sometimes does a better job than the church in educating the public about the possible impact of biotechnology on humanity's future, writes Bill Muehlenberg.Several years ago R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, made a profound observation: "Christians are sleeping through history as new medical technologies threaten the very meaning of human life."
He was referring to the fact that rapid advances in biotechnology - and their implications for personhood - were outstripping ethical reflection on these developments, and that Christians especially were often unaware of these trends and/or not interested in applying a biblical worldview to properly assess them.
The biotechnology revolution is certainly upon us, with a wide range of ominous new developments: human cloning, cybernetics, genetic enhancement and manipulation, trans-humanism and nanotechnology, to name but a few.
Most Christians would be blissfully unaware of what these technologies are and where they are taking us.
And many would wrongly assume that these technologies have no bearing on their faith.Brave new world
But these changes will affect all of us. The brave new world situations depicted in earlier works of science fiction are quickly becoming reality. And the main threat is to the biblical understanding of personhood - of what it means to be human.
How are we to understand human nature in view of these changes? Are human beings becoming redundant? Is there such a thing as human nature?
Many concerned secularists are asking these sorts of questions, and we believers should be as well. Indeed, a number of films have explored the themes of biotechnology and the assault on personhood. Bioethical issues and the meaning of humanity are depicted in many films, including, The Boys from Brazil
, Jurassic Park
), I Robot
, The Sixth Day
, Bicentennial Man
, and The Truman Show
Non-Christian film-producers seem more interested in, and concerned about, where the biotech revolution is taking us than are many believers. They are especially worried about how the medical, scientific and technological advances will impinge upon our common humanity. Are we in danger of losing our humanity? Is personhood under threat? How do we define the human person?
These are the questions the film-makers are asking. Why are Christians not asking these questions? And why are Christians not at the forefront of seeking to answer these questions?
Of course we have, as believers, a solid basis on which to discuss these issues. The biblical doctrine of the imago Dei
(image of God) is the platform from which we assess the new technologies. The biblical teaching on the creation, fall, and redemption of man is the foundation upon which we should make ethical reflection.
Mind you, the devil is in the details. How we apply timeless biblical truths such as the image of God to contemporary bioethical issues is not always quickly and easily accomplished.
Moral clarity and intellectual rigour are the order of the day. In this regard, bioethicist Leon Kass was absolutely right to remind us that more important than mastering our science and ethics, we need to master our anthropology, to know what it is to be truly human.
Having a proper understanding of what it is to be human, based on biblical revelation, is the first prerequisite to successfully entering into the bioethics debates. Without a proper grounding in anthropology, we will be awash in the various battles being waged over bioethics issues. The thoughts of Kass are worth quoting in full:
"Finding good answers to these tough questions is the deepest challenge for a truly human bioethics, one that seeks to keep human life human. Answers depend not on science or even on ethics but on a proper anthropology, one that richly understands what it means to be a human animal, in our bodily, psychic, social, cultural, political, and spiritual dimensions.
"For we cannot even begin to discuss the possible dignity of human embodiment, human procreation or human finitude if we do not seek to grasp their being and meaning."
Thus good bioethics depends on good anthropology. And from the standpoint of the Judeo-Christian worldview, it goes without saying that good anthropology depends on good theology. We can only have a right view of personhood if we first have a right view of God.
It is that order which we must always operate from: God first, then anthropology, then ethics. That is the biblical order.
Consider just one example: the Ten Commandments. The order of the commandments is crucial. It is no good telling ourselves how to love our neighbour unless we first get loving God right. Indeed, we cannot truly love our neighbour until we first love God.
Thus having no other gods is the prerequisite to being fully human and to living the ethical life.Demanding task
Recognising the role that good theology and anthropology play in the role of ethics is merely the beginning, as I suggested.
Applying biblical principles to complex biotechnology issues is a demanding task. But that task will never be properly begun, let alone completed, if we do not approach it from the proper starting point.
It is because the Peter Singers of the world are operating out of such unbiblical and anti-biblical starting points that they end up with such horrible conclusions. Peter Singer and those like him need to be challenged. But the challenge can only be made if we begin on the right foundation.
I thus urge all believers to take seriously the challenge to be salt and light, especially in the area of bioethics. That will mean a lot of reading, thinking and praying. But we desperately need biblical voices speaking out in the sphere of bioethics to counter the siren call of the secular humanists and others who seek both to play god and remake man in their own image.