Bioethics: opportunity for the gospel?

We live in an age of phenomenal advances in life sciences and their attendant technologies. From the mapping of the human genome to successful cloning of mammals and the harvesting of human stem cells, these advances present both great promise for new medical treatments and profound concerns about the harm they may do to society. Genetics, cybernetics and nanotechnology, for instance, which promise to reverse or eliminate diseases, could also be used to engineer ‘better’ humans, or even ‘trans-humans’ or ‘post-humans’ that render the humans of today obsolete.

This paper is entitled Bioethics: Obstacle or Opportunity for the Gospel? One the one hand it is argued that bioethics represents a major challenge to Christian witness. Secular bioethics often presents a narrow biological view of health and an instrumental view of human life, such that human beings who have limited capacities are assigned a lesser value. This outlook seems to leave little space for the psychological and social dimensions of human life, let alone its spiritual dimension. In addition, especially in some Western societies, bioethics tends to be dominated by concern for individuals and their rights, while neglecting an understanding of the common good and our mutual responsibilities. However, the obstacles are not all generated from outside the community of faith. Christians are often perceived and portrayed as unreasonably conservative, and may in fact be so. They appear opposed to technological progress, and rigid, uncaring and legalistic when they speak against technologies and research that offer hope and relief to suffering people.

On the other hand bioethics also provides special opportunities for the gospel. When people encounter infertility, illness, and the fragility of their own bodies, and when they confront their own mortality as they observe or experience the dying process, the illusion of control over their lives is threatened or even shattered. Where will such people turn for help with their questions and the decisions they must make about medical treatments? If Christians become known as reliable and thoughtful sources of information and counsel about these issues, opportunities to present a Christian view of life, meaning, suffering and death will arise. The questions at the heart of bioethics are also at the heart of the gospel.

Biotechnologies relating to nonhuman life also raise profound questions about our relationship with the world around us, and as in health care, about the nature of justice. By engaging in these issues, Christians can challenge others to consider what a ‘good society’ looks like, and what nourishes such a society. Again, the gospel provides a radical and credible alternative to prevailing worldviews.

Finally, the way we ‘do’ Christian bioethics should witness to God’s grace and love towards sinners. Love, acceptance and the offer of forgiveness ought to characterise our discussions, rather than laying down rules and condemning those who break them. We are called to ‘live a life worthy of the gospel’ as a response to God’s grace, but God’s grace is open to all. The gospel is good news, perhaps especially for those who have made bad decisions about their lives.

Part I of this paper examines those central themes which provide a theological framework for Christian bioethics.  Part II examines bioethical decision-making in the context of Christian ministry, using eight stories. The issues involved in each are analysed briefly, specific strategies are suggested which a  Christian community might use as opportunities to commend the gospel, and resources for further information are mentioned.

This paper, Bioethics: Obstacle or Opportunity for the Gospel? Is Lausanne Occasional Paper  No. 58. It is an 84 page documents and it was produced by a working group of which I was a member .

  • Ghislain Agbede    Central African Republic
  • Roland Chia    Singapore (Theologian)
  • Denise Cooper    Australia (Co-Convenor)
  • Brian Edgar    Australia
  • Antonio da Silva    Norway
  • Andrew Fergusson    UK (Convenor)
  • Henk Jochemsen    The Netherlands
  • John Kilner    USA (Facilitator)
  • Jan Kunene    Republic of South Africa
  • James Thobaben    USA

CONTENTS

Introduction

Part I. Theological Foundations for Bioethics

  1. What does it mean to be human?
  2. The value of human life
  3. Suffering and death
  4. Health, healing and hope
  5. Stewardship
  6. Justice
  7. Science, Medicine and the Christian faith
  8. The Church

Part II. Opportunities for the Gospel

Generic strategies

  1. Justice in health care
  2. Caregiver-patient relationships
  3. End-of-life care
  4. Abortion
  5. Reproductive technologies
  6. Stem cell research
  7. Genetic modification in agriculture
  8. Human Enhancement

The whole document can be found at the Lausanne site or it can be downloaded here: Bioethics: obstacle or opportunity for the gospel?

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