Learning to Live With Limits

For most of human history people have accepted the fact that life is “nasty, poor, brutish, and short”, to use Hobbes’s phrase. But advances in science, medicine, technology and other areas have resulted in a redefinition of what it is to be human, and have altered our expectations immeasurably.

Years ago C.S. Lewis contrasted the wisdom of earlier ages with the modern technological vision: “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique…”

Briefly stated, the theocentric worldview of the pre-modern period was replaced by an anthropocentric worldview of modernism. Man was seen as the measure of all things in the Enlightenment. Man by himself, guided by human reason alone, would scale every mountain and solve every mystery. As Francis Bacon put it, “Conquer nature, relieve man’s estate”.

Medical ethicist Daniel Callahan examines this shift in thinking, and discusses how modernism has elevated science and medicine to divine proportions: “Medicine is perhaps the last and purest bastion of Enlightenment dreams, tying together reason, science, and the dream of unlimited human possibilities. There is nothing, it is held, that in principle cannot be done and, given suitable caution, little that ought not to be done. Nature, including the body, is seen as infinitely manipulable and plastic to human contrivance. When that conception of medicine is set in a social context of an individualism which is, in principle, opposed to a public consensus about any ultimate human good, it is a potent engine of endless, never-satisfied progress.”

One of the earlier evangelical analyses of, and warnings about, this push for perfectionism and utopian progress came from Carl F. H. Henry. Writing back in 1946 he traced the social and philosophical path to perfectionism and summarised: “Thus did Hegelian idealism and Darwinian biologism blend with scientific invention and discovery and with western political trends to encourage the grand dream of a sociological utopia for all mankind. The implications of evolutionary science and philosophy seemed always the same: the unlimited progress of the human race.”

Os Guinness has more recently taken up this theme in a number of works. In his Dining with the Devil he recalls Berger’s warning that whoever sups with the devil of modernity had better have a long spoon. We may indeed dine at modernity’s banquet table, but carefully. Or put another way, “Christians are free to plunder the Egyptians, but forbidden to set up a golden calf. By all means plunder freely of the treasures of modernity, but in God’s name make sure that what comes out of the fire, which will test our life’s endeavors, is gold fit for the temple of God and not a late-twentieth century image of a golden calf.”

A driving feature of modernity, of the Enlightenment project, was that of human mastery – solving every problem, righting every wrong, breaching every limit, eliminating every source of suffering and disappointment. The recent trends in cloning, robotics, reproductive technologies and the mapping of the human genome are the logical outcome of this long march of progress, this long march to perfectibility.

There are Biblical concerns about such strivings for perfection and the craving to break down all limitations. Consider the fall of Adam and Eve. While mankind’s first transgression can be characterised in many ways, certainly it can be seen as dissatisfaction with limits. The first humans had everything – but within limits. It was, in part, the desire to transcend those limits, to become like God, which led to their downfall. And it can be argued that mankind has ever since been attempting the same: to become as God, to break out of limitations, to scale the heavens.

Alister McGrath calls this a form of “cultural Pelagianism”: “Just as Pelagius declared that human beings had total control over themselves and their destinies, so modern Western society wants to believe that it can control every aspect of life. Yet although it is enormously technically advanced, Western society has discovered that it cannot defeat death any more than it can control suffering.”

Harry Blamires refers to this as the “challenge of finitude”: “What is common to those who lack any interest in religion is a failure to recognize the finitude of the finite, and especially failure to accept man’s own finite status for what it is. This failure is the source alike of moral evil and of intellectual confusion. All forms of moral evil have their roots in a tacit denial of human finitude – of the contingent and wholly dependent nature of man’s existence. Pride in all its forms is always an implicit rejection of finitude. Man behaves as though he were not a dependent creature with a limited and temporary existence in a limited and temporal universe.”

The various breakthroughs in biotechnology can be viewed in this light, to a certain extent. While the so-called dominion covenant, or cultural mandate, of Gen. 1:27-31 can be seen to include the betterment of man’s condition, including the use of science and technology, the line between social improvement and eugenics is not always clear. The line between using God-given talents and wisdom to improve one’s lot, and the attempt to play God, is often very cloudy indeed.

Writes James Peterson, “Genetics does not so much make us automatically better as it can make us more capable. Genetic intervention, like many technologies, frees us from some constraints and increases our abilities and choices. Pursued as an end in itself it is at best a distraction, and when all-consuming, idolatry. If all we manage to do is relieve physical suffering and to control our physical world in the finest degree, our potential will be wasted.”

Where in all this is the desire to eliminate suffering a good thing, and where is it a foolish and foolhardy attempt to escape our humanness? How much suffering should a Christian seek to relieve? How much is beneficial? How might it be redeemed by a loving God?

Bioethicist John Wyatt argues that we should “retain a sense of the limitations of medicine and healthcare. For all our wonderful knowledge and technology, we are unable to redeem our physical bodies from the cycle of death and decay. There can be no technological or biological fix for the ultimate mysteries of the human condition. We cannot, by medical technology, overcome ageing and eventual death. In God’s providential mercy, that route to the tree of life remains blocked by a flashing sword.”

And as ethicist Leon Kass reminds us, “All of these technologies arise from and are part of the great project of modernity, the ‘conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate.’ They go beyond many earlier techniques in that they seek to relieve man’s estate by directly changing man himself.”

Another ethicist discusses the Christian view of suffering this way: “If God is dead or simply disinterested and uninvolved, there is no place for [Pauline thinking about suffering]. Pain must be eradicated. Suffering is a problem to be eliminated. Persons who are suffering … can also be eliminated.” He goes on to say that as God was with Daniel’s three friends in the fire, so he promises to be with us in our sufferings: “By rushing to eliminate pain and end suffering, we actually may be ignoring the grace and divine presence of God.”

Or as Gilbert Meilaender puts it: “Suffering is not a good thing, not something one ought to seek for oneself or for others. But it is an evil out of which the God revealed in the crucified and risen Jesus can bring good. We must therefore always be of two minds about it. We should try to care for those who suffer, but we should not imagine that suffering can be eliminated from human life or that it can have no point or purpose in our lives. Nor should we suppose that suffering must be eliminated by any means available to us, for a good end does not justify any and all means. . . . The doctor is a caregiver, but not, we must remind ourselves, a savior.”

Health and a long life are good ends, but must not be absolutised or deified. There are more important things than avoiding suffering and having a long life. But in a world that denies God and seeks to deify man, these important goals have been lost altogether.

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4 Replies to “Learning to Live With Limits”

  1. That God became man is now replaced by Man becomes god. Hide the destruct button so that the managers can’t find it.
    Stan Fishley.

  2. Hi Bill
    After reading your article I am so happy that I am a finite being and not a god; I couldn’t handle the responsibility.
    Jim Sturla

  3. I’m a bit troubled by aspects of this argument. Christians should surely not be arguing that medical advances as such are dangerous to faith. At least some advances were discovered or promoted by believers. Christians are still helping prolong life sacrificially all over the world. None of us want to retreat to the middle ages where faith seemed to prevent scientific advance.

    On the other hand, modernism is surely wrong to push medical “progress” at all costs. Christians want to protect the most vulnerable, which includes not only poor and starving children in Africa or dying beggars in Calcutta but also unborn babies worldwide.

    Medical science only starts to play God when it experiments with (potential or actual) human lives. Otherwise I think God is in favour of technological and medical progress and longer life expectancy; we are still along way short of the length of pre-Flood heroes like Methusaleh!

    Jon Newton

  4. Dear Bill, In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul says, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
    Suffering is very often the door to discovering that God is with us, and that without it we would never have experienced that He is intimately interested in every aspect of our lives. Christ spelt this out clearly in the purpose of Lazarus’s death. It was designed to bring us to worship God.
    David Skinner, UK

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