CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Bioethics, Hollywood, and the Biblical Worldview

Jul 17, 2008

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, new reproductive technologies, genetic enhancement and manipulation, transhumanism 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.

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 (1978), Blade Runner (1982), Jurassic Park (1993), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), Gattaca (1997), The Truman Show (1998), Bicentennial Man (1999), The Sixth Day (2000), AI (Artificial Intelligence) (2001), I Robot (2004), The Island (2005), and Children of Men (2006).

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 the 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 noting here:

“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.

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.

For too long we have allowed the secular ethicists to call the shots. People like Peter Singer have pushed all the wrong buttons here, ranging from pro-abortion to pro-euthanasia stances. He is even a proponent of infanticide. He is a committed vegetarian, but his views on the wellbeing of humans are less than to be desired.

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.

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7 Responses to Bioethics, Hollywood, and the Biblical Worldview

  • Genesis 20:2ff “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”
    Yes, it seems that the church itself has forgotten the first commandment. We raise up idols without realising it, especially in the pursuit of what ostensibly look lie good aims and that is where the difficulty comes. It is easy to spot bad idolatry but idolatry of the good is almost impossible to detect apart from being guided by the holy spirit. I don’t know where I am going with this one, Bill, but I am sure that if we, Christians, were to examine much of our thought life, attitudes and decisions we would find idolatry at its heart.
    David Skinner, UK

  • Kass, Muehlenberg, and Mohler agree with Hollywood that the questions are serious. Amazing.

    And you are correct that the church is apathetic. The churches superstars are all exercised about which view of poor relief (empowerment, redistribution, weather protection, free markets, socialism) is most ‘correct’ and circulating petitions about such.

    The church leaders, denominational heads and managerial types are all concerned about not being any where near a perception of being ‘single issue’ unless that issue is outdoing one another at being green. Climate change, warming, much warming, affected by people, barely, significantly, major-ly caused by people, are all bantered about along with petitions signed by the ‘who’s who’ of evangelicalism and Catholics.

    Mr. Skinner, I suspect the idolatry is the worldly desire to be approved, popular, and seen as informed. It is a kind of ‘applause of men’ with no hint of a ‘raised eyebrow’, coupled with pride. In the USA it is coupled with race guilt and a desire to not appear in any way opposed to the Junior Senator from Illinois, so as to not be seen as bigoted or racist or ignorant or uncool. I’m informed that some of this manipulative fearful ‘correctness’ was in play in the recent politics of Kenya and that there are familial connections with such strategies, but that is another subject.

    For now not mentioning even partial birth of a viable child abortion, or viable child survival of abortion protections, or anything that would expose the radical autonomous death choice of the liberals and leftists is very very much in vogue.

    Joe Whitchurch, Indiana, USA

  • Thanks again, Bill. I do concur that this is a huge issue believers are facing.

    Whilst travelling home last night I heard an advertisement comparing pigs with three year old children in intelligence. The point of the comparison? To stop the live export of pigs.

    What a shameful and disgusting thing to equate a pig with one made in God’s image! Sadly, that’s the difference in thinking made clear in one simple illustration.

    Perhaps the only difficulty for believers will come when they are forced into obviously ethically abhorrent medical procedures “for their own good”?

    I think the ethical assessments by evangelicals are still playing ‘catch-up’, let alone needing to be forward thinking. For example, I have pondered for some time the issue of organ transplants. The Bible is clear that the “life is in the blood” and, as no dead organ is useful for transplantation, there is a conflict that I have not heard adeuqately explained in evangelical circles. The Roman Catholics have done a much better job IMHO.

    Maybe you can lead me to some better resources?

    Jeremy Peet

  • Remember the supreme role-play of Evolution in this matter. If man is nothing other than pond scum, then ethics, let alone bio-ethics is a moot point.

    Edi Giudetti

  • The Christian Institute that continues the work of William Wilberforce in Britain is a mine of information and has produced the top twenty issues that face Christians today, including the human fertilisation and embryology bill :www.christian.org.uk/election2005/apologetics.pdf
    David Skinner, UK

  • Oh how I agree with your position Bill. As I see our position, it is myopic, dictatorial, theological theory that has actively retreated us into the meaningless primeval swamp.

    We make a mockery of our El Elyon and our Y’shua with the repetitive religious debate over the centuries.

    Perhaps we can see a merit in Islam that integrates the whole of society, all sectors, under their god.

    Where are the revolutionaries who know Yahweh as the Spirit of Knowledge, Counsel, Wisdom, Understanding, and Might and will see Him exalted and honoured. The Lord loves us all and those who are not called to revolt can remain in their kindergarten cloisters.

    Slightly heavy, but there, I am being transparent.

    Ray Robinson

  • I think Christians should stand up for the truth and go against the what scientists are doing today. With cloning, do these people think they are god trying to make animanls. Times are getting more difficult for Christians and we should be aware of this and look out for each other instead of falling for these traps set by satan. The world is trying to make not normal things look normal and they are getting it right. We should stop stressing about things such as climate change because God blesses his people and start worrying about the fact man will probably exstinct itself with war weapons and so on.
    Thanks Bill,
    Dayne Turner

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