One of my activities as theologian-in-residence is to meet with clergy and lay leaders to discuss a work of theology. Recently we discussed Bioethics: A Primer for Christians by Gilbert Meilaender.
The book is (only) a primer—it’s short, not an extended study in moral theology. It is a theological sandwich: the first and last chapters deal with how Christians think about being human; the in-between chapters apply those convictions to various issues. I recommend it without hesitation: it is brief, theological, sometimes provocative; and it takes us back to the fundamental question: are we thinking about bioethical issues theologically?
The question comes up: whether we should think of death as a “release.” When the weeks that led up to death were painful, one naturally thinks, Well, at least now her pain is over. Such a thought helps us cope with the loss: she is no longer with us, but at the same time she is no longer in pain.
Should we say she was “released” from her pain?
Christianity teaches us (which is to say, the Bible teaches us) that the human being is both finite and transcendent; we are at once body and spirit. As embodied beings, we are limited in time and space, in our histories, in our genetic inheritance, and so forth. Nonetheless, there is something about us that transcends all those limitations, a freedom of our spirit. You can always be surprised by another human—to use the words Gandalf said of Frodo, there is more about us than meets the eye.
This Christian teaching means that we should never consider our bodies as something to be escaped from. To be human is to be embodied. Even a diseased, pain-filled body is not simply a prison or a burden; it is not something that “the real me” looks forward to get rid of.
Nonetheless it would be true to say, she was released from her pain. When the final day comes in the future, her spirit (or soul) and body will be put back together, and she will once again be fully human—this time with a transformed body that, while it will never suffer degeneration, is nonetheless truly a body.
One reason we should hesitate before aid-in-dying proposals is that they condition us to think of “release” in the wrong way. As body-and-spirit unities, we cannot desire escape from our bodiliness, however painful it, the body, may have become. Here we can remember him, the pioneer, who endured pain and death in order to conquer them and rise on the other side, never to die again. When he died, was Jesus released from his suffering? I guess so. But my, how much more than release is going on.
We need to encourage one another, when we suffer, not to try to release ourselves from suffering, but to move through it with the mutual comfort that comes, ultimately, from him, our pioneer.
Out & About. On Sunday, October 14, I’ll lead the first “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar, on Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot. We’ll discuss the book (which means participants need to read it in advance) from 6 to 7:30 pm at Incarnation in Dallas, Room 205. This is not a lecture. Reservations are not required, but if you let me know you’re coming it will help preparations.
Sunday, October 28, is my fall theology lecture, on Moral Rules and Personal Exemptions, with particular attention to questions about assisted suicide. It will be at Incarnation, Dallas, at 6 pm in the church.