What does it mean to be human? As medical science takes us deeper, the answer to that question is increasingly clouded. New questions emerge, such as, to what degree can we play with the genetic material we are given? When may we terminate life? Is life more than a beating heart and lungs that breathe? How do we decide? Who may decide?
The spotlight has been focused on these questions as the result of recent cases like the 14-year-old Jehovah’s Witness from British Columbia who was ordered to return to Vancouver for cancer treatment – a blood transfusion – which her faith forbids; Terry Schiavo, whose husband fought to have her feeding tube removed to hasten her death, and the 13-year-old runaway teenager in state custody Florida who battled the state to have an abortion.
Dr. Robert Rakestraw, a Christian ethicist, writes that to be made “in the image of God” is to have the potential for relationship. He argues that people who no longer have that potential could be considered to have lost the capacity to image God. Is the potential to relate to other people and our surroundings a necessary condition for our humanity? Dr. Gilbert Meilander, in writing about being human, states: “In any case, the problems of bioethics force us to ask what a human being really is and, in doing so, to reflect upon the unity and integrity of the human person. We must think about the moral meaning of the living human body – whether it exists simply as an interchangeable collection of parts, whether it exists merely as a carrier for what really counts (the personal realm of mind or spirit), whether a living human being who lacks cognitive, personal qualities is no longer one of us or is simply the weakest and most needy one of us.”
Self-awareness and self-control have become the most important measures of human life in current society. Many believe that if they cannot control their own life and environment they would not want to live. To be a person, more than just a “body,” we want autonomy. There is a strong aversion to being dependent on machines or even on other people. Yet, we were created to live in community with one another – “It is not good that the man should be alone … “(Genesis 2:18a). Whether we look at the intimate community of marriage and family or think of the wider community within which we have all our relationships, we are part of extensive bonds of interdependence. “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” wrote John Donne. My life is not just my own, he seems to be saying; it belongs to God. It is part of the whole of creation and its history.
As a theological student, I worked as a summer chaplain in a centre for the developmentally handicapped. In this institution lived people with severe intellectual and/or physical disabilities. One unit had large cribs that held adults whose mental and physical capacities were those of an infant. They required feeding, changing and cradling though their bodies were adult size. These people are part of God’s creation and I wrestled with how they fit into God’s world. A utilitarian view might see them as useless. In God’s world, they are part of the whole human community that is then challenged to express its compassion and servanthood in interdependence. As a symbol of God’s love, my memory holds the image of staff members in oversized rocking chairs cradling and loving the residents of the centre.
Questions about our humanity cannot be answered simply. However, the process of discussing them, listening to Scripture and to one another will help us clarify the values at the heart of our faith. That is part of our formation in Christ in preparation for facing difficult questions when they touch us. Canon Linda Nicholls is co-ordinator for ethics, congregational development for General Synod, which is forming a Human Life Task Force to consider these and other questions about human life. Comments and questions may be sent to the task force at [email protected].