“Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine” by Allen Verhey

Posted: May 31, 2013 in Book and Article Reviews
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Allen Verhey begins by pointing out that Christians have always been engaged in bioethics. This stems from three realities. First, Jesus’ ministry was concerned with healing people. Although health is not the ultimate good, it is still a “good” which is part of God’s life-giving agenda. Secondly, Jesus also suffered. Thus, in serving the poor and sick, Christians have believed that they too served Christ. Finally, Jesus proclaimed freedom for the poor. God, through Jesus, was concerned about the “least of these” in our world. As such, we too should be concerned about the “least of these” in our society.

The primary task of the theologian is to talk about God. The question is raised: “With whom?” Verhey provides three answers. First, theologians are called to talk about God with anyone that is willing. It is a conversation with the world about who God is and who God calls us to be. Secondly, it is talk of God with those who might not be willing to hear. Sometimes our beliefs and convictions will run into opposition, but we are called to speak difficult truth in those times and places where it may not necessarily be welcomed. Finally, God-talk happens within the Christian community. It is within the community that the theologians are responsible for “priestly nurture and prophetic correction of the community’s practices” (30). The community of faith is the arena of dialogue and discourse between God and God’s people, which calls for a tangible response for God’s people.

The use of Scripture is necessary for the Church. Although Scripture does not always speak directly to the issues we face, we still believe that Scripture speaks a word that forms the life of the community. As such, we must read and interpret Scripture humbly and in community. In addition, Scripture must be engaged prayerfully and acted out in the life of the community. This entails discernment happening within the dialogical deliberation of the community.

Theological anthropology is an important topic in the discussion of bioethics. The Christian tradition rejected Marcion’s dualism, which separated out the spirit from the flesh. Christian Scripture, from beginning to end, posits a bodily existence whereby one cannot distinguish between body and soul. As such, we must treat the person holistically. In other words, medical care must treat both the body and the “person.” In addition, the human person must also be understood in terms of a relational ontology. A “person” is constituted by its relationships, its history.

We are called to compassion. But, the nature of modern compassion stifles the voice of those suffering and seeks to silence lament. However, suffering and lament must be allowed to give full voice. It is within that voice that the person finds meaning in the midst of suffering. Suffering must also be done in the community, not isolation. Compassion must be careful not to negate the pain of the person, but enter into the suffering through presence, for Jesus entered into our suffering and calls us to take up our cross.

Verhey rejects the “Baconian project” along with its utilitarian bent on using the body and its various parts as commodities. We must be cautious and wise in the ways we use technology. However, in Verhey’s discussion of preserving life and suffering with those who suffer, he seems to momentarily violate his own hermeneutic. He asserts that embryos as nascent life must not simply be discarded. However, almost in the same breath, Verhey says that there are justifiable means for abortion, namely some disease like Trisomy 18 or Tay-Sachs.

Although these are horrible diseases, I’m not sure how he can manage to say abortion is okay in this case when he has major moral issues with discarding embryos because they have the possibility of life. For one, only about 25% of those whose parents have the gene for Tay-Sachs will actually deal with those complications. Should there not also be more than benefits and risks factored into the decision of abortion as is stated with other cases? And, is the value of life dependent upon whether or not a person has defects? After all, Verhey’s argument concludes, it is a short move to then say if defects are grounds for discarding life, those that are “defective” should also be eliminated.

However, despite this fact, I do agree with Verhey’s major assessment of the Baconian project. Namely, the Baconian project is about mastery of “manipulable nature.” As such, the “person” can quickly become lost and the quest to end suffering through technology can actually prolong and increase suffering. Our bodies and children are both a gift, not an achievement. For this reason, we are called to be good stewards of these gifts and to treat them wisely. Thus, not all technology or techniques for “improving” the quality of life is permissible on the grounds of faith.

As both D. Stephen Long (John Wesley’s Moral Theology) and Verhey suggest, we must be willing to wrestle with the deep issues of our world, culture, society. The prevailing culture quite often reduces “person” to “commodity.” Technology seeks to replace faith and our need of God. And, the modernistic and “Baconian project” seek mastery over nature rather than awe, respect, and humility. We overreach our capacity for wisely using technology and often seek our own comfort at the expense of others. Although Verhey lacks a fully compelling reason for distinguishing “nascent life” from previous states, I believe his basic intuition is correct. Life is a gift from God and we must treat it as such. How we live that out tangibly may be difficult to discern, but that is why we need the community to engage these issues with seriousness and in prayer.

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