Christian theology takes its bearings from the ancient stories of Israel and of the church, some of which are loosely based on historical events and some of which are pure legend. So Christian ethics, being theological ethics, also finds its origins in these narratives rather than in formulations of what is right or wrong. That is, it does not rely on legal formulations in the normal sense but relies on the interpretation of narrative. Even the Ten Commandments, although they certainly look like a legal list, are incorporated into the story of Israel's history with God. The same is true of the New Testament: Jesus did not give a legal list that may be transformed into an ethical code; instead, he told stories. These and the story of his life are the stuff of theological investigation.
For example, the creation stories at the beginning of the Old Testament set out the relationships between humankind, the world and God. Both human beings and the world are the creation of God; they owe their existence to Him. While human beings are creaturely like the other creatures, they are created in the image of God and are given dominion over the rest of creation. This ordering orients theology and hence theological ethics. God is not the world, the world is not God, human beings are in the world but have a special relation to it and responsibility for it, and human beings are not God. Any confusion of this ordering will end in the misery of human beings, the destruction of the creation and the pain of God. We may say that these texts are revelation, but this does not mean that they have authority primarily because they are from God. For Christian theology does not necessarily operate with a theistic understanding of God in which God speaks his law and humans obey.
Rather, the ancient stories preserved by Israel and the church are the product of long and deep thought about the nature of the world and of humanity in the context of a religious tradition. When one hears them, they are seen to be true stories and thus are the word of God. The old stories haunt us and confront us and reveal the true state of things. That is why we can call them revelation, in just the same way that a good poem can reveal something that we had not seen.
Science and technology flow from the command of God that human beings should have dominion and responsibility for the Earth. We are responsible for our own well-being and the well-being of the Earth and can rest in no fatalism. We were created to work to earn our bread. The Old Testament writers acknowledge this but are wary of human hubris that will fill them with pride so that they reach after the things of God in an attempt to make themselves gods. So while technology and civilization are affirmed as legitimate activities of human beings, there is a warning.
Of particular concern for a Christian bioethics is the preservation of the ordering of human beings as being created in the image of God. Any human activity that blurs this image is proscribed. This obviously includes any kind of violence that diminishes the image of God in any individual. In fact, that provides a good definition of violence, that the image of God is erased. The Christian church believes that Jesus was the image of God among us. It is in the characteristics of his life that we see the image most clearly. He unconditionally loved the reprobate and the outcast, and he received his life and gave it up knowing that it was a gift from his Father.
Let us take some examples of how the ordering of creation produces ethical judgments in the realm of bioethics.
The Possibility of the Last Mortal Generation
Through research into the processes of aging, the replacement of organs with mechanical substitutes and the curing of all kinds of diseases, some scientists have begun to talk about the elimination of human death. This is a plain abrogation of the ordering of creation; human beings, being creaturely, are subject to death. Any attempt to do away with death removes a crucial aspect of the creaturely to such an extent that an immortal person cannot be said to be truly human. We have no idea what a life lived in those circumstances would be like. Would our spirits cope with the thought of endlessness, of endless acquisition of memory and a future that stretches into unimaginable time? Would we, after a few hundred years, long for an end? Apart from the spiritual problems, how would society deal with an undying population, and where would we find room for the newborn?
We already see the anomie produced in people whose lives have been "saved" by medical science and who live long after their interest in life has expired. The attitude of the medical profession, at times apparent, that death is the enemy to be vanquished even for those much advanced in age, also breaches the ordering of creation. Death in old age is to be expected. I remember an old woman, who was recovering from a hip replacement and being nagged by the physiotherapists to walk, telling me, "I shouldn't be here." When we recognize the order of creation, we recognize that death is a final calling, not a demon to be vanquished. Only when death is incorporated into the scheme of our lives will its power over us be limited.
The Possibility of Ultimate Genetic Control
Those who live out their lives in the knowledge that they are created in the image of God know that life is a gift. Life is not to be managed, as the new managerialism would have it; life is a journey into an unknown future. We are equipped to travel that journey with all kinds of genetic characteristics that bequeath talents and weaknesses. Our vocation is to use those talents and weaknesses to the glory of God, be that as a scientist, a civil administrator, a laborer, an artist or a mother. All of these are aspects of the image of God, and they are thus all noble. What would happen to the diversity of talents that make up and contribute to society if parents could select the genes their children would carry? In doing so we would abrogate the role of creator, with disastrous social consequences. Men reach after the things of God not necessarily via their technology but in their decisions about what is good and what is evil. They will decide what personal characteristics are to be valued and those that are not. Again we find a threat to the ordering of creation.
Since all human beings have been created by God to bear His image, no human can become a resource for others. It is the purpose of human life to reflect the image of the creator and give glory to Him. When human beings are used for the purpose of another, that original purpose is erased. This is the primary Christian argument against slavery, child labor and sexual and economic exploitation. It is also the argument against the creation of human beings as sources of compatible tissue. It is here that we find ourselves in difficulty, for it raises the question as to what constitutes a human being in this context.
Can we really say that a frozen embryo, that has the potential to become a human being, is a human being? This debate finds no solution in biology, for the various stages of the embryo that are seen by some to mark the transition to humanness all seem to be arbitrary. If stem cell research holds the promise of a cure for many, is it moral to halt the research because a cluster of cells in a dish are deemed to be human? Do they show forth the image of the creator? These arguments are fraught and do not seem to be easily resolved.
The practice of tissue transplantation from the dead, or from a living person by consent, does not fall under the accusation that the ordering of creation is breached, even though these practices are in no way "natural." They do not erase the image of God in the person but embellish it, since such acts are acts of love and service to another.
There is no other issue more vexed than this, because it goes to the depth of what it means to reflect the image of God in our sexual ethics, in terms of the self harm that it causes to both parents, the harm to the ordering of society and of course the harm to the unborn. The ethics of abortion cannot be decided on the basis of arguments about when the fetus becomes human, for, as we have said, these all seem arbitrary except perhaps for the event of implantation. Most abortions are carried out because the mother does not have a stable life or partner in order to rear the child. This is a community problem and is to do with how a community cares for its children. Part of bearing the image of God is the necessity of community; we were not created to be alone but to live in loving relation to our neighbor. It is the responsibility of the community to train the young to expect sexual faithfulness and the creation of stable family life and to support them in that.
The above is an example of how Christian ethics may proceed. However, this is not the whole picture because behavior springs from deeper roots than the merely intellectual. That is why worship is an essential ingredient of the Christian life because it is in worship that our "hearts of stone are turned into hearts of flesh." Christian ethics requires training in the Christian story from an early age, and that happens within the community on Sunday mornings. It is necessary to hear the stories and pray the prayers and participate in the Eucharist so that the believer is transformed into a person who acts out the image of God without having to think about it.
The Reverend Dr. Peter Sellick is Senior Research Officer in the Department of Physiology, University of Western Australia. Before that, he was Ecumenical Chaplain at Sir Charles Gardiner Hospital. He has held various positions in the Uniting and Anglican churches and several Western Australian universities.