“When I look at the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is man that thou are mindful of him” (Psalm 8:3)? It’s a haunting and powerful question. A man stands alone beneath a starry firmament in an open field, a mother gathers her newborn child into her arms for the first time, or a woman stands in a hospital room with family members to commend a just-deceased father to God’s care. First, a stillness. Then out of the depths the questions surge forth. Who, exactly, are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going?
Who we are is THE question of the twenty-first century. Partly this has theological roots. The church has lost touch with CREATION as a key part of her teaching since the nineteenth century, and then in the twentieth century, ESCHATOLOGY, the church’s sense of how history will finally come out, has been sadly neglected. So many Christians float out in philosophical space like Sputnik, without a clear sense of their beginning or their end. This makes the human identity question all the more poignant.
Another important reason is cultural. We have developed in the last fifty years hitherto unimaginable technology, thereby moving farther back the time in which we can sustain a preborn infant outside her mother’s womb, and we are moving farther out the time in which a person’s life can be continued. If a premature infant can be maintained, but without normal functioning, should they be? If an older person is in a hospital room and only kept alive with machines, and they seem to us to be nothing more than a ghost of their former selves, what are we to do? Is that life? Is that humanness?
These questions were movingly brought to the fore for me at a recent meeting of the Episcopal Church’s Working Group on Science, Technology and Faith. We heard a brilliant presentation by Dr. Stephen Post, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, on the moral theology of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Dr. Post made two points clear. The first is that the issue of sustaining life for a longer and longer period is very much more pressing than many of us realize. Yes, there is an aging population in the West, but there is more. Researchers are working very hard to press out the envelope of the supposed “life expectancy” of people. I heard Gail Sheehy say in an interview that one third of girls born today will reach ninety. Dr. Post went further. He had just recently returned from a major conference in Germany in which NONE of those present assumed people would not soon be living from 120-140 years and beyond, it was only a question of when. The desire to be the first to achieve this feat among scientists is like the quest for the Holy Grail. One recent study extended the normal life span of a species of worm by three and one half times its normal range through use of external modifiers of one sort, another used different modifiers to double the expected life span of a fruit fly. If we think this is not coming for men and women, we are in for quite a shock.
This immediately raises troubling questions: if we know our days are numbered will we value them more?
Should we simply extend people’s possible life span if we have the capability of doing so?
The second problem posed by Dr. Post had to do with the way in which we value and appreciate who a person really is. He maintained we live in a “hypercognitive” society. Coming from a man who has worked with Alzheimer’s patients and their families since 1988 it had a special sting. Thinking and doing are what we in this country appear to be “about”, and if you cannot do those things, you are less valued. In some cases you become a sort of non-person, or worse.
But is this all there is to humanness? When God created men and women in his image, was it only to think and to do? What about being, feeling? What about loving and being loved? What about praying and being known and loved by God?
How interesting to see Alzheimer’s on the cover of Time magazine in 2001, for those who have this disease and those who care for them have much to teach us. When are you most alive? We do well to ponder that question, and as we do let us think foremost of him who loved his disciples in the world “until the end,” and who shows us that a person is never more alive than when he or she is on their knees praying to their heavenly Father.
–From what seems like a long time ago in a land far away