Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Views of Orthodox Theology on Bioethical Issues (6 of 6)

...continued from part five.

7. General Biotheological Principles

According to Aristotle, man “by nature has a desire to know”. If this applies to every field of human knowledge, it applies even more to the mystery of life. Human beings have always been preoccupied with the question of what life is, how life begins, who gave them life, what existed before their conception, where they were before, and what the meaning of life is. It is striking that from the beginning of their lives children are interested in these questions. However, such questions frequently arise at any age and at critical times, in adolescence, middle age and old age, as well as in extreme life-or-death situations.

Today, with the combination of technology and medicine, it is possible for human beings to investigate these serious questions, particularly about what happens as soon as they are conceived and how they lived in their mother’s womb from the moment of conception. The problem is basically theological.

A few brief but crucial theological responses on bioethical and related issues are set out below.

a) Theology and Science

Elsewhere I have upheld the view that Orthodox theology does not come into conflict with science and is not opposed to it. If this was the case at some point in history, it was in the West, where theology was identified with metaphysics and for that reason, during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, leading thinkers attacked and refuted metaphysics. Orthodox theology, however, as it was expressed by the Fathers of the Church, was never linked with metaphysics.

In fact, the subject-matter and aim of Orthodox theology are different from the subject-matter and aim of science. Orthodox theology holds that the whole world is the creation of the love of the Triune God and that it is directed towards an end, which is its transfiguration. Human beings were created by God in His image and likeness, which means that they have a nous and free will, and make their way towards deification. Science investigates the world, specifically the world as it became after the fall of man, when corruption and mortality entered human beings and the creation. Whereas science is engaged in treating the ‘garments of skin’ of corruption and mortality, Orthodox theology’s involvement and concern lies in overcoming death and uniting human beings with God.

Another interesting point in this connection is that, although science does not have God and is involved in researching the created world, it is possible for a scientist to believe in God or not. As Fr. John Romanides has written in characteristic fashion, a theologian can get involved in science, but he does this on account of the scientific knowledge he may have acquired, not on account of his theology. And a scientist can engage in theology, but he does so on account of his theology, if he has empirical knowledge of God, and not on account of his science. As in earlier times astronomers who studied the phenomena of the starry sky could declare “How great are Your works, O Lord!”, so now scientists working in molecular biology can declare “How small are Your works, O Lord!”, or rather, “How great are Your works in their minuteness, O Lord!”

There cannot be hostility between science and theology or between theology and science. This does not mean that scientific research should proceed unchecked, because this could have terrible and distorting results. Medical research should be limited by the rules put it place by science itself, which will probably be influenced both by theological views on human beings, and by other principles accepted by philosophy and society.

It was precisely this that prompted the development from the 1960s onwards of the science of bioethics, which attempts to set boundaries within which medical research will be conducted.

I shall now set out the basic theological principles with regard to human beings from their initial conception until the end of their biological life, principles that Orthodox scientists may bear in mind.

b) Basic Theological Principles for Biomedical Science

According to Orthodox teaching, human beings are God’s most perfect creation. First God created the noetic world, the angels, and then the visible world, the whole universe. Last of all He created man, who consists of noetic and perceptible elements and is therefore the microcosm of the whole universe and the summary of the entire creation. After the fall, corruptibility and death entered human beings, and are expressed through illnesses and death. For that reason, Christ, by becoming man and voluntarily assuming a mortal and passible body, summed up the world and deified the human nature that He had assumed, making it possible for everyone to experience deification starting from this biological life.

I shall set out ten basic theological principles. These are not philosophical principles, but expressions of Orthodox theology. They concern human beings and, of course, they concern all research on human life.

First Principle. The uncreated energy of God exists in the whole of creation and in human beings. According to the teaching of the Fathers of the Church, there are no natural laws in creation, but there is God’s uncreated energy. God did not create the world, place within it certain natural laws, and then abandon it, as Deists believe. Instead, He directs the world Himself through His uncreated energies. The whole world participates in different ways in the existence-bestowing, life-giving, wisdom-imparting, and deifying energy of God. The entire creation shares in God’s existence-bestowing energy. Animals and plants share in His life-giving energy as well. Human beings share not only in His existence-bestowing and life-giving energy but also in His wisdom-bestowing energy. And the angels and the deified share in God’s deifying energy as well.

Some fixed principles certainly exist within creation and humankind. These, however, cannot be regarded as created natural laws. Rather, they indicate that God’s uncreated energy acts in a stable way and they reveal God’s faithfulness. Miracles, therefore, are not a denial of the natural laws that were allegedly put in place by God. If this were the case, God would remove Himself by miracles. Instead, the explanation for miracles is that at this moment God wishes to act differently from how He acted previously.

It is well-known that the natural world as we know it today is not as God created it. After the fall of man corruption and death entered creation. However, we expect that even this creation will be set free from corruption and renewed at the Second Coming of Christ. We have a foretaste and preview of this renewal of creation in the life of the saints.

Second Principle. God created the world personally of His own volition and in a positive way. He did not act of necessity when He created the world and human beings. We say thus to underline the fact that we cannot accept the views of metaphysics about a naturally mortal body and a naturally immortal soul. According to metaphysics, the soul was allegedly in the uncreated and immortal world of ideas, and that it moved away from there, with the result that it was punished by being imprisoned in a mortal body; thus man’s salvation consists in the soul’s liberation from the body and its return to the uncreated world of ideas.

Orthodox theology teaches that man, who is made up of a soul and a body, was created in a positive way by God, and at no time was the soul alive before the body, nor the body before the soul. Both soul and body were created simultaneously.

As God’s creation, man “has existence on loan”. It is a gift from God, and man ought by nature to relate to God. His fall was the loss of this relationship. Consequently, humans are not self-sufficient and autonomous beings.

Third Principle. The creation of Adam and Eve is repeated at every new human birth. According to St Athanasius the Great, “The same hand that fashioned Adam then also fashions and constructs, now and always, those after him.” And according to St John Chrysostom, “Bearing children has its origin from above, in God’s Providence, and neither woman’s nature, nor coming together, nor anything else at all is sufficient to bring it about.” Everything comes about by God’s creative energy. The body is created by God through the genetic material of the parents, and the soul is created at the same time as the body by God’s direct intervention.

St Maximus the Confessor, writing about the biological birth of a human being, says that it is one single birth on account of the co-existence of soul and body, but it is divided into two “because each is generated in a different way”. He says this because the cause of the soul’s existence and the manner of its creation are different from the cause and manner of the body’s creation. The body is generated at conception from the existing matter of the other body, whereas the soul is generated at conception by the will of God, through His life-giving inbreathing, in an ineffable and unknowable manner. Both soul and body, however, constitute one unity, “one species”: man.

According to the teaching of St Basil the Great, “With us there is no nice enquiry as to its being formed or unformed”. In other words, we cannot make a distinction between an embryo that has not taken shape and an embryo that has taken shape. According to Balsamon, an interpreter of the sacred Canons, “This was said on account of those who say that, because, when the seed is sown in the womb, it does not at that point assume the form of a human being, but first it is turned into blood, then it solidifies into human flesh, and then it is shaped and moulded into members and parts of the body, it is not murder when an embryo that has not yet taken form is aborted.”

It should also be mentioned that the Fathers say in connection with Christ’s conception that “[the embryo] receives a soul immediately upon conception.” Thus the human being receives a soul at the very moment of conception. There is no intervening time between conception and receiving a soul, nor is the soul received by a gradual process. In the Orthodox Church we believe in the existence of the soul “from the first moment of conception” of the human being. That is also why the Church celebrates the Annunciation of the Theotokos, which is the feast of Christ’s conception in the womb of the All-Holy Virgin, and the feasts of the conception of the Theotokos and the conception of the Honourable Forerunner. The human being is a unity of soul and body from the first instant of conception, as soon as the ovum is fertilised.

Fourth Principle. The soul and body are united to one another. According to the Fathers, just as the lover is attracted towards his beloved, so the body and soul are mutually attracted. The soul is not located in one specific place in the body, as metaphysics teaches, but “is everywhere in the body”. As essence it is in the heart – not as in a container but as in an organ – and as energy it is in the thoughts and in the body. The separation of soul and body at the moment of death comes about by God’s will, but “the most natural bond” is loosed “forcefully from its harmony and kinship.” This is the mystery of death.

The soul has two parallel energies: the noetic faculty and the rational faculty. The noetic faculty exists and functions from the first moment of conception, but the rational faculty develops with the passage of time. Verbal thinking is cultivated in childhood, and later, during adolescence, critical thinking develops. As time passes the composition of soul and body is perfected. Although the human being exists immediately upon conception, the soul expresses itself as the body develops and becomes complete.

Human beings were created by God in His image and likeness. Being in His image is a given fact; being in His likeness is the goal that we ought to reach. Human beings have a nous and free will. They are not living machines, but have a distinctive quality that separates them from other beings. For that reason they cannot be regarded as laboratory animals or as biological machines.

Fifth Principle. The mortality and corruptibility of the body are the result of Adam’s sin. Essentially they result from the ancestral sin that human beings inherit. Death exists in man; we are born and we die. Sicknesses, the growth of the body, decay and ageing are consequences of the entrance of death into the human body.

In the Orthodox Church we believe that Christ voluntarily assumed a mortal and passible human body without sin, in order to conquer death within it. However, corruptibility and mortality did not act on Christ compulsorily: Christ, as God, had authority over them. And those who are united with Christ are set free from the tyranny of death.

Medical science wages war on death and struggles to prolong biological life, but it cannot conquer death or help people to overcome it. Human beings want victory over death, not prolongation of life. We are grateful to science, which acts as God’s gift when it mitigates human suffering, but death is only conquered by the grace of God starting from this life.

Sixth Principle. Corruptibility and mortality, which are expressed initially by illnesses and then by death, can function to the benefit of human beings. They remind them that biological life is temporary. This makes them see things in a completely different way and also to develop their creativity.

Pain perfects human beings. It makes them love one another and see life and one another from a different perspective. Suffering refines their attitude to life. Death-centred cultures are more social and humane.

Pain and suffering are inseparably linked with pleasure, according to St Maximus the Confessor’s analysis. Pleasure brought pain, and overcoming suffering and pain cures pleasure. Thus pain, according to Orthodox teaching, is beneficial for humankind. According to St Gregory Palamas, all suffering and trials “collaborate for salvation”, and are sometimes “better than health itself”. A society that banishes pain and strives for continuous happiness (eudaimonia) in incapable of helping people to be saved through faith, patience, tolerance and prayer. Pain is a new revelation in history that came about through Christ. Through His self-emptying, through assuming a perishable and mortal body, and through His Passion and His Cross, Christ showed us a new dimension to our life, which is an expression of love for our neighbor. Man is made perfect through suffering and sacrifice.

Seventh Principle. Human beings have the privilege of freedom. If one bears in mind that, according to Orthodox teaching, they are human beings from their conception, this means that they have freedom, which ought to be respected, from the beginning of their life. Their ‘right’ to life and freedom must be respected absolutely, especially in those cases when, as embryos or newborn infants, they cannot defend themselves.

When we refer to freedom, we do not mean it only in the philosophical or ethical sense, simply as the possibility of choosing between good and evil, although even that has its value, but as the possibility of self-determination of one’s existence. This cannot be the case at conception or birth, because no one is asked whether he wishes to born. As this is impossible, human beings are given the possibility of experiencing freedom through their own conscious rebirth. Apart from their birth, for which they are not responsible – they were not asked and often their conception resulted from love acting as an instinctive necessity on the part of their parents – there is the possibility of rebirth, which comes about by God’s action and their own collaboration, within the Church and through the Mysteries.

Eighth Principle. The worth and significance of human beings does not lie simply in their birth and biological development, but above all in their development towards God. Just as there is biological development, because they start as embryos, they are born, become infants and grow, so there is also a spiritual development that starts from biological life and reaches as far as deification. Human beings, while preserving the elements of their biological nature, can be deified. They can reach participation in the deifying energy of God, the deification of soul and body, and communion with God.

St Maximus the Confessor speaks of three births: the biological birth by which we receive “being”; birth “from Baptism”, by which we receive “well-being”; and birth “from resurrection”, when we are transformed through grace into “eternal being”. The last two births make the first, biological birth worthwhile.
Consequently, man’s birth and his rebirth in grace prompt him to go on to exalted spiritual states and to become god by grace, in other words, to become according to grace what God is according to nature.

Ninth Principle. Although human beings from their conception bear within them mortality and particular inherited traits, they can nevertheless, through life in the Church, Baptism, Chrismation and Holy Communion, overcome death starting from this life. This is expressed and experienced by not being afraid of death, by the desire for death – because they want to meet those dear to them, especially Christ, the All-Holy Virgin and the saints – and by the incorruption of their bodies (holy relics). All these characteristics are observable in holy people, who have been united with Christ and whose lives have acquired another meaning.

At this point we should look particularly at the great significance of the incorrupt relics of the saints, which show clearly that skin, which is a mass of cells, does not disintegrate and decay. The cells that contain the genes of ageing ought, in the normal way, to be destroyed. The fact that they are not destroyed is due to another power, God’s grace, by which corruption and mortality are conquered. Science should research this important case, which is part of biological life.

Tenth Principle. The Orthodox Church believes in life after death, that the soul, even when it is separated from the body, exists, lives and feels. Also, despite the separation of the soul from the body, the human being is not abolished. The saints are referred to as deified, because they have received the grace of God in their souls and bodies, and their bodies have become holy relics. They experience the suspension of bodily energies. The bodies of the saints do not have the elements of corruption. At the Second Coming of Christ, their souls will enter their bodies, which will be resurrected as spiritual bodies. They will not be subject to corruption, death, illness, or the limitations of space and time.

Orthodox bioethics, biotheology, without overlooking medical science and ethical and deontological rules, transcends them, and gives human life another dimension.

In general, it should be noted that the Orthodox Church with its theology does not hinder research in scientific subjects. Such research can and does produce some positive results for human life, as well as negative ones. The Church respects science and scientists.

With regard to biomedical research, the Orthodox Church accepts three things. First, that bioethics and the international organizations, for the good of humankind, should set limits to contemporary research, which could get out of control. Secondly, it wants the science of bioethics and doctors to take seriously into account the theological principles that are the life of the Church, and at least to respect the Christian faith. Thirdly, it wishes to stress that the value of human beings does not lie solely in their birth, but in their rebirth, when they find a meaning to life, because then they rejoice in their own biological birth and in the whole creation. It should be emphasised that even the very best conditions – springtime, physical well-being, material happiness, economic sufficiency, various kinds of prosperity, and social and scientific success – without a meaning to life, without the God-man Christ, Who is experienced in the Church by participation in the purifying, illuminating and deifying energy of God, are hell.

On the one hand, another tragedy like the Tower of Babel must be avoided; on the other hand, human beings must find meaning in life and communion with God.