After I posted my last blog, I invited the Revd Dr Gillian Straine to write a reply. It is a pleasure to be able to post Gillian’s reply as a guest blog. Gillian is a priest in the Church of England and the Director of the Guild of Health and St Rafael (gohealth.org.uk). Her new book, Cancer: a pilgrim companion (SPCK, £9.99) will be available in January 2017.
Jen Brown has asked me to write a response to her recent blog post, ‘Living forever or eternal life?’ and it is my pleasure and privilege to do so. Jen and I met when I was doing my curacy in Oxford, and we worked together in many aspects of ministry. We now live in different parts of the UK, but bump into one another at the various science and religion events. I would say that we are friends, and it is only geography and busy working lives that stop us spending more time together.
I have begun my response to Jen’s blog with a little personal prologue. Some people like to know whose words they are reading, and trust the writing more if they feel they know the something about the author. But this is not my chief motivation for a little self-indulgent background information. For to reply to Jen’s article questioning the scientific pursuit of technology and medicine that will ultimately end human suffering, I think I am going to get a little personal.
It is a tricky ethical world that she presents. On the one hand, human beings through natural selection are preprogramed to survive and evolve to be more superior than their ancestors; transhumanism can be viewed as simply the next step in this process. And while some of it is distinctly otherworldly, anyone who feels uncomfortable leaving the house without their smart phone already now defines their identity partly through a machine and our interactions online. The prefix ‘trans’ assumes a crossing over, like humans getting on a plane on this side of the Atlantic and landing on the other, they imagine that transhumanism is suggesting that we will suddenly be living in a glass jar connected to a computer. But the world of transhumanism is more like a slippery slope than a cliff edge, and I would dispute the overtly negative overtones that are sometime automatically associated with the field.
Jen raises the question, is it sensible to end suffering? Yes, I would answer, it is, and more it is our duty to strive to do so whenever it is encountered, whether physical, mental or spiritual. If we begin to question which type of suffering we should not try to end, then the ethical world gets even more contentious for suffering, if it is to be understood correctly, is never abstract.
Someone wants nose job? Well, that seems like a good one not to bother with. After all, couldn’t that surgeon be more usefully deployed operating on a tumour. But wait, how about we first listen to the person wanting the operation, and her story of bullying, isolation and self hate. Someone has a rare and frankly expensive cancer. Wouldn’t the money be used better to treat 1000 people and not just this one. But wait, how about we put ourselves in the place of the person with the rare cancer.
I was diagnosed with a rare but treatable form of cancer when I was 21. I was treated with chemotherapy which stopped the multiplication of cancer cells, which left unchecked, would have killed me (though before we get too dualistic it is important to note that the power driving cancer cell division is the same power that drives all of life) The chemotherapy was delivered to the therapy suite in a locked case, and was covered in skull and cross bone and signs which screamed poison. But one of the more important drugs I received is derived from the periwinkle plant which blooms with a delicate blue flower, and which I plant in each house I live in. My cure came from nature, and I survived to carry on in this world through men and women committing themselves to ending suffering in this world, through this world.
It is true that our society doesn’t deal well with death, and this is something to be challenged. We don’t see it much and death does not fit well with a western view of progress. But it is that same progress that has taken us away from so much suffering, and that same progress that will be behind the medicine that you and I will rely on in the future when our God-given life is threatened with suffering and pain.
What the Christian faith does well is valuing the weak. And this is something that transhumanism does not deal with. Christ stopped to heal the outcast, he treasured the children and he believed in those who had been rejected as worthless. And finally, it was through his willingness to be passive and weak that the crucifixion and ultimately the resurrection happened. Suffering causes us to be weak and vulnerable. We should strive for its end, but when we are lost in the pain we know through faith that God is with us and demands that the world value those that are otherwise ignored or not valued.
I agree that in the liminal places of life we come up against the big questions, and the biggest of all in the meaning of life when it is limited by death. While living in these limits, the faith requires us to live well, bring hope to those who suffer, and to share the story that we are loved no matter the state of our body. It is the resurrection hope that in the scars of the risen Christ we may find healing and hope no matter the suffering we face.