Bioethics can be complex and confusing. I get it.
Sure, the field considers issues that people regularly face and attempts to answer questions every person will be forced to reckon with at least once in their life.
But to arrive at the appropriate answers requires reasoning that is often complicated and employs abstract language. Trying to find any answer to a given question can be so tedious it can make someone want to give up on their search altogether.
Further, as a Christian bioethicist, I can feel entirely detached from Christianity in some moments because most of these issues would have been unimaginable to a biblical audience or authorship.
There was no conception of genes, so genetic editing is entirely foreign to a biblical audience. Cells and viruses were yet to be discovered, so any conversation concerning vaccination or antibiotics would be anachronistic. Early church authorities at the time of the writing of the last parts of the New Testament did address questions of abortion, as evidenced by the Didache, but the practice and ubiquity of abortion has changed so much since the first century that it can often appear to be an entirely new conversation.
To what, then, does the Bible, and the Christian tradition more broadly, offer to modern bioethics?
Christmas speaks to the question.
To go the entirety of the Christmas season without hearing mention of Christ’s birth into the world (the incarnation) would be a near Herculean task.
Songs like “O Holy Night” share the Christmas story. Humorous movies such as The Star depict the story of Christ’s birth. Even light-up nativities that decorate lawns as families drive through neighborhoods looking at Christmas lights portray the night of Christ’s birth.
Christmas is a rare time in American culture when the Christian origin of the holiday is on full display, inviting everyone to see and learn. As our culture offers its depictions and representations of what the incarnation is, two questions are offered.
The first question culture asks of Christians is: How does the incarnation impact those who claim to be Christian?
The second question public displays ask is: Why does the incarnation matter?
The answer to this question matters in an infinite number of ways. The incarnation allows humans to commune with God for eternity, understand the depths to which we are to love our neighbor, and, further, explore how we can practically serve Christ.
All the while, these questions do not really get to the heart of the question the season presents.
God made present
Yes, the incarnation shapes the way Christians understand justice because, before the incarnation, there was no apparent formulation as to how God would make good on the promises to redeem the world. After the birth and life of Christ, Christians tangibly understand that, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. commented, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
But this answer never really answers the core question: Why is the incarnation important?
When Jesus entered this world as a helpless baby, God and humanity became inextricably bound into one (John 1:2). As Jesus grew and entered his ministry, the words and the heart of God became tangible.
No longer were the Ten Commandments challenging and unattainable; they were present for all to see as Jesus moved and walked throughout the eastern Mediterranean region. God’s justice and mercy were no longer exclusively connected to the time and the words of the minor prophets; they now had a very definite shape in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). The prophecy in Daniel about the end of the world was no longer frightening and looming in the present for Jesus offered an interpretation that those for whom he knew he would prepare a place.
The incarnation fundamentally rearranged the trajectory of human history because Christ was present in the day-to-day, making communion with God available to all in a manner that was not previously possible.
Additionally, the redemptive nature of the incarnation—which came as a result of Christ’s actions on the cross—is not limited to people. Romans 8:18–25 informs the reader that because of the incarnation, not only are humans restored, but all of creation is “set free from bondage.” I believe this not only includes the non-human parts of creation we think about, such as the trees, animals, mountains, etc., but it also includes a redemption of the sciences and disciplines humans use to engage the world.
This redemptive nature of the incarnation does not renovate the façade nor trim the exteriors. Instead, incarnational redemption strikes at the very essence of the field, liberating it from the sinful chains and prescribing a new and ultimate direction for which the field will then advance.
An incarnational ethic
As part of the disciplines which are redeemed and reformed as a result of the incarnation, a bioethical framework transformed by the incarnation looks wholly different than a modern understanding of bioethics.
No longer is it constrained by the values of principlism (justice, beneficence, non-maleficence, and autonomy), for Christian bioethics begins not with an understanding of what or who humans are, but with an exploration of who God is.
From here, Christian bioethics applies its knowledge of God to inform its views as to what is a properly ordered anthropology. Finally, upon the conclusion of a properly ordered anthropology, it is then, and only then, when Christian bioethics begins to take up matters of modern bioethical concerns.
In other words, a Christian bioethicist seeks answers to these three questions in this order:
- Who is God?
- What is humanity’s relationship to God and to each other?
- How does Christian belief apply to modern bioethical concerns?
To begin bioethical considerations at any point other than an exploration of the very character and nature of God disorders the discipline because it elevates humans and the human condition to that which does not need to bow for the honor, reverence, and glory of God. A disordered exploration of humans in relation to God cannot be the case because, as Christians, we know that all of Creation is subservient to God.
To what, then, does an incarnational bioethical framework prioritize?
Three essentials for incarnational biomedical ethics
Because the structure begins with God and God’s understanding of himself, Christians can extrapolate the priorities of God to discern the contour of incarnational bioethics. Although the following is not exhaustive, three primary interests of God must be included.
- The image of God: In accordance with Genesis 1:21–22, the Christian understands that each person is made in the image of God. It is quintessential to the incarnational ethic that the image of God in each person is fully protected and that Christians permit each person to will the good of the other, as well as to pursue their own and others’ human flourishing within the will of God.
- Justice: Running throughout Scripture is God’s plan for justice. While this materializes in many ways throughout the Old and New Testaments, a diligent reading of the text informs the Christian that God’s justice always sides with the poor and the marginalized. The best examples are found in the Minor Prophets as God condemns the people of Israel for the degrading treatment of the socially outcast in their communities. In incarnational bioethics, justice toward the poor and the marginalized is always prioritized and ensured.
- Community-oriented: Finally, as part of who we are as created beings reflecting the nature of God and the communion of the Trinity, humans are supposed to be relational creatures. Within a medical context, the smallest unit of health, Wendell Berry says (PDF), is community. Incarnational bioethics operate under the consideration that any decision will impact more than just a single individual; it impacts the community in which the individual resides and flourishes as it is the aim of medicine to return a person to relationship with God and others.
When God became flesh and dwelt among us, the incarnation fundamentally rearranged the course of human history. In doing so, the priorities of the people of God were realigned to match God’s economy.
As for bioethics, let this season be a moment of reflection and an evaluation of principles and priorities.
More broadly, may we pray that Advent and the celebration of the incarnation are evident in the way we live our lives as witnesses to the miraculous work of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.