Creation doesn’t stand still. How would you write a biblical creation story now, in the time we live in and with today’s understanding of what we live on? There are really only two options. Either we try to fit what we know now about our universe into the stories we have heard from our childhood, or we try to find a way to tell the story of creation that encompasses what’s happening around us. Either we choose to stay in the garden and ignore what’s happening outside, or we choose to leave the garden and find a way to work with the Creator with what’s happening around us. Remember the first of Marc Gellman’s stories that I used. God said: “The world’s not finished. You are partners in the work.”
It’s hard to leave the garden. The garden of delights and memories where death and destruction have no hold. The place of ‘for ever’. The place of early childhood for those of us who had a fortunate childhood. Maturity brings with it so many challenges and burdens. But – if we want to move and grow, then we have to accept those challenges and burdens. If we’re going to go on being co-creators with God, then we have to leave the garden. And so we live in a continual tension – a tension between our faith that tells us clearly that death is not annihilation, and our human instinct that pulls us strongly towards hanging on to life as long as possible. And it is a tension, even for those of us with an unshaken faith in a future existence in the presence of God. There is so much here that we know and love and cherish. So many relationships, and so much potential joy in living.
Sometimes we struggle with a fierce desire for our dead to be still with us. Even though we know – we proclaim – that our dead are in God’s hands. We may not wish them back. But it’s hard to let them go. At other times we find ourselves desiring more life – we wish for cures for everything. And the new biotechnology has fed that hope. We now have the means to cure many diseases that killed our ancestors. Most of us live longer, and we have a much better quality of life than our ancestors. I am here because of antibiotics – I was born right at the start of the use of antibiotics in medicine. But how far do we go in seeking cures. How far should we go?
Twenty years ago three of the denominations in Aotearoa decided that our theological understanding should find ways to work with the new biotechnologies and so they formed the InterChurch Bioethics Committee -ICBC. (I’m a member of ICBC) It’s now the only surviving ecumenical group in the Protestant churches, and we work closely with the Nathaniel Institute of the Catholic Church. We try to find ways to help church members work through the ethical and theological challenges that face us in our times. You can find us on the Net – we’re linked to the MCNZ site. So – I want to pull out just one of the issues that face us.
When I was around 10 years old, I read June Opie’s book about her struggle back to life after polio. One of her friends in the London hospital was a brilliant young doctor who was doomed to an early death from kidney failure, because there was no treatment available. A few years later, the techniques of machine dialysis were developed, and such people had a chance of more years of life. Not a very good life, but a life. And then, only a few more years later, came the first kidney transplants.
For 30 years, I worked in the Department of Renal Medicine. I arrived there the same year that the first kidney transplant was done in Christchurch. Some of those early patients lived on for years with their new kidneys. Some had their children after getting their new kidney. It must have seemed like a miracle. Those first transplants were between close relatives. Then came the use of compatible kidneys from people killed in accidents. Most of the first transplants done in New Zealand used these. There’s a risk in being a live donor, you see. Now more than half the transplants done here are from living donors, and not necessarily related donors at that. Kidneys are given by husband to wife and wife to husband, friend to friend. Sometimes they are even completely altruistic gifts from unknown strangers. (Strangely, after I’d written this reflection, we had yesterday’s article in Te Matariki/ the Press about organ and blood donation.)
Transplantation – of kidneys, heart, lungs and liver is now an acceptable procedure. When something becomes acceptable, the demand grows. There are questions that we must always ask. Who gets the donated organs? Who goes onto the waiting list? Can a child donate a kidney to a parent or a sibling? Should donors be paid, or at least compensated for lost earnings? Can we be sure that, for live donors, there hasn’t been too much pressure put on the donor, or the donor’s family? Should the law be changed so that we are all presumed to have given consent for our organs to be used?
There are other issues around the use of cadaver organs. Inevitably they must be removed as soon as death occurs, and almost inevitably they come from people who have died unexpectedly. And this means working with emotionally vulnerable family members. It also means being sensitive to different cultural understandings of death and dying.
The story never ends. Stem cells (young, undifferentiated cells) made their entrance on the transplantation stage. They can turn into almost any sort of mature cells: skin, liver, kidney, spinal cord, and so on. They’re found in the cord blood of new-born babies; and in the base of our noses. The best ones of all are in embryos. The lure of being able to grow new organs on demand is a potent one. How much better it would be to grow your own new kidney, rather than going on an uncertain waiting list Then there’s xenotransplantation – that’s moving organs or tissues from one species to another. When I left the Nephrology Dept all this was still in the wings. I don’t know what’s happened since that time. Transplantation isn’t ‘news’ any longer – at least, not of kidneys.
All new technologies in medicine are hugely expensive. In our market-driven economy, for every person who gets one of these new treatments, many drop off the waiting lists for more minor – and often less glamorous – surgical procedures. The numbers of the poorer members of our society on waiting lists are disproportionately higher than numbers of the waiting wealthy.
What does all this have to do with leaving the garden? I think it’s just one of the issues that highlight the challenge of the commandment: take care of creation. New biotechnologies raise huge ethical dilemmas. They also raise theological issues and that’s where we have work to do. What do we, as Christians, have to say in these debates? Do we have anything to offer that is in any way different from secular ethics? And do we have the right to insist that our values should over-ride secular values? Given the wide diversity of opinions we have about almost every aspect of theology, we’re unlikely to be seen as a significant voice in these debates. After all these decades when the church’s voice has been polite rather than prophetic about all the ills in our culture, most of our fellow citizens think we’re a bunch of woolly-minded if well-meaning softies. But we have a responsibility to take the new technologies seriously and integrate our understanding of their implications into our faith journey.
We need to face up to making decisions. We need to lose our fear of facing these ethical challenges, and we need to learn how to use our collective life experience, how to ask the questions and how to sort through the options. We need to have the courage to name our deeply-held convictions, and see how they colour the decisions we make. What can our Christian thought and ethos add to the discussion? If we have nothing at all to say, then I suggest we would need to look long and hard at our faith, because Christianity is about living in community, and transforming community.
The motif of sacrifice is common to all cultures, and we can track the development from the ancient narratives of sacrifice to the specific Christian theological narrative of incarnation. Our tradition calls us to take care of the weaker. We’re not allowed to sacrifice any other. Research has to be done with real consideration for people’s needs –especially people who start from a disadvantaged position.
The concept of living in the paradisal garden is common to many traditions. From here we can move to humanity acting independently of God, and corrupting creation, and then come to the Christian narratives of resurrection, and the Christian command to redeem the activity of corruption. In other words, the specifically Christian way forward is that we need to face, and own, our tendency to corrupt, and then move on to redemptive activity. We need to recover a sense of humility. Our duty of care for our environment extends to a care for species integrity and biodiversity, and a care for future generations.
Stewardship over creation, not dominion, is part of ongoing redemption, and that means asking hard questions about some of the proposed uses of biotechnology. Going back for a moment to the transplantation issues, I myself can not accept that xenotransplantation is ethical. I don’t think we have the right to tamper with what might be called the essential ‘pigness’ of a pig, simply for our benefit. I know that some people firmly believe that we are the crowning glory of God’s creation – all that stuff about being ‘made in the image of God’ – but I’m not prepared to go down that track.
I suggest that there’s a deeper theological issue underlying many current issues. There’s a mindset that refuses to accept mortality – and we’re part of that in many ways. After all, we live in this environment. Are we refusing to accept the human condition? Are we refusing to claim for ourselves what we often proclaim in the churches – that there is a transcendental value to life? That our destiny somehow doesn’t begin and end with our mortality? It’s a hard question, because we also proclaim that the Realm of God begins here and now, where we are, and that means that we are called to do what we can here and now to enable all to live well.
We live by God’s grace – our living and our uniqueness is gifted to us by our God of love and grace. Grace brings responsibility with it. Our intelligence and our creativeness are given us to be developed, and used. We can’t stay forever in the garden, enjoying the ever-blooming roses. We live in the tension between hope and experience. We all know and experience the hard things – the things that never can be put right in this world of appearances. But we follow one who lived in this world, and experienced those same hard things, and taught us that the severed branch grows again, and that new life rises again from the ashes. And, above all, that we are held by an infinitely loving God. A God who rejoices in the uniqueness of every created being, and who speaks to us through Jesus in words of hope and reassurance. A God of infinite grace.
In this time when our existence as a race is challenged by climate changes that we bear some responsibility for, while at the same time our understanding of the interconnectedness of the ecological world, has grown, we are invited to consider, to look at, to pay attention to right relationships in the entire, more-than-human community of Earth.