Michael Mawson: Theological Anthropology and Extending Life

by Michael Mawson, Senior Lecturer in Theological Ethics, University of Aberdeen

This post is one in a series of reflections on the 2018 conference held in Vancouver at Green College. The entire set of posts can be found here.

How should Christians understand and respond to recent technologies aiming to radically extend the human lifespan? Would a longer lifespan facilitate the pursuit of deeper relationships with God and each other? Or would the pursuit of more life simply be a denial and attempted transgression of our God-given limits? Does theology have any specific and distinctive insights to offer into human finitude and temporality?

My current research and work broadly focuses upon human aging and decline. In particular, my interests are in how core claims and insights from theology and phenomenology can help us better attend to ageing and its associated complexities. How can theology and phenomenology help us live in and with the difficult realities and limits surrounding life in its final stages? How can it help us to better attend to the messiness of decline and ageing towards death? 

Drawing upon these broader interests, I recently contributed a paper to the meeting of the ‘Christian Flourishing in a Technological World’ network in Vancouver. For this paper, ‘Theological Anthropology and Questions of Extending Life’, I engaged the work of two modern theologians in particular: Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I sought to demonstrate how both Barth and Bonhoeffer provide us with rich reflections on human finitude and limits in the context of their treatments of creation. In this paper, I thus carefully explicated their respective approaches, drawing attention to both the resonances and some differences between these two thinkers. Here I shall briefly summarize just a few of my main claims. 

On the one hand, in III/2 of the Church Dogmatics Barth provides a nuanced reflection upon human finitude. For Barth, a limited lifespan, what he calls our ‘allotted time’, is integral to how God has created and determined us. Following Barth, our very status as vulnerable and limited creatures (including as temporally limited creatures) is integral to who and what we are before God and one another. Indeed, our limited time, properly understood, opens and directs us to God and one another. With the fall, however, we no longer recognise this to be the case. Rather, we now experience our limited time simply as an abstract limit: something that stands against us. 

For Barth, it is by looking to Christ that we can begin to again recognise our limited time for what it truly is. Looking to Christ allows us to recognise that time itself is something that is in service to God and God’s purposes, something that God in Christ has embraced and makes use of. This in turn allows us to recognise God’s presence and role in our own limited timespans.

Following Barth, a number of recent Christian ethicists (e.g. Robert Song and Gerald McKenny) have therefore provided compelling arguments for why Christians should embrace finitude and resist, or at least not actively pursue, technologies aiming to radically extend the human lifespan. Such technologies fundamentally misunderstand what time as such is, and how limited time is integral to what human beings are as dependent creatures.

On the other hand, in his 1933 Creation and Fall Bonhoeffer provides an account of finitude and limit which, while broadly similar to that of Barth, displays some notable differences. In particular, I suggested that Bonhoeffer gives more attention to our conflicted and cursed situation after the fall.  For Bonhoeffer, we are no longer simply God’s creatures, but sinners who continually attempt to flee and live apart from God and one another.

In Creation and Fall, Bonhoeffer develops this insight with particular reference to both God’s promise to Adam in the garden (‘if you eat from this tree you will surely die’) and the Serpent’s promise to Eve (‘you will not die at all’). Accordingly to Bonhoeffer, these two conflicting promises encapsulate and disclose the situation of a fallen humanity: ‘“You will not die at all.” “You shall die.”... After the fall, all human beings are suspended between these two conflicting statements—living towards death, living as those already dead.’

What is at stake with Bonhoeffer’s firmer (more Lutheran) insistence on the conflicted and fallen situation of humanity? Specifically, what is entailed in his claim that we are all ‘living towards death’ as ‘those already dead’?  This account of the human being as between God’s prohibition and the serpent’s promise indicates Bonhoeffer’s different understanding of the problem of life and finitude. For Bonhoeffer, the problem is not so much that we have forgotten that our allotted time is a gift that directs to God and one another (as for Barth). Rather, after the fall we have become imprisoned by life itself; we experience our very living and having to live as a curse and a burden.

This difference has also implications at the level of Christology. If Barth understands God’s entry into finite time, in Christ, as affirming or taking on an allotted lifespan, Bonhoeffer instead emphasizes God’s presence in Christ in the midst of humanity’s conflicted, living death. For Bonhoeffer, Christ’s action on the cross enters and discloses the contradiction of a humanity having to live as those who are already dead: With Christ’s death, ‘the trunk of the cross becomes the wood of life [zum Holze des Lebens], and now in the midst of the world, on the accursed ground itself, life is raised up anew…’

So finally, what do Barth and Bonhoeffer each have to offer with respect to a Christian response to life extension technologies? On the one hand, Barth’s theology provides firm grounds for attending to and embracing our allotted timespans, that is, as integral to how God has created and determined us for dependent relationships. Following Barth, that we are born, grow old, and die is at least ultimately a sign of God’s grace. In Christ, we recognise that our finitude directs us to what we properly are. In terms of recent technologies, Barth’s theology thus provides grounds for rejecting, or at least not so actively pursuing, attempts to radically extend the human lifespan. Such attempts are misguided in that they simply misunderstand what time and finitude as such are.

If similar to Barth in many respects, I have suggested Bonhoeffer gives more emphasis to the situation of human beings as fallen creatures. He more closely connects life and death to our postlapsarian situation. The fall means that death has entered into life; life and its limits can only be understood as between God’s prohibition and the serpent’s promise. After the fall, life and death both stand against us in ways that leave us in an impossible and irresolvable conflict.

In terms of life extension technologies, it is thus less clear that Bonhoeffer provides resources for resistance. Or at least he is less hopeful that we are can embrace our finitude as a sign of God’s grace. At the same time, Bonhoeffer provides a diagnosis of the conflict underlying any pursuit of more life: ‘It is … essentially a desperate, an unquenchable, thirst…. a thirst for death; the more passionately Adam seeks life, the more he is ensnared by death.’ Yet for Bonhoeffer, even in the midst of this contradiction and our futile pursuit, Christ as the crucified one is present and at work.