Defending Human Dignity In Our Postmodern World

May 29th, 2021 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Central to biblical theology is the axiom of human depravity—that humans are born sinners and are capable of profound and confounding evil.  The existence of such darkness affects human optimism, hope and certainty about the future.  Furthermore, the current embrace of Postmodern autonomy has deteriorated into the famous refrain from the book of Judges: “Every [person] is doing what is right in his/her own eyes.”  There is no longer an acceptance of absolute truth, universal ethical standards or a serious commitment to human dignity.  Institutions are failing (e.g., the nuclear family, government, sometimes even the church) and so is the commitment to these institutions.  And for those who adopt the term “conservative” to reflect their political and social convictions, that term itself is virtually meaningless.  Indeed, Ross Douthat asks: “What does it mean to conserve the family in an era when not just the two-parent household but childbearing and sex itself are in eclipse?  What does it mean to defend traditional religion in a country where institutional faith is either bunkered or rapidly declining?  How do you defend localism when the internet seems to nationalize every political and cultural debate?”

I am deeply committed to biblical Christianity, a position that sees the Bible as the final, absolute authority for truth and for all life issues.  It also provides a set of ethical standards that are viable, defendable and wise. Thus, to be a “conservative” today does not reflect the political platform of either major political party in America.  To be a conservative is to conserve the institutions God has created (e.g., the family, the church, the state), each with its stewardship responsibilities clearly detailed and explained in His Word.  To be a conservative is to understand that the core challenge of the human condition is not political, economic, financial or social; it is spiritual.  Because of human depravity, humans are at enmity with God and only Jesus Christ can solve that problem (see Ephesians 2:1-10).  Genuine biblical Christianity answers Douthat’s questions based on the authority of God’s Word.  Without that authority there is no basis for optimism, hope and certainty about the future.  It is in our churches where God’s Word is to be taught, not the platform of a political party.  It is in our churches where young men and women, who are the next generation of leaders, are taught the discipline of thinking biblically and Christianly about the questions Douthat raises.

Let me illustrate my point by giving focus to the matter of human dignity.  The Bible declares that human beings are of infinite worth and value because God creates humanity in His image (Genesis 1:26 ff).  Furthermore, God’s love and grace define His plan of redemption centered in Jesus, who rescued humanity from its depravity via His death, burial, resurrection and ascension.  This truth is the basis for optimism and hope about the future.  Therefore, the church is in the business of “equipping the saints” as the salt and light of the world, representing Jesus in all things (Matthew 5:1-16).  Several illustrations of thinking biblically and Christianly about human dignity:

  • First, does the Bible help in determining the value of an embryo?  The Bible clearly presents human life as a continuum from conception on into eternity.  Psalm 139:16 argues that the embryo (“unformed substance” [ESV]) is known by God and the Psalmist’s full development was overseen and guided by the sovereign Lord.  Although America has embraced abortion as a constitutionally protected right (from an embryo even into the third trimester under certain conditions), there is enormous confusion and thorough-going inconsistency in how to view the embryo.  For example, using in-vitro fertilization (IVF), many couples (heterosexual as well as gay and lesbian couples) are freezing their embryos for future implantation into the womb of the biological mother or of a surrogate.  But what happens when a divorce occurs?  Who has the rights over the frozen embryos?  Court cases, lawsuits and bitter legal battles are rampant in American civilization over the future of these embryos.  Furthermore, recently the New York Times reported on the emotional agony and hurt a Rhode Island couple experienced with the Woman & Infants clinic of Providence R.I.  Because of her professional goals and desire to finish graduate school, the couple (Drs. Elaine Meyer and Barry Prizant) waited until she was in her mid-30s to begin a family.   Several miscarriages followed along with the decision to use IVF and attempt to implant viable embryos in her uterus.  After three cycles, Dr. Meyer became pregnant, eventually giving birth to their son Noah.  Regarding the surviving nine viable embryos, they signed agreements with the hospital to “cryopreserve” these embryos for future transfer into her uterus.  Dr. Meyer called these embryos “a spark of life.”  In 2000 when the couple was willing to try again for a transfer of the embryos, they were told that only three embryos had survived the thaw; weeks later they had the “failure conversation” with the medical team.  Incredibly, in 2010 when the tank that had stored their embryos was emptied for cleaning, two of their embryos were found.  Drs. Meyer and Prizant have sued the clinic; “No one ever tried to find the embryos, or thought to alert us when they were found years later,” Dr. Prizant declared.  He went on, “These are not two cans of peaches on the shelf at a Stop & Shop.  They are much more like kids on a playground.  When you’re responsible for them and they’re lost, you notify the people who care about them the most and tell them all you can.”  Dr. Meyer shared, “I feel like I was now grieving a child I didn’t even know existed, a child I could have had.” This tragic story validates what medical science has always argued, the embryo is the beginning of life; affirming what the Bible has said for thousands of years—the “unformed substance” is of value and worth to God, who is the author of life.  The embryo is not simply a blob of cells; it is life!
  • Second, for several decades scientists have been experimenting with cross-species chimeras, organisms “which, as in the Greek myths, are composites of different animals.  They have created mouse-rats, sheep-goats and chicken quails.  Now in a paper published in Cell, Tao Tan, a biologist at Kunming University of Science and Technology, and a team of American, Chinese and Spanish researchers, report efforts . . . to create embryos that are part-monkey and part-human.”  There are two goals for this kind of research:  [1] To shed light on the complicated process of embryological development, which might eventually lead to treatments for some congenital diseases.  [2] The hope that chimeric animals might one day provide a source of organs to be transplanted into sick humans.  As Time magazine reports, “this first foray into human-primate chimeras does prove that cells from multiple species can talk to each other, [which facilitates] studying the very stages of human development . . .  And once [one] identifies the signals and processes that human cells use to differentiate into different tissues and organs, [scientists] can recreate that environment in pig embryos, and ultimately regenerate human tissues such as skin grafts for burn patients and heart, lung or liver tissue to replace damaged and diseased cells.”  However, these human-monkey chimeras have far-reaching ethical implications.  For example, “what is the moral and legal status of an organism with one human genome and one non-human one?  What effect, if any, might the human cells have on the animal’s brain?”  As Robert Lee Hotz of the Wall Street Journal has argued, “The use of primates so closely related to humans raises concerns about the unintended consequences, animal welfare and the moral status of hybrid embryos. . . .”  Seven countries ban such research and, since 2015, the US National Institutes of Health has refused to fund experiments that involve human stem cells added to early animal embryos.

Finally, as I have done many times with Issues in Perspective, permit me a review a series of propositions about human dignity rooted in Scripture:

  1. Human beings are created in God’s image—the fundamental basis for human dignity, value and worth. Technology must always seek to preserve the worth, dignity and value of all human beings, regardless of age or stage of development.
  2. Issues discussed in this essay fall under the stewardship responsibility humanity owes to God. These technologies give humans power never before realized. But because of human depravity, it is difficult to be optimistic about the ultimate use of some of these technologies. In His common grace, God has permitted the human race to develop these technologies—but we must always remember that we are accountable to Him as to how we use them. The sobering fact of human depravity looms over all of this.
  3. Human life itself is of higher value than the quality of human life. With the eternal perspective that Scripture gives, the quality of life ethic drives the current use of many of these technologies. Ethicist Michael Sandel writes that “In a world without givens, a world controlled by bioengineering, we would dictate our nature as well as our practices and norms. We would gain unprecedented power to redefine the good. . . The more successfully we engineered IQ and muscle-to-fat ratio, the more central these measures would become to our idea of perfection. . . But it w[ill] never be a perfect world.” [The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, p. 5.] Because of sin, we live in an imperfect world, and, until the new heaven and new earth, our fallen world will be characterized by disease, tragedies, accidents and old age. The quality of life ethic, therefore, must never undermine the infinite value of life ethic detailed in the Bible.
  4. From God’s perspective, concern for the improvement of the “inner man” is always more important than concern for improvement of the “outer man.” No procedure or practice will prevent the inevitability of death. Perhaps that is why the Scripture gives focus to such issues as the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and the eight quality traits called the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-16). From God’s perspective, these character traits are more paramount than using certain technologies to strive toward the goal of human perfectibility.
  5. Carl Henry, years ago in his book, Christian Personal Ethics (1957), provided an important guideline for wise decision-making when it comes to medical technologies: “Whatever tends to overcome what would be deterioration in the created order and seeks to restore what God purposed in Creation is on far safer grounds than all kinds of novel and experimental enterprise.” In other words, he argued that there is clear biblical warrant for technologies that restore; there is no clear biblical warrant for manipulation toward perfection—an insightful guideline in approaching gene editing.
  6. Finally, human civilization must critically examine the scientific (technological) imperative. Simply because society can pursue a particular medical, reproductive or genetic procedure does not mandate that it must; “can” does not mandate “ought.”

See Ross Douthat in the New York Times (25 April 2021; Jenny Gross and Maria Cramer in the New York Times (4 April 2021); Katherine Rosman in the New York Times (18 April 2021); Robert Lee Hotz in the Wall Street Journal (27 April 2021); The Economist (17 April 2021, pp. 16, 67-68; Alice Park “Scientists Report Creating the First Embryo with Human and non-Human Primate Cells” in Time (15 April 2021); Nidhi Subbaraman, “First Monkey-Human Embryos Reignite Debate over Hybrid Animals” in Nature (15 April 2021); and James P. Eckman, Christian Ethics, pp. 43-53.

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