Reimagining the Function of Bioethics: Participating with Wisdom in the Story of Human Flourishing

There might not be any better way to describe Sophia than by articulating how the pursuit of, and encounter with, wisdom in thought and culture radically shaped the very ethos of a Nation State. Nicholas Berdyaev, the Russian Philosopher, wrote about the Russian soul, encountered and transformed by Sophia, this way:

The Russian soul sits not in one spot, this is no small-place soul, no locale-bounded soul. In Russia, in the soul of the people there is a sort of endless searching, a searching for the invisible city of Ки́теж [Kitezh], a home unseen. … The Russian soul is ablaze in its fiery search for truth, for the absolute and Divine truth and for the salvation of all the world and the universal resurrection unto new life. It grieves eternally over the sorrow and suffering of the people and all the world, and its torment knows no solace. This soul is absorbed in finding resolution to the ultimate and accursedly difficult questions concerning the meaning of life. There is a rebellious and unsubmissive aspect within the Russian soul, not to be appeased nor satisfied by anything temporal, relative or conditional.[1]

With these words I am immediately struck by the ‘soul’ of the medical sciences, which may share an affinity for the endless search. The medical sciences have also positioned themselves as those that too grieve eternally over the sorrow and suffering of the people and the entire world. The ‘soul’ of the medical sciences is likewise absorbed in the pursuit to resolve the ultimate and difficult question of human life.

Indeed, medical sciences must be able to interact with the real questions of human finitude, simultaneously accepting and protesting human life abutted by death. Medical sciences must do more than possess theory and knowledge. They are compelled to act, in response to real life, in pursuit of human flourishing. Medical sciences must be applied sciences by nature transforming theory into therapy, characterized by both knowing and doing in the constant pursuit of life, which may offer both hope and healing. In this way, medicine may share its telos with the Church and bioethics may likewise serve a liturgical function, shaping the very ethos of the medical institution—an ethos pursuing and gifted with wisdom, Sophia.

However, medical sciences must be reshaped through a radically different bioethical dialogue—a liturgical bioethics, if you will, which is redemptive rather than reactive, instructive rather than inductive—free from the tyranny of moral technologies, which restrain human decision-making via a priori categories and prima facie obligations. That is, the existent modes of moral deliberation must be reconsidered, reconciled, and renewed. Such renewal may come through a radical encounter with Wisdom, which serves as the vital witness of human possibility and an eschatologically present-reality.

Accordingly, the study of Wisdom may benefit bioethics. It may help bioethics to learn how to engage the strangeness of our world and guide medicine, biology, genetics, and the like, toward fruitful practices. I believe that medical sciences can indeed work for the redemption of a broken world, when grounded upon the ethos of a formed community encountered and transformed by Wisdom. Accordingly, in order to be an authentic means of hope, to help resolve problems, and to assist in the correct response to the dilemmas raised by scientific progress, and to goad such progress toward human flourishing, bioethics must not be the handmaid of prosperity and technological promise. Rather, it must provide the space for communities to retell the stories of the very meaning of life, death, healing, and suffering, all the while inviting others to participate. It must provide a liturgy for understanding the deeper meaning of things.

 

[1] Nicholas Berdyaev, The Psychology of the Russian People: The Soul of Russia, 1915: < http://www.berdyaev.com/berdiaev/berd_lib/1915_007.html>

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Ashley John Moyse is a PhD candidate in the Philosophy, Religion, and Theology discipline area at the University of Newcastle, Australia. He holds a master of science (N.Colorado) and a master of theological studies (Trinity Western) with specialization in human physiology and theological ethics, respectively. He was also conferred the certificate of advanced studies in bioethics and health policy (Loyola-Chicago). His doctoral research, under the supervision of Prof. John C. McDowell and Emeritus Prof. Terry Lovat, focuses on the anthropology and ethics of Karl Barth in relation to the theory and practice of biomedical ethics. In the New Year, he will be taking up an appointment as Research Affiliate at the Vancouver School of Theology, Vancouver, Canada.


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