Pastoral Perspectives

The Omega Man

A man lost his sight in an explosion caused by a terrorist attack. He regained it perfectly in a matter of days, having his eyes replaced by an advanced camera system attached to his optic nerves. The system did more than just return his vision – it gave him enhanced vision. Another man had an ailing liver due to his drinking habit. Desiring to drink more despite his condition, he paid to have his liver replaced with an artificial one able to metabolise alcohol quicker. Sound unreal? That is because they are scenarios straight out of the 2017 science fiction movie Ghost in the Shell.

The story takes place in an imagined future, where human organs and body parts are replaceable if you have the money, and body enhancements are the norm. Almost everyone is a cyborg of sorts. Ghost in the Shell revolves around Major, the first person whose brain had been successfully transplanted into a fully synthetic body with enhanced capabilities – a complete cyborg. She is touted to be the future of humanity, for, if people are already replacing and enhancing parts of their body to transcend human limitations, who would not replace the entire body to transcend mortality altogether?

These scenarios may seem like distant and fantastic prospects for us, but we are already hurtling toward such a future. Implants like cardiac pacemakers, artificial hearts, arterial stents, joint replacements, and robotic prosthetics are already keeping our ailing natural bodies functioning. Humans are becoming cyborgs to transcend the problems imposed on us by nature, and the kind of medical technoscience seen in Ghost in the Shell is merely further along the developmental trajectory. If current developments and science fiction are anything to go by, it shows how humanity is collectively yearning for a technoscientific utopia where we can fix any problem nature throws our way, a future where humans no longer have to endure physical pain, frailty, or even death.

This is a trajectory that began with the Enlightenment. Its beginnings may be traced to Francis Bacon, a 16th century philosopher who promoted the accruement of scientific knowledge through the empirical investigation of nature and the implementation of that knowledge to liberate humanity from disease, hunger, and labour. In the words of ethicist Todd Daly, Bacon himself believed that controlling “the created order was the means by which humanity might regain the immortality that Adam and Eve forfeited in the Garden of Eden.” Flawed theology notwithstanding, Bacon proposed this project from a Christian perspective that was motivated by charity towards sufferers and recognised the limits of humanity before God. Unfortunately, Bacon – along with other Enlightenment philosophers – thought that progress in the natural sciences and its applications should be kept separate from matters of faith. After Bacon, the burgeoning secularism and liberalism in Enlightenment Europe soon led to the unmooring of his project from its Christian foundations. It now sees its chief goal as the elimination of suffering through technoscientific progress so that individuals may be liberated from the human condition of pain, illness, and death. According to the Baconian project, this is an unmitigated good – it is the chief good for humanity. This liberation then allows individuals to pursue fulfilment in their lives. Conversely, all suffering is absolutely evil.

There is no denying that developments in technoscience as a result of the Baconian project has led to much good for humanity. Many of us (including the preacher writing this) would have been helped by it. Rather, as Christians living in a world that has accepted the Baconian project as the normative trajectory of history, there is a need to examine how its ideas have deeply affected our attitudes toward life, suffering, and death. Such ideas are by no means neutral or value free. They have shaped the way we conceive what a good life should be and how we should pursue it; they have conditioned the way we perceive bodily physical suffering and our manner of response to it. Consciously or not, as citizens in a developed society, we would have bought into the Baconian project in varying degrees: that the individual is at the centre of concern, all suffering is meaningless evil, and the good life is one free from suffering so we may meaningfully pursue our happiness.

However, when good and evil are viewed in such terms, it becomes difficult to understand why God would create a world in which people are excluded from a fulfilling life due to pain, illness, and death. Every time a person falls ill or dies, it is an impugnment of God’s goodness and power: either God is not all-good, not all-powerful, or both. It is precisely due to the entrenched premises of the Baconian project in developed societies that makes it difficult for many to be theists. How can there be God if there is so much suffering? How can God allow so many people be prevented from leading fulfilling lives?

Christians are not immune from its influence. While Christians already believe in God and do not ultimately trust in technoscience, they may have Christianized the premises of the Baconian project. God takes the place of technoscience while the Baconian ethics are taken up to be God’s will. In this manner, liberation from suffering becomes the chief good in Christianity which God would always grant; he would always heal, keep us free of illnesses, bestow on us longevity, and grant us fulfilling lives. It becomes unthinkable that God would will to permit pain, sickness, or premature death among Christians, and when we are not healed, it must be our faith that is lacking.

However, it cannot be seen from either Scripture or the Christian tradition that suffering is an absolute evil or that liberation from suffering is an absolute good. Ethicist Allen Verhey puts it eloquently, “Christian thinkers regarded life as a great good, but not as the greatest good. They regarded death as a great evil, but not as the greatest evil.” This is most clearly seen in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Christ the Son took on the human condition (without sin) and had to “learn obedience [to the Father] through what he suffered.” Theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes, “for the New Testament Christian no suffering is meaningless. The ultimate purpose and meaning behind Christians suffering in the New Testament is spiritual maturity.” The early Christians understood that God permits suffering for a greater good, perceivable only through the eyes of faith. St Paul himself endured physical suffering in order to pursue the mission to the Gentiles. The apostle also recognised that God permitted him to be tormented by a “thorn in his flesh” that he might obtain the greater good of humility. As the early church underwent persecution, martyrs embraced torture and premature death because they regarded it an honour to suffer like Christ. For these, the momentary evil of suffering leads to the eternal good of glory.

Moreover, health and longevity were not thought by Christians as goods in themselves or freedom for self-actualization. When facing the potential threat of execution, St Paul himself was indifferent to dying or living longer but he was clear as to why he would pursue the latter: fruitful labour in the Gospel. His life was lived centred on Christ. This contrasts with the modern pursuit of health and longevity for no good reason other than to enjoy life a little longer. The biblical story of King Hezekiah reminds us that being healed to live longer is not necessarily a good thing if that new-found freedom is used to commit evil before God. If God blesses us with days of health, then we ought only to live them out in thankfulness and in obedience to his will.

Certainly, the Baconian project has resulted in the relief of much human suffering and the prolonging of life, and technoscience is a grace given to humanity by God of which Christians are free to use. Yet ultimately, they must be relativized by Christ in his death and resurrection. If Christ took on the human condition – including death itself – in order to redeem it in its totality for us, it confirms that death will always be a part of the human condition ineradicable by technoscience. It is that dreary veil through which all must pass. However, by his victorious death and resurrection, Christ has subdued and transformed death. It has now become merely the final stage of a metamorphic process – begun with our baptism and proceeded by the purifying flames of suffering – through which we are received into God. For all of us who are in Christ, death is no longer the fearful final word, for beyond that veil of death lies “the eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” for us – our eternal lives with God. Soli deo gloria.

Mr Png Eng Keat

November 10, 2019