Reckless Self-Endangerment and Christianly Courage

“The rise of the internet must ultimately kill off organized religion”…or so the common wisdom goes. Thanks to a new generation of fedora-clad Redditors equipped with Microsoft Paint and rich imaginations, new Bible loopholes are being uncovered that threaten to expose the absurdity of Christianity. These Valiant Defenders of Truth and Reason are sagely raising critiques that somehow escaped the attention of two thousand years of systematic theology. Or something. Take this gem:

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The image makes three implicit assertions. I’ll respond to each.

1. The Christian belief in heaven ought to entail an eagerness to die. (Corollary: Since most Christians don’t appear eager to die, their belief in heaven lacks sincerity.)

This assertion baldly ignores Scripture’s robust teachings on virtue, suffering, sacrifice, and meekness – opting instead to project a simplistic brand of secular hedonism onto the Christian’s conception of heaven. The idea seems to be something along the lines of, “heaven will be pleasurable, therefore Christians should be trying to seize this pleasure as quickly and directly as possible.” This kind of reasoning may be the marching song of our modern age, but it is so bluntly at-odds with the teachings of Jesus as to be an absurdity.

2. A Christian can conceal his motives from God. (Corollary: Reckless self-endangerment with the sole intent of achieving death isn’t, therefore, equivalent to suicide.)

Psalm 139:1-6. And I think that about covers it.

3. Scripture is silent on the matter of “reckless self-endangerment”. (Corollary: Reckless self-endangerment isn’t immoral.)

Scripture actually does touch on this issue (Matthew 4:5-7).

Tightrope walking over shark-infested waters for the purpose of dying cannot be justified on the Christian view. Even so, this assertion raises some interesting questions. Under what conditions, if any, can reckless self-endangerment be morally justified? How do these conditions differ from those of an individual who lacks a belief in the afterlife?

Again, Scripture provides us with answers. Christians are called to emulate Christ (Matthew 16:24-25), who himself laid down his life for humanity (Mark 10:45). In stark contrast with the man who believes that existence ceases with death, the Christian actually has rational justification for placing his life in peril to aid his fellow man. He feels compelled – joyously compelled – to throw himself into a churning river to save the life of a stranger. He fights for noble causes and he bears the burden lightly, knowing that life is a precious yet fleeting thing, and that everyone will ultimately be held accountable for their actions. The Christian must, in the words of Chesterton, “desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”

Many are quick to point out how faith can be perverted (“religion flies planes into buildings” and so forth), but slow to acknowledge the abundant examples of faith being harnessed to advance the causes of liberty, justice, and equality. Genuine faith entails a love of life and peace with death. Hence the soft-spoken Christian woman who casually purchases a one-way ticket to a leper colony.

Of course, none of this is to say that nonbelievers can’t also act heroically (or that Christians will always act heroically). What it does show is that Christianity, by its very nature, lends itself to heroism.

And speaking of heroism, happy Independence Day!

Bioethics and Worldview

I recently came across this 2010 story from CBS News:

“According to a mail-in survey of nearly 4,000 British doctors, those who were atheist or agnostic were almost twice as willing to take actions designed to hasten the end of life. They were also far more likely to offer “continuous deep sedation until death” and discus end of life options with their patients.”

You can find the original JME paper HERE.

This story caused me to ask myself, “How does a person’s worldview influence his stance on bioethical issues like physician-assisted suicide, abortion, and human embryonic stem cell research?” Having discussed and debated these issues with fellow medical students, it always seems like the conversation, when continued long enough, eventually boils down to differences in ideology.

In other words, you’re never going to reason someone into changing his stance on euthanasia if he’s approaching the question from a different ideological starting point than you are.

To highlight how our religious and philosophical beliefs influence our approach to bioethics, consider this article on bioethicist Leon Kass:

“Unlike questions of segregation and, before it, slavery, where evil was clear and the only question was how to deal with it,” Dr. Kass says, “the evils that I saw close to my own area of work were ones that were embedded in very high-minded pursuits: better health, peace of mind and the conquest of nature. Yet they contained within them the seeds of our own degradation.”

The trouble wasn’t so much with science itself, he thought, as with “scientism,” by which he means “a quasi-religious faith that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge worthy of the name; that scientific knowledge gives you an exhaustive account of the way things are; and that science will transcend all the limitations of our human condition, all of our miseries.” Scientism’s primary goal, Dr. Kass says, “is to put the final nail in the rule of revealed religion.”

We can think about many of these bioethical conundrums in light of the question, “Can the end justify the means?”

Is it morally justifiable for a doctor to kill a patient in order to satisfy that patient’s wishes? Is it morally justifiable to dismember a developing human fetus in order to increase “net happiness”? Is it morally justifiable to kill a human embryo in order to discover new ways of treating disease?

According to Dr. Kass, the concept of “human dignity” carries powerful moral ramifications. Bioethical decisions shouldn’t be made strictly on utilitarian grounds; they need to account for the fundamental value of human life, regardless of age, race, gender, or other such attributes. Certain (noble) goals cannot be justified, therefore, if they require that one violate human dignity.

Yet atheist psychologist Steven Pinker offers a drastically different opinion in his 2008 article, “The Stupdity of Dignity“:

“The general feeling [of conservative ethicists] is that, even if a new technology would improve life and health and decrease suffering and waste, it might have to be rejected, or even outlawed, if it affronted human dignity.

Whatever that is. The problem is that “dignity” is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it…Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, [“dignity”] adds nothing…”

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In Ursula K. Le Guin’s famous 1973 short story, she describes the utopian city of Omelas – a place of luxury and comfort, without sickness or fear or pain.

“A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world’s summer: this is what swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life.”

Yet the happiness and good fortune of Omelas must come at a price. Beneath the city, in a dark and filthy cell, a single small child must be kept in perpetual anguish.

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas…They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”

Upon learning this truth, most of the citizens of Omelas are temporarily horrified…but they eventually come to terms with the child’s plight, rationalizing it as a necessary evil for the good of society. A few of the citizens, however, have a very different reaction.

“At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back.”