Academy of Fellows Meets for Its First Consultation

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At the annual conference in July 2010, CBHD launched its Academy of Fellows. The purpose of the Academy is to build a community of Christian scholars who engage in thoughtful discussion about bioethics and support one another in their academic calling ( The first gathering of the Academy took place in April 2011. Nineteen of the Academy’s twenty-six Fellows, along with CBHD’s Paige, Michael, and Jennifer, met in Chicago for two days of discussions, planning, and fellowship. The Academy is deeply grateful for the generosity of an anonymous donor who made the consultation possible.

For some Fellows, this was a time to renew friendships that have developed over years of involvement with CBHD. For others, it was a time to meet for the first time. The work of the consultation was kicked off by a plenary from Professor Gilbert Meilaender. He reflected on the early days of bioethics and Paul Ramsey’s influence on his own career and bioethics more broadly. He noted that many of the first bioethicists were religious thinkers applying theology to moral issues. Some have noted that it has become harder to bring theological ideas into current bioethics discussions. While this may be so, Meilaender challenged us to engage with the work needed within our own “house.” Serious Christian reflection on bioethics is needed within the church.

Meilaender’s presentation stimulated wide-ranging discussions. Different challenges arise in different contexts, with a variety of approaches required. Having Fellows present who live and work in the US, Europe, or Africa helped to inform the discussions about different issues along with common commitments and concerns.

My own sense of the discussion was a clear affirmation that we should not apologize for our Christian beliefs, though we must be wise in how we bring them into academia and the public square. We can point to how all of us have beliefs that shape how we think about the world. As we engage with those from other worldviews, we will find some common commitments. In asking others to explain the roots of their values and commitments, we may have the opportunity to explain ours. Many widely held beliefs and values, such as those of justice or human dignity, have Christian foundations. Asking others to justify their commitments may lead to opportunities for us to point to the coherence of the Christian worldview.

In preparation for the consultation, the Fellows read Paul Ramsey’s Fabricated Man (1970) and Meilaender’s Neither Beast nor God (2009). Many remarked on Ramsey’s prescience and the relevance of his scholarship for current discussions of biotechnology and posthumanism. Ramsey foresaw the amazing potential of genetic and molecular technology, and the problems they could cause if treatment and restoration were no longer viewed as the primary goals of medicine. Written nearly 40 years later, Meilaender’s book similarly exemplified how clear and accessible theological discussion can inform the broader debate over human dignity.

The wealth of theological and ethical knowledge throughout the room was highly stimulating. To ensure the consultation would also provide practical guidance to the Center and the Academy, the discussion was directed towards issues that need to be addressed by Christian scholars. While the list was long, a clear consensus emerged regarding one topic that needed sustained attention—justice. This important ethical principle has received much less attention within bioethics. Scarcity of resources has forced it to be addressed within Western contexts. However, in developing countries justice is massively important. Scholarship is needed both in developing biblically- and theologically-based perspectives on justice, as well as working out its practical application at both the macro and micro levels. The connection between justice and dignity is one that could be usefully explored, as well as that between justice and compassion.

In moving things forward, the Academy will develop means of facilitating interactions that do not require physical meetings. The Center has access to communications technology that can be used for this. At the same time, we are embodied beings, and gatherings such as this consultation add a unique dimension. All present were encouraged by the time together and the fellowship. The importance of prayer was reiterated also, as Christian scholarship in secular bioethics is a spiritual battlefield. As you finish reading this, please take some time to pray for the Fellows as they both individually and as an Academy engage with the world of bioethics.