Editorial (Fall 2023)

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“What is a human being that you pay attention to [her], and a son of man that you take care of him?” Psalm 8:4

The question of what it means to be human is core to what we do in the realm of bioethics. If human dignity is what we seek to protect, several questions must naturally be considered. First, what is a human? What constitutes the nature of human existence and being that qualifies the kind of dignity we seek to protect? In other words, when we say we protect human dignity, this necessitates that we protect dignity of a certain kind. What kind? Human. Thus, thinking about what it means to be human is necessary to know the nature of the dignity we seek to promote. Second, if we specifically seek to guard human dignity, why are humans worthy of such protection? Why does bioethics as a field exist at all? Why does it matter?

In this issue of Dignitas, we seek to provide an interdisciplinary and dialogical exploration of the fundamental question of what it means to be human. In order to do so, we invited three authors from three different disciplines to provide their answer to this initial question (Target Articles). Their respective disciplines—biblical studies, philosophy, and neurology—were chosen due to their importance in perusing both the conceptual and scientific realms. In order to ensure dialogue on the topic and not merely three static articles written from distinct disciplines, we also invited peer commentaries to respond to each of these target articles. The authors of these peer commentaries had to be outside of the discipline of the original author and were free to continue, challenge, apply, etc. the ideas of the target article. Because CBHD values continued dialogue on important topics, we invite potential respondents to any of these pieces to be submitted for publication consideration in a future Dignitas issue.

As per usual, this issue also contains other key resources. Continuing with the examination of being human, Corrine Smith provides a review of O. Carter Snead’s What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics. Heather Zeiger has once again synthesized a list of key bioethics news updates along with a global health timeline. Bioethically relevant topics within popular media (Bioengagment) and CBHD News and Updates are present as well.

Catherine McDowell’s piece is the first among the target articles. She investigates the question of what it means to be human through a biblical and theological lens. Elucidating the creation declaration of humankind as the “image” and “likeness” of God, she denotes that to be human involves kinship, royal status, and priesthood through our relationship to God. After the fall and humanity’s failure to serve in their royal and priestly functions, God chose Israel as a people to be his “firstborn” to serve in these functions, adding on the prophetic role of calling the rest of humanity to God. Because Israel also failed at this task, God himself would do the work by entering the world as a human. Fulfilling the roles of prophet, priest, and king, Jesus was also the “firstborn,” enacting transformation in his followers so that they too could redeem their prophetic, priestly, and royal functions; they would be children of God. McDowell also addresses what this biblical synthesis means for non-Israelites and non-Christians, asserting that human value remains true for all people.

Professor of Christian Ethics J. Alan Branch’s commentary responds aptly to McDowell’s points. He suggests that McDowell’s piece is important as it presents not only what it means to be human at the point of humankind’s original creation, but she traces such themes throughout the fall, redemption, and restoration contexts as well. He suggests stronger declarations regarding the confirmation of being human apart from functions as well as more attention to the reality of sexual distinction, but affirms the importance of McDowell’s work.

Jason Eberl approaches the question of what it means to be human from a philosophical vantage point. Articulating the “Thomistic hylomorphic view of the ontological nature of human beings,” he opines that human beings are one substance comprised of a material and immaterial part. Showing how an understanding of human beings as “ontological chimeras” is more helpful than the propositions of either substance dualism or reductive materialism, he applies his philosophical framework to an explication of human flourishing and human dignity. Eberl suggests that the Thomistic hylomorphic perspective of being human protects the dignity of all human beings, including those disabled, a traditionally at-risk group within many philosophical articulations of personhood. He concludes his article by conveying three moral requirements that all must honor in the protection of human dignity.

David Croy, a medical doctor, responds to Eberl’s article, presenting the practical outworking of the Thomistic hylomorphic view. Centering his commentary particularly in the context of end-of-life decisions, he explores the surrogate method of decision-making along with matters pertaining to brain death and cardiac death. Because the hylomorphic view supports the inseparability of the soul and body, Croy questions how the “surrogate” decision-maker can make ethical decisions for a brain-dead patient; however, he states its worth in protecting intrinsic human value.

Christian ethicist Henk Jochemsen also reacts to Eberl’s philosophical framework. While Jochemsen’s discipline is closer to that of Eberl’s, his peer commentary is included as it honors the Center’s goal of keeping this issue dialogical. He seconds key points of Eberl, poses further questions for consideration, and finally synthesizes the philosophical anthropology of Herman Dooyeward. Jochemsen concludes with ethical implications of the Dooyewardian perspective.

As the final target article, William Cheshire provides a neurologist’s examination of what it means to be human. Beginning with the affirmation of a perfectly crafted cosmos as evidence of an intelligent creator, Cheshire grounds his argument in the “anthropic principle,” or the idea that if the cosmos as we now know it were to be even slightly altered, it would not be able to sustain human life. He then explores various ways this works out within the human body and uses it as a refutation of materialism. Throughout his article, he probes the wonders of molecules, quantum physics, the biology of the brain, the universal genetic code, etc. He thus concludes that to be human is to be an astoundingly complex organism and a “special entity on a divinely chosen trajectory.” Amid all this, humans are dust that ponders, stands in awe, has purpose, and prays. We are those who long for knowledge and meaning beyond our immediate reach, grasp for mystery, have the capacity to discern right from wrong, and with our whole being cry out to the God who created us.

Todd T. W. Daly, professor of theology and ethics, provides the final peer commentary. He highlights the significance of the praise that both begins and marks each section of Cheshire’s paper—that humankind is dust that “ponders, praises, purposes and prays” is evidence for the joy of being human for which materialism cannot account. Daly concludes that Cheshire’s account assumes that to be human is to be created in the image of God for the space that God created and in relationship to him, also following in the footsteps of the “animated dust” of Jesus himself.

We at CBHD are honored to present this important and illuminating discussion on what it means to be human. We are grateful for all the authors who have contributed to our themed issues this year. This being the final themed edition of 2023, if you would like to submit an article for future publication or suggest topics for themed exploration, send your papers and topics to research@cbhd.org.