5 Questions: Bioethical Education Beyond the Need for Response

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Q: How would you describe your role in Christian education? What role do issues in medicine and technology play in your teaching?

A: I’m a member of Cairn University’s School of Divinity where I mainly teach college students. The courses I teach most are apologetics (which all students have to take regardless of their major) and hermeneutics. I also teach a grad class on pastoral counseling. I periodically teach a course on theology and technology in which we explore what technology is and try to situate it and its effects in the biblical/theological framework of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Because it’s such a large part of the students’ lives, most of our discussion is on information and communication technologies but there is a section in which we look at post- and transhumanism, a movement that seeks to move beyond being human through technological means.

In my other classes, I’m intentional about looking for opportunities to at least stir students’ thinking about medical/technological issues by way of illustrations. For example, in hermeneutics, we spend a lot of time talking about the necessity of moving from the meaning of biblical texts in their particular social and historical contexts to application in completely new contexts addressing issues not explicitly addressed by the Scriptures. I try to show students that in such instances, we must either conclude that the Bible has nothing whatsoever to say to us or that we have to identify relevant principles that appropriately fit the issues we face in our context. Illustrating this with examples from the realm of medical technology allows me to not only teach about biblical interpretation and application but also to get ethical matters in science, medicine, and technology on our students’ radars.

Q: What developments in medicine and technology do you find to be of interest to your students and to churches in general?

A: Students are particularly intrigued by the prospect of the integration of human biology and technology either for the purpose of enhancement or therapy. We recently had an event at which one of our school’s biology professors explained the gene editing process known as CRISPR, after which faculty members from different disciplines interacted with each other about some of the related ethical implications Christians should consider. This was followed by an open time of Q & A and our students seemed very curious about and interested in the subject.

As far as interest in churches, I think that tends to concentrate on beginning-of-life matters (e.g., contraception, reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization, and prenatal screening) and end-of-life issues like whether we are absolutely obliged to artificially sustain life.

Q: When should ethical thinking, especially about developments in medicine and technology, be fostered in the lives of Christians today?

A: Since we’re now at a place where people are introduced to technology at such an early age, I think the earlier the better. Of course, that has to be in an age-appropriate manner. But I don’t think it’s advisable to wait too long to try to cultivate that kind of reflection. As advancements in medical technology are highlighted in the news, families should take those as opportunities to talk with their children not only about the potential benefits of using them but also about the kinds of questions Christians should be asking about them.

Q: As a follow up, what ethical issues should Christians be aware of before they might encounter them in their own lives?

A: To some extent, the answer to that question will depend on the stage of life one is in. For example, many of the students I teach are in relationships and thinking seriously about marriage. Those who are engaged or newly married might want to familiarize themselves with the ethical issues connected to various reproductive technologies in the event that they experience infertility and even prior to that the issues surrounding contraception and the beginning of life.

Because life is unpredictable and fleeting, we shouldn’t wait until we ourselves or someone we love is stricken with a terminal illness or severely injured before we start thinking about end-of-life issues involving medical technologies like artificial life support. Whenever such tragedies arise, mental and emotional energy are quickly depleted. Taking time to gain even a rudimentary understanding of the pertinent issues can eliminate the stress of having to take a crash course in the heat of health crises.

Q: Can you think of ways to educate Christians on these issues before they need to respond to an acute crisis? What are resources pastors could use to prepare their congregations?

A: Sites like Intersections are obvious resources for that kind of education. That’s not flattery. Before I started teaching at the university, I was in pastoral ministry. I spent a portion of that time doing doctoral work in systematic theology at TEDS during which I took a course with Dr. John Kilner on the Bible, Bioethics, and Cultural Engagement and became well-acquainted with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity and its publications. The education I received made me better able to offer informed pastoral counsel to members of the congregation who cared about how their Christian faith should bear on their thinking about various medical decisions. I frequently loaned booklets on specific bioethical subjects to people in the church who were dealing with them and offered to talk with them further after they had read them.

Other ways to prepare members of congregations are to schedule a daylong conference on a specific bioethical subject and to offer an introduction to bioethics as part of the church’s Christian education selections.

I urge pastors to read at least one solid Christian primer on bioethics. Some that come to mind are Why the Church Needs Bioethics edited by John Kilner, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians by Gilbert Meilander, Bioethics and the Christian Life: A Guide to Making Difficult Decisions by David VanDrunen, and Christian Bioethics: A Guide for Pastors, Health Care Professionals, and Families by C. Ben Mitchell and D. Joy Riley.