Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Terra Es Animata: On Having a Life

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Terra Es Animata: On Having a Life

Article excerpt

For the past quarter century bioethics has been a booming business in this country. In part that may be because humanists found here a field in which they could compete with scientists for grant money. In larger part, it is surely because medical advance has forced certain problems upon our attention. But, at least in part, it must also be because some of the concerns of bioethics impinge upon everyday life--upon the lives of most people, and at some of the crucial moments of life, in particular birth and death. Bioethics could not have boomed as it has were it not a reflection of some of our central concerns.

I will examine some of the issues that have emerged in bioethical discussions of death, dying, and care for the dying as a way of thinking about what it means to have a life. In particular, I will focus on a concept that has risen to great prominence in our thinking: the concept of a person. Two competing visions of the person--and the relation of person to body--have unfolded as bioethics has developed, and in my view, the wrong one has begun to triumph. We have tried to handle our substantive disagreements on this question by turning to procedural solutions--in particular, advance directives--trusting that they presume no answer to the disputed question. We are, however, beginning to see how problematic such a procedural solution is, how flawed and even contradictory much thinking about advance directives has been. What we need, I will suggest, is to recapture the connection between our person and the natural trajectory of bodily life.

That will be the course of my argument. But, as a way of framing the issues, I begin in what is likely to seem a strange place: with the thought of some of the early Christian Fathers about heaven and the resurrection of the dead. They were attempting to relate the body's history to their concept of the person's optimal development. In so doing, they provide a different and illuminating angle from which to see our present concerns.

Patristic Images of the Resurrection of the Body

In his City of God Saint Augustine describes the human being as terra animata, "animated earth."[1] Such a description, contrary in many ways to trends in bioethics over the last several decades, ought to give pause to anyone inclined to characterize Augustine's thought simply in terms of a Neoplatonic dualism that ignores the personal significance of the body. It may, in fact, be our own constant talk of "personhood" that betrays a more powerful tendency toward dualism of body and self.

This same Augustine, however, found himself puzzled at the thought of the resurrected body. What sort of body will one who dies in childhood have in the resurrection? "As for little children," Augustine wrote, "I can only say that they will not rise again with the tiny bodies they had when they died. By a marvelous and instantaneous act of God they will gain that maturity they would have attained by the slow lapse of time" (22.14). This is, in fact, a question to which a number of the Church Fathers devoted thought.[2]

Origen, for example, understood that throughout life our material bodies are constantly changing. How, then, can the body be raised? He appealed (in good Platonic fashion) to the eidos, the unchanging form of the body. Despite the body's material transformations, its eidos remains the same as we grow from infancy, through childhood and adulthood, to old age. (For Origen this eidos is not the soul; it is the bodily form united with the sold in this life and again in the resurrection. J.N.D. Kelly comments that Origen was charged with having held that resurrected bodies would be spherical; he may have held such a view, in keeping with the Platonic theory that a sphere is the perfect shape.)

From here it is not a long step to suppose that since the eidos of each resurrected body will be perfect, it will in every instance be identical in qualities and characteristics. …

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