Book Review: The Mortal Flesh

June 01, 2010

Book Review: The Mortal Flesh

I admit it. I’m a science fiction geek. I particularly love the portrayals of robots with super human abilities, yet which think and interact in almost-human ways. The recent television show Caprica extends the robotic vision of the future one step further. When one of the characters is killed in a bomb blast, her digitised identity is downloaded into a cyborg and lives on within a metal body: invulnerable to disease; with fully replaceable upgradeable parts; potentially immortal.

Yet how far fetched is this scenario? Synthetic joints, limbs and transplants and artificial organs are currently being utilised. New treatments are continually being devised to stall or reverse degenerative disease, some involving stem cells or cloning. Electrodes implanted in brains enable quadriplegics to operate prosthetics, and with the development of computing technology, digitising the complete memory and identity of a human being is a tantalising possibility. Many suggest that life spans of 150 or 200 years are possible, with some seriously proposing that immortality may well be achievable.

However, as in all areas of technological advance, the broad ethical question to be addressed is, just because we can do something, does that mean we should? More specifically, what view ought we to take as Christians of this drive towards temporal immortality?

In This Mortal Flesh Brent Waters addresses these questions by asking what a society pursuing extended longevity would become. What does a war against death indicate about our purpose? How do the methods utilised in this war shape our values? And what would a society comprised of genetically and prosthetically enhanced individuals look like?

Waters suggests that this impetus to cure ageing is driven by distaste for our bodies and a frustration at their bodily limitations. Rather than embrace the human condition, they desire to be cured of it. As the physical limits of human biology are reached, this pursuit of longevity will increasingly involve cellular engineering and artificial technologies to radically transform our bodies. Waters contends that this denial of mortality—a definitive feature of human life—must necessarily change people’s very nature and render them ’post-human’. It leads to a future where all effort is concentrated in the preservation of the individual’s life for as long as possible, whatever the cost.

The quest for immortality can only be the most profound of self-centred pursuits: it is no accident that the book’s cover features Narcissus staring at his reflection. Waters argues that this quest defies humanity’s primary evolutionary purpose: to reproduce. In the future, he projects that reproduction will be considered unnecessary (to replace those who die), a distraction for the individual concentrating on their own health and lifestyle, and increasing competition for limited resources. It is death that enables human life to continue, and accepting mortality is thus an expression of love for our neighbours.

For Waters the proper role of medicine, then, is to assist the biological and social reproduction of one generation to the next. In contrast, an emphasis on longevity uses medicine to preserve the supremacy of the current generation over the new one for as long as possible. It also means an increasing emphasis on treatments that improve quality of life and cure of disease rather than on care for the ill. Currently this preference for cure over care is demonstrated in the discarding of ’defective’ embryos and the decreasing resistance to euthanasia. If the way a society cares for the vulnerable and ill demonstrates its moral health, this shift in the direction of medicine suggests society is very sick indeed.

Fundamentally, this drive for immortality is a futile desire of humans to assert control over the future and to become gods. Christians can agree that humans need to be transformed, ‘...but the operative goal is not self-transformation but to become transformed in and by Christ’ (p124). Drawing on Oliver O’Donovan, Waters argues that the resurrection of Jesus establishes a new creation that shapes the destiny and therefore the purpose of the universe. Understanding our eschatological participation in the new creation frees us to accept the inevitability of death, and self-sacrificially love God and neighbour, though our earthly lifetime be limited.

Waters is correct to identify an over-emphasis on longevity as a self-centred power-seeking use of medical technology, and a renewed drive to Pelagianism. He has provided us with a cogent Christian response with great evangelistic potential by directing us to the perfection available by grace through Christ alone.

However, the book fails to draw out the practical implications for medical practice. Should medicine be restricted to facilitating reproduction and easing suffering? Certainly medicine should take and promote a realistic view of human mortality—the expectation that all will face sickness and death—but should the fact that medicine is ultimately palliative prevent its use to ’cure’ disease processes? There is no doubt that a broad range of therapies have significantly lengthened the lives of individuals. At what point do we no longer employ regenerative medicine? Should we no longer undertake organ transplants or repair blocked coronary arteries or operate Intensive Care Units? Or, in keeping with Waters’ emphasis on reproduction, should some therapies be restricted once an individual is older than reproductive age? (Though Waters might rightly argue that older individuals still have a role in ‘social’ reproduction with the new generation.)

What was missing in Waters’ argument was theological reflection on the purpose of medicine. I would contend that medical care and cure is a reflection of the compassion of our Lord Jesus when faced with illness and death. As its endpoint, death is as much a corruption of the created order as disease.

I certainly acknowledge our temptation to rival God in control of our bodies as well as in all else. I also agree that the final solution to death and suffering and of our yearning for immortality can only be found in Christ and his resurrection. However that shouldn’t prevent the use of therapies that prolong life. The question is a matter of degree. Longevity should not be pursued at all cost. It is good, but it is not the only good, and needs to be weighed carefully. (For instance, the opportunity cost of researching and funding regenerative techniques may come at the expense of combating disease; yet if successful, may decrease morbidity in the aging and ultimately free up health resources.)

This Mortal Flesh is not a book for everyone. The logic is dense and it is difficult to discern the exact presuppositions that drive the argument. It would have been better (and less repetitive) if Waters had developed the foundational arguments continuously from the beginning, rather than as a collection of essays, and an introductory chapter stating his theology and ethical approach, especially as related to his view of humanity, would have been helpful. As Waters himself states, ’...what Christians believe about the Word made flesh presumably shapes their normative convictions regarding the purpose and practice of medicine’ (p115).


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