Bioethics and HopeEssays, Featured — By Lowell Mcdonald on April 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm
One super bowl ad I will never forget starred Christopher Reeve. For those who for whatever reason don’t know, Christopher Reeve, in his lifetime, was primarily famous for portraying Superman and his alter ego Clark Kent in a number of successful movies released in the eighties. He was one of those rare actors who seemed to transcend acting and truly embodied to spirit of who Superman was and what he stood for. He had the correct build, all broad-shouldered and rock jawed. He had the right voice. He just was Superman. That is why news that he was paralyzed in a horse riding accident all the more heartbreaking. Suddenly, Superman couldn’t walk. That is what made the commercial so memorable. The commercial featured, via computer animation, Reeves walking, albeit slowly. For viewers, it appeared that Superman had crushed his kryptonite.
Of course, Reeves was still paralyzed. But it made one wonder: what if? Reeve released a statement, saying “Most scientists agree that with enough money and talent focused on spinal cord repair, the goal of walking within the foreseeable future is a very real possibility.”
The downside of the ad was that many didn’t understand that Reeves apparent healing was an illusion. Many tried, in vain, to find the treatment Reeves received and were heartbroken when they discovered it wasn’t real. Still, we have hope. The whole point of the commercial was to build up hope. Hope in progress, in research. Hope in what science can bring us next. And for the past years, the next big thing has been stem cells.
Stem cells, particularly embryonic stem cells, have from the beginning been the source of much controversy. This isn’t by accident. As Alan Malnak of the Michael J. Fox foundation explains, “Embryonic stem cells hold promise because of their ability to develop into any of the over 200 body cells as well as to replace cells and tissue destroyed by disease.”Nevertheless, the debate over stem cells is a continuation of the abortion debate, for those who oppose embryonic stem cell research do so on the auspices of the personhood of the unborn. If pro-lifers are right and life does begin at conception, embryonic stem cell research is out of the question because the extraction of stem cells from embryos destroys them.
Nevertheless, embryonic stem cells have had their champions, none perhaps more famous than Micheal J.Fox. Fox isn’t merely some celebrity popping off at the mouth; he suffers from Parkinson’s disease, an affliction that causes tremors, difficulty moving and in its advanced stages delusions and hallucinations. For Fox and those who suffer from Parkinson’s , what is on the line is their independence, quality of life and self-respect. Thus, Fox was an early and vocal proponent of embryonic stem cells because he had much to gain, and, as far as he is concerned, much to lose. Fox, writing for CNN.com, relates “Patients with neurodegenerative diseases dream of the day when disease-modifying treatments are found, instead of therapies that simply mask symptoms. Disease-modifying therapies create the possibility of newly diagnosed patients never having to experience full-blown disease. The Michael J. Fox Foundation has long championed the scientific freedom to pursue all promising paths to finding these treatments. We’ll also be standing with Parkinson’s patients, their loved ones and the majority of Americans who want us to move beyond political agendas and advance the promise of stem cell research.”
Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson, in their article “Stem Cells: A Political History” observe:
“For six years, from 2001 through 2007, embryonic stem cells seemed almost the sole topic of popular science. Front-page stories hyped the most minor of breakthroughs, newspaper editorials raged against any luddite who suggested even the slightest moral doubts, and television talk shows made stars of the scientists and biotech spokesmen who promised that embryonic stem cells would deliver extraordinary medical advances.” Says Malnak, “Could anyone be more pro-life than those dedicated to working to prevent and treat innumerable horrendous illnesses?”
What I find sobering about this is the desperation felt by those waiting on science for a solution. When a person isn’t a Christian, those who stand between them and any hope of a cure are an obstacle to the redemption of their bodies. Though much of the modern world grew up out of Christianity, this is very much a post-Christian era. Popular opinion is that religion has caused wars and social dissention. Science, on the other hand, made us walk on the moon. Maybe it can make us walk on earth again, too. Another interesting movement of technological hope is in longevity research. In particular, Aubrey De Grey, a gerontologist and author of Ending Aging , is actively developing therapies to extend human life to perhaps a thousand years. De Grey claims that “When we get these therapies, we will no longer all get frail and decrepit and dependent as we get older, and eventually succumb to the innumerable ghastly progressive diseases of old age.” Call it do-it-yourself eternal life.
From one perspective, these developments are a bit depressing. The idea that people won’t countenance hope in Christ because of hope in science-admittedly a much more tangible hope-is discouraging. From another perspective, though, the fact that America is post-Christian means that the Gospel message has a freshness to it that was impossible in years past. Consequently, the enterprise of apologetics-defending the faith- is no longer preaching to the choir. But it will require more of us as ambassadors.
Consider the story of Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Keller once had thyroid cancer and was in the hospital for a while. Long enough, in fact to “read every word of N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, all eight hundred pages, even the indices.” The effect? ”As I was reading it, I realized I was coming to greater certainty, and that when I closed the book, I said, at a time when it was very important to me to feel this way, I said, ‘He really really really did rise from the dead,’” Keller claims. Keller, at a time when his physical death was knocking at his door, found solace in the reality of the Resurrection, not as an emotion, but as an objectively true intellectual reality.
For us living in an age of (supposedly) reason-fueled skepticism, apologetics and evangelism are proclamation of good news that is radically different from anything else. The good news becomes great in a world where hope is only found in the scientist’s lab. We have to be more ready, more able, to communicate the Gospel message because our hearers are more ignorant of it. But the world needs to hear that the great physician will once again take up his practice. And he, the maker of science, will redeem our bodies.