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03/01/2017

The Gift of Finitude

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about finitude. About limits. Incompleteness. Even failure.

Like the friend of a friend who is dying and has just been admitted to hospice, whose young teenaged daughter is facing the prospect of a life without her mother.

Like the colleague who is grieving the loss of both a spouse and a parent within a month of each other.

Like my power wheelchair that keeps breaking down, making everyday activities significantly more challenging.

Like the never-ending “to-do” list that seems to be anything but finite, and never quite seems to get any shorter.

Life is, in a word, full of limits. Boundaries. Unavoidable stopping points.

Or is it?

What if we could transcend our limits, as recent developments in genetic and related technologies (e.g., CRISPR) seem to promise? What if, through genetic manipulations of various sorts, we could significantly reduce our limitations—eliminate specific diseases and disabling conditions, improve cognitive function, “select” for desired physical traits, and so on?

If we could do these things, should we do them?

Of course, as anyone who has followed the field of bioethics for even a short period of time knows, these questions are neither new nor hypothetical. In many ways, the “future” is already here: we “enhance” ourselves, “transcend” limits and boundaries, and otherwise seek to “overcome” finitude in a myriad number of ways, on a daily basis. And much of this is salutary.

Still, it’s always worth pausing to consider: supposing finitude could be eliminated entirely from our lives (which seems extraordinarily doubtful), is it the sort of thing we ought to try to eliminate? Put differently: is there anything good about finitude, such that we ought to embrace it (even if in a qualified way)?

Gilbert Meilaender, a bioethicist and Distinguished Fellow of The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, suggests that there is something good about finitude. In a reflection on the “created duality” of our human nature—we are simultaneously both “free” and “finite”—Meilaender observes that this “two-sidedness” to our nature both opens up possibilities and imposes certain limits upon us. We are, he observes,

created from dust of the ground—finite beings who are limited by biological necessities and historical location. We are also free spirits, moved by the life-giving Spirit of God, created ultimately for communion with God—and therefore soaring beyond any limited understanding of our person in terms of presently “given” conditions of life…. Made for communion with God, we transcend nature and history—not in order that we may become self-creators, but in order that, acknowledging our Creator, we may recognize the true limit to human freedom. Understanding our nature in this way, we learn something about how we should evaluate medical “progress.” It cannot be acceptable simply to oppose the forward thrust of scientific medicine. That zealous desire to know, to probe the secrets of nature, to combat disease—all that is an expression of our created freedom from the limits of the “given,” the freedom by which we step forth as God’s representatives in the world. But a moral vision shaped by this Christian understanding of the person will also be prepared to say no to some exercises of human freedom. The never-ending project of human self-creation runs up against the limit that is God. It will always be hard to state in advance the precise boundaries that ought to limit our freedom, but we must be prepared to look for them.[1]

I am inclined to agree with Meilaender. Moreover, as I have shared in an autobiographical essay published recently,[2] my own experiences as a person with a physical disability have taught me valuable life lessons that, arguably, might not have been learned otherwise—lessons such as the value of patience and endurance, accepting my limits (an ongoing struggle, I must admit!), and even the importance of having a sense of humor at the (sometimes ridiculous) circumstances in which one finds oneself. Our limits shape our character, our career, and our life choices as much as do our “freedoms”—often in surprising and unexpected ways, and frequently for the better.

None of these reflections, of course, even begin to scratch the surface of the “what?”, “where?”, “when?”, “how?”, or “why?” questions related to the ethical permissibility (or lack thereof) of pursuing various genetic, reproductive, or other technologies. Nor do they, by themselves, tell us whether (and when) we ought or ought not to avail ourselves of abortion, physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia and the like.

They do, however, remind us of one very simple, yet all-too-often overlooked fact: finitude is, in many ways, a gift. Let us not neglect it.

 

[1] Gilbert Meilander, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 3-5.

[2] See “Why am I Disabled? Reflections on Life’s Questions and God’s Answers,” in the Beyond Suffering Bible (Tyndale, 2016), available at beyondsufferingbible.com and http://www.joniandfriends.org/bible/.

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