Intersections

Advent Hope for a MedTech World

by: 
Michael J. Sleasman, PhD

Amidst the bustle of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday, and holiday parties, we may forget it is also the season of Advent. In this strange cultural juxtaposition of commercialism gone awry and theologically rich celebrations of historic Christian significance, several thoughts come to mind as we prepare for our holiday celebrations. Advent marks the beginning (and, in some distinct theological ways, the end) of the liturgical calendar. This season is often visibly celebrated through the practice of lighting candles on an Advent wreath—one of those rare ecumenical rituals that emerged from a single Protestant tradition (apparently an early Lutheran custom), but is now widely practiced. Each of the four primary candles of the wreath represents one week in the Advent season, but in many ecclesial traditions these candles also take on the symbolic representation of four Christian virtues: hope, faith, joy, and love. A fifth candle may be included, the Christ candle, which is lit to mark the beginning of Christmastide and the celebration of the incarnation through the birth of Jesus Christ.

Advent is a particularly rich period in the church year, something which I have found is underscored through the practice of lighting the candles of the Advent wreath. “Advent” comes to us from the Latin adventus meaning “arrival” or “coming to.” We celebrate this beginning with the lighting of the hope candle. It reminds us of the promise of a coming savior, the messianic hope—a hope that as Jesus said to his disciples that “many prophets and righteous people longed to see . . . and to hear” (Matt 13:17 NIV). We remember this hope, as it was realized in the coming of the Christ in the most vulnerable of human forms, an infant. And yet, in this very same hope we remember that the fulfillment of the first Advent, was also marked by the promise of a second Advent, the blessed hope. As the Nicene Creed affirms, having been seated at the right hand of the Father, Jesus Christ “will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end.”

Advent Hope and the First and Second Comings of Christ

In the hope of Advent we remember not one, but two central tenets of the Christian faith. First, we remember and celebrate the coming of the promised messiah through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the divine mystery of the God-man, through whom the way of redemption is made possible. In this taking on of our frail human flesh, the incarnation also reaffirms our humanity as embodied creatures. Given that Christmastide follows right on the heels of Advent, we see the clear connection between the hope of promise and its fulfillment as we then celebrate the birth and life of Jesus. The implications of the first Advent and especially the doctrine of the incarnation are critical for a robust Christian engagement with ethical issues raised by developments in medicine, science, and technology.

Advent also marks a curious beginning/end to the liturgical year. Having celebrated Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that empowered the Christian church into life, the liturgical calendar ends with a season of Ordinary Time. The transition of Ordinary Time to a new year gives us pause as we stand in the tension between the first and second Advent. As we light the hope candle, we are reminded of the coming of the God-man incarnate. But we are also reminded that we eagerly await a second Advent. In this hope our attention is called to a second central tenet of the Christian faith, the doctrine of eschatology—one focused not on those things leading up to the last thing, but on the consummation of all created reality.

In the midst of all the wonders of our MedTech age, I am struck afresh with how easy it is to allow our human ingenuity—and the products of that ingenuity—to become instead the hope and means of our salvation. Certainly the box office and primetime are full of cultural expressions of this temptation. (Transcendence anyone?) When we allow our desires for the realization of intermediate goods such as health and wellness to stand in the place of our ultimate good. Or, when the defeat of death and the extension of human life at any and all costs become the ultimate good of our existence.

Adventus or Futurum? A Well-Placed Hope for a MedTech World

So very often we are tempted to place our eschatological hopes not in adventus, but in futurum. Futurum, as theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann have noted, speaks to that which is an extension of the present, something we can expect through “anticipation” as Oliver O’Donovan suggests. With utopian expectations of technological singularities and convergence prophesied for the not too distant future, we see manifestations of the power of futurum for our contemporary world, and the temptation to yield to it in the hubris of self-realization. Both adventus and resurrection, by way of contrast, involve divine irruption, introducing both continuity and discontinuity with that which went before. Adventus, unlike futurum, holds an element of the “new” (a novum), even as it involves a sense of the renewing of all things. As O’Donovan notes, hope offers no assurances “on the basis of the present,” but is “founded on promise.” He goes on

Yet in denying us the speculative assurance we crave for, promise allows hope to be born, and through hope opens the way to agency. . . . It enables us to face uncertainty in the certain knowledge that whatever the future holds, it holds the coming of the Son of Man.[i]

In this coming year, may we reflect on these lessons of Advent and consider how our hope in the coming of the God-man incarnate might orient our lives in the midst of our MedTech world toward the hope of his second coming. So in the midst of a season marked by a strange mix of Cyber Monday and Festivals of Lessons and Carols, may Advent enrich our understanding of how a distinctly Christian hope might shape not only our theological imaginations, but also our everyday use and engagement with the technological and medical marvels at our disposal, from the miraculous to the mundane.

Editor’s note: This piece is adapted from a Director’s Desk essay first published in Dignitas 21, no. 4 (Winter 2014).



[i] Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 122–123.

 

Michael J. Sleasman, PhD

Michael J. Sleasman, PhD

Dr. Sleasman is the Managing Director and Research Scholar for The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity (CBHD). He is also affiliate professor of bioethics for Trinity Graduate School.

He has co-edited and contributed several essays to the volume Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, Michael J. Sleasman. He has also contributed several articles on theology, bioethics, and theological engagement with technology.