Intersections

Him Before Us: Wisdom to Inform Bioethical Conversation

by: 
Stephen P. Greggo, PsyD

The movie Me Before You has garnered attention on Intersections. See the posts by Joni Eareckson Tada and Will Honeycutt. Here I offer my voice to this conversation in the second of two posts. In the first post, I explored this question for those who treasure the Triune God of Christianity: Are the vivid moral questions asked by our culture generating conversations in our faith communities?

In this second post, I explore the role that culture has on our Christian imagination. I ask clergy and ministry leaders: Are those providing pastoral care and counsel ready to engage on a theological level with families and individuals who are dealing with profound existential questions and range of health care choices?

Me Before You: Entertainment and Bioethics

The movie, Me Before You offers touching and memorable scenes. Reviewers label these as ‘tearjerker’ moments. Let’s just take one such moment. Louisa Clark (“Lou”) is personal caretaker to wealthy quadriplegic, Will Traynor. She invites Will to join her homespun birthday party hosted by her ordinary family. This brings out the social awkwardness of working class folks, with all of their quirks, attempting to entertain wealthy and educated Will.  There is the immediate awareness that no one really gets how to incorporate Will and his wheelchair lifestyle into this family ritual. The glorious romantic moment arrives when Will provides Lou with an honest gift that demonstrates his keen sense of understanding. Lou breaks out in delight as she holds up her new pair of bumblebee striped tights!  This eccentric dresser cannot contain her unbridled enthusiasm. This special birthday gift portrays Will’s heart. The audience can see with growing awareness that this couple could be an ideal match for one another. But, as the film goes on to explore, there can be no realistic future for such a mismatched pair. After all, what happiness could there possibly be when a constant reminder of suffering, pain, and tragedy is so blatantly obvious.   

This may be one of those ‘tearjerker’ moments. The bumblebee-tights relational exchange is also a rich existential snapshot. Many complex assumptions come into sharp clarity. What generates the magic of happiness? What constitutes an ideal relationship? What does it take to be a whole person made in the image of God? Christian leaders could coach families like the Clarks. Pastors could advise couples like Lou and Will. Christian theology has much to say about what makes life meaningful in the midst of great suffering and brokenness.

Him Before Us: Theology and Bioethics

Christian doctrine is a precious resource for the church as culture persistently makes the case for greater and greater autonomy in moral decisions.[i] This is particularly relevant when it comes to options related to health care at the margins of life or when suffering is inevitable (i.e., infertility treatment, eugenics, end-of-life determinations, human impairments or enhancements, etc.).

The prevailing cultural narrative, woven into routine dialogue and highlighted throughout the entertainment industry, turns on how the individual alone must define what is good using one’s internal moral compass. The frame of reference for making optimal moral choices is exclusively located within the uniqueness of the autonomous person, who applies private and personal criteria to achieve happiness, wholeness, and significance.

What is left for the community and intimate others who may see an alternative course of action? The only viable option for a devoted observer is to be moved so completely by gracious love that all reasoned decisions made by the individual are wholly respected and embraced. The worship of autonomy is honorable in this view. This makes it reasonable to use medical means to achieve ends that conflict with norms consistent with a cherished faith tradition handed down across the ages.[ii] This is secular humanistic doctrine in pure form.

C. S. Lewis conveys the prime element of the Christian meta-narrative: God alone is good. Christianity, as a faith perspective tied to an organized religion handed down through generations of saints, is generally portrayed in the secular narrative as irrelevant, archaic, and toxic to individual choice. That storyline legitimizes looking elsewhere for moral directives. Our Trinity-oriented, virtue-guidance seeking gaze can be distracted and turn from kingdom ethics that rest on wisdom. A sacred perspective, grounded in Christianity as revealed in Scripture, instructs those who love God to pursue wisdom (Prov. 3:5–8). This entails earnestly seeking the Lord who gave us the gift of life, hearing his voice, nurturing his gift, and, as it becomes clear, walking in his way. The pursuit of wisdom does not begin by turning inwards to hear the cry of our own heart. Rather, it is conducted in Spirit-present conversations where Scripture is explored in community. In fellowship and unity, there is the expectation that God still speaks vividly so that his people can authentically live out his story in full view of those around. Wisdom is the way to pursue kingdom ethics, for it keeps our eyes on the transcendent God—the only one who is good.

Conversations for Congregations: From Entertainment to Theological Reflection

As I interact with the next generation of evangelical pastors and ministry-oriented counselors, my vision is to both awaken and nourish a biblically informed, Christian imagination. Compelling human stories, such as the one told in this film, can provide us with existential snapshots. Thinking theologically and seeking wisdom is to be a constant pursuit for those who follow Jesus Christ. My intent is to turn alumni loose into churches and counseling rooms to stir conversation on what it means to live according to God-saturated wisdom in an age when our faith-inspired meta-narrative about the source of goodness falls far outside the cultural norm. This is a prerequisite to enter into any exploration of bioethical options or decision.

This post is not to critique an intriguing story conveyed in words and film. This is only one fresh example of how cultural myths are spun as we absorb them sitting on the couch. Entertainment is not merely telling a worthy story, it is spinning a cultural perspective on what constitutes a meaningful life. The element of a simple narrative that most often captures our attention is how it touches a tension in our soul. Identification with key personalities draws us into the plot, crisis, and solutions. Thus, people of faith are to feed and fortify our Christian imagination. As an example, here is afterthought that played out in my mind after seeing this film: What it would be like to dialogue about it with Joni Eareckson Tada, a Christian leader celebrating (Tada’s term) 50 years as a quadriplegic?[iii] Fortunately, Tada has joined the conversation and given us a rich perspective from her theology and personal narrative.

Those of us who follow Christ are to be ready to engage with bioethical case studies no matter where they arise. Media may bring these to light using distant characters and contexts. More often, striking moral dilemmas and bioethical matters will come to our attention via family members facing a health crisis or from those we pray for who are suffering within our broader social network.

 



[i] Stephen P. Greggo and Lucas Tillett, “Beyond Bioethics 101: Where Theology Gets Personal and Pastoral,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53, no. 2 (2010), 349–363.

[ii] These statements advocate for greater recognition and respect for theologically derived, Christ-centered input from fellow faith sojourners to establish principles to guide unique, case-specific, healthcare decisions (i.e., wisdom). This is not a refutation of the ethical premise of patient autonomy which asserts that patients have the right to determine the direction, extent, and limits of medical treatment without undue influence from a healthcare provider.

 

Stephen P. Greggo, PsyD

Stephen P. Greggo, PsyD

Dr. Greggo is Chair of the Counseling Department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a licensed psychologist in NY and IL, and an ordained minister. His personal mission statement is equipping a new generation for a Christian ministry of soul care. For over two decades, Dr. Greggo has served as Director of Professional Practice for Christian Counseling Associates in upstate NY. He provides consultation services, in-service training and supervision.

 

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Posts of this forum are reviewed by CBHD staff and an editorial committee, however, the views expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily endorsed by The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity or Trinity International University.