A few years ago, journalist Michael Kinsley wrote a piece rich in sermon material, but I doubt you heard anything about it from the pulpit.
That's too bad, because church leaders are putting the cart before the horse. They're keen on preaching the gospel to human beings (as they should be), but what happens to that gospel when the very definition of what it means to be human is lost in the culture? It's hard to preach that man is a sinner and that man needs grace and that man can be saved when nobody knows what a man is anymore. Kinsley apparently doesn't. Defending destructive research on human embryos, he writes that "Human life is a label we confer, and the uncertainty is in how we choose to define it." He continues:
A goldfish resembles a human being more than an embryo does. An embryo feels nothing, thinks nothing, cannot suffer, is not aware of its own existence. Embryos are destroyed routinely by the millions in the natural process of human reproduction. Yet opponents of stem-cell research would allow real people, who can suffer, to do so in service of the abstract principle that embryos are people too. If faith takes you there, fine. Reason can't.Kinsley's take resonates with a whole lot of folks and merely quoting Psalm 139 once a year on Sanctity of Human Life Sunday will not refute it--not in today's culture.
Here are two points that should be made from the pulpit. First, the stem cell debate is not a clash between "faith" on one hand and "science/reason" on the other. It's a clash of metaphysical worldviews: Christian versus secular. Briefly, Christian bioethics is not opposed to scientific progress provided that progress is tied to moral truths. Chief among those truths is that humans have value (and hence, rights) in virtue of the kind of thing they are, not some function they perform. They may differ in their respective degrees of development, talents, and accomplishments, but they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature that bears the image of their creator. Conversely, secular bioethics asserts that humans have value (and hence, rights) not in virtue of the kind of thing they are, but only because of some acquired property like self-awareness or sentience. Because embryos and fetuses cannot immediately exercise these properties, they have no right to life. Both views--Christian and secular--are asking the exact same question: What makes humans valuable in the first place? Hence, Kinsley is wrong to dismiss his critics with the wand of faith.
Second, the Christian view of bioethics is rationally superior to its rivals. (If Kinsley wants to call it "faith," so be it, but it's faith based on evidence, not faith in spite of evidence.) That is, it better explains human dignity and equality.
Indeed, can Kinsley's secular bioethics tell us why anything has a right to life?
Here's the problem: Kinsley never tells why certain value-giving properties are value-giving. He appeals to sentience and self-awareness, but isn’t that just question-begging since the issue is whether one has a right to life even if one does not have desires or self-awareness? Kinsley might reply that it squares with our basic intuitions to say that adults and children have a right to life. But why is that intuition any more powerful than the one that tells me that embryos and fetuses are owed protection due to their vulnerability and dependency? If pro-life advocates are begging the question by starting from our intuitions that human beings have intrinsic value, why can’t we ask Kinsley to give us a reason why intrinsic value exists for anyone? If he says it’s an “intuition,” we can play the skeptic and ask: “Why your intuitions rather than mine? And why is it okay for you to appeal to ‘intuitions’ but when I do so, it’s question begging?” (Thanks to Frank Beckwith for that question.)
Put simply, secular bioethics cannot account for human equality or human dignity. If humans have value only because of some acquired property like self-awareness or sentience and not in virtue of the kind of thing they are, then it follows that since these acquired properties come in varying degrees, basic human rights come in varying degrees. Do we really want to say that those with more self-awareness are more valuable than those with less?
Christians who ignore questions like this may soon face even tougher ones. An aggressive transhumanist movement within bioethics rejects the notion that human nature is constant and seeks to alter it through genetic engineering (adding different genes to a human organism to change its biological makeup) and the creation of chimeras (animal/human hybrids). There’s an implicit warning here for church leaders: Equip your people to engage the biotech culture or risk the prospect of a truly post-human future. After all, what good are seeker-friendly, purpose-driven churches when the humans in them have been engineered out of existence?