In our functionalist society we often define people and their human dignity according to their rational and relational assets and activity (i.e. autonomy or self-rule and ability to choose, crucial in a consumerist society). When these ‘assets’ diminish, we think the person’s dignity diminishes in value. As former PM Bob Hawke said, he’d rather be put out of his misery before he ‘loses his marbles’. Misery equates with losing cognitive capacity. However, his late wife Hazel displayed dignity despite diminishing capacity due to Alzheimer’s.
Others have a greater fear of being robbed of relationality, and see this as a reason for advocacy of euthanasia. This sounds more Christian, as Christianity is about loving relationships. But a recent Australian book by Jennifer Cox, entitled Autism, Humanity and Personhood: A Christ-Centred Theological Anthropology, argues for a Christ-centred basis of human identity and dignity. Consistent with this, I argue against euthanasia as the way to dying with dignity.
Theologians from the 16th century on spoke of us having ‘alien dignity’. This isn’t about little green people. It’s about our dignity not residing in any human function but in God, as God’s image bearers, and in Christ’s relationship to and for us.
The shaping of people’s identity or sense of self comes ultimately from being known by God, even in the womb, as Psalm 139 shows. This applies from womb to tomb, from beginning to end of life, from pre-rational to rational and non-rational again. This is something my wife and I experienced deeply a couple of years ago, praying both for our growing grandchild Caspian in the womb and for his ailing grandfather (my late father) afflicted by whole system Parkinson’s, approaching the tomb. We prayed each day for both, for God to know or continue relating to them when they could barely know or relate to God.
An emphasis on the person can become a form of cognitivism, when our knowing becomes more important than God’s. This is more Platonic than Christian. Likewise our primary activity of relating can count out many people at either end of life, allowing abortion and euthanasia to those unable to relate.
The same applies to defining people as those bearing rights, e.g. the right to die. Rights are the important but insufficient language we use in a society of strangers, to safeguard against the medical machine keeping us hooked up when unconscious. But there are better ways to humanise dying such as advance care directives regarding patient preferences.
The language of persons is often too lame and lifeless – often piggy-backing on functional language about cognitive, relational or political capacity. Oddly, it’s insufficiently personal. We end up abstracting and objectifying away someone’s unique particularity and relationality that comes more by naming. Stanley Hauerwas captures this wonderfully in his essay about a comatose uncle: ‘My Uncle Charlie May Not be Much of a Person, but He’s Still My Uncle Charlie’.
Hauerwas’ insight is developed by John Swinton in Dementia (Ch. 5): ‘A culture of hypercognition’ ends up eviscerating the particular person and their story because they have lost the capacities we use to define persons as part of the public or political realm. ‘To have dementia is to lose one’s personhood’, to be treated as if dead if your head is not right. Such utilitarian consequentialism sees people as the means to an end of their or society’s projects. It is dangerous to the dignity of all. The current quest for death with dignity denies the Christian doctrine of ‘alien dignity’ – a dignity existing outside us in the gracious gaze of God in Christ.
I mention dementia, not cancer, because it is increasingly the disease most feared and that’s driving the push toward euthanasia. Government legislation may affirm voluntary assisted euthanasia or suicide, but already in western societies the demand is to extend euthanasia/assisted suicide to those who cannot consent.
In our secular and anti-traditional society we will not win the argument regarding euthanasia from biblical or traditional authority. But Christians need to understand our first language of ‘alien dignity’ in God’s knowing us in Christ. The wider significance of God’s knowing, mediated through human knowing and loving, is best demonstrated by pastoral authenticity.
My last precious memories of Dad are reminders of authentic care premised on being ineradicably known by God. I sat with him at his Catholic nursing home, enjoying a performance of Sound of Music, performed by the patients. Everyone glowed and sang along. The hills were not the only things alive with the sound of music. Later, on his last day, as he slept, staff put on the taped collection of hymns, prayers and scriptures that was my last Christmas gift to him. I sang along – a reminder that even when we are beyond knowing, and praising, God in Christ knows, names and loves us, and dignifies our deaths.
Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos and Director of RASP, and Chair and Executive of the Melbourne Anglican Social Responsibilities Committee.
This article first appeared in The Melbourne Anglican print edition, No. 562, September 2017, 20.
A longer version of this article was published as ‘God Knows: Our Beginning and End When We Don’t Know’ in The End of Life? Zadok Perspectives 131 (Winter 2016), 15-19, and is available here.