Ethics of the incarnation, The

ethics of the incarnation, The

Taliaferro, Charles

In addressing the ethics of genetic technology, we come up against a host of fundamental concepts: nature, humanity, culture, identity, the role of medicine and “pure science,” consent, self-awareness, et al. How do these look in light of Anglican, Christian tradition? I shall consider this question by focusing on a centerpiece in David Smith’s balanced, informed approach to bioethics. At the Consultation on Bioethics, Smith highlighted the centrality of the incarnation. In this context, to what extent, if any, is this Christian teaching illuminating? Can it make a contribution to the sophisticated, secular debate that is currently in play?

Jesus and Naturalism

To some philosophers and scientists, invoking the classic Christian teaching of the incarnation in the arena of recent scientific debate may well appear quaint at best. Daniel Dennett, Stephen Gould, E. 0. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and others have waded into the popular press with confident claims that contemporary science has undermined theism in all its garbs. In some circles, naturalism is the only game in town. Theisms, incarnational spirituality, and the like, appear to be completely out of step with rigorous, intellectually responsible reflection. As Dawkins puts matters in River out of Eden: “Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths do not” (p. 37). Stephen Hawking has popularized the notion that it is scientifically confirmed that the universe simply is, with no beginning and no Creator.

There would be no singularities at which the laws of science broke down and no edge of space-time at which one would have to appeal to God or some new law to set the boundary conditions for space-time …. The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself It would neither be created or destroyed. It would simply just BE (A Brief History of Time, p. 136).

This thoroughgoing naturalist picture feeds much contemporary philosophy of mind. As Paul Churchland writes:

Most scientists and philosophers would cite the presumed fact that humans have their origins in 4.5 billion years of purely chemical and biological evolution as a weighty consideration in favor of expecting mental phenomena to be nothing but a particularly exquisite articulation of the basic properties of matter and energy (Neurophilosophy, p. 211).

Churchland, and especially Dennett, have worked hard to secure an account of human life and experience that is radically materialistic.

Of late, this triumphant naturalism is aggressively advanced in Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, a text that is ringing with disdain for theism. The foil at the outset is a sentimental song, “Tell Me Why,” in which God is said to make the stars shine, the ivy twine, the sky blue, and you too. Dennett even provides the musical score in an appendix! Over against “an anthropomorphic Handicrafter God,” we get sophisticated molecular and biological evolutionary theory. Theism is cast as a dodgy hypothesis that collapses at the slightest intellectual touch. “If God created and designed all these wonderful things, who created God? Supergod? And who created Supergod? Superdupergod? Or did God create Himself? Was it hard work? Did it take time? Don’t ask!” (p. 71).

Some contemporary theologians appear to concede the sufficiency of a comprehensive, scientifically informed naturalism. But this has not always led to a full-scale abandonment of Christianity. In the second half of the twentieth century, Christianity has been interpreted as chiefly making an ethical contribution to culture or as presenting an engaging picture or a story by which to guide one’s life, but not a picture or story that is truly descriptive of reality@ Don Cupitt, Richard Braithwaite, B.R. Tilghman, Gordon Kaufman, C.D. Hardwick, and others, have all advanced versions of Christianity that do not require theistic convictions or anything like a belief that God became incarnate in history; Christian myths may not be supported by evidence, but they do not have to be. Christianity is thereby excused from the heavy labor of making claims about the nature of reality and advancing reasons for believing that the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed might tell us about God and the world. It was all very well to argue for the concord of faith and reason in the days of William Temple, F.R. Tennant, and maybe even Austin Farrer and C. S. Lewis. Today, Tilghman’s judgment carries the day among some theologians: “The concept of God and the concept of evidence don’t go together” (An Introduction to Philosophy of Religion, p. 225). – – – –

But is naturalism a clear and evident reading of the world? No. One of the deepest problems facing a naturalist account of reality is the task of finding a place for experience, sensations, thoughts, and feelings. In short, it is the problem of consciousness, whether this is in the form or human or animal consciousness. Conscious experiences at least appear to be radically different from bodily life. One may examine closely brain states and processes without thereby seeing the concurrent mental states. Colin McGinn writes: “Thinking about a trip to the beach does not feel like the spiking of innumerable neurons in my cortex” (p. 24). Consciousness appears to be radically different from the stuff that is describable in modern science. How is it that consciousness has emerged in a thoroughgoing physical universe? As McGinn puts the problem: “How did evolution convert the water of biological tissue into the wine of consciousness?” (The Mysterious Flame, p. 13).

The most radical forms of naturalism have advanced eliminative projects in which the existence of consciousness is denied. In this schema, there are no such things as conscious states and sensations. The logic behind this strategy is elegant. William Lycan is led along these lines because “If materialism is true, then human beings are large collections of small physical objects and nothing more, ontologically. it follows that any human being could be described, and described completely, in purely scientific terms” (Consciousness, p. 45). Because subjective states like pain, emotions like joy or sorrow, thoughts ofany kind, cannot be described in “purely scientific terms” (i.e. the natural sciences, principally physics), these states, emotions and thoughts may only appear to exist. Richard Rorty follows this line of reasoning. He considers the question: “What was i reporting when I said I felt a pain?” To this question, the science of the future may reply, “You were reporting the occurrence of a certain brain process, and it would make life simpler for us if you would, in the future, say ‘my C-fibers are firing’ instead of saying ‘I’m in pain”‘ (Review of Metaphysics, 19:1). These eliminative projects have been launched by a host of thinkers: Richard Rorty (in his early writings), Stephen Stich, Paul and Patricia Churchland, WV Quine, Daniel Dennett, William Lycan.

Each of these eliminative projects has received compelling criticism. Some of this criticism is based on the brute appeal to common sense or what appears to be undeniable in our ordinary experience. Reporting that one’s C-fibers are firing does not capture the evident character of pain until one adds that the firing of these fibers hurts, and once we allow for the subjective feeling of hurt exists the eliminative project is impeded. Jaegwon Kim, Colin McGinn, Galen Strawson, John Searle, Thomas Nagel, Frank Jackson, Ned Block, and legions of other philosophers (none of whom is a theist) have launched a devastating reply to those philosophers who sweep away the notions that we have beliefs, desires, feelings, and so on. An influential objection to this eliminative form of naturalism has been the charge of self-contradiction. If a naturalist claims there are no beliefs, isn’t he or she placed in the awkward position of believing there are no beliefs? If there are no thoughts, can one think there are no thoughts? Lynn Baker, William Hasker, and Arthur Danto have each pressed this objection. The eliminative materialists have been applauded for their pursuit of a pure, uncompromising materialism, though the success of their project is in doubt. The Oxford philosopher Anthony Quinton referred to their efforts as a philosophical “charge of the light brigade.”

Once we acknowledge consciousness, experience, and such, it becomes harder to accommodate a comprehensive naturalist understanding of the cosmos itself. It is not impossible, but it is more difficult. On a theistic view of things, the emergence of consciousness is itself natural and expected, for behind the cosmos, and sustaining it at every instant is the reality of God. Intentionality, desire, and the full parameter of psychological life, have evolved, because of the deep intentions of God. The charge that theism leaves God or God’s intentions unexplained is based on a confusion or question-begging assumptions that preclude theism from the get-go. Of course if theism is true, there is no God or force or law of nature behind God, nor is one necessary. According to classical Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theists God exists necessarily or a se. God’s nature is not somehow accidental or lucky, but without origin or end, incorruptible and essential. Naturalists like Dennett are committed to explaining intelligence and consciousness in terms that are not intelligent and not conscious.

The account of intelligence required of psychology must not of course be question begging. It must not explain intelligence in terms of intelligence, for instance by assigning responsibility for the existence of intelligence in creatures to the munificence of an intelligent creator (Brainstorms, p. 83).

But why should this be question begging? The counter-charge may be formulated easily: Arguably, the explanation of intelligence in terms of nonintelligence begs the question for then one leaves nonintelligent forces without explanation. Dennett writes:

The way to explain the miraculous-seeming powers of an intelligent intentional system is to decompose it into hierarchically structured teams of ever more stupid intentional systems, ultimately discharging all intelligencedebts in a fabric of stupid mechanisms (Brainchildren, p. 362′).

And in Explaining Consciousness Dennett writes: “Only, a theory that explained conscious events in terms of unconscious events could explain consciousness” (p. 454). Dennett’s project faces a twofold problem. First, Dennett’s project appears either to eliminate or undermine intelligence and consciousness, and second, the project still leaves us with a contingent cosmos of “stupid mechanisms” and “unconscious events” that are themselves unexplained. Theism offers a metaphysic in which intelligence and consciousness are secured at the very heart of reality, and it offers an intentional, comprehensive explanation of the existence of the cosmos.

Cosmological arguments for God’s existence are making a comeback (see work by W Craig, B. Reicherbach, R. Taylor, W. Rowe, R. Swinburne, H. Meynell). These arguments probe the plausibility of naturalistic claims that the cosmos simply is, without any account of why it exists. Explanations in the physical sciences are all internal, explaining contingent features of the cosmos in terms of other contingent features. Richard Taylor underscores the contingency of the natural world:

For we find nothing whatever about the world, any more than in its parts, to suggest its own nature. Concerning anything in the world, we have not the slightest difficulty in supposing that it should never have existed in the first place. We have almost as little difficulty in supposing this of the world itself (Metaphysics, p. 110).

An external explanation in terms of divine intention offers a comprehensive account of why there is a cosmos at all. Theism may thereby be invoked not to conflict with the natural sciences but as part of an account of why there is a cosmos in which there can be natual sciences.

Critics of theism frequently cast it as locked into the vague, simplistic picture of God in the childhood hymn Dennett reproduced. But involving theism does not allow one to halt scientific inquiry into the stars and the other items in “Tell Me Why,” with a cheerful “God made them.” I think God did make them and God sustains them and the cosmos in existence, but God made many things in this cosmos (matter and energy and all their configurations, electromagnetic fields, radioactivity, etceteras) and scientific respectability lies in the details of our descriptions and explanations.

Why should there be any evolutionary laws or natural regularity of any kind? Theological arguments have been advanced by R. Swinburne, Paul Davies, W Craig, J. Leslie. Even the aggressively antitheistic naturalist Dawkins concedes: “Does it sound as though it would need a miracle to make randomly jostling atoms join together into a self-replicating molecule? Well, at times it does to me, too” (Blind Watchmaker, p. 158). Colin McGinn writes:

Consider the universe before conscious beings came along: the odds did not look good that such beings could come to exist. The world was all just physical objects and physical forces, devoid of life …. We have a good idea how the Big Bang led to the creation of stars and galaxies, principally by the force of gravity. But we know of no comparable force that might explain how everexpanding lumps of matter might have developed an inner conscious life (The Mysterious Flame, pp. 14,15).

The excruciating deadlock faced by naturalists in accounting for a cosmos that is replete with goods such as consciousness invites renewed attention to design arguments. Consider the judgment of two leading secular philosophers about what to make of consciousness. Ned Block writes: “We have no conception of our physical or functional nature that allows us to understand how it could explain our subjective experience…. In the case of consciousness we have nothing-zilch-worthy of being called a research programme, nor are there any substantive proposals about starting one…. Researchers are stumped” (in A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind). Jerry Fodor strikes the same note: “Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious” (TLS July 3, 1992). In Consciousness and the Mind of God (Cambridge University Press, 1994) 1 have sought to explore how theism can shed light on these seemingly intractable problems.

What about the incarnation? The most significant development in philosophy of religion over the past twenty years has been the constructive, philosophically nuanced work on the nature oF religious experience. A host of bright, well-established, critical philosophers have unleashed a powerful defense of the intelligibility and evidential value of religious experience. William Alston’s Perceiving God is an excellent point of entry into this literature. Rewarding, lucid, accessible work on religious experience has also been published by Caroline Davis, K. Yandell, N. Pike, G. Gutting, J. Gellman, and ft. Swinburne. The gist of much of this work is that there are important analogies between purported experiences of the divine and our perception of the external world. The analogies are not exact but sufficiently close to take religious experience seriously as in-principle trustworthy. The arguments and counter-arguments here are highly complex (see Chapter 8 of my Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, Blackwell, 1998 for an overview of both sides). But I cite this growing field of inquiry to underscore that religious claims to perceive or experience the divine or God’s action in the world is not without substantial defense. If one assumes at the outset the dominance of naturalism, the belief in the veracity of religious experience and the incarnation will be intellectually patchy. If on the other hand one is open to consider Christian theism in comprehensive terms, the terrain looks much more inviting, even lavish, for appealing to our incarnational theology and spirituality-whether this be for purely intellectual reasons or pastoral or in the context of bioethics.

The Incarnation and Moral Reflection

Simply bringing theism into moral reflection without the details and texture of a specific tradition, into a debate over Bioethics, will already tend to highlight some values. Theists believe that God is allknowing; knowledge is a divine perfection or excellence. As such, there will be some tendency to think that human knowledge is good. Believing that God created the cosmos will also tend to prompt one to construe creation as itself a gift. Believing that God is all good will also tend to give theists a reason to regard values in an intensified fashion. One should do good, both because it is good and because all good acts may be presumed to be willed and in accord with the will of an allgood God.

But there are few cases in the world where theism stands alone without the rich details of tradition. Theism thrives in extended religious traditions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, some forms of Hinduism and in other traditions. Claims to divine revelation further amplify matters ethically as we wrestle with ostensibly divinely revealed precepts involving justice, human welfare, entitlements and charity. In the context of bioethics and the material in David Smith’s paper, I suggest that belief that God became enfleshed as Jesus Christ will incline us- to adopt four morally relevant positions.

First, belief in the incarnation will block gnostic and other worlddenying philosophies that denigrate bodily life. The goodness of embodied life is secured both by the belief in an all-good Creator and in the belief that this all-good God came and dwelt among us as both human and divine. The humanity of Jesus stands in the way of all ethical, psychological or theological attempts to condemn bodily life. The influential moral philosopher Christine Korsgaard offers an off-hand observation about Christianity in her important book, The Sources of Normativity: “Think of Christian horror of the body, of our material nature” (p. 4). While there certainly have been Christians who have regarded bodily nature with disgust, clearly this is against the grain, and widely opposed in our tradition. Margaret Miles’s wonderful book Fullness of Life makes the case decisively on the other side.

Second, belief in the incarnation will incline us to give priority to the worst-off prior to benefiting the already well-off. David Smith spoke of God’s identification with the broken. Surely this will work to intensify our concern with those who are in any way damaged. This is amplified to the extent that God’s identity is held to be passionate and affective-that God sorrows over those in peril.

Third, a classical theology of the incarnation may give us some reasons for a heightened attention to the good of adoption. There are adoptionist components in New Testament theology (consistent with Chalcedon); the Church is described as being grafted into or incorporated with the children of Abraham and Moses. The rebirth of the person in the sacrament of baptism may be understood as a kind of adoption. Historically adoption seems largely a reparative good, something that is good because it heals an injury or rupture in the natural order. David Smith rightly underscored the good of biological progeny. I do not dispute this good, but I believe an incarnational ethic will incline us to see adoption as itself good and natural. Adoption is not good because it imitates something natural. Adoption is itself a fitting, divinely endowed good.

Fourth, I believe that the claim of the incarnation, and the spirituality that informs it, will incline us to favor self-examination in genetic testing. There may be compelling reasons not to seek self-examination. For example, it may be that to undertake this self-awareness would make one vulnerable to an unjust loss of health insurance. Or it may be that genetic testing costs too much when there are morally good reasons to spend the money elsewhere. Or it may be that if one were to undertake the self-examination and discover some malady, this revelation would bring about effects that would profoundly worsen one’s condition. But if there are no reasons not to know of one’s condition and nature, the call to know oneself would, I think, take primacy and this is the calling we should propose pastorally especially when testing may increase the chances of therapy. The incarnate, second member of the Trinity leads us into communion with this God “unto whom … all desires [are] known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” The “ideal,” then, seems to be a life of communion with God in which one lives openly and bravely in truth. Our religious practice of confession seems to give prominence to self-examination. We certainly should not celebrate ignorance, but instead praise a God of knowledge as well as goodness who has created us to pursue the truth, to exercise our cognitive powers. Our tradition warns us about the dangers of self-deception and encourages us to question ourselves before God in light of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.

Smith suggested the following thought experiment at the Bioethics Consultation. Imagine you are given an envelope, and in the envelope is a piece of paper with all sorts of information about the diseases you may have or the maladies you will suffer. Would you open it? Clearly this scenario can bring home vividly the difficult repercussions of self-awareness. We may lose heart. Smith’s thought experiment should caution us about a glib endorsement of self-awareness, come what may.

But two things should be noted here. In a way, we as a people have the diseases that are running riot in creation insofar as we really do think of ourselves as part of the body of Christ. Think of the Church’s teaching about AIDS and the poster “Our Church has AIDS.” We should avoid thinking of disease in isolated, individualized terms. The point is not that someone else has AIDS, but we do. I think it might even be useful as a spiritual exercise for a church to gather together in order to open up envelopes containing the names of various diseases; it might sharpen one’s compassion for a person suffering from disease X if one imaginatively thought of oneself being plagued by X. I take it that the effort to identify with others is part of the calling to be in communion with one another in Christ. Second, there is a spirituality in Christian tradition that calls on us to meditate regularly on our mortality. Paradoxically, this is not always morbid! It can enhance one’s sense that each moment is a gift from God. In the Psalms we ask: “So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom” (90:12). Jesus taught us to seek God in the present. Once secured, knowledge of our end is not knowledge of the end of God’s care for us in Jesus Christ.

In closing I am keenly aware that this paper canvasses too much ground. Still, among the mayhem of references, I have sought to chart what I take to be some of the most exciting developments in contemporary philosophy, and to encourage the exploration of this fruitful area of philosophical inquiry. Too often theologians and pastors assume that philosophy by its very nature is in antipathy with the life of faith. In today’s philosophical climate, Tertullian’s anti-intellectualism has some competition. The incarnational emphasis of Anglicanism is not intellectually shabby, and, if I am right in the observations in the second part of this paper, it can and should inform our approach to bioethics.


* Charles Taliaferro is a Professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and an associate of SSJE. My thanks to members of the Consultation, and to S. Hawthorne and the Rev. N. Jordhal.

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Fall 1999

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