Friday 27 November 2009

The Incredible Value of Human Life

In Australia one of the biggest news stories of the last week has been the remarkable story of conjoined twins Trishna and Krishna who were successfully separated by a team of surgeons at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne on the 18th November.

Two years ago the 'Children First Foundation' brought these two little girls from Bangladesh to Australia for surgery.

An aid worker first saw Trishna and Krishna in an orphanage in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, when they were a month old. The aid worker contacted the Children First Foundation, which brought the girls to Australia for the operation. Their mother handed over her girls because she and her husband were unable to care for their special needs. The Children First Foundation also recognised that this was their only real chance of a longer life due to the nature of how they were joined at the skull.

Trishna and Krishna were joined at the top of their heads and shared brain tissue and blood vessels. They were gravely ill when they arrived, and underwent several preparatory operations over a period of almost 2 years before being separated. The doctors doing the surgery had warned that there was a 50 percent chance that one or both of the girls could suffer brain damage as a result. They were separated last week after a 32 hour operation by a team of 15 surgeons and over 70 medical staff working in shifts to complete the procedure. They left intensive care on Monday, are in stable condition, and the operation appears to have been a complete success.

The High Value of Human Life

People have applauded the remarkable doctors and people everywhere have been filled with great joy because the two little girls are now separated. Many have also praised (quite rightly) the woman who was responsible for bringing them to Australia (Moira Kelly). However, my wife Carmen put her finger on what is even more remarkable about this story. She commented over dinner through the week:
"You know what is so wonderful about this story? Moira Kelly and the doctors have shown how they put such a high value on human life."
In the second of his New College Lectures this year, Professor John Wyatt reminded his audience that the value of human life should never be linked to any judgements about the 'quality' of life, for such a judgement is hard to make. He shared the story of a little boy named Christopher who was part of his church and was born with Edwards syndrome. This is a tragic and rare chromosomal disorder that causes multiple malformations, severe mental impairment and a uniformly fatal outcome. He shared how this little boy had had a huge impact on his family and in fact the entire church, and how much his life had touched many and had been significant. In making sense of how this could occur in a world that seeks only perfection in people, he commented:
"....behind it all is the Christian conviction that even the weakest and most malformed human being has a life of unique value. Christopher in his way was a God-like being, a flawed masterpiece. His life was an example of Christian theology in practice, and it was a privilege for me to know him.

Here is a strange paradox. Sometimes we see the image of God most clearly, not in the perfect specimens of humanity, not in the Olympic athlete or the Nobel prizewinner. We see Christ in the broken, the malformed, the imperfect. It is an example of the Easter mystery. God is revealed, not in glorious majesty but in a broken body on a cross."
Though Trishna and Krishna were living their lives in bodies deformed and facing suffering and death, their lives were seen as having a high value by Moira Kelly, the 'Children First Foundation', supporters of the foundation and the large team of medical practitioners. As a result, they were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to save them.

In a world so keen to use genetic screening to abort all but the most perfect foetus (see my previous post on 'Prenatal Genetic Testing), the story of these little girls is special. Psalm 139 helps us to understand that though these little girls may have been malformed in their mother's womb, they were known by God and precious to him:
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.

Psalm 139:13-16
Praise God that these little lives were also precious to Moira Kelly and the medical team that has separated them.

Related posts

a) A mother praises God for her conjoined towns - In a similar case of conjoined twins, a mother raised eye brows in January this year when she greeted the news that she was to have dicephalous twins, the rarest known type of Siamese twins, with the comment:

"Some people might look at me and say, 'You're going to give birth to a freak' - but I don't care because I feel blessed......To me, my twins are a gift from God and we're determined to give them their chance of life."

Read the post HERE.

b) The latest on Trishna & Krishna - The girls are still doing well (HERE & HERE)

c) MP3s of Prof John Wyatt's lectures on 'Bioethics and Future Hope' (HERE)

d) All previous posts on medical ethics (HERE)

Thursday 19 November 2009

To Exclude or to Embrace: Considering 'otherness'

Our next issue of Case magazine will consider how we relate to ‘the other’. As I ask in my introduction to the magazine, is this just a philosophical and theological discussion to keep scholars busy? Clearly, we see it as a topic of concern to all people. In his influential book 'Exclusion and Embrace' (which I mentioned in a previous post here), theologian Miroslav Volf shows just how important the question of otherness is to all of life. Understanding and living with others, is not simply a matter of accommodating diversity. He suggests our approach to the other should reflect the character and actions of our God revealed in the person of Christ. Volf challenges us to embrace ‘the other’ in the light of God’s giving of himself on the cross—this includes our enemies. We need to adjust our very identities to ‘make space’ for the other. We have four wonderful articles that address the theme.

1. Otherness and Continental Philosophy

Matheson Russell begins the issue for us by outlining the treatment of otherness in the field of continental philosophy. While much of philosophy has traditionally centred on the self, taking its cue from Descartes’ famous thinking ‘I', a concern for the other has emerged in more recent philosophical and theological works. Russell guides us through the work of key thinkers such as G. W. F. Hegel, Emmanuel Levinas, and Hannah Arendt, reflecting on the lingering presence of biblical themes in this literature. Emmanuel Levinas set the scene with his observation that the Western world tends to privilege the ‘same’ over the ‘other’. In such a world, the other counts only to the extent that he or she can be made the same, leading to behaviours of acquisition and domination. In Levinas’ work, says Russell, ‘the ethical demand of the other is the demand to let the other be, to break off the struggle for dominance…in short, to lay down arms and accept peace with the ‘other’ without reducing them to the ‘same’. Russell concludes by drawing on the work of Karl Barth, and by reflecting on the need ‘to relate to God as the absolute Other’, accepting his gift of grace and recognising Christ as Lord and Saviour.

2. A Theological View of Otherness

Moving from philosophy to theology, Linden Fooks asks what we can learn from Miroslav Volf. One of the pressing questions of our time is whether religion is a cause or a cure of cultural conflict. Volf’s answer, as Fooks shows us, is not ‘no religion’, but rather more, what he calls ‘thick religion’. His is a call to engage more seriously with the peace-making resources at the very heart of the Christian faith. This will require for Christians ‘an all-encompassing change of loyalty, from a given culture with its gods to the God of all cultures’ (Volf, p.40). Embrace—the theme of Volf’s major work, is not mere cheap reconciliation, but will require deep and costly forgiveness. Volf’s theological exploration of otherness and reconciliation has had an impact around the world.

3. Otherness and Disability

In our third article, Kirk Patston explores the issue of otherness and disability. Do we live in a land of ‘apartheid’, in which the disabled are systematically ‘othered’? Patston helpfully draws on the emerging field of disability theology to explore the portrayal of disability in the Old Testament. He asks and answers a number of fundamental questions. How can we reconcile the Bible’s call to welcome the alien and stranger with the way it appears to render certain groups, such as people with disabilities, as ‘other’? How are we to interpret the Old Testament’s complex portrayals of disability? Do postmodern critiques of these texts really fit? Patston reminds us that in the Old Testament ‘we do not meet the consistent, autonomous, rational adult that Enlightenment thinkers may have imagined. But we meet a humanity that is real.’

4. What it Means to Become ‘the other’

In our final article, Susannah Macready provides an insight into what it might mean to live with ‘the other’ and thus become ‘the other’. Her experience in entering the deaf community offers a humbling example of how we can experience otherness and yet find embrace. Her reflections on becoming an alien - becoming ‘hearing’ - are a timely reminder that relating to the other needs to be construed ‘less like an act of charity…and more like the initiation of diplomatic relations with another country, a country with an enviable language, culture and heritage.’

This is a challenging topic for all of us who live in pluralistic societies. How easy do we find it to embrace our neighbours, let alone our enemies? And in a more practical sense, how does this discussion challenge us as citizens as we collectively take responsibility for aliens and strangers. Does it inform our attitude to so-called boat people? What about the severely disabled, the homeless, the drug addict, the paedophile and so on? What does my understanding of the divine self-donation of the Cross mean for the construction of my identity and my relationship with the ‘other’ under the varied conditions of life? The writers in this issue have issued many challenges, I hope that many will read the issue and consider how to respond.

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Thursday 12 November 2009

The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible is scientifically accurate

We receive many books to review at CASE that we usually send on to reviewers. There is always a temptation to read every book yourself, but usually common sense over-rules the temptation and you pass each book on to someone else. I failed this test with Andrew Parker's book 'The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible is Scientifically Accurate'. A new book on Genesis is not unusual, nor is one that claims that the Bible is true. But what is more unusual is to find a scientist with no faith claiming that Genesis chapter 1 is consistent with the latest evidence-based science. This is in stark contrast to many scientists and atheists who spend a lot of time pointing to what they see as the inaccuracy of the Bible.

The motivation for the book

Parker's exploration of the topic arose after he had published a popular scientific book called 'In the Blink of an Eye'. The book explores the origins of life on earth and in it he outlines his 'light switch' theory that forms part of many scientists' understanding of how life began. His theory based on fossil evidence, holds that it was the sudden introduction of vision on earth that triggered the sudden explosion of complex animal life in the Cambrian era. After the publication of his book on the theory he started to receive letters from Christians pointing out that his scientific theories had parallels with the first chapter of the book of Genesis in the Bible. He decided to have a look at Genesis 'mainly out of courtesy' and was surprised to find that there were a whole series of parallels between the Bible's creation narrative and modern scientific accounts of the beginnings of life.

The Genesis Enigma is the result of his reading of Genesis, exploration of biblical history, and discussions with leading Christian scientists like Professor John Lennox, apologist Alistair McGrath and others. He writes the book as an agnostic scientist. I don't think he calls himself an 'agnostic, but as he writes the book this is what he seems rather than an atheist. In the first chapter of the book he explores the evidence for the authenticity of the Old Testament and evidence for the claims that it is an accurate non-fictional work. In the remaining chapters he provides an explanation of how scientific understanding of the origins of life developed over time and parallels this with the Genesis chapter 1 account.

What does he conclude?

In short, he concludes that the parallels between Genesis 1 and science are so strong that the writer must have either made an extraordinarily lucky guess, or that the writing was inspired. He sums up his arguments in the final chapter of the book this way:
"...the Genesis Enigma holds that the Bible has, in its opening page, correctly predicted the history of life on earth, with its series of macro-evolutionary steps, or fits and starts, from the origin of our solar system to the evolution of birds and mammals. We can be certain that the author of this biblical account would have had no idea of these scientifically established events, covering billions of years....The possible explanations for this parallel.....are clear-cut: either the writer of the creation account of Genesis 1 was directed by divine intervention, or he made a lucky guess" (pp 202-203).
In summing up his work he asks himself (and the reader) a serious question. "Could it be real?" Has the Bible survived as an authoritative text for many millions of people because it carries a divine message that strikes a chord with humanity? He concludes:
"But I must admit, rather nervously as a scientist averse to entertaining such an idea, that the evidence that the writer of the opening page of the Bible was divinely inspired is strong. I have never before encountered such powerful, impartial evidence to suggest that the Bible is the product of divine inspiration. The Genesis Enigma may provide us with support for this proposition on a whole new level" (p.238).
What Parker is NOT saying

Lest Six Day Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates see Parker's book as support for their readings of Scripture, Parker is at pains to dismiss such arguments. In no way is he trying to suggest that Genesis 1 is a scientific account. While accepting that people are free to believe both these theories, he suggests that they are faith-based rather than evidence-based. Parker isn't suggesting that the Bible is science. Rather, he is suggesting that faith and science can co-exist. He goes further to accept that it is possible to find "...God within the confines of the evidence of evolution..". Whatever theory is accepted for the origins of life, Parker suggests that a prerequisite is needed and that science cannot provide the answers. He continues to speculate and pose many questions as he tries to make sense of his discovery. Why is there a human propensity towards religious thought? Why has this persisted throughout the ages? Did the concept of God evolve in humans because it was needed to raise our emotional state (the claim of some atheists and scientists)? Or was it God-given? Could religion be a critical element in the human mind?

Reservations about this book

The dangers with a book like this is that in writing such an honest account of one's pondering about faith and the origin of life, the writer leaves himself open to criticism from absolutely everyone. Some scientists will critique his science, Christian's may critique his reading of Genesis, theologians might question his reading of Scripture and his understanding of God, and historians could question some of the historical analysis. But in spite of this, I find myself filled with admiration for Parker's honesty and humility in exposing his inner struggles to reconcile the coexistence of faith and science. In the final pages of the book he displays his vulnerability with these words:
"I am a scientist, and incorporating God into my thinking feels like a quantum leap. But I am at least comfortable with the idea that my acceptance of evolution, and science in general, does not affect, or is not affected by, my feelings about God" (p. 235)
Parker's book is an interesting apologetic from a surprising source. It's worth a read.

Related posts

'The God of Science' (here)
'Five Things I Never Learnt in a Science Class' (here)
'The Wonders of Space' (here)

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Revealing the Truth or Hiding it From Children: Learning from Humpty Dumpty

The BBC created quite a stir two weeks ago when one of its children’s programs altered the words to the children’s rhyme ‘Humpty Dumpty’, in order to give it a more cheerful ending. In the revised edition, instead of all the kings horses and all the kings men not being able to 'put Humpty together again', all the King's horses and men 'made Humpty happy again'. The revision of fairy tales and nursery rhymes isn’t new. In recent years some have been modified to remove racism, sexism and in some cases culturally insensitive material. As well, some have been touched up in order to make them easier to understand for today’s children. But is this always a good idea?

It’s easier to build arguments for removing racism and culturally insensitive material, but the type of revision that Humpty Dumpty has suffered is less justifiable. Why do I say this? I think there are a number of reasons but I’ll comment on just two.

1. Narrative helps to explain and offer a rehearsal
for life

Children’s stories introduce ideas and concepts in narrative form as a type of rehearsal for life. Narrative whether told, heard, seen or written can provide a way to learn about, reflect on and explain life. In fact life always ends in death and there can be suffering, sickness, persecution, fear and sadness along the way. Stories may just as easily give a false impression of life if they distort the nature of human experience, or offer it in a limited way. Life doesn’t always have a happy ending. In fact for all of us it can involve pain and suffering and ultimately will end in death.

How children grow in their understanding of the realities of life varies and causes many parents anguish and sometimes pain. Every parent who has had a tearful child come home complaining about being bullied for the first time; having been teased because of their appearance, body shape etc, will know what I mean. Life requires us to cope and grow with our successes, failures, pain, ridicule, joy and sorrow. But how and when do we deal with such issues? Because children begin life in innocence with no awareness of the hard and sometimes dark side of life, parents are right to be cautious about what concepts they introduce to their children as well as how and when. Greg Thiele’s post on appropriate movies for children (here) dealt with this issue. Children need to grow emotionally and not be forced to deal with issues beyond their stage of emotional development.

Parents are the key to the child’s emotional growth and wellbeing and have the important task of knowing what to say and when to say it to their children. It’s terrifying for any parent to let a child go off to preschool or preschool where we can’t personally respond to every situation. Often the way we respond to our children when they get home is in terms of story or anecdote. The child tells their story about what happens, and the parent often responds in narrative form, “I had something happen to me….”, “It’s a bit like that time that your sister….”, or “Daddy had that happen to him….”.

Beyond real life anecdotes and stories children are introduced to many more serious aspects of the human condition through story. On my other blog ‘Literacy, Families & learning’ I have written about the role that literature plays many times (here). For example, in a post on ‘Conquering Fears’ I explored the role that children’s literature can play in helping children deal with unknown fears and known fears like death, danger and the threats of other children. I also explored the role of literature in understanding ‘Death’ and ‘Being Different’.

Christian parents will of course always want to bring back their discussions with their children to the central narrative of creation that explains all other things. And while the best place for parents to start is in reading the Bible to and with their children, all narrative can provide echoes of the central and foundational human narrative. As I wrote in a previous post on ‘Christian Writing for Children’ (here), the gospel of Christ is the central narrative to which virtually all other narratives have some relationship – certainly in the Western cultural tradition and literature. The central focus of the Bible is Salvation History; with its central narrative tracing both the history of Judaism and Christianity and God’s redemptive plan for his people. In the beginning God created…and it was good. But sin entered the world, man rebelled against him and so God placed a curse upon his creation that one day would end in judgement. But God always had a plan for such rebellion; a plan of redemption motivated by love. An amazing gift of grace; his own son sent to die and three days later to be raised from the dead to defeat sin and death. A plan that provided a way for creation to be restored and for humanity to be brought back into a relationship with him.

The biblical narrative of God’s redemptive plan and work is the central narrative that gives shape to all other narratives. In every story there is a sense in which there is an echo of the biblical narrative. J.R.R. Tolkien once said (to his friend C.S. Lewis) that “The Christian story is the greatest story of them all. Because it’s the real story. The historical event that fulfils the tales and shows us what they mean." Lewis and Tolkien both saw the gospel narrative as the central or foundational human narrative.

2. Back to ‘Humpty Dumpty’: Disconnecting stories from ultimate truth

So does it matter that they’ve messed up ‘Humpty Dumpty’? I think so, but probably for different reasons than Ricky Gervais who is also fired up about the matter (see below). There are two good reasons. First, in messing about with a simple rhyme or fairy tale we strip away the depth of meaning and possibilities that were originally intended by the writer. Most fairy tales, in fact most children’s stories have many layers of intended meaning. In fact, many well known nursery rhymes and playground chants have deep political meanings. I’m preparing a separate post on this for my other blog, but let me illustrate with poor old ‘Humpty’.

We're not certain what the original intent of Humpty Dumpty. Some suggest Humpty Dumpty was a colloquial term used in fifteenth century England to describe an overweight person. Others suggest that the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ of the nursery rhyme was a large cannon used in the English Civil War (1642 - 1649) as part of the siege of Colchester (1648) by the Parliamentarians (Roundheads). It is believed that the cannon was placed on the city wall near St Mary’s Church (opposite - Colchester Arts Centre today). It has been suggested in one account that a shot from the cannon of the Roundheads succeeded in damaging the wall beneath ‘Humpty Dumpty’ that caused it to fall to the ground. The Royalists tried to restore it but 'all the King's men' couldn’t raise the canon back onto another section of the wall due to its weight. The town of Colchester eventually fell after a siege of eleven weeks. Many now doubt this reading of Humpty. Some suggest that it alludes to English King Richard III and the Oxford Dictionary refers to 'Humpty Dumpty' as a brandy drink boiled with ale. I like the siege of Colchester version but it is difficult to know the truth of the rhyme.

So at one level, changing the ending simply relegates this rhyme to a playground chant with a happy ending. But at a more fundamental level, the change to the rhyme strips away a connection or echo of the divine narrative. Changing the ending as they did is to suggest a lie to our children (if repeated). Instead, children must learn (eventually) that life can take twists and turns that we don’t expect, and that for all of us it will end up in death. But they also need to learn over time that while there is pain and loss in life, there is also joy and hope, and that ultimately we will be ‘put back together again’ just like the cannon (or the egg!) in and through Christ. Our only hope is in him, and we need not despair or be fearful of death.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-25)
3. Just for fun – Rick Gervais on Humpty

I don't want to trivialise a serious post, but I enjoyed the 'analysis' of Humpty Dumpty by Ricky Gervais. Gervais is one of my favourite comedians (star of the British TV series ‘The Office’) has a rant about what they did to Humpty. Apologies for some of his language.

Related Posts

Report in 'The Independent' on the BBC changes to 'Humpty Dumpty' (here)

Sydney Morning Hearld report on the story (here)