A sermon given at Choral Evensong by The Rev’d Dr. Lynn Arnold, on the Eighth Sunday of Pentecost.

Christian Ethics and the gifts of Life and Identity

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

This is the third in the Christian Ethics series of sermons. Last week I explored comparative views of Ethics of Love, tonight I wish to consider the Ethics of Life and Identity reflecting on whether they are gifts of God or presumptions of Humanity. Ethical considerations of Life must start from how we see the concept itself; how we view its beginning – birth -and its end – death – as well as how we consider its progress and appearance (or identity) from its own alpha to its omega.

In considering these ethical considerations of life from beginning to end, some of you, in response to the question about what ethical issues present faith challenges, have raised topics such as cloning, genetic manipulation, abortion, eugenics and euthanasia. In the discussion session following the service tonight, we will pursue some of these topics as we talk about alternatives in considering the Ethics of Life. So, my task now is to map the ethical landscape which may distinguish faith ethics from alternatives with respect to the concept of Life.

Not unsurprisingly, the idea that animate life arose from inanimate primordial dirt of the universe is widespread amongst cultures the world over. The Maori, for example, believed that the god of the forest, Tāne Mahuta, created woman out of clay and breathed life into her; while for the Inca, their creator god, Viracocha, also formed humans from clay. Similarly for the Malagasy, their divine being Zanahary breathed life into clay dolls made by his daughter. So, Genesis 2:7 from our own Scriptures did not represent a dramatic departure from all those diverse explanations about the beginning of life:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life …

However, the later part of that verse from Genesis is worth noting for its significant additional comment:

חַיָּֽה׃ וַיִּפַּ֥ח

[Way-yip-ah hay-yah] and man became a living soul.

Our readings tonight both picked up this extension of the mere gift of the breath of life transforming it into something more profound – a divine gift of purpose. Listen to the words from Isaiah 42:5b:

God who gives breath to the people on the earth and what comes from it and spirit to those who walk in it.

While from the story of the Coming of the Holy Spirit, recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, we can perhaps discern something similar from those well-known words in verse 4:

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.

Everyone present that day already had, by their very birth, the  רוּחַ  [ruach – breath of God] within them, but they then received a divine presence way beyond the mere animate cells of their bodies. 

Atheists, of course, differ from such faith premises when it comes to the issue of agency. They do not accept the idea of some divine intention in the creation of life; they certainly wouldn’t accept the extension of that intention into something special about human life. The atheist simply believes animate existence arose from an accidental conjunction of circumstances out of inanimate matter.

Such different conceptions about the origin of life and its consequential meaning must perforce give rise to different ethical conclusions arising from those different perceptions of life and its purpose. As I have done in the previous sermons in this series, I now want to plunge into a literary bypass which I hope will help our ethical exploration.

In January 1816, Mary Wollstoncraft Shelley gave birth to a son, William. It may be the transcendent impact of the creation of that new life made her especially reflective; whatever the case, when the child was only six months old, Mary started writing her first novel – Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus – a work which would take her fifteen years to complete. Unlike most cinematic and televised versions of the story, the work is both deeply moving and philosophically profound. Of particular note in the book are the conversations involving Victor – both with the book’s narrator, and also with ‘the Adam of your labours’ as the creature referred to himself. Explaining to the narrator his motivation for creating ‘the thing’ as Frankenstein called him, he said:

Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me … [p55]

The would-be first of a new species, however, did not bless him, saying instead:

God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. [p133]

The story is a tragedy not so much because of the crimes which were committed by ‘the thing’, nor that of his creator in creating him, but because of the tortured life that he subsequently endured. Near the end the book, ‘the Adam of (his) labours’, speaking over the dead body of his creator, gave this melancholy soliloquy:

He is dead who called me into being, and when I shall be no more, the very remembrance of us both will speedily vanish. I shall no longer see the sun or stars, or feel the winds play on my cheeks. Light, feeling and sense will pass away, and in this condition must I find happiness. Some years ago, when images which this world affords first opened upon me, when I felt the cheering warmth of summer and heard the rustling of leaves and the warbling of birds, and these were all to me, I should have wept to die; now it is my only consolation. [pp224-5]

Death, in the sense of an anticipated absence of any life, became a solace to ‘the thing’ in contrast to Frankenstein’s own aspirations about defeating death when he had started his experiment. He had earlier said to the narrator:

… I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time … renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption. [p55]

In this context, death was to be defeated by never occurring. Yuval Noah Harari, in his work Homo Deus which is chillingly subtitled A brief history of tomorrow, describes a similar perspective about the concept of death. He writes:

Humans don’t die because a figure in a black cloak taps them on the shoulder, or because God decreed it, or because mortality is an essential part of some great cosmic plan. Humans always die due to some technical glitch … Nothing metaphysical about it. It is all technical problems. And every technical problem has a technical solution. We don’t need to wait for the Second Coming in order to overcome death. A couple of geeks in a lab can do it. If traditionally death was the speciality of priests and theologians, now the engineers are taking over. [pp22-3]

Once more, as in the previous sermons and if somewhat apologetically, I have been hyperbolic in an effort to highlight ethical polarity between faith and world views. Frankenstein’s creation of ‘the thing’ was neither an act of goodness nor love – while for us, we know that God saw that his Creation ‘was good’ [Gen 1:31]; and that subsequently, he gave us his Son ‘because he so loved the world’ [John 3:16]. Likewise, Frankenstein ultimately sought the death of his creation to bring an absolute end to life; while, through Jesus, this life is a race we complete and death is a transition [2 Tim 4:7-8]. Thus, there are many ethical questions which arise for us to consider. In the remaining time available, I want to consider two aspects of life: firstly, is life precious in its own right and, secondly, what do we mean by identity?

When I was a state Minister of Education, I said something which I later came to regret. What I said was something of a de rigeur cliché expected from all education ministers. I had said:

Children are our greatest resource.

There is even a video clip of me saying these words, so I can’t pretend that I never said them.

Why do I regret them? I do so because the truth is that God did not breathe life into every child ever born for them simply to become a resource for me or anyone else. In God’s eyes, every child has a precious value in his or her own right, not one which is dependent upon their worth to anyone else or the community in general. Recall Jesus’ own words:

See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven. [Matt 18:10]

There is a devastating cutting edge to such a resource analysis – for the terrible fact is that children are a ‘resource’ for those who trade in them, evilly abusing them. At the other end of value, the estimated 250 million of the world’s street children have no resource worth and thus vigilante death squads feel no compunction in eliminating them in the slums of many cities. Of equal darkness has been the use of abortion as a birth control measure – a shocking statistic in this regard being the 80% of pregnancies aborted in Romania between 1957-66.

The second question of ethical moment concerns Life and Identity. More particularly, who defines the identity of each of us? Do we self identify? – I am; or do others identify us? – You are … are does God identify us? – you are because I am.

Rev Prof Dr John Swinton, writing about identity, Focussing on the issue of dementia in order to explore the concept, says:

The question of identity – what makes me me – is complex and challenging. The complexity becomes even greater when we encounter the kinds of challenges that come with the experience of dementia. How can I be me when I have forgotten who I am? … Problems arise when we have forgotten our story and the stories of others. When this happens, people assume that we have lost our identity: ‘we are not the person we used to be.’

Victor Frankenstein gave identity to his creation – ‘the thing’; who in turn defined his own identity – ‘the Adam of your labours’. But what of us? Do we accept the world’s allocation of identity to ourselves and others or seek God’s?

John Swinton says:

From a theological perspective, we encounter quite a different understanding of what makes me me. From the biblical perspective, we are who we are not because of what we do or do not or what we can or cannot remember. We are who we are in Christ.

He quotes from Galatians to make his point:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [Gal 3:28]

The world’s ethics sometimes overlap with Christian ethics but sometimes they are a contest; it is no less the case here in thinking about life and identity. At such times, we can take heart from the call of our hymn which shortly we shall sing – Come, Holy Spirit, come!

Come, Holy Spirit, come! Inflame our souls with love, transforming every heart and home with wisdom from above. O let us not despise the humble path Christ trod, but choose, to shame the worldly-wise, the foolishness of God.

In the ethical contest between Christian views and the world’s, we are called to find wisdom in what the world would call ‘the foolishness of God’. We are then to answer life’s fundamental questions with that same foolishness seeking to honour that individual preciousness of life, of life eternal and of the identity of each life.