I want to take another look at this issue of abortion, personhood and the self. Essentially, the concept that was conveyed in the last post was that bodily existence and the spirit or soul or some bodiless “I”/self are inter-connected. Where you see bodily existence you see the person. For me, it’s not like when you die you end up separating the two. When you are resurrected you are not resurrected without a body. To adhere to that is to adhere to Gnosticism in which the body is considered evil.
Here, I want to clear up some loose ends that could possibly arise with the personhood/body connection. The way I hope to accomplish this is via relying on the work of Christopher Veniamin’s little booklet, “Euthanasia: A Theological Approach.”
In this booklet Veniamin deals with euthanasia from an Orthodox perspective. In looking at A: the other end of life—in terms of euthanasia specifically (though euthanasia can occur at pretty much any time) and B: communion with God, I think it will make the grounding for prenatal life (theologically) more clearer. In other words, understanding euthanasia from this biblical/theological perspective helps to get a clearer understanding of abortion and the self and the human person from this end of life. Ironically, this post won’t be talking about euthanasia per se but rather using it as the framework for this matter. I happen to think that abortion and euthanasia are two sides of the same coin with regard to personhood. For if one believes that the moment of conception (the very beginning of bodily existence)—at the zygote and embryo stages that all that is there is a clump of cells and there is no brain activity or consciousness then that works at the other end of life as well.
For an example, Veniamin’s book uses the Terri Schiavo case to make his point. Why preserve someone’s life who is in a vegetative state both physically and mentally?
Veniamin thinks that western theology has been found wanting when it comes to these moral dilemmas. He says:
“…the divorce between doctrine and ethics, between faith and the life in Christ, which in turn stems from the fact that when applied to practical, every-day, ethical or moral situations, western theology is sadly found wanting.“
I think I have to agree with him. As much as I appreciate natural law (and I DO appreciate natural law) it only goes so far. To argue that our essence is human like an oak tree is “oaky” doesn’t tell me anything beyond that as to why I should preserve a human life. It seems all it tells me is that one is human from the moment of conception and hence I end up with speciesism.
Don’t get me wrong. I follow that logic and I agree with it. One is human from the moment of conception. But why preserve a human being? What makes them so special that I should preserve them? I need something deeper. Something that goes further than speciesism and this is where, I think, the Orthodox perspective contributes a response.
In my opinion, a response can only be grounded in theology or a theological metaphysic of the human person or the relationship of the created to the Divine. This was a complaint concerning Francis Beckwith’s book, “Defending Life,”—that it didn’t cover the theological angle—though I understand that was not the stated purpose of his book as the cover and title shows.
Having said that, Veniamin doesn’t want to reduce relationship or interactions to the mind or the physical. He is critical of Augustine’s “image of God” as being primarily rational. As it regards the eternal (the Godhead) there is no discernible organic body. To quote Veniamin:
“The human person, consequently, is seen and defined as the sum of its relationships and inter-actions, which is why, in respect to our earthly existence, such emphasis is placed on “doing”, and why, on the eternal plane, we are seen primarily as spirits or minds, either beholding God’s substance intellectually from a distance (as in the Roman Catholic tradition), or simply enjoying “fellowship” with God (as in the various Protestant traditions). But again, both of these views are understood rationally in terms principally of the mind.”
What Veniamin says is that with such an emphasis on the mind and on the rational there is an
“…absence of the level of communion with God on the level of the Uncreated, which surpasses both reason and mind, and which, in Orthodox theology, refers to the level of deification, the level of glorificatio or theosis.”
In the case of Terri Schiavo:
“…the startling fact is that once Terri Schiavo had become incapacitated in her faculty of reason she ceased to be regarded as a person possessing the capacity for communion, and was subsequently never treated as one still capable of enjoying a personal relationship with other human beings in this life; and even more startling, as one still capable of enjoying a full and perfect communion with God.”
In the Godhead, the unity of God consists in communion. In the case of human beings the unity of the spirit and the body is NOT
“…as a coming together of two distinct elements merely for the duration of earthly life–but as a unity from the beginning of human existence, intended to continue into eternity, and beyond.”
Now why is this important? It’s important because we COMMUNE WITH GOD IN THE WHOLENESS OF OUR EXISTENCE whether we are incapacitated or not.
Veniamin on St. Maximus the Confessor:
“In 1 Thess. 5: 23, Saint Paul adds the “spiritual” dimension, which underlines the fact that the human person is not a person in the fullest and truest sense unless he or she is in communion with God: “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and **body** be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This is an important point to grasp or understand. Veniamin again:
“Thus, the human person, created in the image of God, is only fully and properly such as a member of Christ’s Body, and our communion with God **involves the body (soma)**, the soul (psyche) and the spirit (pneuma). The emphasis, therefore, is on the human person’s communion with God **on every level of existence: the physical, that of the soul, and also that of the spirit. Human existence is embraced in its entirety;** it is healed, sanctified and transfigured in God, and at the same time, the union of the created with the Uncreated signifies a transcendence, that is to say, the raising of the human person to the right hand of God the Father (cf. Ascension), which means above and beyond necessity and all the limitations of created existence.”
Interestingly, as a side note, we are not saved as individuals but as the whole body of Christ. We are saved via communion with Christ and SIMULTANEOUSLY through communion with one another. Veniamin quotes 1 Corinthians 12: 25–27, where he explains that “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member be honoured (the Greek, in fact, reads doxazetai, “is glorified”), all the members rejoice with it.
This communion (with each other) can only be accomplished through bodily existence.
Veniamin finishes with this:
“As mentioned earlier, in the Orthodox tradition we have three levels of existence, three aspects which come together in man qua man, that is to say, when the person is what he or she has been created to be, namely, in communion with God on the physical plane, on that of the rational soul, and also on that of the spiritual or pneumatological level of existence (1 Cor. 12:25-26). Thus, there is the level of reason, the level of the nous, and the level of perfect union and communion in Christ, which both includes and goes beyond the other two. The amazing thing about this schema is that the body is included on all levels of personal existence. Now I realize that there is much more that could be said on this question, as also on other related question that I have not even touched upon. But since my intention is merely to point to certain oftentimes neglected considerations, allow me to conclude these brief remarks on the question of Euthanasia, by stressing that communion with God and one’s fellow human beings cannot be measured either by how physically active we are or by what an Electroencephalogram (EEG) is able to detect, however sophisticated. For this reason, it is of vital importance for us as a society to be mindful of the fact that communion with God and our neighbour is a state that at one and the same time includes and goes far beyond every aspect of our created nature: beyond, therefore, the physical aspects of our existence, beyond the rational or reasonable aspects of our existence, and even beyond the noetic or intellectual aspects of the God-like human mind itself.”
For me, this means that even if you were to have an zygote or an embryo that is not conscious or have any situational awareness as one might have with a Terri Schiavo type person that is not to say that said person cannot be in communion with God. There is a communion in the spiritual/body inseparable unity that goes beyond mind or physical functionality.