I have attended the last three of these conferences and each time, I have gone away challenged to think more deeply about bioethics while at the same time encouraged to be about the work of being “salt and light” in a culture that desperately needs “true truth.” I expect this year will be no different as we gather to contemplate “The Scandal of Bioethics.”
What is “The Scandal,” you may ask? Well, here’s how the conference organizers describe it: “Originally conversant with Christian moral reflection, bioethics has emigrated from bedside consultations to interdisciplinary research, public policy debates, and wider cultural and social conversations that all privilege secular discourse.”
Gilbert Meilaender, whom I consider to be one of the most thoughtful and articulate bioethicists (past or present), put his finger on this shift in bioethics more than a decade ago, commenting “Many of the early figures in the bioethics movement were scholars in the field of religion, and in the several intervening decades bioethics has largely fallen into the hands of scholars trained in other disciplines” (Body, Soul, and Bioethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), 32).
So too did H. Tristam Englehardt, Jr., another highly regarded bioethicist and scheduled speaker for this year’s conference, in his book The Foundations of Christian Bioethics. As Englehardt observed, “During the 1960s and early 1970s the various Christian bioethics flourished at the vanguard of bioethical scholarship, so that in this period one could not have given an adequate account of medical ethics or bioethics without taking account of the work of Christian thinkers such as Ramsey and Hauerwas. Yet, just as secular bioethics assumed an important role for public policy, Christian bioethics receded in cultural significance and force” ( Exton, PA: Swets & Zeitlinger, 2000, 12).
As we consider “The Scandal” this week, my hope is that we will spend some time in collective retrospection. However tempting it may be simply to look outward in our search for a cause – and certainly, who can deny the secularizing pressures within post-modern culture – I would submit that there is good reason to first look within the camp of “Christian Bioethics.” As for why I believe such to be the case, the answer awaits you in Room 125 of the Rodine building on Trinity’s campus on Friday, 7/15 at 2:10pm. [yes, this is a shameful advertisement . . . how low one can sink in the effort to boost attendance numbers at his own presentation!!! . . . complicating that effort, however, is the fact that there are some excellent topics for the other papers being presented in that same time slot, including multidisciplinary bioethics, dementia care, posthumanism, among others].
For those of you inclined to do some preparatory thinking in advance of this week’s conference, I commend the following brief essay for your reading: Michael Banner. “Introductory Remarks: Christian Ethical Reasoning.” Transformation 1998 (Vol. 15, No. 2, 15-17).