At last week’s CBHD conference, a few of us were treated to a unique “Drinking-from-a-firehose” experience. Jerome Wernow gave a talk with the eyesplitting title, “Bioethics: Facing a Philosophical Theology of Tragedy and Mystery.” Intrigued at the title in the conference brochure, but having no idea at all what it might refer to, I slid into a seat in the classroom where Dr. Wernow was to speak, prepared to be befuddled. Instead, in the space of about about twenty minutes, those of us in the room were given an alluring glimpse into a poignantly beautiful picture for doing bioethics that alters what I see when I look at a patient.
I will attempt to present gleanings from the rich feast that was Dr. Wernow’s talk. The early 20th Century Russian philosopher Nicloas Berdyaev wrote, “There can be no moral life without freedom in evil, and this renders moral life a tragedy and makes ethics a philosophy of tragedy.” As anybody who has witnessed the anguish of those who seek an ethics consult can attest, as anybody haunted by the dark questions our modern technology raises would agree, in bioethics all decisions are fraught with tragedy; ethics consultants are actors in one-act medical dramas that are tragedies. And tragedy is neither lessened nor assuaged when good and evil alone are used in bioethics’ calculus. Our knowledge of good and evil is damaged, the product of a lie (“your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil“); it was in the very act of grasping for the tree of that knowledge that we were banished from the tree of life. When we approach people whose stories have taken a catastrophic turn and we wield only the calculus of good and evil, our bioethics is left lifeless, empty, and tragic. According to Wernow, to address tragedy we must turn to mystery, to “Mystery-revealed:” Christ, in whom is Life. The question we ask as Christians doing bioethics is not just, “What is good?” but “How do I bring eternal life into this tragedy? How do I bring the mystery of Life into the abyss?”
There was an amazed silence in the little classroom when Dr. Wernow finished. Unfortunately, that is all I can leave the reader with. I am not even sure that in my pathetic summary I presented Dr. Wernow’s vision remotely accurately; his ideas poured out quickly and passionately, I could take only skeleton notes, and he has not as yet published an article or book that sets out the implications of the “Philosophical Theology of Tragedy and Mystery.” But I sure love his vision of bioethics-as-drama instead of as sterile philosophical specimen; and I can embrace the quest to bring the Mystery of Life into tragedy as a robustly and profoundly Christian way to engage and immerse myself in the tragedies of a fallen world.