Certainly, this life is miserable enough. And yet, if this miserable life could be made eternal for us, wouldn’t we just congratulate ourselves? Wouldn’t we just say, ‘I want to be exactly as I am now, only I don’t want to die?’
Awareness of one’s own aging may be uniquely human. Cataracts, thinning hair, diminishment in bone and muscle mass, osteoporosis, loss of renal function, deepening wrinkles of the skin, age spots, incontinence, increasing susceptibility to cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Parkinson’s and a host of other age-related maladies speak uneasily of the coming of one’s own death. Those of us fortunate enough to avoid premature death will not escape the physiological processes of aging most noticeable after the age of 30-or so it would seem. Science is attempting to change this, turning its attention to the ultimate adversary-death-by uncovering the mechanisms and processes associated with aging in hopes of greatly extending the human lifespan. Many scientists are optimistic that human aging may soon become the latest process to yield to technological manipulative effort. “After centuries of hokum and false hope, aging finally may be ready to yield to scientific manipulation.”1 Others conclude, “the unquestioned conviction that we cannot alter aging and the cellular underpinnings of the diseases that accompany the aging process is no longer strictly tenable.”2
While the growing body of knowledge concerning human aging is relatively new, the quest for immortality or an indefinite lifespan is not. The earliest systematic attempt to attain immortality is attributed to the Taoists, whose metaphysics centred on the tao, ‘the way,’ and taught the unity of nature (including matter and spirit), making it possible to experience a transformation from a physical body to an immortal being, or hsien3. Throughout the Medieval period, alchemy was believed to be the primary means by which one might attain immortality, and prompted the search for that elusive elixir vitae. As alchemy gave way to more advanced forms of medicine, the idea of a greatly extended life found able representatives in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Francis Bacon, Descartes and Antoine-Nicholas de Condorcet. Indeed, it was Descartes who believed that our increasing knowledge of the created order would one day lead to the retardation of aging. Historian Gerald J. Gruman has suggested that “no sooner did man’s confidence in supernatural salvation begin to weaken, than the released energies began to be diverted into an intensified effort to lengthen life on this earth.”4
The increasing amount of money devoted to longevity research bears witness to this fact. Several start-up biotech companies like Elixir Pharmaceuticals, Juvenon, Biomarker Pharmaceuticals, and Centagenetix,5 have turned their attention to the promising results in the areas of aging research as evidenced by the genetically-increased life spans of mice, nematode worms, and fruit flies. Since its formation in 2001, Elixir has raised $36.5 million dollars and has accumulated a staff of approximately 30.6 Xi Zhao-Wilson, CEO of Biomarker in California sees a great business opportunity; “the market is huge, we know that.”7 Indeed, a recent CNN “quickvote” poll indicated that 75% of the respondents would take a pharmaceutical to prolong life. Gruman appears to be correct about the loss of supernatural salvation as well. The ethical discussions surrounding longevity by altering the aging rate typically reject any notion of a ‘supernatural salvation,’ presupposing instead a materialistic worldview where death is viewed as permanent non-existence. If death means permanent non-existence, then it makes perfect sense to do all we can to prolong our healthy life span as long as ‘humanly’ possible; if life is good, say longevity proponents, then more life is better. Arguments against extreme prolongevity typically involve appeals to the naturalness of our current lifespan, the existing scarcity of the earth’s resources, variations of the precautionary principle, or the potential problems of psychological continuity brought on by limitations in the brain.
What are we to make of the genetic quest for longer life? Surely, there are many who wonder what all the fuss is about. Scientific commentator Ronald Bailey has dubbed those who oppose life extension “radical mortalists,” asserting that “future generations will look back at the beginning of the 21st century and marvel that intelligent people actually tried to stop biomedical progress just to protect their cramped and limited vision of human nature.”8 One could easily argue that it is Bailey’s vision of human nature that is limited, especially when compared to the truly ‘radical’ Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection, made possible by Jesus’ resurrection. Yet there is something to be said for protecting our ‘cramped’ vision of human nature, if we are to take the effects sin seriously. Limits can be good. The psalmist exhorts us to ‘number our days aright’ that we might become wise (Ps. 90:12). It would seem that the goal wisdom by assessing our time on earth is more than simply getting our estimation reasonably correct, whether it’s 80 or 125 years worth of days. One can’t help but wonder too, whether Bailey might label the apostle Paul a ‘radical mortalist,’ given such curiously macabre statements, identifying himself so closely with Christ’s crucifixion (Gal. 2:20), carrying about the death of Jesus in his own mortal body (2 Cor. 4:10), facing death for the sake of church (2 Cor. 4:11-12), and actually saying that to die is gain (Phil. 1:21).
But perhaps the most forceful argument for the goodness of limits, of our finitude, comes from Barth’s christological anthropology. Barth effectively turned Christian anthropology upside down when he argued that we learn about humanity by looking at Jesus, the ultimate human.9 Barth argued that Christ’s willingness to face death, and His suffering the full wrath of God affirms that it is good for us to die. “The end of Jesus Christ has made our end simply the sign of God’s judgment.”10 This is by no means a denial of death’s physical reality. But death has, in effect, lost its sting. From within a Christian worldview, it could be argued that science is attempting to take the sting out of death by attempting to remove its indefiniteness, to domesticate it by having life and death on our own terms, ‘to be exactly as we are now’ as long as possible. The Christian has hope for something better; eternal life-which will only be received through death-is far more than indefinite earthly life. As John Baillie once noted, “eternal life stands not for a greater length of life, but a new depth of it. . . . The soul’s hope has not been for more of the same, but for something altogether higher and better.”11 This Christian hope puts serious questions to the wisdom to manufacture additional, if not indefinite life on this earth.
1 Steven N. Austad, Why We Age: What Science is Discovering About the Body’s Journey Through Life (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997), 221.
2 Dwayne A. Banks and Michael Fossel, “Telomeres, Cancer, and Aging: Altering the Human Life Span,” in Journal of the American Medical Association 278, no. 16 (October 1997): 1348.
3 S. Jay Olshansky and Bruce A. Carnes, The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2001), 35.
4 Gruman, “History,” 77.
5 Daniel Callahan notes that The Alliance for Aging Research reported the existence of 25 firms devoted to aging research, or ‘gero-techs’ in 2000. See Daniel Perry, “The Rise of the Gero-Techs,” in Genetic Engineering News 20 (2000): 57-58.
6 “Genetic research spurs tho
ughts of biblical life spans,” [article on-line] (5 August 2003). Available from http://edition.cnn.com/2003/HEALTH/08/05/long.life.ap/index/html; Internet.
7 “Genetic research.”
8 Ronald Bailey, “Forever Young: The New Scientific Search For Immortality,” in Reason Magazine [article on-line] (August 2002). Available from http://reason.com/0208/fe.rb.forever.shtml; Internet.
9 Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. Harold Knight, et al. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1960), 46.
10 Barth, CD III/2, 629.
11 John Baillie, And The Life Everlasting (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), 204.
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