When individual autonomy is supported by a gnostic ethic
By Bruce Clemenger. Reprinted with permission from Faith Today. Subscribe to read more of Bruce's columns.
Canada ended its longstanding ban on assisted suicide and euthanasia in 2016, when it introduced several exceptions permitting medically assisted death. Groups wanting to widen the exceptions didn’t even wait for the proverbial ink to dry before preparing their legal challenges.
Two cases, one in B.C. and the other in Quebec, are moving closer to their hearings, with both challenging a law their clients believe is too restrictive. Why limit medically assisted death, they ask, only to adults with a terminal illness (grievous and irremediable) and near death? What about minors, or those who are not mentally competent, or those suffering from purely psychological conditions?
The EFC and the Christian Legal Fellowship are jointly seeking intervener status in the B.C. case which is challenging why the illness must be "incurable," why the person must be in an "advanced state of irreversible decline," and why natural death must be "reasonably foreseeable."
While we oppose assisted suicide and euthanasia, we believe an increased number of vulnerable people will be harmed with a further expansion of the criteria. We find ourselves in a position where we are defending the existing legal limits to assisted suicide, even though we still oppose the practice entirely.
In its 2015 decision to allow assisted suicide and euthanasia in limited cases, the Supreme Court of Canada was attempting to strike a delicate balance between the sanctity of human life and individual autonomy. That balance could only be maintained within narrow restrictions.
In the EFC’s submissions, we affirm previous court recognition that the sanctity of human life is a social norm which underlies the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and which undergirds our criminal law as well as our health care and social welfare systems. It is critical to our understanding of human dignity and why all should be treated with equal respect and care.
We argue that to expand the criteria for assisted suicide would eliminate the delicate balance established by the court, expanding individual autonomy to the detriment of the sanctity of human life.
But there is also another set of ethical beliefs at play, one clearly articulated in the recent EFC-supported study on young adults called Renegotiating Faith (www.RenegotiatingFaith.ca).
The study examines a common set of ideas it labels the Universal Gnostic Religious Ethic. Gnosticism, a line of thinking which prioritized the immaterial over the material, was a heresy opposed by the early church. However the study suggests gnosticism has found contemporary expression.
Usually when we think of the immaterial we think of spiritual things. However, our new digital worlds are also immaterial. The internet is full of places where our selves can become disembodied and released from limitations of time, space and deteriorating health, as my colleague Rick Hiemstra, the main author of Renegotiating Faith, points out.
While God’s creation includes the material and the non-material (all having been deemed by God to be good), people have often made the gnostic mistake of minimizing or rejecting material reality in favour of seeking ultimate meaning and fulfillment in the immaterial realm.
In contrast the Scriptures teach that both the material and immaterial are aspects of human life. For example the doctrine of the resurrection of the body makes clear that death is not an escape from material reality.
Gnostics strive to be freed from the limiting shackles of our bodies. In their view, matter and our bodies are at best things we can use to seek the immaterial, merely a means to an end. There is nothing inherently good in our bodies, no substantive meaning, almost no value.
Such gnostic ideas inform current discussions about individual autonomy – which then become focused on ways to overcome the limitations of our bodies in the pursuit of unhindered self-expression. The sanctity of human life is undermined in this reach for greater autonomy.
Such thinking will only lead down the wrong path to increasing acceptance of practices that treat the body as a means to an end – the commercialization of surrogacy, the expansion of genetic technologies and the legalization of prostitution.
In response Christians need to re-emphasize the goodness of human bodies while also pointing to each person’s spiritual significance and worth before God. Our bodies and souls are not our own. As God’s image bearers, we are obligated to protect human bodily life. We will need to renew our affirmation of the sanctity of human life and the dignity of human persons in both their bodily/material and spiritual/immaterial dimensions. This may well become a key challenge of our generation.
Bruce J. Clemenger is President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Please pray for our work and support us at www.TheEFC.ca/Donate or toll-free 1-866-302-3362.
Author: Bruce J. Clemenger