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Spitting image

It's in community with others-such as Terri Schiavo-that we bear God's image and experience the fullness of being human

Issue: "Soldiers in harm’s way," Nov. 15, 2003

THE APOSTLE PETER GAVE TWO REASONS WHY A moral issue may be a bugbear: first, the issue is intrinsically "hard to understand"; second, men are "ignorant and unstable," and wont to "twist" things to their own designs (2 Peter 3:16). We have both in the Terri Schindler Schiavo case.

What makes the story of the 13-year bedridden woman intractable? The answer is that it is not one story at all but a Gordian knot whose strands include motives (the husband's, the ACLU's, etc.), medical definitions ("irreversibility"), slippery semantics ("vegetative state"), modern technology (artificial versus nonartificial life-extending measures), rights of guardianship, living wills, law on the books, law of God, "separation of powers," and how to think and judge as a Christian in a non-Christian country.

There have evolved in our institutions of higher learning a breed of experts who call themselves "end-of-life specialists." These are people who do nothing all day but consider a constellation of concerns revolving around the "terminal" patient: palliative care, pain management, quality of life, end-of-life options, alleviation of financial concerns, use of narcotics, organ donation, "extraordinary medical intervention," "artificial nutrition," "regulated assisted dying," and "rights of the dying." And at the center of the constellation-a void.

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For all depends on what you see when you're looking at Terri Schiavo on her bed. And what you see keeps shifting on us, as old verities are less certain in these last days, and the room fogs around us, and human rights blur with animal rights, and ... well, they shoot horses, don't they?

Time was when we would have seen an image-bearer lying there in hospice care. Imagio dei. But the phrase has always been amorphous. Where precisely is the imageness of God to be located? What could you remove from a man, with scissors or scalpel, and leave him still a man? The Greeks had it down to math: subtract from me all the other chunks of creation in the universe-the rocks and trees and birds and bees and instinct-and what's left over? Reason. Reason, the faculty where man touches close to god. Ergo, reason, the faculty without which man is not endowed with mannish rights.

Descartes also embraced dualism: Man is two separate substances, mind and body (but really, only mind). Embarrassed, however, to explain how injury to a physical limb can be "felt" in the immaterial mind, the French philosopher posited a place in the brain as the locus linking nonspatial mind to spatial soma. The soul is in the pineal gland, he said. Can an inchoate fetus then be human? Can an adult, whose pineal gland is damaged? (It begins to be evident that any attempts to find the image of God in physiology will be the death of man at both extremes of the cycle of life.)

Better that Descartes had gone back to Augustine than to Plato. For the fourth-century bishop of Hippo had a most wonderful insight-that the image of God is a trinitarian image. We are not the image of God because we are rational, or self-conscious, or fashioners of tools, or capable of language, or able to sit up in bed in a Florida hospital and sip broth. Rather, we are the spitting image of a God who has existed in relationship with Himself (among Himself?) since before the foundation of the world. Creation is not an aberration. When such a God makes replicas of Himself, He makes community-not island souls reaching out separately for Him, but interacting humans who are never so much the image of God as when they are interacting. And loving.

There is variety among men-black, white, and yellow, man and woman-because there is variety within God. (Indeed, there is variety within man-body, soul, and spirit-for the same reason.) There is interdependency among men because the Father loves the Son and the Spirit. And reality is so configured that we may not experience the fullness of being human, nor may we understand anything at all, including ourselves, apart from relationship with others. What irony to want to snuff the life that was meant to draw one deeper into the mystery. What miscalculation to treat as disposable a creature who, if she were weighed in the scales against the seven wonders of the world, we would have to prefer to all their glory.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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