Playing God: A theological reflection on medicine, divine action, and personhood
by Ann Pederson
I am a Christian Lutheran theologian and I teach theology to undergraduates at Augustana College, a small Lutheran comprehensive-liberal arts college in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Two large health care networks, surround Augustana College and in addition to my teaching, I serve on an Institutional Review Board and am an adjunct associate professor in the Section for Ethics and Humanities at the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine. Scientists surround me and as a theologian I do my work in the intersections and connections between theology, medicine, and ethics.
Teaching undergraduates is always exciting because they raise urgent and meaningful questions about life. But they also come to class with lots of stereotypical notions about the relationship between the biological-medical sciences and religion/ethics. I can almost always expect that the first issue a student raises in an interdisciplinary class will be: “Aren’t we playing God when we do this?”
When Christians use the phrase, “playing God,” it’s often in the context of issues related to science and technology. For example, if scientists are seemingly overextending the boundaries of their power and knowledge when they engineer the human genome, then Christians claim they are “playing God.” Or in the beginning of life, if couples use in vitro fertilization to have a child. This language flashes in media headlines and in theological arguments.
This language becomes even more problematic when it is our loved ones that are at the end of life. Families of dying patients are often their most dysfunctional when their loved one is dying; they demand that the doctors “do everything.” All of a sudden, the worry about “playing God” takes a theological back seat to their fear about the loss of life. They want God to step in and do something.
This language of intervention betrays strange theological perceptions of divine action. Death, not life, drives our language of “playing God.” Such language finds its roots in the caricature of the classical theistic God—the Omni God—and in our pathological fear of finitude. Ernst Becker’s The Denial of Death, a classic of the 1970s, should be a required read for all of us in this scientific and technological age. When we seek to improve the human condition, we must realize that there are ultimately limits to the human condition—and those limits include our mortality and finitude.
However, I believe there are other ways to think about this. Consider Philippians 2: 5-13:
Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes."
The “intervening,” controlling God of the media and our medical conversations is hardly the one that is written about by Paul in his letter to the Philippians. This God’s power is found in weakness and suffering. This God comes to the world in the form of those who are enslaved by the powerful. So if we are playing God, might it not be more appropriate to say that such divine interaction is about suffering with the creation and not hoping for intervention in a hospital room? That, as Christians, if we are to play God, we must become like Christ so that we can bear our neighbor’s burdens, become witnesses to the suffering of those who are in pain and anguish?
To play God is to bear witness to the fragility of our life. The kenotic (self-emptying) action of God’s play is a drama lived out in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this play, new life and resurrection comes only when we fully know and acknowledge the death of our old life. To play God is to realistically face death in order to fully experience resurrection. This kind of theological play might transform the decisions we make from fearful ones to faithful ones.
As I’ve seen in my own classes, students will often alter their initial beliefs about how God is at work in the world when they realize that their theological beliefs far exceed their ability to make sense of what is going on in the sciences. The plot line of the human story is moving faster than students have expected and their initial ideas can seem naïve and simplistic. The larger cultural narratives of technology, human persons, medicine, and religion sharpen our questions about the world and what it means to be a part of it. Students then sharpen their answers in light of the complexity of the questions.
Like most of my students eventually come to do, I welcome and love the challenges that I must face when I encounter new perspectives. The interaction between religion and science in the 21st century is much richer than when I first entered the dialogue. For instance, when I started seminary about 35 years ago and first worked as a professor, I had few women role models and mentors. The vast majority of scholars were white, Euro-American men. There was a noticeable absence of women’s voices, as well as other diverse perspectives. As a Christian and feminist theologian, I raised questions: How then shall we do research? Whose views matter and why? The questions and the answers depend on the observers and the observations of those involved.
Whose voices get heard and those who don’t get heard are part of the narratives that religion and science tell. However, new voices are emerging all of the time and they challenge my worldview both as a Christian and as a woman. Many of the perspectives are from other countries, religions, races, and sexual orientations. For that I am grateful because my own Christian theological perspectives are much broader, more faithful, and more hopeful. My challenge now is to encourage the students that I teach to value their unique perspectives and to be open to the challenges and possibilities that the sciences bring to their Christian values and beliefs.