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Enhancing through Relinquishment: A Q&A with Dr. Ruben Zimmermann

Abundant and Abandoning Life

October 06, 2016 • By Ruben Zimmermann Abundant and Abandoning Life

What can a germinating grain teach us about enhancing life? What can we learn from this fascinating process of sprouting – when a seed abandons itself and gives way to new, flourishing life? According to ancient theories it was assumed that the grain really must die to start the process of germination and reproduction.

We can see this notion of abandoned or relinquished life in contexts ranging from the modern practice of medicine to the Gospel of John. A doctor in Mainz, Germany told me about one of his patients, an  83-year-old resident of a nursing home suffering dementia who had recently become bed-ridden, and began to have difficulty breathing. His daughter, herself fighting back tears, told the doctor, "My father has always been a fighter. He would not give up quickly, so all that can be done for him should be done for him." The man was admitted to the hospital where he was fully evaluated and treated, receiving a pacemaker and a feeding tube. Subsequently, however, he returned to his bed-ridden state in the nursing home. Weeks later, sitting at his bed, the daughter doubted the decision and wondered if extension of life is always the best.

When I was doing research at the Chisholm Bioethics Center in Melbourne, Australia earlier this year, I heard about a 72-year old patient with advanced intestinal cancer. The doctor had told her, "You are still relatively young and spritely, and with aggressive chemotherapy the progression of the disease could be significantly slowed." The patient talked with her family and considered her options. Knowing how difficult chemotherapy can be, she decided against the treatment and invited all her friends, children, and grandchildren to a "departure party”—a celebration of her life. Afterwards, she got her affairs in order and prepared for her passing. Four months later she died peacefully in hospice care surrounded by friends and family. But the last three weeks were difficult. In the midst of her pain, she sometimes doubted her decision and wondered if she should have opted for the treatment.

End-of-life decisions provide an example for foundational questions related life ethics. Is there a different between physical existence and life to the full? How does life become rich and fulfilling? What makes life worth living and what allows it to be "enhanced"? These are pressing questions clamoring for answers. The examples above reveal a paradox. On the one hand, an individual sought to cling to life at all cost and extend it through the means of modern medical technology—and yet something was missing. On the other hand, one can leave this life voluntarily, by giving oneself up to the process of dying and experiencing pain and self-doubt—and yet end life in peace. , Perhaps one can even be given a gift in the process. It may seem like an oxymoron, but is it possible to receive while giving up?

We can continue to pursue these questions by taking a leap into a different world and a different time. "Life" is also a theme in an early Christian texts. The evangelist who wrote the Gospel we call “John” speaks of "life" by using the Greek term "zoe" and not "bios," a choice that is both intentional and significant. The latter term, “bios,” refers to physical existence, whereas the former, “zoe,” refers the entirety of human life, including all its supra-temporal fullness, often translated as “eternal life,” or even better, “true life.”

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Life is here envisioned as a gift, because as something that is given for it cannot be created by humanity. In the Gospel it is God, and then also Jesus, who gives life (John 5:21). But it is not simply physical existence. Jesus wants humans to have “abundant life” (John 10:10). At the same time, though, the Gospel is acutely aware of the fragility and limitation of "life.  After all, it recounts the tragic story of the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth: at its heart, it is a drama of life that ends.

Yet, both of these strands are woven together in a curiously paradoxical manner. It is typical for John to express his insights through the use of metaphors and parables, and relevant for our current consideration is the short parable of the dying grain found in John 12:24. Jesus here explains his death by drawing attention to a grain of wheat, a grain that must fall to the ground and die in order to give new life: “Amen, Amen, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24).

Only by dying can new life be brought forth. The dying grain is not only a metaphor for Jesus's death, it is also an example addressed to all humans, as clearly demonstrated in the following verse:  “Those who hold to their life lose it, and those who surrender their life in this world will keep it for true life” (John 12:25). We notice a paradoxical interconnectedness: true life is given by means of giving up. Life is not kept for its own sake, but given for others. Abandoning this life becomes “abundant life."

In my research project I seek to put the first part of this blog post into conversation with the second, bringing current practical ethics and biblical texts together. How can the Johannine “ethics of life” contribute to current ethical debates? The Bible may no longer serve as a normative guide for life for many people in modern society. The wisdom of early Christian texts, however, can still inspire current debate on a meta-ethical level by contributing to an “ethic of relinquishing” which seems to fit the complexity of life more than Kantian reasoning or utilitarian calculations.

Following John's concept of life, we can state that true life is not achieved by making it perfect ourselves or through technical prolongation. Prolongation of life, for instance, is not a primary goal in the Johannine ethics of life. Enhancing life does not simply mean applying or increasing the possibilities which modern innovations, science, and technology offer, whether through medicine, the consumption of goods, or the use of the internet. In contrary, following the Johannine concept of “true life” enhancement of life can sometimes achieved by accepting the vulnerability and finitude of life. Thus, life can be enhanced even in the process of reducing possibilities—and in the extreme, in dying. Statements like this cannot be used as arguments in medical ethics or beyond. They are more situated along the lines of virtue or wisdom ethics, which can lead to new avenues in ethical thinking and behavioral decisions. 

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