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Strength for living

17 October 2014

Robin Gill considers a Barthian view


Flourishing: Health, disease, and bioethics in theological perspective
Neil Messer
Eerdmans £23.99
Church Times Bookshop £21.60 (Use code CT131 )

IN HIS thoughtful collection of essays Respecting Life: Theology and bioethics (SCM Press, 2011; Books, 30 September 2011), Neil Messer argued that theologians in the public forum had three distinctive parts to play: the first was to challenge the over-simplifications of some secular forms of bioethics; the second was to deepen public discourse within bioethics; and the third was to help the Church to be a genuine moral community in the way in which it thought and acted in relation to bioethical issues.

In this new monograph, the author develops these more systematically by addressing a single question: "From the perspective of a Christian theological tradition, what should we understand by 'health,' 'disease,' 'illness,' and related terms?"

Unfortunately, such important but abstract terms elude consistent definition.

Professor Messer has no difficulty showing that philosophers and bioethicists offer various definitions of "health", etc., which soon fall apart upon closer scrutiny. Even the famous definition that was offered by the World Health Organization in 1948 - that health is "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity" - now seems grandiose, hyperbolic, and finally unhelpful.

Messer's first and slightly pedestrian chapter examines several other similar definitions and finds them all wanting. The second chapter is distinctly more stimulating: it weighs up the merits of competing social and medical understandings of disability, and opts finally for a mixture of the two.

In the two following chapters, Messer offers a careful analysis of specifically theological accounts of health and illness, starting with a useful summary of some of the biblical evidence, and then opting (as he always does) for Karl Barth's.

He does temper the latter somewhat with a discussion of the theology of Aquinas. Only then does he tentatively offer his own definition of disease: "an internal state, condition, or process, which tends to disrupt a physical or mental function such that the fulfilment of a proximate end of embodied creaturely human life is hindered or threatened".

In contrast, health, he argues, fits Barth's definition as "the strength for human life".

Does this overcome all of his difficulties with secular definitions? Probably not: on this definition, the process of ageing soon becomes a disease. Yet this is, once more, a thoughtful contribution to an on- going, but probably irresolvable, politically topical debate.

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