Flourishing: Health, disease, and bioethics in
Church Times Bookshop £21.60 (Use code
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
Unfortunately, such important but abstract terms elude
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.