Remembrance Sunday – The Right Rev'd David Stancliffe

‘Anti-ageing research deserves a much higher priority, since age-related disease is the most common cause of death globally’ says Nick Bostrom, an associate of the university’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. Ultimately, he predicts, ‘our risk of dying in any given year might be like that of someone in their late teens or early twenties. Life expectancy would then be around 1,000 years.’I read this astonishing stuff last night in the Michaelmas issue of Oxford Today, the glossy news-mag sent to all alumni, as we are now called in the corporate fund-raising world. It’s in an article entitled ‘Woe, Superman’ on the ethics involved in the very real possibilities that are emerging of significant human enhancement. You don’t have to look further than the adverts on the Television for anti-aging remedies – ‘Because you’re worth it’ – to be reminded that ‘eternal life’ in modern parlance no longer refers to what used to be called heaven, the ultimate goal of our life, but to the ideal of endlessly prolonged physical existence.For people who inhabit a ruthlessly three dimensional physical universe, this endless existence may I suppose be all they can look forward to – more and more of the same. But is that what human life is for?The presumption of the modern, post-renaissance world is that the question most worth asking is how something works, whether it’s the human body, a computer or your motor car, or even the world itself. Armed with knowledge of how things work, we can conquer the world and solve every problem. But can we? And should we, even if we can? The debates we have in public life over and over again, and that the article in Oxford Today raises, show that we are moving inexorably into a position where a ‘can’ is now assumed to imply a ‘may’, or even a ‘should’ if that will increase the sum of knowledge, or some other supposed good, like human longevity or increased wealth. As Julian Savulescu, Director of the Centre for Practical Ethics says with reference to human enhancement, ‘To be human is to strive to be better. We have a duty to use our knowledge to achieve worthwhile goals.’While ‘worthwhile’ seems a highly tendentious word in this context, I suspect that what we are unconsciously taking for granted is an engineering-style pattern of thinking where a ‘can’ assumes a ‘may’. Patterns that derive from a precise, mechanistic language structure are ideal tools to use for examining how things – even the human body – work. In the west, we are the inheritors of thought-forms that are essentially Latinate, depending on a clear, temporal language-structure where cause and effect provide the linguistic framework through which we understand history and law, as well as the sciences. But reflection on what things are for requires a more allusive, speculative mode, where contemplation and wonder may provide the key to unlock the mysteries, and where knowledge might give place to wisdom. Few people these days are sufficiently fluent in classical Greek, with its moods and aspects, to appreciate that there are real alternatives to the Latin-based patterns of thinking we assume are the norm.These reflections are the preamble to my asking the question posed by today’s marking of Remembrance-tide. The context is the conflation of Armistice Day – the celebration of a longed-for peace after the bloody attrition of four year’s trench warfare in 1918, and the victory over the forces of darkness – as the conclusion of the Second World War was hailed – in 1945. This year it is given added sharpness by the escalating casualties in the conflict in Afghanistan. In a world where living as long as you can is assumed to be the ultimate goal, how can we make any sense of the loss of young life? Can there be any justification for keeping our troops there? How can we create the conditions to achieve that peace of which Jesus speaks, and which Isaiah pictures so vividly in the first lesson?When our Government was searching for an iconic centerpiece to place in the Millennium Dome, they decided to enthrone the source of our achievements, a gigantic model to show how the human body works. This provoked me to write a letter to The Times to propose an alternative. Instead of seeking to answer the question ‘How does the human body work?’ I suggested that what was needed was something which asked that more important question: ‘What is the human person for?’ Contrasting the post-renaissance and Enlightenment obsession with the mechanics of how things work – the scientific and stereo-typically male question – with the important one of asking what human life is for, I proposed that they hang in the middle of the dome not some inflatable doll with it’s tubes and organs, but an enormous crucifix.That is because the Christian answer to what human life is for has traditionally been answered in terms of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. This is the most challenging way of putting before people the upside-down values of the Kingdom of God. Most people in our society believe in getting all they can for themselves – in amassing wealth and possessions as a bulwark against the chaos and decline they see around them. The Christian vision, expressed vividly in the dominical sacraments, offers the reverse: we believe not in getting, but in giving.In baptism, the new Christian is plunged thee times below the waters, that they may know dying to self in order to live for God and their fellow human beings. In the eucharist we rehearse daily – weekly at least – the central proclamation of the gospel, that dying is the way to life: ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit’, as Jesus declares in John’s gospel.This is the way in which we pattern our life, how Christian formation takes place. It is from this that the word ‘sacrifice’, so much part of the vocabulary of today’s celebration, takes it meaning, and why the image of the crucifix is still so powerful that an Italian court last week thought it worth banishing a crucifix from a classroom wall. After all, it wouldn’t do to have the modern educational dogma of each person striving for his or her potential undermined by that antique notion of sacrifice, would it? What would that do to competition, the mainspring of our consumer society?So where do you stand about what’s worthwhile this Remembrance-tide, not just in relation to the remembered past but also in dealing with the present? Because the present – even our present here in Oxford – is full of choices and their attendant risks. How do you cope with the risks of the road traffic, the Chemistry lab, of sexual encounter, of a blow to the head from a hockey puck, of too much alcohol, or coke or crack, the risk of just being alive, let alone considering the risks our armed forces are exposed to, day by day? There’s a lot around in the Health and Safety directives about avoiding risk. Haven’t even our own archbishops repeatedly urged us in this time of perilous danger from swine-‘flu to minimise the risks of the common cup at the eucharist? Yet, do we really want a cotton-wool society? Can there be such a thing as a risk-free world? Can anyone – even if they stay indoors – avoid contamination? How will they build up the antibodies necessary to gain a natural immunity if they never meet a germ, till the one that carries them off? Ought we not rather to learn how to live with risk, and manage it, as a part of our growing up, our becoming fully alive? Isn’t death itself an important and inevitable end to life, not just something to be avoided at all costs as a sign of our failure to control our destiny?For it’s that death – the only thing we can predict with absolute certainty about our future – it’s death that puts the question mark over the language of achievement, of what we think we are on this earth for. Is it simply to live as long as possible, to gain as much wealth as we can and to avoid risk at all costs? Or do we have some more dynamic aim in life? Is it to achieve a good, to free the world of disease or bring just and lasting peace to its peoples – a billion of whom live under tyranny or with constant war? For many of us personally, these global goals may seem a bit daunting. But we can all learn to be givers, not getters; to change the way we engage with people from what we can get out of them to what we have to give them. That’s what the gospel offers as the way, not as a burdensome imposition, but as the only way to true life and deep happiness.And anyone who’s been in love knows it.

Rt Rev’d David Stancliffe, Bishop of Salisbury
8th November 2009

About the author