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People are more than their bodies

Using medical technology with a holistic view of the person

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March 22, 2021

In October 2019, my family’s life changed forever. My wife was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is a cancer of the lymphatic system. We were both in shock when we heard the news because she was so young and healthy. Recently, after two rounds of chemotherapy, with a recurrence in between, she underwent a stem cell transplant and high-dose chemotherapy that we pray God will use to heal her completely. We have been in and out of hospitals for a few years now and were quarantining even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit our shores. Needless to say, it has been a difficult few years, but throughout the process we have been reminded of God’s mercy and of the amazing power of medical technologies.

Medicine as a technological development 

When our society talks about technology, we often revert to visions of the latest gadgets, smartphones, robots, and even artificial intelligence. But we often fail to comprehend that medicine is a form of technological development. My family has seen the power of medical technology firsthand and how it can be harnessed for good in our society. We are thankful for the countless doctors, nurses, and administrators who have served our family so far and for the life-saving innovations and treatments that have been pioneered in cancer research over the last century.

In the early 1900s, a German chemist named Paul Ehrlich set out to develop drugs that could be used to combat infectious diseases. He coined the term “chemotherapy,” even though he was not overly optimistic about the use of these drugs to fight cancer. Yet in the last 50 years, we have seen astronomical growth in the use of chemotherapy and other treatments to combat the devastating effects of cancer, including my wife’s. But for all of the good of these innovations, there has been a flip side, just as there is with any technological progress in society.

More than a technical problem

As the french philosopher of technology Jacques Ellul writes in his well-known work, The Technological Society, the surge in technique over the last century has been a force that has radically altered every segment of our society and shaped our social fabric toward a pursuit of ever greater efficiency and mechanization in every area of life, including medicine. As a result, one of the tendencies that we must be aware of in our technological society is the way that these tools can cause us to gloss over the fullness of human life and focus on other people as merely technical problems to be solved or bodies to be fixed.

This same technical force is picked up by Jeffrey P. Bishop in his work The Anticipatory Corpse, where he speaks of the trajectory of medical innovations in the 1950s-1960s toward defining life not in a meaningful sense but by the measure of physiological function (119). For Bishop, this meant that “the power of technology renders the practitioner forgetful of meaning and purpose” because we begin to define life solely on physiological traits and as a technical problem, rather than as a holistic account of the entire person—body, mind, and spirit.

If we reduce humanity down to physiological functions, we not only overly simplify our existence but also dehumanize each other and ultimately ourselves in the process. We are not simply bodies to be fixed but embodied souls created with a specific telos, or end, by God’s design. As bioethicist and theologian Brent Waters has written in his excellent volume This Mortal Flesh, our finitude and the devastating effects of sicknesses and diseases—like my wife’s cancer—are to remind us that “our lives are not our own; they belong to God. Life is not a product we produce or own, but a gift that is entrusted to us, and we are to care for and use this gift in accordance with God’s expectations and commands” (143).

As we begin this next season of our journey with cancer, I would ask that you pray for my wife and family. We long for healing and restoration, but regardless of what comes, we also pray that God would use this season to remind us that our lives are not our own and that we were bought with a price by Christ, who will one day redeem these fallen bodies and resurrect us to newness of life with himself for eternity (1 Cor. 6:20). As Christians, we must reject the mechanized view of human life that is so prevalent in this age of technology and embrace the wholeness of humanity as embodied souls, created for the purpose of loving God and loving others as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39).

This article originally appeared in the WeeklyTech newsletter. Sign up here to receive more resources on technology and ethics.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as chair of research in technology ethics and leads the ERLC Research Institute. He writes and speaks on various topics including human dignity, ethics, public theology, technology, digital governance, and artificial intelligence. His book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, released March 2020 with … Read More