The Human Person: A Bioethical Word

by Francis Etheredge Reviewed by Yoon Shin, PhD. Originally featured in Homiletic & Pastoral Review amd reprinted with permission




I was invited by the author, Francis Etheredge, to review The Human Person. I was intrigued because I do not normally engage classical Catholic thought. I have some familiarity with Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy, which aided my reading of this book, and the writings of Catholic theology of religions scholars Paul Knitter and Gavin D’Costa. Readers may find Etheredge’s openness to the universality of truth in other religions consonant with D’Costa’s writings. However, hardly anyone would argue that Knitter and Etheredge are on the same page, even as confessing Catholics. This little background gives a glimpse of the extent of my knowledge of the tradition to which Etheredge belongs. My background is in Reformed theology and classical Pentecostalism. However, Etheredge desired readership beyond Catholics, and the primary course I teach is ethics, so I agreed to write this book review. I was also leading an independent reading course with a graduate student on ethics, so we decided to read the book together.

Although Etheredge intended to make the book accessible for wide readership and limited the use of footnotes, the book still runs almost 400 pages. However, the book immediately displays the intellectual capabilities of the author, and is a tour de force in the fields of theological anthropology and bioethics in classical Catholic thought. The many scholars who wrote their forwards to each chapter, a unique style in its own regard, agree. These forwards provide extra content, whether as primarily summaries or further arguments. As important as these contributions are, my student and I agreed that the book does not seem appropriate for lay reading. Perhaps this critique is due to the different traditions we inhabit. Etheredge’s Catholicism has long valued the catechesis of its members. Pentecostal and Evangelical traditions have traditionally neglected catechesis, and its members are often theologically and biblically illiterate. Given this inherent problem within our traditions, Etheredge’s self-consciously Catholic arguments may prove too difficult and controversial for sympathetic readership from the lay members in our traditions.

The work is rigorously argued and provides valuable insight to Catholic anthropology and bioethics. Etheredge’s main anthropological idea is that humans are persons-in-relation. This unitive theme extends to the person as a psychological-physical being who is also activity. Activity exhibits being even as being manifests activity. Etheredge builds this perspectival structure of human being through engagement with philosophy, theology, Scripture, and science.

Unique to Etheredge’s argument is his methodology that bypasses an abstract and theoretical starting point; instead, beginning from lived experience. Lived experience is complex. By reflecting on lived experience, Etheredge draws attention the dynamic and complex nature of human personhood. There is a developmental picture that Etheredge draws of the person, not merely in terms of physiological change that humans undergo, but also their psychological development. This is why marriage is such an important starting point. Marital conception of a child is a gift that flows from God. Conception outside of conjugal union is discouraged because such instances already introduces malformation in the vital relationship between parents and child, and this malformation is critical because humans are person-in-relation. Because humans find their source in the triune God, right relationship is vital to human be-ing and how they treat each other.

Taking lived experience seriously, there is possible avenue for fruitful dialogue with phenomenology and existentialism. Perhaps this book will be a catalyst for conversation between Thomists and postmodernists. There are also themes of unity and the unnecessary dividing of this unity that shares similarities with Herman Dooyeweerd’s philosophy of modal spheres.

The book consists of seven chapters and an epilogue. Chapters five and seven deal most with bioethics while the other chapters outline his anthropological arguments. The first chapter establishes Etheredge’s methodology of starting from lived experience, and the second chapter concretizes this starting point in marriage and family life. Chapter three provides a philosophical reflection on lived experience of relationality. Chapter four provides an exegetical commentary on the creation narrative, and provides a wide ranging commentary on topics such as evolution, the nature of the creation account, and biblical authorship. Chapter five begins to turn more explicitly to bioethics, addressing the question of and the various attempts at defining personhood. Chapter six returns to anthropology, but from a biological and psychological perspective. Etheredge reserves the explicit treatment of bioethics for chapter seven, and his focus is mainly on the embryo and the beginning of personhood for the establishment of a universal ethic.

While one may think that Etheredge views anthropology as a foundation for bioethics, given its dominant theme and chronological presentation, it is clear that Etheredge is a unitive thinker. In other words, his views are not linear. Both anthropology and bioethics inform one another. It is not that a person’s status as a person-in-relation informs bioethics. Rather, the person is a bioethical word. That is, bioethics, the ways one ought to be treated, also informs how we are to understand ourselves. So who are we? The essential idea, as mentioned, is that we are persons-in-relation. Etheredge builds this case by starting from the lived reality of marriage. The sacrament of marriage, a uniquely classical thought shared by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox that my student found can be helpful for his community, brings about the necessary good of the gift of life. Human life begins from the sacred relationship God has established, and this relationship is a gift from God and a gift to each other.

Because human life arises from the blessed relationship between a mother and father in marital-sexual union, Etheredge is firm in his Catholic commitment that ensoulment begins at conception, which carries important bioethical implications. His scientific knowledge of human conception is erudite, although he makes the important point that anthropology cannot be defined purely by science.

There is much to say about this book that this review cannot cover. I will keep my sympathetic critique to a minimum. First, Etheredge rejects artificial means of conception because the goodness of life and the relationality of human be-ing are essentially tied to conception in marital union. However, he glosses over the problem of infertility, and his argument may be stronger if conception through marital union is seen as a better, God-intended, mode rather than presenting it as essentialto human personhood.

Second, and relatedly, he addresses the issue of embryonic adoption and the critique that embryos created via in vitro fertilization violates the natural mode of conception. That is, if IVF is a technological means of conception, then are adopting parents complicit in participating in an unethical act? However, this issue only arises if one accepts the necessary goodness of biological-marital conception. Since Etheredge’s methodology begins from lived experience, question arises as to what the arguments would look like if an infertile person wrote the book. While conception via marital union may be optimal, is natural conception the only necessarily good mode of conception? Third, Pentecostal history is replete with people who, like many of our Catholic brothers and sisters, committed themselves to singlehood for the ministry of the gospel. If marital union and conception are the archetype of human be-ing, then it seems that those called by God to singlehood is somehow missing out on participating in a vital part of being human. As a Pentecostal, I would like to provide a pneumatological assist to my Catholic brother and suggest that a better existential starting-point for a relational anthropology is Pentecost. The movement of the Spirit in the world, the Church, and individuals establish not only human relationality, but divine-human relationality as well.

Fourth, although the book packs a lot of information, it may prove too long for many laypersons. There are sections, such as further thoughts, God and the beginning, the nature of the creation accounts, Mosaic authorship, and even the many forwards, that could be excised to shorten the length and promote wider readership. Unfortunately, it seem as though the author wanted to pursue every interesting idea instead of limiting the scope.

Fifth, and relatedly, with the level of quality of writing and its length, the book is most appropriate for upperclassmen and graduate students. My student who is not familiar with classical Catholic thought did not recognize Etheredge’s Thomistic arguments, whether it was about form and matter or the universality of truth and natural reason. Therefore, at least within Pentecostal and Evangelical traditions, Etheredge’s important arguments may be, at best, missed or, at worst, ignored as overly scholarly by many lay readers. That is unfortunate because many Pentecostals and Evangelicals will find much to agree with Etheredge’s anthropology and bioethics, especially the relationality of human be-ing, the sacredness of marriage, and the concern for the unborn. If the book does not have this direct ecumenical effect, perhaps its Catholic readers could popularize Etheredge’s arguments for ecumenical fellowship with Pentecostals and Evangelicals in order to formulate a universal ethic.

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