Dylan’s Rage and Donne’s Sleep

Or, Should a Religious Person Fight Diseases That Cause Death?

Since the time Cain and Abel, man has known that he could cause another human’s death. Today, with modern science, man now knows he can also delay that same death. Many have faith that, beyond death, there is eventual life…whilst others see it as the end of their existence. John Donne (“Death, be not proud”) and Dylan Thomas (“Do not go gentle into that good night”) were two poets whose work was used to support opposing viewpoints in an intriguing discussion by two great contemporary minds:

In June of 2015, billionaire technology icon, Peter Thiel, and famed New Testament scholar and former Anglican Bishop, N.T. (“Tom”) Wright, met at the Veritas forum to discuss “Imagining the Future, Innovation, and God”. These two giants in their respective fields offered two startlingly-different Christian perspectives on how we should address the fact of Death, in light of medical advancement — https://youtu.be/2YVHC-2vkMQ?t=28m58s

Tom Wright thought believers should generally not shy away from Death — co-opting Donne’s perspective as seeing it as a “short sleepe” which leads to “Much pleasure”. Thiel, however, sided with the Transhumanist / Theology+ crowd, who side with Dylan Thomas, opting to “rage against the dying of the light” — refusing to submit to Donne’s “sleepe”.

The dichotomy lies here: While Christians have historically helped humanity towards greater health-care for the world (thereby delaying death for many and hence radically increasing the average lifespan), they have also offered the hope of eternal life when no physical hope was left. However, since society is able to offer increasingly better physical hope via improved medicine (now targeting age-related disease), so Death can possibly be delayed longer than normal, where does that leave Tom Wright’s acceptance of death and Donne’s heavenly hope — “Rest of their bones and soules deliverie” ?

Is this another ‘God of the gaps’ argument, but this time advanced by the Christian who works in healthcare? Is that gap being closed by medicine whose aim is to alleviate the diseases of old-age, and hence remove, one-by-one, the causes of Death itself?

It is generally a fact that, barring the type of demise brought on by Cain (your brother speedily introducing your head to a hefty, sharp rock, i.e. an “unnatural” end), death and the period nearing the end-of-life is the culmination of a host of medical problems, of sickness, and/or disease. No one is likely considered healthy right before they die, true? Does one get healthier the longer one lives, or, no? That’s why, with modern science, we can keep people alive, because we know more about the cause of the problem, and therefore can address the specific issues.

Keep in mind that aging is being shown to be synonymous with being progressively unhealthy, diseased, sick, weak, and frail (you know, conditions Jesus went around healing). An almost child-like question then arose from the audience to both Thiel and Wright, to paraphrase: would you live radically longer (“forever”) if you could?

Before you answer, let’s dismiss the Tithonus / Cumaean Sibyl straw-man: We’re not saying live a long time in a feeble-state — we’re saying retain the youth of a young-to-middle-aged person, for a longer time than normal. Presumably the human body does not die because it is still healthy. How then do you answer without the Tithonus rejoinder?

Wright, without Tithonus, proposes that God will not allow ‘immortality’. Are we saying that God will not allow us to cure disease…just because a person is old? Thiel challenges this notion by appealing to Morality, which prompts a sorely-needed response from the faith community:

Scientists will discover a cure for Alzheimer’s and will say, “Do you want that?” Of course our answer will be “Yes!” They will find a cure for cancer and say, “Do you want that?” And again, of course, our answer will be “Yes!” …“It seems, that in every particular instance the only moral answer is to be in favor of it.”

Something perhaps a Great Physician would say. Would the Apostle Paul also say it, though? He makes it plain to his spiritual family in Philippi, in Chapter 1 verse 21 of his letter: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain…I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far…”

Medical technology will advance and address the ailment(s) of old-age…so that man knows even more about what it takes to keep his fellow man not only alive, but healthy (and not just ‘healthy…for a 70-year-old’). These advancements are being attempted by the likes of:

Aubrey de Grey’s www.sens.org

Google’s www.calicolabs.com

Nir Barzilai’s metformin clinical trial — the first of its kind to specifically target aging as a disease…see https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT02432287?term=metformin+miles&rank=1

Craig Venter’s www.humanlongevity.com

It is time people of faith come to terms with this reality — that the progress to serve man’s age-related physical ailments will come at the prodding of Dylan Thomas, ‘raging against the dying of the light’, and likely, not via John Donne’s acceptance of death in the form of going to ‘sleep’ and ‘waking eternally’.