I have often learned my most valuable lessons from my worst enemies. In graduate school I spent several years wrestling with the texts of the atheistic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who taught me one unforgettable lesson: Those who lack the tragic sense of life are apt to invent realities to replace the one they cannot face.
Nietzsche aimed his argument at Christianity, with its supposed invention of an otherworldly paradise. He was wrong on this score, however: The Christian faith affirms the inevitability of suffering. The cross is a perennial reminder of the tragic limitations that all human beings must not only bear but choose.
But if you look at post-Christian America from Nietzsche’s vantage point, you’ll see that it lacks that tragic sense. Witness especially America’s current mania for creating and destroying human life for the sake of treating disease. Everything is curable, we’re told, regardless of its cost in terms of other human lives.
Celebrities such as Michael J. Fox, Mary Tyler Moore, and the late-Christopher Reeve have urged Congress to support the destruction of human embryos to extract stem cells for the treatment of spinal cord damage and childhood diabetes. Not far behind the stem cell debate will come a debate on human cloning, the possibility of making “another you” to provide replacement body parts as needed. In fact, some U.S. scientists have announced they intend to clone human embryos for the sole purpose of research.
Doesn’t anyone recognize that there are limits to what should be done to avoid suffering and death? Or has the avoidance of suffering become a kind of greatest good, conferring legitimacy on all deeds done for its sake?
When we feel our natural aversion to suffering and death, we are faced with a broad range of choices. Without the moral sense conferred by the tragic, people assume that suffering can be avoided by any means necessary, including the taking of human life.
This option was brought home to me dramatically on my family’s 2001 trip to Romania to adopt my now-twelve-year-old son, Cyprian. On the day we arrived, the Romanian government announced a temporary suspension of international adoptions. Why? More than 200 adopted Romanian children were missing, and it was feared that they had been taken across the border and killed for their body parts.
How is it possible to understand such cruelty? My friend, music critic and writer Robert Reilly, once remarked to me that the loss of the tragic sense is closely linked to atheism (Nietzsche was an exception). Without God, predestination becomes scientific determinism; the immortality of the soul becomes the immortality of the body.
This makes sense as an explanation for our current willingness to dissect human lives into whatever pieces we deem scientifically useful. Our infatuation with scientific progress and our toleration of the horrific program of harvesting body parts are nothing less than a misplaced desire for God — for immortal life — brought to bear on the treatment of illness. Avoidance of death has replaced union with God as our ultimate goal.
Reilly also pointed out to me that nature loses its moral power when God is removed from the picture, and the natural and social sciences replace theology as the highest source of intellectual authority. Believing that scientists speak the truth on all subjects, legislators and administrators tend to accept their pronouncements, even on moral matters outside their purview.
Those who accept life’s tragic limitations, however, view existence as a gift — something they may not and should not try to manipulate. They accept that there are moral limits on what the human will can accomplish in the face of death.
Over and over I hear that such attitudes change when it is your son, daughter, father, mother, wife, or husband who could be helped by embryonic stem cell research or cloning. If such a predicament should befall my family, I pray that God will give me the strength to bear my tragic circumstances without seeking to take advantage of the living.
In a country renowned for its optimism, we Americans go too far when we assume that sorrow and suffering can be avoided, and that, by manipulating life, we can beat death. The reality that we create as we try to escape our mortality will be stranger and even more cruel than the Brave New World that we were taught to fear as schoolchildren.
This article originally appeared in the September 2001 issue of Crisis Magazine.