Longevity and the Christian Tradition
It has been a common conviction among atheist life-extensionists that religion generally, and particular branches of Christianity, are somehow intrinsically averse to far-reaching biomedical interventions or even to the idea of human life extension, placing a greater emphasis on faith-healing and life in the world to come. For example, Alan Harrington’s The Immortalist (1969) exemplifies the attitude perceiving religion as inherently harmful to life extension: “Religious orthodoxy was invented to give everyone a chance to earn life everlasting. … The false gods to whom the immortality-hunter formerly bowed will be reduced to artifacts. … Our mission will be simply, first, to attack death and all of its natural causes, and, second, to prepare for immortality…. Death is an imposition on the human race, and no longer acceptable.” In the chapter “Satan, Our Standard-Bearer,” Harrington elaborated: “We created the Devil to express our most radical and dangerous intent. Through history he has been the host, the standard-bearer of man’s aspiration to become immortal and divine.”1 For the atheist immortalist (or proponent of radical life extension), the unlimited prolongation of life (that is, life extension that is not constrained by any particular, arbitrary or ordained date) is logically equivalent to the pursuit of physical immortality, hence religion is inimical to both.
But is religion generally, or Christianity in particular, inherently an enemy of life prolongation? It is not! There are strong undercurrents supporting the pursuit of life extension, even of radical life extension, in religious traditions of India,2 in Islam,3 in Judaism.4 There are such undercurrents in Christianity as well. They go to the very source of Christian teachings – the Gospel – which abounds with examples of healing, regeneration and resuscitation. Consider, for example, Jesus healing a paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda (Beth-Hesda or Beth-Zatha – the house of mercy) in Jerusalem (John 5:1-15) and the healing of the blind at the pool of Siloam (Brechat Hashiloach – ‘the sending pool’ – in Jerusalem, receiving water from the Gihon Spring, John 9:1-12). These are among some 20 miraculous cures mentioned in the Gospels, such as the cures of leprosy, dropsy, palsy, bleeding, dumbness, possession, etc. Consider also Jesus reviving the dead: Jairus’ daughter (Matthew 9:18-26, Mark 5:21-43, Luke 8:40-56), Widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7:11-17) and Lazarus (John 11:1-44). What are these but expressions of the obligation to heal, resuscitate and prolong life? The obligation is made explicit in Jesus’ commandment “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay” (Matthew 10:8).5 Not only diseases are to be battled, but “The last enemy to be conquered is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). One may argue that these cures are “miraculous” and “spiritual” rather than “scientific” and “material.” But the actual underlying process of healing is not detailed, only the outcomes of physical regeneration and resuscitation are posited as possible and as unequivocally desirable.
Indeed, there is a strong tradition in Christianity describing “miraculous” and “spiritual” cures, such as produced by the power of prayer and the laying on of hands: those produced by Christ, early saints (St. Paul, St. Jude, St. Cosmas and Damian, St. Anthony, St. Ambrose, St. Simon, etc. etc.), by the Church fathers, and by modern Christian devotees canonized for their “miracles.”6 Consider also the examples of alleged super-longevity of venerated Christian saints, such as Saint Servatius (Tongeren, current Belgium, 9-384 AD, 375 years), Saint Shenouda (Egypt, 348-466, 118 years), Saint Llywarch Hen (Wales, 350-500, 150 years), Saint Kevin of Glendalough (Ireland, 498-618, 120 years), Scolastica Oliveri (Bivona, Italy, 1448-1578, 130 years), Theodosius of Caucasus (a Pravoslav Saint, Stavropol, 1841-1948, 107 years) and others.7 One may wonder whether the stories of “miraculous” and “spiritual” healing and life extension (by definition out of the realm of science and natural world order) do not undermine the scientific pursuit of healing and life prolongation, while relying on “miracles,” perhaps “wishful thinking.”
An answer may be manifold. First of all, regardless the method, the outcome of physical healing and life prolongation in this world, is clearly posited as desirable, giving the primary motivation even to seek the healing and life prolongation, and negating the impression that Christianity does not value “this worldly” existence. For example, one of the Church fathers, St. Augustine (354-420AD) was a strong believer in “miraculous cures.” In the City of God, St. Augustine speaks of “miracles which were wrought that the world might believe in Christ, and which have not ceased since the world believed,” providing detailed testimonial accounts of miraculous cures of blindness, fistulae, cancer, gout, etc. Yet, essentially, Saint Augustine postulates that healing and longevity, even resurrection and immortality, take place in this world of “substance,” not in the world of “spirit” beyond. “In the Resurrection,” he writes, “the substance of our bodies, however disintegrated, shall be entirely reunited,” “the flesh shall then be spiritual, and subject to the spirit, but still flesh, not spirit.” Such a body, combining the carnal and the spiritual, will be forever preserved as at 30 years of age, “the age of the fullness of Christ.” The body will undergo a thorough reconstruction to attain ideal proportions, whereby “all bodily blemishes which mar human beauty in this life shall be removed in the Resurrection, the natural substance of the body remaining, but the quality and quantity of it being altered so as to produce beauty.” Thus the ideal of physical body preservation is clearly articulated.8
Secondly, the so-called “spiritual” healing may be eventually attributed to psychosomatic effects, potentially within the realm of empirical science. The “spiritual” influence for health and longevity has been a well established tenet in the Christian tradition. This approach goes back to Summa Theologica (1265-1274) by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who saw the impurity of the soul as the major cause of mortality. Thomas Aquinas argued that “in the state of innocence man would have been immortal” (Summa Theologica, 1, Question 97, Article 1) and “Death and other bodily defects are the result of sin” (2:1, Question 85, Articles 5-6). The soul’s weakness caused the Fall and brought about physical death, hence the soul’s purification and strengthening can reverse the effect and bring forth immortality of the body. In such an ideal state of the soul, a level of a prophet can be achieved, allowing an insight into the spiritual world while in the physical body (“The manner in which prophetic knowledge is conveyed,” 2:2, Question 173). One of Thomas Aquinas’ spiritual suggestions for life extension is honoring one’s parents: “Now we owe the favor of bodily life to our parents after God: wherefore he that honors his parents deserves the prolongation of his life, because he is grateful for that favor” (2:2 Question 122, Article 5).9
And thirdly, while positing the goals of healing and life prolongation as worthy of pursuit, the proposed methods of their achievement were far from being exclusively “spiritual,” but very often quite practical, material and scientific. The history of Christianity abounds with examples of support for practical medicine generally, and for advanced medical science in particular. According to the Christian legend, the 3rd century physicians and saints, brothers Cosmas and Damian, living in Asia Minor and martyred c. 287-303 CE, were able to transplant legs. This operation was depicted in many paintings, most famously in the 15th-16th century works by Fra Angelico, Jaume Huguet, Meister des Stettener, and others. The evidential basis of this story is unclear, yet the aspiration to material medical intervention is manifest.10 Starting from circa the 4th century AD especially (with the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire), an array of hospitals and medical facilities were established by Christian devotees, both in the Byzantium (e.g. by St. Basil in Caesarea) and in the Latin West (e.g. by Saint Fabiola in Rome).11
In a later period, the Christian support for medicine and medical science continued. The American physician and writer James Joseph Walsh, in Old-Time Makers of Medicine and other works, makes a thorough case for the support of medical science by the Catholic Church and by the Papal Office during the Middle Ages, including such examples as the patronage by Abbot Desiderius (Pope Victor III, 1026-1087), the work of Pope John XXI the physician (1215-1277), the medical research of Cardinal Nicolas Cusanus (1401-1464), the studies of the Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) and great many other clerics and medical scholars.12 Perhaps the most extreme case of ‘interest in medicine’ was that of Pope Innocent VIII (1432-1492) who was said to drink the blood of boys for rejuvenation, as related by Stefano Infessura (1435-1500).13
Closer to our time, Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Marìa Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, 1876-1958), received “rejuvenative” cell therapy developed by the Swiss physician Paul Niehans (1882-1971), which in fact greatly enhanced the prestige of this kind of therapy. (Most commonly, Neihans’s cell therapy involved fresh cell preparations from young sheep or sheep fetuses, though the exact kind of cells that was used in this particular case is not clear.) Pius XII was first administered cell therapy by Niehans in 1954, and since then resorted to Niehans’s services on several occasions. In 1955, Pius XII made Niehans a fellow of the Pontifical Academy, in place of the late Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), the discoverer of penicillin. The Pope was also reported to try other rejuvenating therapies, such as royal jelly (or “bee’s milk”) and dishes from chick embryos.14 The Pope’s case demonstrates the accepting attitude for rejuvenating and life-extending means, even the most experimental ones, by the religious. Niehans himself, in his youth, went to a Protestant divinity school and received a doctorate in theology; though in his later life he was not particularly observant.
In more recent times, the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II (Karol Józef Wojtyła, 1920-2005) called to “reaffirm the culture of life.” In the 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II issued the dictum to use all modern biomedical means to prevent death, that “life may be always defended and promoted” (1995).15 And his own struggle with death to the last days provides a testimony to following this principle (despite some journalistic allegations to the contrary).16 Indeed, a study showed that religious people tend to be more likely to refuse a “do-not-resuscitate” status than non-religious.17 The Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, b. 1927) addressed radical life extension, the possibility that “Sooner or later it should be possible to find the remedy not only for this or that illness, but for our ultimate destiny – for death itself” with unprecedented earnestness, with mixed sympathy and concern (2010).18
On April 28-30, 2016, the Vatican held a high level conference promoting regenerative medicine entitled: “Cellular Horizons: How Science, Technology, Information and Communication will Impact Society.” It acknowledged “the paradigm shift toward regenerative medicine, with a particular focus on cellular therapies.” Some of the conference’s main goals were “to help identify a pathway to bring cellular cures to those in medical need throughout the world to reduce human suffering” including the effort to “catalyze the necessary funding to support the development of cell therapies that will cure and treat a broad range of debilitating diseases and medical conditions.” The conference included a special panel discussion on “healthy aging” featuring leading contemporary researchers of aging and life extension, such Dr. Nir Barzilai (a researcher of genetics of longevity and the author of the TAME study – “Targeting Aging with Metformin” from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York), Dr. Ronald DePinho (one of the pioneers of telomerase therapy against degenerative aging, from the University of Texas), Dr. Robert Hariri (Co-Founder and President of Human Longevity Cellular Therapeutics); and Dr. Pranela Rameshwar (Professor in the Department of Medicine, Hematology – Oncology at Rutgers, New Jersey Medical School). Thus the support for longevity research and regenerative medicine was explicitly embraced by the Vatican as a part of the Catholic Church’s agenda to advance global healthcare and medical science.19 In his address to the conference, Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio, b. 1936) expressed his unequivocal support for this agenda, focusing on three goals: “increasing sensitivity” or “greater empathy in society,” not remaining “indifferent to our neighbour’s cry for help”; “research, seen in two inseparable actions: education and genuine scientific study” which “safeguards human life and the dignity of the person”; and “ensuring access to care,” opposing “an economy of exclusion and inequality” that “victimizes people when the mechanism of profit prevails over the value of human life.”20 Thus, as of 2016, the Catholic Church posited some of the world’s most progressive objectives for universal health care and rapid advancement of medical science.
Not only in the Catholic Church, but also in other Christian denominations, the undercurrents supportive of medical progress and life extension are strong. Thus, one of Russia’s greatest life-extensionist visionaries was Nikolay Fedorovich Fedorov (1829-1903) – a Russian Pravoslav religious philosopher, the founder of “Russian Cosmism,” respected and recognized as an influence by Lev Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the visionary of space exploration), Vladimir Vernadsky (the author of the concept of the “noosphere”), Alexander Chizhevsky (a pioneer of electrophysiology), among many great Russian thinkers.21 According to Fedorov’s Philosophy of the Common Task (most of his works appeared posthumously in 1906 and 1913 under this title), the Christian doctrine of salvation dictated a practical program toward individual and social immortality, even resurrection of past generations, which, he believed, would be achieved by collective, scientific effort.22 In setting these goals, Fedorov presented himself as a devoted Russian orthodox Christian, envisioning that “Pravoslav Christianity, that will sanctify this union, will become the common religion.”23 In present day Russia, Pravoslav Christianity, with its hope of universal salvation, has resurfaced as one of the ideological foundations for Russian life-extensionism, going back to Fedorov’s original propositions, as for example expressed by the “Fedorov movement” mainly centered in Moscow.24 (Though of course, this is not the only ideology associated with life-extensionism in Russia.)
Also in contemporary US, several Christian groups have expressed strong life-extensionist sentiments. Some Christian groups have embraced the vision of emerging radical life-extending technologies with all their heart, such as the Christian Transhumanist Association.25 The Mormon Transhumanist Association has been devoted to life extension and life enhancement, promoting “active faith in human exaltation through charitable use of science and technology.”26 There has been strong support from representatives of the Mormon community for life-extensionist endeavors, for example for Human Longevity Inc.27 Strong activism for radical life extension has emerged from within the Unitarian Universalist Church.28 And there has also been strong support for research of life extension from representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church, for example for the Methuselah Foundation.29 Further arguments in support of radical life extension have been produced from the reformed protestant, progressive protestant as well as catholic perspectives.30
Of course, these are just a few examples of Christian individual and communal support for life extension, even radical life extension. Many more such examples can be quoted. But of course, also many examples can be quoted of opposition by some Christians or Christian groups to the idea of physical immortality, or radical life extension, or to some particular forms of medical research, treatment or intervention. A thorough review of such cases would go beyond the scope of this article. The main purpose of this article is to argue that ideas of Christianity are very well compatible with the goals of progress of biomedical science and significant human life extension. Arguably other religions are compatible with these goals as well. Atheism and agnosticism are also compatible with these goals, even though one can still quote quite a few examples of atheist opposition to life extension and to “meddling” with human nature.31 If there is a common ground that could unify the aspirations of the whole of humanity, regardless of their ideological, ethnic and religious backgrounds, it is the value of human life, and the derivative goal of human healthy life extension, for oneself, for the loved ones, eventually for all. Despite the many often conflicting undercurrents in every religious and ideological tradition, for and against this goal, hopefully those undercurrents that are supportive of this goal will take precedence in the public mind.
References and notes
- Alan Harrington, The Immortalist, Celestial Arts, Millbrae, California, 1977, first published in 1969, pp. 3, 67, 92, 273.
- Ilia Stambler, “Longevity and the Indian Tradition,” Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), March 16, 2016, https://ieet.org/index.php/IEET2/more/stambler20160316; first published June 13, 2013, http://indiafuturesociety.org/longevity-and-the-indian-tradition/; http://www.longevityhistory.com/articles/indian.php.
- Ilia Stambler, “Longevity in the Ancient Middle East and the Islamic Tradition,” IEET, January 13, 2015, http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/stambler20150113.
- Ilia Stambler, “Longevity and the Jewish Tradition,” IEET, October 21, 2015, http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/stambler20151021.
- The Bible. English Standard Version, http://biblehub.com/matthew/10-8.htm.
- “How Lourdes Cures Are Recognized as Miraculous,” ZENIT Daily Dispatch, February 11, 2004, http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/ZLURDCUR.HTM;
Pierre Merle, “Guérisons rationnellement inexplicables” (Rationally inexplicable cures), in Médecine Officielle et Médecines Hérétiques (Official Medicine and Heretical Medicines), Plon, Paris, 1945, pp. 255-291.
- “Longevity Myths” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longevity_myths.
- St. Augustine, City of God, translated by Marcus Dods, T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1886, Book XXII, Chapters 8, 18-21, reprinted in Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf102.iv.XXII.html.
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Second and Revised Edition, Literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 1920, reprinted by The New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1097.htm.
Consider, in particular, the Christian idea of the “seven deadly sins” or “capital vices” authorized by Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604) in 590, and also discussed in the Summa Theologica – pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth. The avoidance of such sins corresponds to the spiritual pursuit of longevity, as the life-styles those sins produce may be life-shortening (bringing death). In contrast, following the corresponding “seven heavenly virtues” or “goods” – humility, liberality, chastity, kindness, abstinence, patience, diligence – can be life-prolonging. The vices (e.g. pride, gluttony, lust, greed) are seen by Thomas Aquinas as goods in excess (honor, appetite, sexual intercourse, riches).
(“Summa Theologica: The cause of sin, in respect of one sin being the cause of another,” Prima Secundae Partis, Q. 84, Article 4. “Whether the seven capital vices are suitably reckoned?” http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2084.htm#article4.)
- 10. Harry Hayes, An Anthology of Plastic Surgery, Aspen Publishers,NY, 1986, pp. 40-41.
- Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, W.W. Norton & Company, NY, 1998, Ch. 4, “Medicine and Faith,” pp. 87-88.
- James Joseph Walsh, Old-Time Makers of Medicine. The Story of The Students And Teachers of the Sciences Related to Medicine During the Middle Ages, Fordham University Press, NY, 1911, https://archive.org/details/oldtimemakersme01walsgoog;
James Joseph Walsh, The Popes and Science, Fordham University Press, NY, 1908;
James Joseph Walsh, Priests and Long Life, J. F. Wagner, New York, 1927.
- Mirko D. Grmek, On Ageing and Old Age, Basic Problems and Historic Aspects of Gerontology and Geriatrics, Monographiae Biologicae, 5, 2, Den Haag, 1958, pp. 45-46;
Stefano Infessura, Diario della Città di Roma (Diary of the City of Rome), Forzani, Roma, 1890, pp. 275-276.
- Patrick M. McGrady, The Youth Doctors, Coward-McCann, NY, 1968, pp. 59-122.
- 1 Ioannes Paulus PP. II, Evangelium Vitae, On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life, March 25, 1995, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae_en.html.
- Jeff Israely, “Was John Paul II euthanized?” Time, September 21, 2007, http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1664189,00.html.
- 1 Maria A. Sullivan, Philip R. Muskin, Shara J. Feldman, Elizabeth Haase, “Effects of Religiosity on Patients’ Perceptions of Do-Not-Resuscitate Status,” Psychosomatics, 45, 119-128, April 2004.
- 18. Easter Vigil, Homily of His Holiness Benedict XVI, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Holy Saturday, 3 April 2010, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/homilies/2010/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20100403_veglia-pasquale_en.html.
- “The Vatican Hosts Third International Regenerative Medicine Conference Created by The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture and The Stem For Life Foundation, 3-day Event to Raise Global Awareness of the Promise of Cellular Therapies to Treat Disease and Reduce Global Suffering” http://celltherapyconference2016.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/5.6.15-THE-VATICAN-HOSTS-THIRD-INTERNATIONAL-REGENERATIVE-MEDICINE-CONFERENCE_new-version.pdf.
- Pope’s Address to Regenerative Medicine Conference “The globalization of indifference must be countered by the globalization of empathy,” ZENIT, April 29, 2016
- 21. Nikolay Bedyaev, “Religia Voskreshenia. Philosophia Obshego Dela N. Fedorova” (The Religion of Resuscitative Resurrection. “The Philosophy of the Common Task” of N. Fedorov), Russkaya Mysl, 7, 1915, pp. 76-120; English translation by S. Janos, 2002, http://www.berdyaev.com/berdiaev/berd_lib/1915_186.html.
- Fedorov N.F., Sobranie Sochineniy v Chetyrekh Tomakh (N.F. Fedorov. Collected works in four volumes), Progress, Moscow, 1995;
Fedorov N.F., What Was Man Created For? The Philosophy of the Common Task: Selected Works, Koutiassov E. and Minto M. (Eds.), Lausanne, Switzerland, Honeyglen, 1990.
- Fedorov N.F., Sobranie Sochineniy v Chetyrekh Tomakh (N.F. Fedorov. Collected works in four volumes), Progress, Moscow, 1995, vol. 3, “Vopros o Zaglavii” (Question of the title), p. 74.
- Boris Georgievich Rezhabek (interview), “Nanoroboty, Nanobacterii i Bessmertie” (Nanorobots, Nanobacteria and Immortality), Vzgliad Zdorovie (Health View, April 19, 2010, http://health.vz.ru/columns/2010/4/19/521.html);
Muzey-Biblioteka Nikolaya Fedorovicha Fedorova (N.F. Fedorov’s Museum-Library, Moscow, http://www.nffedorov.ru/mbnff/index.html).
- Micah Redding, “Why Christians Should Support Radical Life Extension,” Huffington Post, February 09, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/micah-redding/why-christians-should-sup_1_b_9190470.html;
James McLean Ledford, “Prepare for HyperEvolution with Christian Transhumanism,” December 19, 2005, http://www.hyper-evolution.com/.
- The Mormon Transhumanist Association, http://transfigurism.org/;
Lincoln Cannon, “Mormons on Life Extension Therapy: Desecration or Glorification,” August 15, 2013, http://lincoln.metacannon.net/2013/08/mormons-on-life-extension-therapy.html.
- Marc Gunther, “We have this remarkable ability to create any kind of world we can imagine,” The Guardian, October 15, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/oct/15/bryan-johnson-os-fund-synthetic-genomics-matternet-vicarious.
- Shannon Vyff, Member of Education Board, Lifeboat Foundation, http://lifeboat.com/ex/bios.shannon.vyff.
- David Gobel, Co-Founder and CEO, Methuselah Foundation, http://diyhpl.us/~bryan/irc/extropians/www.lucifer.com/exi-lists/extropians.1Q99/1008.html; http://www.mfoundation.org/?pn=mj_about_who.
- Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Amy Michelle DeBaets, “Be Careful What you Wish For? Radical Life Extension coram Deo: A Reformed Protestant Perspective,” pp. 39-50; Ronald Cole-Turner, “Extreme Longevity Research: A Progressive Protestant Perspective,” pp. 51-61; Terence L. Nichols, “Radical Life Extension: Implications for Roman Catholicism,” pp. 133-144 – in Calvin Mercer and Derek F. Maher (Eds.), Religion and the Implications of Radical Life Extension, Macmillan Palgrave, New York, 2009.
- Ilia Stambler, A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century, Longevity History, 2014, http://www.longevityhistory.com/.