In “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” late in author Rebecca Skloot’s journey into the lives of the Lacks family, she is engaged by one of Deborah Lacks’s cousins, Gary. Filled with religious conviction and holding his Bible, he says to the author, “Those cells are Henrietta.” He opens the Bible to John 11:25 and asks her to read, “Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and those who live and believe in me will never die.”
It is a compelling moment in the text, in part because it speaks to the personal and private struggle and eventual peace that the Lacks family finds in Henrietta’s legacy. In part, though, it is compelling because it begins to address the question that nags at the back of so many readers’ minds throughout the book. What is the relationship between Henrietta Lacks — the woman who lived, married, had children, loved to dance and died young of an aggressive cervical cancer — and the HeLa cells that were drawn and cultured from her cancer? What is the relationship between the woman in the faded black and white photo who stands next to her husband, Day, in a fancy fur coat, and the blown up image of the HeLa cells we see inside the book’s cover?
Are we to see these two things as the same? Are the HeLa cells somehow, as Gary suggests, a continuation of Henrietta Lacks? Or, did what made Henrietta a person cease to exist when Henrietta died in the colored section of Johns Hopkins Hospital?
Her story asks us to consider difficult questions about what it means to be human and to be alive, even in the face of and beyond the inevitable reality of death.
In large part, these are questions about the relationship between the body and the soul — or more broadly — about the degree to which we locate the physical body as central to personhood. The answers to these questions vary tremendously across religions, cultures, and time. They are old questions, but they are also questions that inform our public discussions today.
As is evident from last month’s “stand up for religious freedom rally” here in San Diego, which protested the proposed federal mandate to dispense contraception, questions of the relationship between physical body, personal identity and the afterlife serve as important backdrop for much of our public discourse. And while many see these issues purely in terms of public health, there are many others who also see them as decidedly religious issues.
In more traditional (and especially ancient) forms of Christianity and Judaism, personal identity is directly tied to the body, thus the importance of the doctrine of the bodily resurrection in each of these traditions. However, in the modern era, there has been a drift toward viewing personal identity as centered in an immaterial soul that continues to live on in some capacity even after the body has expired. (This notion can be traced in Western philosophy to the dialogues of Plato, and is difficult to align with the biblical account.) Thus, many modern Jews and Christians choose to have their bodies cremated — a practice that would have been considered sinful in the past. It is the body, after all, that must be raised from the dead at the final judgment.
The other Abrahamic faith, Islam, has generally remained more resistant to the modern tendency to, first, parse the person into two parts — the physical body and immaterial soul — and, second, to treat the body as if it is a secondary or superfluous aspect of human life. Recall the U.S. military’s careful handling of Osama bin Laden’s body after his death. In recognition of the centrality of the body to both personhood and to a sacred identity, American troops tried to walk a careful line between respecting the religious call to administer rites quickly and eliminating the possibility of locating the physical body in a place that might subsequently hold sacred value to those who knew his body lay there.
Buddhists, who believe in reincarnation, see the body as distinct from the fundamental human soul or self — a will-o’-the-wisp that dances from one embodied life to the next much like a flame being passed on from candle to another. Indeed, that we have bodies at all is essential to the problem — suffering — for which Buddhists see the way of the Buddha as a solution. According to basic Buddhist teachings, we suffer because of our attachment to things — like our body, physical pleasure and even life itself — which ultimately have no lasting or permanent reality or value. In a real sense, the goal of life is to become free from life — there is no ultimate ‘me,’ physical or otherwise, except as a kind of passing shadow caught up in the painful cycle of birth and rebirth. Hope is found, ultimately, in letting go of both our bodies and our souls.
These different beliefs about the nature of the human person, interesting as they are in their own right, are not just matters of concern to members of each religious tradition, especially in a society such as ours. In a pluralist society, we call ourselves secular not because we believe religious views should be entirely excluded from public discourse, but because of our refusal to allow one religion or religious tradition to govern such discourse completely, such as we find in officially religious societies like Saudi Arabia or Sri Lanka.
This creates an especially difficult challenge for us as we seek to progress as a singular society while also making room for a wide variety of beliefs and practices, religious and otherwise. The important thing that we cannot forget is that while hot-button issues such as contraception, science education, stem cell research and even genetic cloning are all public issues, all of those who engage in the public discourse about them bring to the table fundamental convictions about what it means to be human that must be taken seriously. Many of these convictions are religious, but many are not. Those of the atheist and agnostic also belong as much as those of the Jew, Christian, Muslim or Buddhist.
The question always has been and always will be: How do we live and work together and build a just and civil society that serves the needs of us all despite our great differences? The answer to this question, whatever it may be, must include mutual understanding and respect, especially when it comes to such vitally important matters as the fundamental question of what it means to be human.
To hear more about this topic from religious scholars and to engage in a conversation on the issues raised by the book, come to the Exploring Ethics Event at The Fleet Science Center on April 4, at 5:30 p.m. Register here.
Mark Mann is associate professor of theology and director of the honors program at Point Loma Nazarene University.
Tate Hurvitz is a project director at the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology and an assistant professor of English at Grossmont College. He lives in Chula Vista.
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