Paul Lauritzen: Daniel Callahan & Bioethics

Posted by Kendall Harmon

from Commonweal:

Toward the end of The Troubled Dream of Life, Callahan warns that it is not enough to provide compelling arguments about the proper understanding of illness, aging, and death in human life; we also need new images of human mortality. We need the right image because in confronting our mortality we are dealing with a level of consciousness that is “deeper than that which can be wholly influenced by our logic and arguments.” This claim-somewhat surprising from someone so deeply committed to the role of reasoned argument in the formulation of public policy-has stuck with me. I’m not sure that Callahan has ever really provided the image we might substitute for that of modern medicine’s supremely powerful researcher overcoming the limitations of human embodiment.

Or maybe he has. Driving me from the Hastings Center to his apartment last fall, Callahan suddenly pulled his car over to the side of the road and parked in front of a church. He wanted to show me something, he said. As it turned out, he was taking me to the Union Church of Pocantico Hills, a church built by the Rockefeller family, where they worshiped for decades. We walked in. Past a simple but elegant exterior, the entranceway opened to a sanctuary of remarkable beauty. At one end of the nave was a stained-glass window designed by Matisse; at the other end, one by Chagall. Eight other stained-glass windows, all by Chagall, flanked the nave.

All these stained-glass windows are strikingly beautiful, but one exceptionally so. Commissioned by the children of John D. Rockefeller Jr. as a memorial to their father, the window sits in the narthex of the church, luminous with the brilliant blues for which Chagall’s windows are famous. The window struck me as providing just the kind of image for which Callahan’s entire work has called. It is not the image that one might associate with the aspirations of modern medicine-say, Lazarus being raised from the dead. Instead, the window depicts the parable of the Good Samaritan from the Gospel of Luke, with its recognition of our common humanity rooted in the fragility of human life. In the intersecting tracery of the window, Chagall has captured both the interdependency and the brokenness of human life. Yet the scene is one of hope, and of confidence in the face of great adversity. One sees both sadness and joy.

In Setting Limits, Callahan agues that by striving for “grace under adversity,” and by embracing a “communal spirit” and an “ethic of service,” the elderly can serve as role models for the rest of us. Perhaps it is this spirit and this care for the other depicted in the Chagall windows that draws Callahan to them. Yet, whatever it is that attracts Callahan to Chagall-two Chagall prints grace the walls of Dan and Sidney’s living room-the depiction of the story of the Good Samaritan in Union Church is in fact a window on Callahan’s whole career. As those who read his books will discover, the complexity, honesty, and beauty of Chagall’s Good Samaritan illuminate Callahan and his life’s work.


Filed under: * Culture-WatchLife Ethics* Religion News & CommentaryOther ChurchesRoman Catholic* TheologyEthics / Moral Theology

Posted June 26, 2007 at 11:46 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Undergroundpewster wrote:

This posting led me to search for an image of the Chagall window. Here is the link.
Chagall Window

June 26, 12:36 pm | [comment link]
2. stabill wrote:

The link to the Chagall window has gone stale.
This seems to be where it is now:

August 9, 11:45 am | [comment link]
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