Dossier: The Future of Man and Technology

The Future of Man and Technology, Part V: Friedhelm Mennekes SJ

Friedhelm Mennekes;Copyright: Philosophisch-Theologische Hochschule Sankt GeorgenDer Seelsorger und Theologe Friedhelm Mennekes SJ in an interview with Tobias Hülswitt and Roman Brinzanik.
(Frankfurt, May 26, 2009)

Art, Religion, Science

Tobias Hülswitt: Father Mennekes, as the well-known “art pastor” and curator of the St. Peter Art Center in Cologne, you have always been intensely concerned with the relation of religion, art and science to human mortality.

Friedhelm Mennekes: For our interview, the most explosive example is the artist Gregor Schneider’s installation entitled Cyrotank (2006). Conceptually, it then stood in the border area of these three cultural systems: religion, science and art. Art posed in its own way the question about death and dying and presented it to the viewer in two positions, so that he could orient himself between them. One position is the work itself. It is an approximately three meters high, recreated cyrotank, filled with liquid nitrogen. In California, you can “rent” such a thing at an agency in order to have your body or your brain stored in it and frozen according to physical laws immediately after death. After a certain time and with further scientific progress in cryonics, the stored substance will be brought back to life and restored to its original identity and physical integrity – so the promise. Its core: A reawakening to a life after what we call death.

Container for the preservation of biological objects, such as cells or organs, at low temperatures.

Hülswitt: And the counter position?

The other orientation for the viewer resulted from the contrast to the space of the church: the exhibition opened on All Souls Eve to a packed church. It was preceded by a celebration of a Latin requiem. The reading of a very long list of named dead, whose lives were thus commemorated, replaced the sermon. The Christian faith trusts in a life of the dead with God, and everyone hopes that for himself. But this life is a quite different one from that promised by the cyrotank. As part of the exhibition, discussion groups were formed, which concerned themselves with these different hopes. It was about ultimate questions and coming to terms with them. In the confrontation, art formed its own existential positions. It was about old answers and new views. But also about openness, not immediately rejecting new answers, but rather braving them – also with a view to a shared understanding. The question is after all: How can I, as a more complex individual in a more complex world, find a more complex morality? Greater possibilities, on the other hand, require greater self-constraint. That is the point.

Limits of Progress

Roman Brinzanik: Is there a limit that progress shouldn’t cross? Is there such a thing as a natural order?

The Catholic Church and its tradition are determined by the idea of natural right and the order of creation. I could never follow that, especially since I often have the feeling that this posture blocks necessary communication, culminating in a kind of ban on thinking. It’s always wrong to declare something a taboo. We have to remain in discussion. I believe in the value of open thinking, even if it has no immediate result. And I believe that there’s meaning in dissonance and distance. There are spiritual commitments and personal certainties. It’s therefore possible that someone says, “I have my persistent objections and reservations, I can’t share this or that position”. Not everything is possible. And not everything that is possible is humanly tolerable.

Brinzanik: The research team led by the genome pioneer Craig Venter has recently carried out a high-profile experiment in which they exchanged the complete and sheer DNA of a bacterium, so to say only its software, with the DNA of another species of bacteria and then successfully reprogrammed this in the other species. And it’s expected that the same research group will announce in 2010 that they have installed a completely synthetically produced – although copied – genome in a living bacterium and in this sense produced artificial life. This is an important milestone on the way to the long-term goal of synthetic biology, to re-inscribe DNA with useful information and to create new forms of life, such as artificial bacteria or plants. In the face of such prospects, there often comes the reaction: “We dare not do that, you can’t play God!”.

As far as I understand it, such operations have in the end a view that reduces human beings. Man is rationalized into a construct, stripped down to his corporeal and physical functions. But man is more than a chemical apparatus. Here the trans-rational falls by the wayside. So I have my continual misgivings about this sort of research.

Brinzanik: Venter carried out his experiment on bacteria, not on human beings.

What applies to the general concept of life sets the trend for human life. And I have my misgivings whether we should unhesitatingly manipulate human life. Human life doesn’t consist in partial body functions. It must always be a question whether individual changes are conducive to fostering the wholeness of man, his physical and spiritual center, his self-awareness, his heart, his human loves and suffering. I remain fundamentally skeptical. The rationalist view of man signifies for me the constant danger of man’s being narrowed down to a cramped and closed system and squeezed into it. However, I’m not for any ban on thought or research.


Brinzanik: And yet scientists are sometimes astonished at the great mistrust they are met with, because they have themselves the almost missionary conviction that they are doing something very meaningful and useful for mankind. How do you see that? How can religion here and now contribute to an ethics of knowledge?

The methodological key phrase of modern, Cartesian thinking is, in the formulation of Hugo Grotius: “etsi deus non daretur” – to ask and research “as if there were no God”. If research in this sense must be ruthless and unconditional, it leads to rationalism – regardless whether in philosophy, politics, economics or law. The consequences of such thinking cannot be overlooked today; think only of the runaway, unlimited capitalism, the absolutist faith in progress and political ideologies, including the systems they have given birth to. Success and profit, fame and power, have become the standards of conduct. What can religion do here? Can it be more than a concerned old aunt?

Brinzanik: Which isn’t as such bad thing. What then does the old lady have to say?

Well, I think religion lives from an impulse, the suspicion of God’s existence. It reverses Grotius’s key phrase: “Esti deus daretur” – to think “as if God existed”. As if there were a living God, who calls man to account, to put it morally or ethically. As if there were an instance before which the individual must reflect upon his actions: What does your action bring about? Is it useful to others? Is it useful for life? Does it increase freedom? Justice? Respect for each other? If I think and act “esti deus daretur”, the question about purely material benefits is transformed of its own accord. Man doesn’t necessarily need God in order to live responsibly in this world. But faith nourishes an optimistic attitude towards the world, a joy and serenity that frees man from the fixed idea that each and everything happens according to his ideas and under his control. Faith gives us a creative responsibility that knows itself to be inspired by God.


Hülswitt: Couldn’t we say that bio-engineers are authors in the truest sense of the word? The Latin auctor means both author and creator. The artist doesn’t create in the sense of the creation, but the bio-engineer today can.

It depends on what you mean by creation. If you mean the autonomous creation of ideas, images, circumstances, things and so on, both the artist and the bio-engineer create something new. But is that a creation? The American artist Kiki Smith castigates that view as “typical male creator madness”.

Hülswitt: Let’s assume, what from the present point of view is highly improbable, that science in fact succeeds in abolishing death. What function then remains for religion?

It wouldn’t be the first time that religion would have to adopt new presuppositions for its promises when science brings about new findings. So let’s consider the improbable but realized utopia of the abolition of death: Then it must be said that the biblical faith is based on a new creation “of heaven and earth”. With this, hope itself extends further: justice, peace, mercy, forgiveness … and the vision of God. It’s about the “new man” and a “new world”. The biblical concept of life works with an extended understanding of the overcoming of death. It goes beyond the contours of this life.

Brinzanik: There are advocates of longevity like the inventor and futurologist Ray Kurzweil who think that we have rationalized and accepted death because up to now there has been no way out. But suppose there now is a way out?

First, I would agree with Kurzweil that both religion and science show people ways of dealing with illness and death. As a Christian, I don’t see death as an end, but as an event that brings with it the presence of a new life. This gives me the fortitude to remain strong in the face of death and resist its destructive power. In this sense, for me in death there is always also a birth. I die, but am at the same time reborn in God. I take part in the resurrection of Christ. Naturally, I don’t see that as a “way out”. For me, it is a living hope – my future.

Friedhelm Mennekes SJ, born in 1940 in Westphalia, is a Jesuit priest and was Professor for Pastoral Theology at the philosophical-theological St. George University in Frankfurt and priest at St. Peter’s Church in Cologne. His present teaching posts include the University of Bonn and the University of the Fine Arts in Brunswick. Since 1979, Father Mennekes has been the curator of exhibitions of contemporary art in public spaces, particularly at the St. Peter’s Art Center in Cologne. He has published numerous writings on subjects in art and religion. In 2002, he received the Wilhelm Hausenstein Award of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in Munich.
Translated by Jonathan Uhlaner

Cover „Werden wir ewig leben?“; Copyright: Suhrkamp VerlagExcerpt from: “Denken, als gäbe es Gott – Kunst, Religion und der technische Fortschritt”, in: Werden wir ewig leben? – Gespräche über die Zukunft von Mensch und Technologie, Tobias Hülswitt und Roman Brinzanik (eds.), edition unseld, Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag 2010

Copyright: Suhrkamp Verlag
Published with kind permission of the Suhrkamp Verlag

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