The Bishop of Oxford (Church of England) is not the type to be hung up on orthodoxy. The Right Reverend Richard Harries is a determined theological liberal who takes predictably “progressive” positions on just about any issue. I was surprised, therefore, to see him oppose an effort in Britain’s House of Lords to legalize some forms of “assisted suicide” and euthanasia.

Writing in The Guardian [London], Bishop Harries relates that Lord Joffe, the legislation’s sponsor, “once expressed great surprise to me that, whereas we would agree on all the great liberal causes, I would not be supporting him on this one.”

Why? I oppose his bill not just because of its social effects and impact on doctor/patient relationships, but because, at its heart, is a flawed understanding of what it is to be a human being, one that places an excessive emphasis on personal autonomy to the neglect of our mutual interdependence.

Bishop Harries is right to reject the modern idea of personal autonomy — a concept which effectively eliminates any sense of moral accountability for out personal choices. “It is quite wrong to emphasise autonomy as the overriding feature of what it is to be a human being,” the Bishop insists. “There is a mutuality and interdependence that is even more fundamental.”

Isn’t there something strange about this argument, however? Or, more precisely, something is strangely missing. There is not reference to God in the entire article — there is no reference to human beings as made in God’s image. There is no reference to God as the author of life and the Lord over all the living. The Bishop’s article is essentially and irreducibly secular.

Furthermore, his argument about the essential meaing of what it means to be a human person is downright dangerous. Look closely: We become persons only in and through relationships with others. These relationships are always a varying mixture of autonomy and dependence, of degrees of mutuality. At some points in our lives, we are making crucial choices; at others, we are significantly dependent on the choices of others. There is a proper mutuality and it is wrong to stress autonomy as the only defining feature.

We do indeed mature and develop as persons through interdependence and relationships with other human persons, but we do not become persons through relationships. We are persons because we are made in God’s image — period.

Is anyone else shocked to read an article by a bishop on the meaning of human life that mentions nothing about God or what it means to be made in His image?

See also Bishop Harries’ address, “Assisted Suicide for the Terminally Ill,” delivered before the House of Lords, March 10, 2004.