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A Bright Witness: Christian Bioethics Marks 40 Years at LLU

Grace Oei at the Loma Linda University Health Center for Christian Bioethics

The Center for Christian Bioethics at Loma Linda University celebrated 40 years with an April 6 dinner and talks reflecting on its past and future. Organized by its director, Grace Oei, MD, MA, metaphors of metamorphosis—seeds and flowers—extended from program design and event decor to a few didactic speeches. 

In her “Reflection on Change” essay in the center’s recent newsletter distributed to event attendees, Oei asked, “Are we being propelled along the slipstream of technological advancement towards a more just community or swirling around in a turbulent whirlpool of societal upheaval?” She pointed to the Seventh-day Adventist tradition of the Sabbath as a reflection time, and that practice of pause and thought as a providential “counterbalance to the relentless momentum of change.” 

The center was established in 1984 by Jack Provonsha, David Larson, and Jim Walters. In his historical narrative delivered by video, former center co-director Mark Carr stated, “If Jack put a face on the dream of having a center, David and Jim were the bone and muscle. As Jack himself said: ‘The center is like a 3-piece suit: David and Jim are the trousers and coat; I’m the vest that gets all the gravy.’” Showing the reach of the center’s influence, Carr is now senior director of ethics for the Providence healthcare corporation in Alaska.

The center itself was an outgrowth of many health-related seeds planted by Adventists, including Ellen G. White and John Harvey Kellogg. But perhaps the most germane was Provonsha’s seminal 1958 article, “Wholeness: An Idea Whose Time Has Come,” in Medical Arts and Sciences: Journal of the College of Medical Evangelists. In it, Provonsha prophetically called for a unified approach to individual and societal health that reconnected a spiritual calling to professional medicine. Echoing theologian Paul Tillich’s alarm at the artificial bifurcation of sacred and secular, Provonsha argued that, “As ministers and physicians gain greater awareness of man’s essential nature, they understand more clearly that they belong in the room together, not doing precisely the same things, but sharing together in the same end—that of making man whole.”

This seed continued to grow when Provonsha retired and physician Robert Orr and theologian David Larson became co-directors. In Carr’s telling, “Thus, a ‘theological’ and a ‘clinical’ co-leadership model emerged from the partnership with the Schools of Religion and Medicine.” He added, “This partnership model was then and continues to be a distinct element of our center compared to other centers across the country.” Just before Orr left Loma Linda University to become Director of Medical Ethics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, the American Medical Association gave him an award for Leadership in Medical Ethics and Professionalism. Orr later moved to Oxford, UK, where he was scholar in residence at the Kilns, the restored home of C.S. Lewis. 

Adding to the historical witness of Loma Linda luminaries, Beverly Rigsby spoke about her father, Brian Bull, who embodied that integrationist belief in the mission of the center. Before, during, and after his work as dean of the School of Medicine, Bull supported its work to combine science and mission. Echoing those sentiments, Loma Linda University Health president Richard Hart expressed his appreciation for the center’s supporters and its history. 

Jim Walters reflected on the role of openness and the humanities and shared an anecdote of a General Conference president trying to get him fired. He emphazied the center’s many contributions to Adventist thought, particularly its publishing record. Now retired, both he and Larson encouraged an expanded social focus in Adventist ethics. Drawing on the theme of opportunity in the parable of the sower, and recognizing the growing equity and justice emphasis in public health practice, Larson declared that the university should only enroll future doctors in a combined MD/MPH program. 

Co-founder of Spectrum and longtime editor of the journal, Roy Branson led the center from 2009 until his sudden death in 2015. Carr remembers him as more than an ethicist. “He was a top-notch scholar, social justice activist, institution builder, and never hesitant to wade into difficult conversations at any level of our church.” 

Jerry Winslow, influential in crafting denominational approaches to complicated ethical issues, expanded the center’s institutional network and clinical education. This is especially evident in the Adventist Bioethics Consortium which meets annually at various Adventist corporate healthcare campuses. 

More recent leaders like Yi-Shen Ma embody the next generation’s multi-disciplinary contribution to Adventist social thought. While co-directing the center and teaching, Yi-Shen also helped to lead the Society of Adventist Philosophers, and is pursuing an additional graduate degree in social work. 

According to Mark Carr, Loma Linda University’s “tradition of emphasizing bioethics within our healthcare education is a standout reality. That’s good of course, but also pitiful!” He adds, “There is precious little emphasis in our church on ethics, especially within academic culture.” 

The Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University offers courses in philosophical, theological, and professional ethics, but grants no degree. The seminary defines the discipline in a personal, pietistic way, stating “Christian Ethics (the science of holiness) has a passion for being true and living the truth. It seeks to challenge individual Christians and the church toward integrity in lifestyle and character after the example of Jesus.” 

The General Conference’s Biblical Research Institute currently employs no ethicists. An article it recently published addressing the “ethics of artificial intelligence and ChatGPT” was written by a director of digital evangelism. 

One of the reasons for the longevity and influence of the Center for Christian Bioethics has been its ecumenism. Beyond Robert Orr’s early co-director role, the center has embodied how an Adventist-rooted entity can cooperate with members of other faith traditions to strengthen its own understanding of how to witness in the world. 

Toward the end of the program, members of the center’s advisory board—Bob Macauley and Karen Lebacqz—delivered brief keynote remarks. A mentee, colleague, and longtime friend of Orr’s, Macaulay, who is the Cambia Health Foundation endowed chair in pediatric palliative care and professor of pediatrics, School of Medicine, at Oregon Health & Science University, told stories of complicated ethical issues. In one, Maccauley, who is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee for Bioethics, shared how spiritual understanding provided an ethical path forward for a suffering patient with very limited communication abilities. 

An ordained United Church of Christ minister, Karen Lebacqz chairs the center’s board. She was Jerry Winslow’s professor at the Graduate Theological Union where she has spent most of her career. In addition, she has been a consultant to the director of health for the State of California, former president of the Society of Christian Ethics, and is a prolific and influential author on ethics. She encouraged the Adventist audience to think internationally. “Different dilemmas regarding healthcare and biomedical research occur in every country in the world.” She added, “in that regard, I think the Center for Christian Bioethics is in a unique and fortunate position.” Speaking directly to its change-reflecting leadership and the administrators in the room, Lebacqz stated, “You have a coordinated, international network of centers and healthcare institutions with an interest in bioethics and this puts the Loma Linda Center for Christian Bioethics in a position to be a leader with a very influential voice in shaping the future of what has now become a very well established field that needs to be reflect international concerns and connections and not just be an American phenomenon. This alone would give your center a very bright future.”

That bright, integrated future is reflected in Grace Oei who graduated from Pacific Union College with a BS in biochemistry. She obtained her MD and an MA in bioethics from Loma Linda University. An assistant professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital, Oei is a pediatric intensivist and certified clinical ethics consultant. According to her bio, Oei’s interests include the “intersection of conscience and religion in the practice of medicine, and quality improvement.” She drew attention to the intentionality of the program and the specific motif of the sunflower in the room. Its focus on the solar energy center for the earth “represents the role of faith and spirituality in healthcare, highlighting the ways in which beliefs and religious practices can provide comfort, guidance, and meaning to patients, caregivers, and healthcare providers.” Sharing her vision about the center’s future, Oei quoted from the poet Wendell Berry’s, “Sabbaths 1999, VI”: 

We travelers, walking to the sun, can’t see
Ahead, but looking back the very light
That blinded us shows us the way we came,
Along which blessings now appear, risen
As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,
By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
That blessed light that yet to us is dark

Alexander Carpenter, editor of Spectrum.

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