Editor’s Introduction: What does it mean to die well?

What does it mean to die well in this culture? While far too many people never have the opportunity to face that question because their lives are snuffed out, it is being asked with greater urgency and frequency as contemporary societies become more scientifically and medically sophisticated.

Last January that question brought together nearly 50 Lutheran ethicists, pastors, chaplains, hospital and hospice care-givers at the annual Lutheran Ethicists’ Gathering for a rich and wide ranging discussion that taught us much and reminded us all again of two things: 1) The sources of that question and the answers are becoming increasingly complex today while they matter as much as ever to human lives teetering on the boundary of life and death; 2) The church as a source of both pastoral care and moral vision has untapped resources to share.

For both of those reasons the April and May issues of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics will bring into print for a much wider audience the key insights shared by five presenters to the Gathering. Like sharing news of a superb hole-in-the wall restaurant, we want others to benefit from the excellent fare of last January.

Next month’s writers will introduce us to several church documents that have considered the questions of responsible dying. This month’s issue, however, looks both past and forward, featuring a historical contribution and a contemporary proposal.

Dr. Austra Reinis, Lutheran pastor and historian, shares the results of her research, taking us deeply into “Luther, Linck, and Later Lutherans on End-of-Life Pastoral Care.” Her investigations should catch our attention for many reasons. Not the least among those is reawakening us to a lost dimension of our Reformation heritage. As she unpacks the depth of thought, I cannot help but ask why such a rich heritage of reflection on dying well has produced so little reflection of late?

To say “little” is not to claim “none.” “End-of-life ethics: An Ecological Proposal” by Dr. Ken Doka, Lutheran pastor and medical ethicist, challenges the received tradition that circumscribes end-of-life ethics with what are widely known as the 4 Principles approach to medical ethics; that is, Non-maleficence (do not harm), autonomy, beneficence and justice. While such principles have aided medical ethics significantly, his proposal incorporates them into a more robust approach. This “ecological” proposal seeks to embody ethics with the dying and their families in a way that is more fully enfleshed and relational while still attentively moral. His reflections do not pretend there is a special Lutheran or even Christian answer to dying responsibly well but his work certainly shows continuity with the Reformation heritage. That is, both Reformation thinkers and the ecological approach seek to broaden and enhance the received tradition of their respective times. ​

Both Reinis and Doka’s presentations evoked valuable reflection among “ethically attuned” Lutherans at the Gathering in January. May they evoke and challenge readers of JLE as well.

Roger Willer

Rev. Dr. Roger Willer serves as Director for Theological Ethics on the Theological Discernment Team in the Office of the Presiding Bishop. He also serves as Publisher for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.