This piece is adapted from a devotional for the United Church of Christ Science and Technology Network given on May 10, 2018.
Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’
The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”
—Mark 10:51

If Jesus came to me and asked me what I wanted him to do for me, it would be a toss-up between giving me 20/20 vision without glasses or contacts and fixing my knees and ankles so I don’t have to have my knees replaced or wear braces to do anything other than walk on even surfaces. In the end, I’d probably choose the orthopedic issues over the optometric issues for Jesus to heal, but that’s mainly because I’ve had knee surgery once (on both knees at the same time!). I know it’s a hard recovery route. The burden of bad eyesight is less oppressive, at least to me.

I haven’t seen clearly without corrective lenses since I was in second grade. I’ve had bifocals twice: in sixth grade, because it was “a thing” in optometry to do that instead of two pairs of glasses for young people who needed to read both books and boards back then, and currently because I’m “of a certain age”. I’m not a candidate for corrective surgery, sadly, but I’m hopeful that I’ll get contacts back at my next checkup. Bonus: with the contacts will come readers and it’s kind of fun to do the “school marm” over the glasses stare at people when they say ridiculous things. Not that I ever hear anybody say ridiculous things, of course.

Unlike Bartimaeus, I live in an era when I can avail myself of many corrective vision services, even if it’s unlikely any of them will permanently result in perfect vision (it’s sad when my best hope is cataract surgery, which is ancient!). Even so, I follow with great interest the studies being done with stem cells as a treatment for vision disorders. Macular degeneration is the primary research target right now and a fully tested, proven treatment is still years off, but there is hope that such work will lead to treatments for other eye diseases in the future. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that the next great leap for cataracts is a simple stem cell injection?

As it stands now, FDA approval has been granted only for stem cell treatments using blood products such as bone marrow for cancer treatments. Legitimate research is happening not just on eye diseases and disorders but on a host of neurological disorders and degenerative neurological diseases, cardiac diseases, brain cancers, and arthritis.

Sadly, our human desire for health and wholeness leads many to blindly pursue “cures” from practitioners who do not have the experience or the wisdom to do scientific investigations well. Bad actors have caused significant harm to patients whose hopes have been raised by unrealistic expectations. The FDA is pursuing cases against several clinics that promise miraculous results as an outcome of stem cell injections into various body parts, including eyes, brains, and even spines. I suppose if transplanting mesenchymal stem cells from body fat actually does prove to be an effective treatment for any disease or disorder, a few of these targeted practitioners might be somewhat vindicated. In the meantime, I get the sense that praying to the oldest can of soup in your pantry for healing would be more effective than the “treatments” provided in non-research facilities. I love the quote in the article linked above from a former FDA official who described the problem with these clinics: “[T]he main risk is separating people from their pocketbooks.”

Jesus apparently never failed in his attempts to heal, though it’s not always clear from Scripture whether the person being healed needs to ask or give permission for the healing. In our quest for healing, whether for our eyesight or for other ailments and disorders, medical professionals are required to ask for our informed consent before any treatment. Sadly, this is not always well enforced, as evidenced by the fact that several clinics are still open despite multiple warnings from the FDA that their services are not authorized or approved. The argument from one clinic owner that the stem cells used in treatment are autologous and thus shouldn’t require regulation is specious; if the stem cells in my abdominal fat could cure any malady in my body without specialized intervention, I’m about 90% certain evolution would have created a way for that to happen automatically by now. I would not be surprised if the practitioners of these stem cell injections in non-research facilities leave out details and risks that are known to occur even within their own clinics, never mind the larger picture of stem cell transplant failures and other risks that occur with invasive procedures. I’d be only mildly surprised to find that they don’t have informed consent processes at all.

Jesus often used vision and seeing as double entendres. He cured people who were physically blind and then used their healing to speak about seeing clearly and seeing bigger picture things, particularly the realm of God. What I see clearly, with or without my glasses, is that the quest for perfect vision—or any other repair or improvement in our physical bodies—often obscures bigger picture things like the moral and ethical implications of such research. People volunteer to be test subjects for procedures that could do lasting damage to their bodies or even kill them despite hopes for positive results and such studies should only be done in clinics and institutions where the investigators are adhering to rigorous research principles. Those rigorous principles are of themselves a way of seeing clearly into one small part of the realm of God: human biology.

Prayer: Healing God, we thank you for all the ways that you have provided to us for overcoming our problems. We ask for clarity of vision, physically and morally, as we strive to understand better how to use the wisdom and curiosity we receive from you to use science to make a difference in people’s lives. Amen.