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The Religious Voice
I have no idea why I was asked to be the "religious voice" at a science conference. Well, actually, I do have an idea. A group of students from Harvard and MIT sponsored a gathering for their peers on genetic technology and society. Because it was Harvard and MIT, the gathering drew a number of prominent scholars and practitioners. However, the invitation list was missing a theological perspective, which was something some of the students felt it necessary to have, if only in token form. Ergo my invitation. I do possess a theological perspective (a Christian, a semi-Calvinist, a closet Anglican). As a minister, I also have a religious voice (with a Southern twang). But I was a marginal science student. My problem in chemistry was that I never could remember which letters went with what element, or why. The math never made any sense to me. (How does Al + O2 → Al2O3? I still don't completely get it.) Physics was impossible and biology wasn't much better, though it was a little more tangible. In biology there were no indecipherable letters or equations, but rather Bunsen burners to light and formaldehyde-soaked frogs to disembowel. But aside from playing with fire and frog guts (which contributed to the D I received for my misconduct), biology didn't make a whole lot of sense back then either.
This lack of scientific acumen actually helps explain why I ended up a minister (that and a need to improve my conduct). Empirical reason and precision, while appreciated in pastors, are not required to "master divinity" (ironically, we ministers are awarded masters of divinity when we graduate from seminary). Theology is basically an exchange of ideas about ultimate reality, ideas that may be judged as right or wrong, depending on your point of view. Not that anything goes, but the boundaries are fuzzier when you're talking about an infinite God than when you're talking about something as singularly fixed as the speed of light. This may be why some scientists hold theologians in such contempt. Why would anybody want to center their knowledge of reality on something so unverifiable and ambiguous as theology when there is so much else out there that passes empirical muster? If you're concerned about knowing absolute truth, why fool around with what very well may be nothing more than absolute nonsense?
I'll admit I've had my moments as a minister when I wonder whether I'm just making stuff up. People quote the Bible to support almost anything. I'll study and prepare sermons that ostensibly speak on behalf of God as if I had no agenda of my own, as if I truly know what God is thinking. I'll preach a particular point one week, only to preach what sounds like a contradictory point the next (though we preachers prefer to call these contradictions paradoxes). There is a good deal of ambiguity in theology (though we preachers prefer the word mystery). But sometimes I think I'm just playing with terminology. Does calling something paradoxical make it any less contradictory? A mystery remains ambiguous no matter what you name it. Theology operates contingent on faith. I do believe that ultimate truth resides in God. Knowing truth is therefore dependent upon God's revealing it. But I also hold that people are finite and fallen. Sin has a way of blurring our vision. Therefore even with truth, there's a limit to any human ability to know it entirely. (Though even as I write, I wonder whether I'm making this up too.)
This is not the kind of mind-set you want to have walking into a science conference. Science isn't much for paradox and mystery. While it can put up with contradiction (as long as its techniques are sound), it detests ambiguity. While there exists plenty that is yet unknown, that does not mean the unknown will stay that way. As a freestanding reality, truth is not dependent upon one's particular perception. A tree falling in the forest generates sound waves whether your eardrum is there to vibrate and your auditory nerve to carry it to your brain. Truth is therefore open to discovery and inquiry, not dependent solely upon divine revelation. Given the right tools, whatever may be known can be known (and what can't be known scientifically doesn't really matter anyway). Unlike theological musings, scientific findings result from lengthy and rigorous scrutiny with the goal of accurately describing reality. Theories are constructed specifically to be rejected if wrong. Science depends upon a strongly disciplined methodology with public verification and independent corroboration. Confirmed research findings compel agreement by the entire scientific community regardless of any existing bias. Ask a scientifically qualified scientist in Rome or Tel Aviv, Calcutta or Kyoto, what matter is made of and in all four cities you will receive the same reply, "quarks and leptons."
By contrast, ask four religiously qualified people in Rome, Tel Aviv, Calcutta, and Kyoto about the nature of spiritual matter, and you probably will get four different answers, and maybe more than that. Theologians and ministers are not exaggerating for effect when we say we don't fully understand what we are talking about. The fundamental ineffability of God makes any claim to full understanding necessarily provisional. In fact, for some theological traditions, the pinnacle of knowledge is not knowing. Theological propositions are not intended to be proven or repudiated on empirical grounds. In Christianity, conformity with Scripture and tradition are stressed, but disagreements are often settled simply by starting new traditions and denominations. Faith is the determinant, with one's experience and perspective playing an important supporting role. This is not a bad thing, mind you, but it is definitely not scientific.
So, yes, I felt a little intimidated when I realized what I was up against as the "religious voice" at a science conference. And once I found out I was scheduled to speak alongside MIT Nobel laureates and Harvard National Medal of Science winners, the intimidation was overrun by sheer panic!
You can't make up stuff about empirical data. It wouldn't do to tag data as a paradox or a mystery and just let it go at that. I had to go into the conference with something more. At least I needed to sound informed. So I raced to the library and checked out a pile of books and articles. I boned up on the basics of evolutionary biology, genetic research, molecular biology, biochemistry, bioethics, economics, medicine, and law. Some of what I read was scary. But even more scary was reading just enough to fool myself into thinking I had a clue about things others had devoted entire careers to learning.
For instance I read how plants are genetically engineered to be impervious to herbicides and how insects are being made to attack crop predators. I read how other organisms have been genetically engineered to clean up oil spills and absorb radioactivity. I read about the major commercial role of genetically altered plants and animals acting as living factories for the production of organic plastics, pharmaceuticals, and organs for transplantation into humans. Pharmaceutical companies are also manufacturing human skin for use on burn victims and soon hope to do the same with other body parts derived from harvested stem cells that are coaxed to grow on polymer frames. However, the development, mass production, and wholesale release of genetically engineered life forms into the ecosystem could cause irreversible damage to the biosphere, making genetic pollution an even greater threat to the planet than nuclear or petrochemical pollution. We can clean up an oil spill, but it's hard to clean up a genetic spill since it's composed of living material that mutates and reproduces. Of course, some of what's being manufactured is intended to cause environmental and personal harm. Work is ongoing in many countries, including the U.S., to develop and stockpile bacteria and viruses as weaponry.
Most presenters at the conference boasted of the potential for good inherent to their research, asserting that it far outweighs any potential for harm. "Trust us," they implied, knowing that it really doesn't matter whether we do or not. Technology and economics are huge drivers of scientific research. It can feel as if the only boundary lines are ability and funding (or profitability). Science possesses sufficient cachet to press forward in its more questionable endeavors since public opinion typically tends to come around in time. Initially in vitro fertilization was suspect, with its outcomes labeled "test tube babies." But now IVF is generally accepted despite the ethical conundrums it presents (such as issues related to gene manipulation and embryonic stem cell research).
At the science conference, I was assigned to a panel on human cloning. Cloning was the buzz topic that day: the infamous Dolly the Sheep had just come out of the hopper. Checking out the schedule, I discovered that my panel was set to meet in the main auditorium. I felt nervous as I entered. The place was packed. Spotlights brightly burned the stage where four chairs were parked behind microphones. In front of the seats were name placards: MIT, Nobel Science for Physics; Chair, Brown Biology Department; Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania; and then me, Minister. I took my seat and stared into a crowd I couldn't see because of the glare. I gazed instead at the glass of water on the table before me. The water was shaking, though that may have been me.
The moderator welcomed the audience and then invited each panelist to present opening remarks. What was our position on human cloning? The FDA has since declared cloned animals safe to eat, and some countries allow the cloning of human embryos for stem cell research in medicine. Screening of in vitro fertilized embryos for a limited number of diseases and abnormal development already occurs prior to implantation, as does the availability of human eggs and sperm from Ivy League donors online (supposedly making it easier for babies to get into Yale some day). But then as now, there is a moral consensus that considers birthing fully developed human clones to be unethical. This consensus against giving birth to cloned children has to do with the tendency among cloned mammals to develop inexplicable abnormalities as they age. There are psychological concerns associated with people thinking that a clone could "replace" a lost loved one or child. Also, there may be concerns that cloning requires no male involvement. Men aren't quite ready to become obsolete.
There's also a "yuck factor." Cloning yourself is disgusting. The bioethicist on our panel addressed this yuck factor in his opening remarks. He challenged the idea that cloning is regarded as unethical because it doesn't feel right. There's nothing intrinsically harmful or wrong with duplicating genes. Your body does it naturally in millions of new cells every day—and that's just to keep your skin healthy. He smugly asserted that eventually people will get over the yuckiness, just as they got over it with in vitro fertilization. So-called "replacement babies" will be as normal then as "test tube babies" are now. You'll see.
What did the "religious voice" have to say?
Stepping up to the podium, I cleared my throat and adjusted my tie, which felt more like a noose. I braced to be laughed out of the room. This wasn't going to be like it is on Sundays. Theological dialogue counts on an essential set of assumptions, such as the existence of God and humans' sense of virtue. For Christians, belief in Jesus as God incarnate (or at least in Jesus as the epitome of humanity) is also an essential assumption. These were not assumptions many in this auditorium shared.
My opening remarks argued against cloning based on a parallel between Jesus as God in human form and every other human being. Borrowing language from the Nicene Creed, I suggested how, theologically speaking, children "begotten" as a gift of marital love are somehow distinguishable from children "made" as cloned products of personal preference. That Jesus was "begotten of the Father" instead of "made" as an act of creation distinguished Jesus and set him above every other person. Likewise, children begotten by human fathers are somehow to be set above children "made" as an act of replication by a mother with no paternal input. Begetting necessitates two people; cloning takes only one. Bearing offspring becomes the result of purely selfish motivation; a clone is an exact genetic copy of the mother. Cloning could not be the same as "bearing offspring" because a person's clone can't be his or her child. A mother's clone is her identical twin sister. Yuck.
I thought I'd made a respectable argument. No mass conversions occurred, but I was expecting there to be at least be some mild applause. Somebody in church would have uttered an "amen" if only to be polite. But I got nothing from this audience. I don't think anybody had any idea what I was talking about. It was too much of a mystery, I guess. However, one young man stepped out into the aisle and up to the mike. He had a question.
"Would a clone have a soul?" he asked.
He caught me unawares. I was prepared to argue that a clone wasn't offspring, but I was not prepared to argue that a clone wasn't human. I'd read enough to concede that genetically speaking, a clone would have the makeup of any other person. The spotlight brightened. The noose tightened.
"Well, that all depends on what you meant by soul," I dodged.
"What do you think is meant by a soul?" he replied, lobbing it right back at me.
I knew what I thought. But I wasn't sure what to say. Traditionally, theology holds the soul to be the immaterial, immortal source of human personality, that inner aspect of human nature that distinguishes people from animals. It's what floats off to heaven (or to that other place) after our bodies die. That's how folks generally talk about souls in church. However, advances in biology and genetics increasingly demonstrate that human nature is continuous with every other form of nature. Animals, plants, and people all apparently come from the same primordial stuff. We're not as different as we'd like to think. Furthermore, neuroscientists (who study the brain) now assert that whatever it is we mean by soul (or mind or sentience), it's not some separate entity connected to or in communication with the brain. The soul is the brain, or more specifically, the soul is a function of brain function—it is both spiritual and material. The implication is that people are not comprised of two parts, mind (or soul) and body, but rather are singular persons.
As a minister, I know something about souls. But as a developmental psychologist, I also know something about mind-body continuum and neurological function—which is probably how I ended up on the invitation list for a science conference in the first place. (Just because I was lousy at science in high school didn't mean I wasn't interested in it.) At the University of North Carolina, uncertain about what to do with my life, I defaulted to wanting "to work with people," which meant majoring in psychology. This began a journey that eventually took me to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, since I wanted to work with God too. I became fascinated by the study of human thought and behavior from both psychological and theological perspectives. I loved delving into the different explanations for human behavior, motivation, attitudes, and addictions. My fascination led me back to graduate school, this time to Boston College, where I studied psychology proper as a doctoral student.
Yet returning to graduate school, I quickly discovered that psychology was undergoing dramatic changes. Everything I'd learned in college about human thought and behavior as attributable to subconscious drives, stimulus responses, or enigmatic "ghosts in the machine," was now being attributed to the brain itself. Psychology was looking more and more like hard science than social science, more and more biological. Therefore, theologically speaking as to whether a clone would have a soul, I perhaps could answer that a clone would have personality but no soul. A soul (to follow my logic) was something begotten rather than made (though I could be making this up). However biologically and genetically speaking, the clone would have to have whatever the mother had since mother and daughter would be genetically identical twins. So yes, I could also say that a clone would have a soul.
Excerpted from Nature's Witness by Tony Jones Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted November 12, 2008
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