Changing Human Nature: Ecology, Ethics, Genes, and God

Changing Human Nature: Ecology, Ethics, Genes, and God

by James Peterson



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802865496
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 10/22/2010
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

James Peterson is professor of theology and ethics and Roy A. Hope Chair in Theology, Ethics, and Christian Worldview at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario. His other books include Genetic Turning Points: The Ethics of Human Genetic Interventi

Read an Excerpt


Ecology, Ethics, Genes, and God
By James C. Peterson

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2010 James C. Peterson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6549-6

Chapter One

God's Garden

The Nature of God and the God of Nature

The only God, as the Trinity, was complete and everlasting without us, but chose to extend the love of God in making a material universe. In that world created where nothing was before are creatures who can love God, each other, and all else that God has made. Indeed, the world is filled with contingencies that in the slightest variance would have left no physical place for conscious beings. The Cambridge University physicist Sir John Polkinghorne cites as an example the exquisitely balanced forces that hold nuclei together yet can allow them to decay. Such stability yet recombination is necessary for the existence of physical life. He has joined others in describing these surprising circumstances as examples of "the anthropic principle" that holds that the physics of the material universe looks as if it was designed to make life possible.

One of the most quoted sentences in the Bible is found in the third chapter of John. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (John 3:16). The text does not say that God so loved people; rather it says that God loves the world (the cosmos), which is everything that God has made. The cosmos includes people, but it is not just people. God cares about all that God has made. God the Son came to live in that world in the person of Jesus Christ for the sake of that whole creation. It is this Christ, God with us, who is described as having made the world even before being incarnate within it (John 1:10-12). It is this Christ who is described as sustaining the world to this day (Heb. 1:3). It is this Christ who is proclaimed as the one who will eventually fulfill creation's purpose, reconciling everything in him (Col. 1:15-20). People matter, but apparently so does the rest of God's creation. In Genesis God blesses the fish and birds (Gen. 1:22). When the flood comes, God remembers Noah, but also each type of animal on the ark (Gen. 8:1). The covenant that follows is with every living thing (Gen. 9:9-10). As Job describes, God knew and cared for the world long before humans (Job 38–39). Jesus speaks of God's care for the plants and birds (Matt. 6:26). Sallie McFague goes further than these biblical texts when she describes the earth as "the body of God." On the contrary, only God is God. The creation is what God has made, not God, but it is appropriate for God's people to love the world as something that God loves and, in a sense as McFague argues, to "love nature for the same reason that we love God and our neighbor: because it is valuable in itself and deserves our love." Everything that God has made has value, particularly every living thing, as Holmes Rolston has argued.

Romans 8:19-24 is often quoted:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.

God cares about all creation and has a plan to bless it. The futures of human beings and the rest of nature are intertwined. Parallel to the advocacy of deep ecology, ecofeminism, and biocentric egalitarianism, nature has its own part to play. We human beings are just part of God's creation that God has declared to be good. God is the one who has all dominion. The earth is the Lord's (Exod. 9:29; John 1:1-3; 1 Cor. 10:26; Col. 1:16).

Strikingly, although God is the source and sustainer of all, and although a right relationship with God is the fulfillment of what it is to be a human being and for every other part of creation, God has created the world in such a way that human beings can live for a while as if God does not exist. God is the fundamental and pervasive reality. God is the center, what T. S. Eliot called "the still point of a turning world," yet God can be functionally ignored for a time. Nature does indicate that God is, but does not show it undeniably, let alone show what God is like (Rom. 1:20). Nature, whether understood as affected by human rebellion against God, not yet finished, or both, is too ambiguous. If one starts with nature, does one posit God as the one whose design and priorities are revealed in the parasite or the platypus? By the light of nature alone, is God vicious, whimsical, or quite something else? Yet if one knows God, it is possible to see a fit between nature and Christian revelation. A Christian understanding of nature sees a world that resonates with the comprehensive coherence of the Christian tradition, hence providing confirming data for that worldview. Further, God can use nature to reveal God's self. The primary revelation of God is through the incarnation into the natural world. "And the Word became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:14). The Creator can communicate through the creation, but nature of itself does not irresistibly lead to such insight.

This strange situation is a gift. Human beings are designed to live in fellowship with God, but it is an intimacy founded on invitation. If it was forced it would not be the same relationship. It is by choice, not by overwhelming fact or fiat. Directly confronted with God's presence as Isaiah was at his calling, we would be struck with terror. Like a shadow before a spotlight, our sheer, faint existence would be overwhelmed in God's unshielded presence. Instead, God has created a physical world where we can recognize and value God's presence or not. God reveals more to those who seek God, and allows those who do not to carry on for a brief time as if alone. The physical world with all its beauty and terrors, sunsets and tornadoes, directs us to seek God from admiration and fear and the sheer surprise that the world is at all, yet allows us to live for a time as if there were no God. That choice is essential to the quality of the relationship. The hiddenness of God has a high price in that some human beings never turn to know the One who makes human life most worthwhile, but those who do, experience a relationship with God and a quality of life that surpass a sometimes puzzling or stressful start.

Part of relationship with God is to live well with one another, yet this too is by invitation. The social nature and dependence of human beings encourage us to know and enjoy one another. The material world pushes human beings to band together to survive, but we can separate ourselves. The physical world grants sufficient physical space that we can live in a hermit's isolation or even in urban crowds as if no other human beings existed. There is a high cost to living with others, though not as high as living without others. Part of the beauty and intensity of loving others is because it is chosen, not required. Human beings can also be right with the rest of the material world, but this too is a decision. We can rapaciously destroy what we touch or we can nurture our part of the world. God's revealed intent is that each human being should freely welcome being right with God, fellow human beings, and the world we have received. We can fulfill the two great commandments to love God and one another, or turn to isolation and death. We can choose whether to care for the world we have received or not.

The Image of God

The second chapter of Genesis depicts the first human couple as gardeners in God's garden. There they were to care for God, one another, and all else in their assigned place. A garden is more ecologically complex than a wilderness. As with a wilderness there is an intricate interrelationship of life-forms and energy, but a garden has the added dimension of the gardener's intent. Human beings are placed in a unique position of being part of the earth. We are from the dust and to dust we shall return. Yet human beings are uniquely created in God's image (Gen. 1:27-31). There have been long debates over what "God's image" precisely entails. Three definitions have been dominant. One emphasizes that human beings have capacities that are uniquely God-like, such as the ability to reason and the freedom to make choices. Most human beings will hence be in God's image in that sense. However, Martin Luther noted that Satan also would be in God's image if capacities such as reason were sufficient. A second interpretation focuses on carrying out God's delegated dominion as much as possible in the way that God would. This view takes particular note that the command to rule the earth immediately follows the description of being made in God's image. This calling is a task and a representation. "Just as powerful earthly kings, to indicate their claim to dominion, erect an image of themselves in the provinces of their empire where they do not personally appear, so man is placed upon the earth in God's image, as God's sovereign emblem." A third sees the image of God in relationships with God and other human beings. As John Calvin suggests, a mirror cannot reflect something unless it is in oriented relationship with it. It may be that each view is correct in part. God's image includes capacity, calling, and relationship. All three aspects need to be present to bear fully the image and likeness of God. They are deeply interrelated. Reflecting God's image has to do with both the capability to carry out and the actual carrying out of choices as God would. One needs certain capacities such as reason to carry out the calling to stewardship of the world in a Godly way, but one will only be able to achieve that way of life if one is in an empowering relationship with God. One is reflecting God's image only if one is sufficiently oriented to God to reflect his presence. Jesus Christ is the only one who has fully reflected God's image (Col. 1:15).

The degree to which we each reflect God's image develops by grace over time. There may be a threshold in reflecting God's image from mainly in potential to in some sense present, but at no point in this life is it complete. Those rebelling against God by act or apathy would not be reflecting God's image. What then of Genesis 9:6, that the death penalty is required for shedding the blood of human beings because they were made in God's image? Also the New Testament letter of James warns against cursing human beings that were made in God's image (James 3:9). These protections may not be limited only to those well reflecting God's presence. The reference to God's image may refer to the potential for each human being to bear that image even when it is not being acted out. To fulfill the image of God includes a unique capacity to know God and one another, living out a calling, and a right relationship with God, God's people, and the rest of creation.


Contrary to Plato, Marcion, and others, there is nothing distasteful about matter. Human beings are not trapped in bodies. Human beings are embodied beings, our God-given bodies being essential to what and who we are. In the second chapter of Genesis, Adam is described as being made from the earth. The very name Adam is a play on the original language's word for clay. Human beings are of the earth. We use the same genetic system as other creatures on earth; we require food, we respire, and we have progeny. The human body of bone, sinew, and opposing muscles is the same basic system as used by other animals. We share many emotions and motivations with fellow creatures. But human beings are not just animals. At the cellular level, nematodes and human beings have much in common, but that baseline commonality does not describe adequately all that is human. Washoe the chimpanzee can use 250 signs from American Sign Language. That is not Shakespeare. There is a point where a quantitative difference in skill transitions to a qualitative difference in emergent capability.

Human life cannot be fully described by what happens at lower levels of complexity such as physics. Physicists sometimes refer to their pursuit of "the theory of everything," that is, trying to understand how the most basic particles and forces interact. In a sense that would then be a theory of everything in that everything material, including the human body, is based upon such interaction. But because one can describe an event at an atomic level does not capture the complexity of reality at higher levels. A chemist may say yes, you have described the involved atoms, but together they are forming a molecule of glucose. Glucose has structure and characteristics more than just its constituent parts. Then a biochemist approaches and says she appreciates all the chemist has learned about the glucose molecule, but there is a further level of reality not yet described. The glucose is being converted to lactic acid to generate ATP. A physiologist arrives to explain that this ATP is being released to power the contraction of a muscle attached to a vocal cord. A neurologist adds that the contraction is not random, but is rather at the command of the brain. A musician explains that the brain is triggering change in pitch to accomplish singing. Now an economist arrives to appreciate that physics, chemistry, biochemistry, physiology, neurology, and music may all be true descriptions, but says they are incomplete. Part of the reality being described is that the musician is singing for pay. It always comes back to money. But a sociologist steps in and says there are lots of ways to earn money. This musician has chosen to sing in this chorus in part to be with her friends. Then a theologian observes that all the former is quite true, but the chorus they are singing is from the oratorio Messiah. The singer is quite intentionally worshiping God through the soaring words and music. Describing the human world at the simplest level of physical phenomena can be insightful, but so often remains incomplete. Human motivation is too ambiguous and complex for what has been called "nothing buttery." "Nothing buttery" is when an action is described as "nothing but" a manifestation of some elemental part. There are often multiple levels to phenomena that cannot be reduced to the most elemental. Examining only one aspect at a time to better understand its contribution can be a helpful exercise, but such is quite different from declaring the whole merely the sum of its smallest parts. The more complex the phenomenon, often the more important the emergent properties that cannot be atomized. Each level of description can contribute understanding within its area of expertise, but cannot claim more than it actually provides.

The highest levels of complexity are unique to human beings. The opening of Genesis describes human beings as of the earth, yet the only creatures in-breathed with God's spirit. This refers to a unique capacity to enter into relationship with God, but not to exhaust it. God is accessible, yet vastly beyond what human beings could even begin to comprehend. Rabbi Jay Holstein tells the story of walking along a Florida beach and seeing a little girl industriously running into the surf with her pail, filling it with seawater, hauling it back up the beach, and pouring the water down a hole. From a nonthreatening distance he asked her what she was doing. She proudly explained that "today I am going to empty the ocean with my pail." She knew what the brine tasted like on her tongue. She knew how the surf tugged at her feet. She could smell the salt in the air. She knew the ocean with the fullness of all her senses. Yet she knew nothing of undersea volcanoes and canyons, blue whales and barracuda, icebergs and tropical islands, water stretching from where she stood all the way to the African coast. We too can know God with everything that we are, but we cannot begin to comprehend all that God is. That may be a task for eternity. Human beings can have the capacity to be uniquely related to God and can change the environment we live in far more than can any other species. Our capability and responsibility are far greater.


As God nurtures and develops us in relationship with God, we are to nurture and develop the small part of creation that God has entrusted to us. When by God's initiative we freely yield to God, God nurtures our relationship with God, one another, and the rest of creation that all might flourish. While we cannot begin to imagine all that God is leading us to become and to do, it involves the fulfillment of this creation. That includes transcending it both now and in the future while living it. Matter matters for what it is, for what it will be, and for the people we are becoming in how we live within it. The physical world is a God-given place to do this, to choose and to care about God, others, and God's world entrusted to us.


Excerpted from CHANGING HUMAN NATURE by James C. Peterson Copyright © 2010 by James C. Peterson. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Our Changing Nature 1

I Called to Shape What Is Entrusted to Us

1 God's Garden 15

2 Using Tools 52

3 Body and Soul 65

II Three Helpful Cautions, but Inadequate Guides for Shaping Human Nature

4 Cure versus Enhancement 101

5 Welcoming versus Making 126

6 The Present versus the Future 142

III Four Standards for Shaping Human Nature

7 Safe 163

8 Genuine Improvement 171

9 Increase Choice for the Recipient 190

10 Best Use of Always Finite Resources 197

IV Who Applies These Standards"

11 The Devastating History of Coercion, Racism, and Eugenics 207

12 Checks and Balances 220

Expectations 239

Acknowledgments 241

Author Index 243

Subject Index 250

Scripture Reference Index 258

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews