John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is email@example.com..
Published November 2,000 by permission of the author.
The author defines Christian theology as reflection about important questions from a Christian perspective. These include not only questions about God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, but also questions about the social, political, and economic order in which we live, including cloning. He believes humans have pressed our dominion too far. Like the builders of the tower of Babel we are exceeding acceptable limits, and that we need to draw some boundaries and stay within them. Dr. Cobb examines possible ethical boundaries.
Not many years ago, the theme of “creation of life” would have suggested a discussion of the evolutionary process that brought life into being on this planet or of God’s act of creation. Even when I was asked to speak on this topic for this conference, I felt the need to check to see whether something of that sort was in view. But because cloning had been in the news, I suspected that we were to discuss the human creation of living things, and I was correct. We are in a new era of creation, and there is no question but that we need to discuss it!
According to normal academic standards, the correct response on my part would have been to decline. Academicians are not supposed to talk on matters outside their field, and I can assure you that I do not have any competence on this topic. But I decided some years ago that I will not let a little matter like ignorance stop me unless I am sure there are plenty of better-informed people who are really ready to address the question from the perspective of faith. If, as I think, few of us are well qualified to speak on the topic of cloning, then some of us who are not well qualified should speak anyway. Let me explain.
Cloning is one of those “ethical” issues that cannot be dealt with simply at the ethical level. These issues are theological rather than ethical, or, if that seems to exclude their consideration outside Christian circles, they are matters of worldview. Furthermore, worldviews are inherently religious in the sense that they shape attitudes with respect to matters of ultimate concern and are shaped by those concerns.
Unfortunately, this does not mean that we can simply turn to a group of scholars who are worldview experts for help on these matters. There is no such group. During the twentieth century, issues of worldview, partly because they are religious, have been systematically excluded from our educational system. Philosophy was the discipline within which they were long considered, but in this century philosophy redefined itself as analytic so as to avoid such speculative questions and religious associations.
There was a brief period in which it seemed that the emergence in universities of departments of religion opened the door for fresh reflection as to how we should view our world overall. But, for the most part, teachers in these departments wished to emulate the general ideal of the university and eschew such questions. The questions have survived only in some courses in the history of religions, and in those the worldviews described are generally archaic ones that have not engaged modern science and technology.
This seems to provide an opening for the one location in which theology is professed: the theological seminaries. Here there is a whole profession of systematic theologians who, it seems, should be able to speak to the questions that technological progress now raises. Alas! It is not so. Most theologians, too, have tried to make themselves respectable in academic circles by eschewing issues of worldview. On the whole they are no better qualified than philosophers to address new issues posed by social change.
This is particularly striking in the great movement of theological renewal earlier in this century that we call neo-orthodoxy or neo-Reformation theology. Karl Barth and Emil Brunner begin their systematic theologies by announcing that theology is a “Wissenschaft”, that is, an academic discipline with its distinctive, rather narrowly defined, subject matter and method. Cloning might be addressed from such a perspective, but since the perspective is one that has not interacted with the natural sciences and technology, it seems, at best, to provide only one more angle of vision upon the topic. Furthermore, as theology is defined by Barth, its contribution will have relevance only for Christian believers.
During the subsequent period, theology has become even more narrowly defined. In the United States we have separated theology from ethics, leaving to ethicists questions of the relevance of faith to issues arising in the actual course of history. Cloning appears to be one of these issues, but I began this excursus by asserting that cloning is not an issue that can be dealt with at the level of ethics.
Ethics presupposes a basic way of viewing matters. For example, if one has a worldview that asserts the equal worth of all human beings and that the remainder of the creation exists for their sake, an ethicist can proceed to guide thinking with respect to the right distribution of goods. Ethicists can discuss whether a deontological or utilitarian approach better guides this distribution.
But if someone challenges the worldview, the response cannot be at the level of ethics. For example, if the critic rejects the notion that other creatures exist for the sake of human beings and calls for human beings to adjust their lives so as to avoid encroaching on the habitat of other species, ethicists operating with the worldview identified above are in poor position to respond as ethicists. The issue is about their presupposed worldview, and should be taken up at that level. Of course, some people who identify themselves as ethicists may be highly articulate about issues of worldview, but they are then functioning outside their academic specialty of ethics.
When I say that cloning is a theological issue, I am understanding “theology” in a way that is in some tension with the academic definition. By Christian theology I mean reflection about important questions that is intentionally Christian. These include such questions as those about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church, human nature, law, grace, and salvation that are typically the topics of systematic theology.
But they also include questions about the social, political, and economic order in which we live and about how we relate to the natural world. They certainly include questions about technology and its application both to inanimate things and in biology. The delimitation of theology, as I understand the term, is not in the topics it considers but in the point of view from which it considers them. Furthermore, it is not a detached inquiry into what others have believed, but an activity of believers who want to think and act rightly, as believers, in a bewildering world.
This definition of theology is continuous with the way it has been understood through most of Christian history. Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas thought of theology in this way, as did the Reformers. It is the modern university that has introduced the objectifying approach. And although much is learned in that way, and modern scholarship is certainly not to be discontinued, the dominance of this style outside quite conservative circles also entails a great loss of ability to bring the faith creatively to bear on the most urgent issues of our time.
There are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others who are engaged in parallel reflection out of their overlapping, but different, convictions. Whether this kind of thinking on their part is best called “theology” is for them to decide. But with whatever label, it is the kind of thinking that we need as we deal with such issues as cloning.
This still omits many of those who have the most to contribute. Much theology, in the sense of reflecting about important issues out of deep convictions and commitments, is by persons who do not find themselves rooted in any of the traditional religious communities. Their convictions and commitments may be shaped by their devotion to the needs of an oppressed people, such as American blacks. Or they may be committed feminists or deep ecologists. Their contributions to the current theological discussion are rich indeed.
Nevertheless, my own approach is as a Christian believer. I am one who has taught theology in a fairly conventional academic way but who has been increasingly convinced of the inadequacy of academic theology to the needs of individuals, churches, and society at large. Hence I have redefined theology, or, more accurately, I have argued for the recovery of the classical understanding of its nature and role. It is because I have reclaimed this role, that I take the risk of speaking and writing about topics which fall outside all of the academic disciplines.
I have come increasingly to the conclusion that this is the case with most of the most important issues we now face as human beings. I am making this long introduction to my comments because I hope to entice others away from the disciplinary approach to theology and into intentionally Christian reflection that selects its topics on the basis of their importance.
The Christian voice needs to be heard on the difficult issues we face, even if it does not speak with much confidence. But there is also danger that it will speak crudely on the basis of seizing some past teaching and deriving answers for today uncritically. We need a community of Christian thinkers who will discuss difficult new questions with each other and with the wider public not in order to score points but to advance toward an understanding of how Christians can understand God’s purposes.
Without a community of discussants, supposedly theological approaches may do more harm than good. This may, of course, be true of my own idiosyncratic observations. It is often true of the appeal to traditional natural law theory to settle issues with regard to sexuality, population control, and physician-assisted suicide. Principles that made sense at the time they were promulgated are absolutized and imposed from without on circumstances to which they are not truly applicable. This is not the theological reflection we need.
With regard to cloning, for example, some Christians appeal to a particular traditional doctrine about the human soul. They hold that it is a supernatural creation of God that must elude humanly created beings. In this approach, the creation of animals by cloning poses no problem, since ethical and theological questions have application only in the sphere of human souls. For those who take this approach, the question arises only with human cloning and asks whether the clone has a supernatural soul. If so, she or he must be treated as a full human being. But if God does not in fact infuse a supernatural soul in a cloned human being, then that being would not truly be human at all.
This way of thinking has little Biblical basis. It derives from a metaphysical position heavily influenced by the Platonic tradition and carried over into modernity through Descartes. The problems with its dualism between the human soul and everything else have been elaborated by many philosophers and theologians. I mention it only to illustrate the wrong way of bringing theology to bear on a contemporary problem of this sort.
It is wrong because its understanding of what constitutes human beings is disconnected from the real world. In the real world, there is no question but that a sheep produced by cloning is a real sheep. Similarly, there is every reason to believe that the human clone would be as fully human as the one who is cloned. They would be like identical twins except for their difference in age. And identical twins are as fully ensouled as anyone else.
This fact that a human clone would be a fully human being poses a problem for the cloners. Apparently one justification for cloning humans is to have a store of organs with which we can replace those in the cloned person that are damaged. But if the clone is just as human as the one who has been cloned, removing her or his organs for this purpose could not be tolerated.
A solution now being proposed accents this purpose. Most of the organs wanted for transplants do not come from the head. If there is no head, then there is no person. Hence, we could create clones who are like the ones who are cloned in all respects except that they are headless. To remove their organs, even if this involved their death, would not constitute injury to a human person.
The result would be a boon to those who need the organs. Their lives would be extended. No human being would be injured. Would not this be great progress in the field of medicine! Is it not, therefore, moral? Indeed, if it can be done, is it not morally required that it actually be done?
At the level of ethics certain critical questions can be asked before assent is given to these proposals. Could the resources that would have to be devoted to perfecting this technology and producing and maintaining all these partial clones be better spent in some other way? Also, without major social intervention, the rich will benefit far more from this advance than the poor. Is this acceptable, or should society devise some other method for distributing benefits? Would knowledge of all these quasi-human clones lead to loss of our appreciation for human preciousness?
These are good questions. But they do not go to the heart of the issue as to whether, as Christians, we can support these astonishing developments in biotechnology. The issue is not whether these advances violate moral principles. The issue is whether they are appropriate to the human vocation.
So how are we as contemporary Christians to understand what God calls us to be and do in this situation of marvelously expanded capabilities? There are many ways we could go with this question, but one seems particularly important for the topic at hand. Are we called to acknowledge our creatureliness, to accept God’s rule, and to adjust ourselves to what that rule brings? Or are we to assert dominion over all creation, including ourselves, to make full use of the talents God has given us, and to become creators of a new world?
There is much in the Bible and in the tradition to support either answer. And much is ambiguous. The stories of creation and fall can cut either way. Initially, the creation story seems to support the claim to dominion. It differs from many other myths of creation by its accent on humans having dominion over other creatures and subduing them. Few would claim that cloning was in view when these verses were written, but this is simply an extension of human practices of control over domestic animals and even over human bodies that seem to express the dominion God gave us.
But if we look more carefully, it is not at all clear that in the Genesis account even the domestication of animals is included in “dominion”, much less their genetic alteration and creation to serve our economic needs better. In this story, domestication begins after the fall. Further, most domestication is for the sake of meat-eating, but in the first chapter of Genesis, human beings along with other animals are authorized to eat only vegetation. It is not until after the flood that the eating of animals was expressly authorized.
Indeed, human dominion may not have meant exploitation at all! Since it is an expression of being created in the image of God, it may have meant that the human relation to other creatures should be like that of God to creation — one of care and support. Since the command to be fruitful and multiply is given not only to human beings but to other animal species as well, destroying their habitat may not be an acceptable expression of dominion.
The story of the fall, on the other hand, seems to emphasize limits and the negative consequences of violating them. It focuses on seeking the knowledge of good and evil as contrary to the divine command. Such knowledge is viewed as incompatible with life in the idyllic garden. Its attainment throws humanity into the world of work, of suffering, of evil, and of redemption. God’s purpose was that humanity remain innocent.
On the other hand, those who told this story and were shaped by it posited as the goal not a return to the garden but, instead, the redemption that is possible for sinful human beings. Especially by the Jews, but more broadly in Christendom as well, that redemption is sought through increasing the knowledge of good and evil. This quest has been extended to all knowledge; so that now we seek the salvation of the world through science and technology.
In remarkable ways, therefore, neither Jews nor Christians have read the story of the Fall as a reason for restricting human initiative and creative agency. Some Christians have even regarded it as a fortunate event in that it prepares the way for a redemption in Christ that leads to a destiny superior to the innocence of the Garden. Like the story of creation, it is ambiguous in its message with regard to the question at hand.
The story that most clearly teaches God’s opposition to human beings’ excessive hybris is that of the Tower of Babel. According to that story, humans were intent on building a tower that would reach the heavens. God introduced into their midst the confusion of many languages that ended their ability to work together. Yet here, too, Christians have not supposed that they should restrict their efforts to communicate across linguistic boundaries or to work together with people of various cultures.
The two themes of human limits and of human responsibilities pervade the Bible and the subsequent tradition. With respect to the former, we have a strong emphasis on the great difference between human beings and God their Creator. Human beings are not God. We are mortal and weak in contrast with God’s immortality and strength. No sin is worse than forgetting our creatureliness and deluding ourselves into a view of our own divinity.
In more recent times what is to be avoided has been formulated in terms of “playing God.” In the face of new human capabilites we often hear the criticism that they should not be exercised because to do so would be to play God. A physician is told not to play God with human life by ending it, even if the suffering patient begs for assistance in doing so. But the definition of the roles to be left to God becomes increasingly fuzzy as human capacity to play new roles grows and is used in ways that people appreciate.
On the other side, the Bible is full of commands to people to do justice and to carry out particular tasks. It is assumed that human beings are capable of doing much of what needs to be done. They are scolded or punished for failure to act rightly, but they are rarely punished for taking action as such. It seems that human initiative and action are strongly favored as long as they fulfil God’s purposes.
Those who fear “playing God” today will certainly be critical of advancing our ability to clone and moving toward mass production of clones. This fear will be particularly strong when the cloning is of human beings, with or without heads. If anything intrudes too far into the divine prerogative, it would seem to be the human creation of human beings.
On the other hand, those who take their cue from the granting of dominion and from the many other passages in which we are encouraged to act for human betterment will see all of this as a consummation of a long process. With such powers we will be able to win further battles against hunger and disease and death. In the view of Christian supporters, we will move closer to the Kingdom of God.
If we stop here, we will only demonstrate again that on most important issues Christians, like others, are divided. We can use our scriptures and our traditions to support either side. Something other than our faith seems determinative. We cannot provide much Christian guidance.
Can we do better? I think we can, although “better” may still not be good enough. I propose two tasks and will devote the remainder of this paper to them. First, we can join with others in asking whether our vast expansion of human dominion in recent centuries has led to real improvements. Second, we can inquire whether there is a deeper Biblical theme that might provide more helpful guidance.
First, then, how proud can we be of our past extensions of dominion in field after field. Let us consider three examples: control of matter, control of social order, and control of the human body. If we judge that in these areas our dominion has improved the world, we have reason to be hopeful about the further extension of dominion now to the creation of living things.
Christian faith, especially as it was developed in Western Europe, led to careful observation, mathematical interpretation of data, and experiment. In this matrix modern science was born. This science vastly extended human dominion over the natural world, first in terms of theoretical grasp and then, also, through its alliance with technology, in actual control of physical processes.
This advance has transformed the surface of the Earth. It has made possible a vastly increased human population with hundreds of millions of people enjoying a standard of living undreamed of in earlier centuries. Many of us now experience a hitherto unparalleled degree of personal security and comfort.
On the other hand, our increased domination of the natural world has now brought us to a situation of global danger. Population is pressing on resource limits as never before. The weather is being affected in ways that will adversely affect the future. Poisons and wastes are accumulating at a disturbing rate. Habitat for other creatures is disappearing. Science and technology continue to solve many of the problems that arise, but the shift from a natural to an artificial world makes us ever more dependent on new technological breakthroughs about whose occurrence we can be less confident. Already deleterious changes are occurring that seem virtually irreversible.
Equally impressive as the increasing domination of the physical world is the human decision to control the social world as well. Of course, human beings have always acted to improve their individual and communal situations. But they have done so within social contexts that they experienced as given. Only since the end of the eighteenth century have they supposed that the social order is subject to intelligent human control. This has led to a series of social experiments.
Of these the first was the French Revolution. The greatest has been Communist restructuring in many countries but especially in the Russian Empire and in China. Most people in this country probably underestimate the positive elements in these social experiments, and many suppose that it is better to let the course of events bring about many small incremental changes rather than to try to re-engineer society all at once. So the judgment about taking dominion over society in this way is likely to be negative.
We should realize, however, that we are currently involved in another social experiment on a vaster scale than any of these. This is the experiment of subordinating all other aspects of society to the economic order. We are engaged in constructing a global market in which capital and goods flow freely everywhere. This market has contributed to the prosperity in which so many throughout the world participate. It has contributed also to the absence of war between major nations that has characterized the past fifty years.
Before rejecting social engineering, we need to evaluate this most impressive and successful of all such projects. It has taken place with a minimum of violence by gaining the support at least of elites in most countries of the world. It leaves people free to make their own decisions in many areas of their lives and even promotes democratic institutions in most places.
But here, too, there are profound ambiguities. The global market makes the protection of natural resources more difficult and the accompanying prosperity speeds their exhaustion. It destroys traditional communities and inhibits the emergence of new ones. Crime and substance abuse increase rapidly. It concentrates wealth in fewer and fewer hands and leaves many, more destitute and hopeless than before. By making wealth the primary goal of life, it undercuts traditional morality. It turns out those who succeed in their pursuit of wealth are left hungry for something different.
The third of my examples, increasing control over the human body is the one most directly related to the issues of cloning we face today. Although it has roots in earlier history, most of the most remarkable advances have been in the past hundred and fifty years. Through elimination of some diseases and control of many others, life expectancy has been greatly extended. Chemical treatment of psychological problems is as widespread as that of physical ones. Organ transplants are also saving many lives. Medical science can now nurture life both inside and outside the womb. All of us expect far more of doctors than we did even a few decades ago.
But there are ambiguities here, too. We have been far more successful in keeping people alive than in restricting the number of births, so that medicine has contributed greatly to the population explosion that threatens to engulf us all. Chemical control of psychological moods is continuous with increasing rates of addiction. Meanwhile there are indications that the mututation of bacteria in response to the use of anti-biotics is faster than the development of new drugs, and new diseases are developing for which cures are still more difficult to find. Dominion over disease may prove elusive after all.
In our market-driven global society, the motive force for medical developments shifts from healing to profit. High tech healing is too expensive to make available to all. Globally speaking it becomes one more prerogative of the rich.
Furthemore, a new problem develops. Whereas in the past death was the almost universal enemy because it usually came prematurely, now what many most dread is prolonged biological existence after life becomes meaningless or miserable. In an overpopulated world in which hundreds of millions of children are cared for very inadequately, the pursuit of still more ways to prolong life, even of those who prefer to die, seems counterproductive.
Whether we focus on human dominion over the physical world, over society, or over our own bodies, we must conclude that its consequences are ambiguous at best. Together they have reversed the relation between nature and artifice. Whereas two hundred years ago nature provided the context within which artifice did its work, today the artificial world is the context within which some patches of wilderness are allowed.
Whereas nature had attained over hundreds of millions of years great resilience in response to disturbances and catastrophes, the artificial world is far more fragile. Whereas the great diversities of ecosystems in the natural world insured that some would survive and spread if others were lost, the enormous simplifications introduced by human domination undercut this strength. It is hard not to foresee human dominion leading to catastrophes of unprecedented proportions.
The conclusion from all of this seems to be that we humans have pressed our dominion too far. We have ignored its ambiguity in the Bible. Like the builders of the tower of Babel we are exceeding acceptable limits. It seems that we need to draw some boundaries and stay within them. Perhaps one of these boundaries should stop us before we proceed further with cloning.
But this is not an adequate Christian response. It sounds too arbitrary. It seems to say that the way we have exercised dominion is fine up to a certain point but that when that point is reached it should be stopped.
I would argue instead that in the Biblical story dominion was given to an unfallen humanity and that it has been exercised by a fallen one. It is because dominion has been exercised by sinful people that it has been so destructive and threatening in its outcome. It has become a demonic power operating with huge momentum and built into the social fabric and into our individual psyches. The drive to dominion is part of the principalities and powers that rule this world.
More concretely, what does this mean? Dominion means, of course, human control. Human control shapes events to ends envisioned as desirable by those who shape them. In the worst circumstances, and these are quite common, the intended end is the advantage of one group over others. But even in the best circumstances, when the common good is honestly sought, this is identified with the ends projected by one group of people, a group which inevitably has specialized interests.
A healthy dominion would be informed by wisdom. Wisdom views matters in broad horizons envisioning the network of consequences that follow from action and also recognizing the narrow limits of the human ability to do this. It sees that there is risk involved in action. This does not prevent action, since there may be greater risk in inaction. But it does not allow the pursuit of dominion to become an end in itself. Nor does it suppose that some one goal such as the extension of the lives of some human individuals can by itself justify the expansion of dominion.
Wisdom does not allow any settled goal to remain unchanged as new experience and additional information become available. It is self-critical and sensitive to the results of past actions. It avoids actions that foreclose changes of direction. It tries to build on what has been achieved rather than to destroy it for the sake of something supposed to be better.
Wisdom is a practical virtue. It is also theological. Feminists are helping us to recover its importance in the Bible. We remember that for Paul it is the divine Wisdom that is incarnate in Jesus and how this overturns the supposed wisdom of this world. What is truly wise we see in Jesus rather than in our universities.
This means that true wisdom is of God. We cannot attain it by human effort. We are made wise by grace. This happens only as we are transformed from our striving after narrow goals and purposes and become open to the service of God. It happens only as we allow God to shape our thinking.
This emphasis on grace changes the nature of the discussion of dominion and limits. The latter discussion depicts us as fully autonomous beings to whom God is external. It implies that God creates us and gives us certain certain limits as well as prerogatives and responsibilities. The task, then is to balance the challenge to act and the limits placed on action.
If, instead, we understand that God works within us as well, so that our actions can be directed, enabled, and empowered by grace, then the issue of challenge versus limits does not arise. To act as informed by divine wisdom is all that is required. This will not involve self-assertion or the sheer imposition of human will on other creatures. Nor will it require the renunciation of action in order to avoid going too far.
Can we draw from these theological reflections any guidance about how to respond to the new possibilities of cloning, especially cloning human beings or human bodies? If what is wanted is a set of rules about what is permitted and what not, the answer is No. Paul’s word is that “all things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.” (ICor.10:23) Cloning sheep and cloning human beings are lawful. Christianity does not provide a set of do’s and don’ts that can be used to justify rules and limits.
But should we engage in this lawful behavior? Is it beneficial? That is a quite different question. Whether engaging in a particular form of lawful behavior is beneficial depends on time, place, and circumstance. In the specific context in which Paul made this distinction, his answer was No.
Since the vast expansion of dominion in recent centuries has been but little informed by wisdom, and since Christians have offered little guidance, it is quite difficult at this late date to bring a Christian voice effectively to the table. Perhaps, if we think about how informing our actions by Wisdom would have affected the way dominion was exercised in the past, this may be suggestive of what it would mean to introduce this different approach in the present.
I believe that human beings dedicated to acting wisely would have tried to envisage, again and again, the kind of society that would best correspond to God’s purposes. Of course, they would have made mistakes in the past, and we will make mistakes in the present if we undertake this. But if those who engaged in this activity were open to the scriptures and to the present guidance of the Holy Spirit, I believe this would have led much of the time to testing proposals for extending dominion in terms of the effect on the poor and the weak. It would have led to retaining the natural world as the context within which human creativity is exercised and to exploiting nature’s resources and sinks at a sustainable level. It would have led to incremental changes in society rather than radical social experimentation. It would have retained the subordination of wealth-seeking to other values. It would have directed medical science toward improvement of general health and family planning more than to the solution of the problems of those with rare diseases and the ability to pay for high-tech treatment.
The resulting world would be less technologically advanced than ours, but far less fragile; less wealthy, as we now measure wealth, but with far more persons living in healthy communities and protected against destitution. There would be lots of science and technology, but it would be engaged in solving those problems identified by the society as important rather than simply extending human power over the world and human beings.
It is unlikely that in that world cloning would now be an issue. But in this world it is. And in particular human cloning presses itself upon an unprepared human conscience. Among all of our urgent needs, increasing an already excessive human population through cloning hardly seems a pressing goal! Furthermore, it goes deeply against the grain of many people. Although our sense of respect for nature’s way of doing things has been eroded dramatically over the centuries, it is not gone. Cloning of human beings seems an act of almost ultimate hybris.
My hope is not that we pass laws against a few egregious expressions of human dominion exercised almost as an end in itself. My hope is that this new possibility will be an occasion for deeper reflection, especially among Christians, as to the nature of the dominion we have received from God and how it should be exercised. Perhaps, belatedly, it can lead us to think together about the kind of world God wants and how our enormous capacities for controlling the physical world, the social order, and our own bodies can be placed in the service of that world.
If this happened, it might lead to seeking legislation against the cloning of human beings and restricting cloning in general. But that is not the fruit for which I most hope. The goal would be to influence society to redirect the natural and social sciences, and especially economics, to the service of the wellbeing of all creatures, especially human beings, understood broadly and deeply. We would need to develop institutions that could provide guidance to the scientists and technologists as to how to do this.
I am under no illusion that this would be easy. The dominant ethos is one of extending dominion for its own sake. If it is restricted in one country, we are told, the necessary expansion of science and technology will take place elsewhere, giving to some other country a competitive advantage in the global market. No doubt this is true. It is one more reason for critiquing the global market. Christians cannot allow competitive advantage in the global market to become the final arbiter of proposed policies. The time for resistance is here.
We are also reminded that a vast number of technological advances have military uses. I suppose that making numerous clones from a few people especially adapted to the needs of today’s armed forces could provide a superior army. Accordingly, the possibility that some other nation will exploit this possibility before we do becomes a justification for directing vast resources to getting there first.
During the Cold War many Christians felt silenced by this kind of argument. This was probably a mistake even then. But today, we must not be intimidated in this way. There are no high-tech threats to our military dominance. Whether it is desirable that one nation exercise such dominance is another question, one quite relevant to any attempt to envision God’s purposes for the planet. But at least this concentration of power undercuts a major argument for directing technological skills away from urgent human needs.
Do we as Christians have the energy and will to engage the challenge of our time? Can we work together, not for the establishment of a set of rules and limits restricting technological developments, but to give positive direction to research? Are we willing to be guided by God’s Wisdom so as to mediate some portions of that Wisdom to a society that is desperately lacking in vision? If we are, we can contribute helpfully to the public conversation of our time.