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Genetics and Theology: A Complementarity?

by J. Robert Nelson

J. Robert Nelson, since 1985, has been director of the Institute of Religion at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 20, 1988, p. 388. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A handful of theologians were among the thousands of attendants at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Boston. There leading geneticists from the National Academy of Science’s research council promoted a federal project known as "mapping the human genome.

The subject matter of that project is less than microscopic, but the task is colossal. It means mobilizing hundreds of researchers over a five-year period to chart the exact location of nearly 100,000 genes on the 23 pairs of human chromosomes. So far, 4,300 genes have been identified and just over 1,000 mapped. When the other 99,000 are mapped the huge job of sequencing can begin. This task involves analyzing no less than 3 billion pairs of nucleic acids. The chemical data derived from this analysis could fill 500 books of 1,000 pages each. Such information, scientists predict, will provide a vastly expanded understanding of all physiological processes and diseases. As Victor A. McKusick of the Johns Hopkins University said, a wholly new human physiology is being developed. Since Vesalius made anatomical drawings in the 16th century we have known how the parts of the body appear to the eye. Now we are learning about the essential inner reality of the body and discovering the physical-chemical powers that make it function.

Religious thinkers concerned with protecting the well being of persons must take account of these unprecedented scientific developments, particularly as they pave the way for further experiments in the modification of DNA molecules. This concern led the World Council of Churches to sponsor a world conference of scientists and theologians at MIT in 1979. Christian and Jewish leaders addressed issues of genetic research during President Jimmy Carter’s administration, promoting a report called Splicing Life, issued by the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research. In 1986 the National Council of Churches adopted an extensive policy statement on "Genetic Science for Human Benefit." The Roman Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II have explicitly addressed the issue of genetic engineering.

What have these religious voices been saying? A general summary was provided by ethics experts who testified before then-Congressman Albert Gore’s Committee on Science and Technology in 1982: (1) Though risks in experimentation are inevitable, a strong bias toward the sacredness of human life requires the highest regard for the patient or subject. (2) Programs of positive eugenics are dubious and dangerous, even though the effort to eliminate genetic diseases is laudable. (3) The allocation of human, economic and scientific resources is of ethical import to those with a religious commitment to equity and justice. (4) While a faith-based "reverence for life" can raise exaggerated fears about modifying human beings, some sense of human inviolability is deeply rooted in our national and religious traditions.

Religious thinkers hold these general positions with differing degrees of intensity and emphasis in defining their positions regarding the genetic modification of cells and the new reproductive technologies that seek eugenic solutions to procreative problems. The hard-liners of both Roman Catholicism and Protestant biblicism believe that ethical rules can be deduced logically from divinely revealed truths. They regard any manipulation or modification of the body and its natural functions as sinful. For some, this means no blood transfusions or surgical interventions; for others, no deviation from normal conjugal intercourse for procreation, no contraception, no modification of genes in human tissues.

The opposite of these hard-liners are the prudential utilitarians or consequentialist thinkers. They accept any application of genetic and medical technology so long as desires are fulfilled and the benefit outweighs the harm to individuals, classes or society as a whole. For some this stance can allow external methods of fertilization; for others experimentation with embryos and still-living aborted fetuses; for others, euthanasia for genetically disabled infants, the comatose or senile; and voluntary suicide. The hard-liners practice a deontological ethics -- stressing deon, or duty. The soft-liners practice libertarianism.

The middle course between these two options is one of correlation -- not a correlation by deduction from a divine edict but a correlation between religious teaching and the empirical data; for example, between books on genetics and the Book of Genesis.

Theistic faith includes a belief in God’s original and continuing creativity ordering the cosmos. The empirical correlate of the creativity is what we know of the structure of atoms, the generating of electrical charges, the chemistry of proteins, the latent potencies of DNA molecules, and the mind-boggling harmonies of enzymes, temperatures, pressure and timing that catalyze gene expression and organic growth. Judaism and Christianity also affirm that God desires the enhancement and fulfillment of each human life and the integrity of families and the wider human community. These values correlate with advances in science and technology that preserve life -- whether by electronic diagnosis, prenatal and neonatal therapy, nutrition, pharmacology or organ transplants.

Biblical religion also teaches that we are God’s stewards for our own lives and for the environment. Scientific data, both medical and ecological, warn us of the limited resources we have for supporting the human race. It is up to us to ensure that our technology helps to preserve life and the environment rather than destroy them.

According to the biblical model of the person, which has prevailed for many centuries and is still largely normative for Western culture, a person consists of a physical organism, including a brain of unique proportions and capabilities. The brain is obviously the locus of the mind, but the mind transcends the physico-chemical limitations of the brain. This transcendence is palpably demonstrated by the voluntary exercise of the will in making decisions and directing the body’s actions. Beyond the mind is the unique soul of each individual, wherein the deepest attributes of selfhood are found. The soul is also the living link to metaphysical reality and intelligent power. which in theistic terms is called God the Creator.

This model, in which all components of the person constitute an integrated whole, is far more complex than the common dualistic model of "the ghost in the machine," which was unfortunately bequeathed to Christianity and Western culture by ancient Greek and Hindu philosophy. It is also more congenial to modern medicine precisely because of the way it affirms the unity of mind and body -- unlike a reductionist theory of mechanistic materialism or a pure spiritualism that denies the body’s value.

Do the findings of molecular biologists threaten to replace biblical anthropology with the idea that human behavior is entirely genetically determined? Some genetic researchers do posit genetic causality not only for psychopathic illnesses such as manic depression and schizophrenia but for morally disapproved behavior such as stealing. If the latter sort of behavior is ultimately caused by specific genes, then both free will and moral responsibility are canceled.

It is apparent, however, that there are many phenomena in the realms of intelligence, affection, aesthetics, psychology and religion that defy and deny the materialistic explanation. It is also questionable whether congenital diseases are explicable only genetically. Testing on the genetic link for cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy and other diseases indicates that environmental influences, especially the health and habits of the mother, determine to some extent the form and severity of an offspring’s disease.

It is possible, then, to maintain a biblical view of human freedom and responsibility while acknowledging the power and significance of genetic coding.

When scientists announce that the chemistry of DNA is so certain, universal and uniform that all forms of life on earth are essentially the same, a credulous public jumps to the conclusion that traditional claims for the uniqueness of the human species have been nullified. But the discovery of genetic identities between human cells and those of most other organisms does not negate the distinctiveness of human beings. Rather, it shows how the infinite creative power has used these marvelous mechanisms to fashion us as we are. Such knowledge also shows, to our sorrow, how dysfunctions, diseases and physical malformations occur within the scheme of life that the Creator intends as good.

The genomes of individuals and of the species are infinitely complex. Human genes have been replicating and mutating for millions of years. It is astonishing to reflect that only in the past 35 years have we begun to understand them. Though some religious people may believe that theology and genetics are contradictory, that belief is neither "necessary" nor true. We must recognize instead that genetics and theology provide different kinds of data, in different dimensions of cognition, which are ultimately complementary. Genetic science is opening new vistas for understanding, but it will remain insufficient without the insights of faith and theology.


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