Conference on ‘Beyond Determinism and Reductionism: Genetic Science and the Person’
AS CHRISTIANS, we believe in the worth, dignity and value of each person. That is why we abhor murder and abortion. We believe that God, in Jesus Christ, became a man, full of grace and truth. As Christians we seek then to do all we can to bring health and wholeness to people and the community in which we live.
The “worth, dignity and value” of the person is now being challenged in this “Biotech Century” with the explosive increase in our knowledge of the human gene and all that promises. After all, if it is at all possible to manipulate genes to cure diseases and change people’s behaviour, what is man, but a mere cluster of genes who needs the scientists more than he needs God?
Furthermore, cloning a mammal from an adult, a related science, has become a reality with the creation of Dolly the sheep. A cloned human being does not seem far away, based on a news report in The Straits Times of July 26, 2002.
It is in this context that the National Council of Churches of Singapore, Trinity Theological College (TTC) and Eagles Communications, together with the Centre for Theology and the Natural Sciences (Berkeley), jointly held a conference “Beyond Determinism and Reductionism: Genetic Science and the Person” at TTC from July 17-19, 2002. Nine proficient experts from the US, the UK and Asia Pacific (New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore), presented papers which considered various angles of this topic: the scientific, (“Medical Genomics: Present and Future States”), theological (“Co-creator or Priestly Steward: Theological Perspectives on Biotechnology”) and pastoral perspectives (“Feed My Sheep: Genes, Neurons, and the Pastoral Care of Persons”). On hindsight, I think that the economic angle should also have been discussed, since various speakers alluded to the role of conglomerates and market forces in the life sciences business.
Lay people like myself would have been swept along by the tide of the somewhat sensationalist press at two recent scientific announcements: the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997 and the draft human genome in 2000. Because of the general moral repugnance felt at reproductive cloning a person from an adult cell, many countries, including Singapore and the US, have banned it. However, therapeutic cloning, that is, using stem cells derived from the process of cloning, to grow tissues and organs which can be used to repair and replace damaged tissues and organs is permissible.
This position was reiterated by the Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Tony Tan, when he opened the conference. However, what is at issue here is the use of human embryos for scientific experimentation. The Bioethics Advisory Committee of Singapore recommends that only embryos less than 14 days old should be used for the derivation of stem cells. However, in the Christian tradition, life begins at conception, and from that point on, the embryo is a human being worthy of respect and protection.
The main issue discussed, though, was genetic science. Genes are thought to be the building blocks of life and have been blamed (or credited) for illnesses such as diabetes, or traits such as homosexuality. Hence our genes are said to determine not just whether we are tall or short, but also our personality and characteristics. It is suggested that it is our genes which determine who we are. But such a view fails to take into account the role played by our social and physical environments in forming us. Such a view also seems to limit the work of the Holy Spirit, who, we believe can change us into Christ-likeness. We are not prisoners of our genes.
But the vast potential of genetic science for healing cannot be denied. For example, it is envisioned that one day we may be able to “bar-code” a person’s genetic code so as to personalise the drugs and treatments for each person. Genetic science has paved the way for more accurate diagnosis and prognosis of some cancers. But the potential to heal also means the potential to enhance our current state, for if we can replace muscle destroyed by illness, we can also replace muscle so as to enhance our performance, say in sports. We agree that the former is good, but what about the latter?
Understanding life sciences can lead us, like the psalmist, to exclaim
‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him?’
It was something of a blow to human pride to discover that human beings have “only” 30,000 – 40,000 genes, comparable to the number of genes in a common weed. Surely this tells us that human beings are more than our genes? The Bible tells us that we are both dust of the earth and breath of God. We are created with physical bodies which age, suffer disease and feel pain, but we also have the unique ability to relate with God. That relationship means that we can relate to others, and also carries with it the responsibility to be stewards of the whole created order.
This dust-of-the-earth-and-breath-of-God combination has sometimes been explained in the twin concepts of body and soul. Our bodies are down here rotting away, and when we die our souls will wing its free (and disembodied) way to God. These concepts of spirit and flesh were dealt with in some detail by the theologians.
Prof Colin Gunton, Professor of Theology at King’s College, London, pointed out that this popular view of body and spirit is a dualism which is reminiscent of the Gnostic view that it is the spiritual which relates to God, not the physical.
But we forget that God became a man in Jesus Christ, thus hallowing human flesh. In the light of the physical bodily resurrection of our Lord, then, it means that our physical bodies too will be redeemed and transformed at our resurrection. Our material bodies will not be removed, rather, they will become more truly material, spiritual bodies which are raised imperishable, powerful and glorious (1 Cor 15: 42 – 44).
While we cannot deny our physicality, to what extent does it determine our personhood? To some extent for sure. Although it has not been proved that there are genes which regulate behaviour (e.g. no so-called “gay gene”), it is acknowledged that our chemical make-up will have some effect on our genes and thus affect our behaviour. Drugs, for example, can alter that chemical make-up and therefore alter our moods, and our moods can affect our behaviour. These need not be contrary to our Christian understanding of human persons. As Christians we can still continue to be stewards of the gifts which God has given, in this case knowledge and technology, to heal and restore.
While genetics and neuroscience give us greater understanding of the complexity of human nature and functioning, that need not result in either determinism or reductionism. Genetic science in fact highlights to us that more than mere chemical bases, human beings are complex, dynamic, psychosomatic wholes. As a person is an embodied spiritual being, the spirit-and-body tension needs to be maintained. Thus, it is in the traditional practices of the church that we can find much comfort and meaning – it is in baptism, the Eucharist and the preaching, that Word and Spirit combine.
In preaching, the Word, which is both the written word as well as the living Word who is Jesus Christ, the Spirit works through the preacher to bear fruit and transform lives. “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). Likewise in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the human, divine as well as communal dimensions of life work together. Many of us have seen the power of this reality often enough.
Modern genetic science is a fast-evolving field, and each day there seems to be new breakthroughs and possibilities. Such knowledge can leave us breathless, and we would rather sit tight and let the trains of knowledge whiz by, since for most of us, the knowledge would be too vast for us to grasp.
On the other hand, a glimmer of understanding of what the life sciences is all about can lead us, like the psalmist, to exclaim in awe and wonder, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” In that attitude of worship and humility, then, we can use this knowledge to reclaim the worth, dignity and value of the person.
Kwa Kiem Kiok is a Lay Ministry Staff at Trinity Methodist Church.