New bio-tech challenges:
Sin vs. science, past vs. present
As water reflects the face, so the heart reflects the true man. Proverbs 27:19
In the ethical debate over synthetic biology and other emerging technologies the formula Playing God is widely used in order to attack nascent biotechnology. How should a person of faith view synthetic biology and other such technologies such as artificial intelligence? Just as engineers and researchers plumb the depths of the building blocks so too we must grapple timeless theological questions and evidence of creation, sin and humans as created in the Image of God. Against the landscape of these theological understandings we hopefully forge moral and ethical decisions of how to responsibly cope with the societal challenges of technology.
Secular ethical and moral perspective's are being presented to the public and so I asked myself, "Where are the lonely men of faith discussing this issue, discerning and declaring what God says regarding this emerging technologies?
Is there Difference between Technologies of the Past and Present?
Technology has been with us since mankind was thrust out of the Garden of Eden. Whether it was a wheel, reading glass, or a jet it has been our traveling companion. In generations past, they too were concerned about emerging technologies Playing God, and yet we sigh today in retrospect, saying to ourselves that there was nothing to be concerned about in the end. We find ourselves at this same marker with biotechnology. Is there a difference between the technologies that are being unveiled today and those of the past?
On occasion, one might hear the rote phrase, “Playing God,” but we pursue it not further, not giving it the due respect that it deserves. Do we use this expression due to unease, refusal to become educated on the issue, or that we simply do not care? The prudent person of faith will peer deep into the Holy Scriptures to discover the fixed limits and barriers of God's order. Once the delineation is recognized we can then proceed to conquer the consequences of exceeding the limits of man to form our action plan for responsible behavior. Where is that line in the sand where matters are humbly accepted and those that can be shaped by humanity? Mortal man sets about claiming tasks, functions or even the being of God, who is eternal, the elocutionary force of “Playing God” becomes obvious: it encodes a reproach rather than praise, as well it should.
Ronal Dworkin a secular philosopher accuses everyone who uses the expression “Playing God” of being "intellectually and morally dishonest". Dworkin claims that, "overstepping boundaries actually belongs to the very nature of man and biotechnology is qualitatively nothing new." Willem B. Drees perceives our statement of “Playing God,” when we see our old-established cultural structures undermined resulting in detrimental changes in our own belief system in God and what it means to be created in His Image. Secular man portrays God as a mere projection of anthropology on the hereafter. That is a scary thought...
According to secularists we have to "keep up their confidence in God, who helps them to handle individual and social contingency. Just as Bonhoeffer in his famous prison letters, Drees finds that whenever this confidence is shaken, the “Playing God”-reproach against modern technologies is based on an inadequate concept of God as a “God of the Gaps”. As soon as such puzzles are solved, God is marginalized again...
The mockers say that the person of faith use the catch phrase Playing God in order to avoid the challenge and to preserve one’s own image of God and the usually associated cultural (moral, ritual and political) procedures, thereby turning against new possibilities with emphatically pronounced aggression.
They provoked His jealousy with foreign gods; they enraged Him with abominations. They sacrificed to demons, not to God; to gods they had not known, to newly arrived gods, which your fathers did not fear. You ignored the Rock who brought you forth; you forgot the God who gave you birth. Deuteronomy 32:17
Even the secularists believe that there are certain limits to unlimited scientific progress and transgressing those limits is unwise and irresponsible. Some of the consequences which are unacceptable and some are reprehensible such as torture. Would the consequences of a possible biological apocalypse, letting the bio-genie out of the bottle, never to return, be unacceptable or reprehensible?
While the church remains silent as a whole on the issue of synthetic biology a few brave souls have brought the topic to the forefront because it questions the boundaries between the animate and the inanimate, a Divine act.
Synthetic Biology 2.0?
Objection to synthetic biology can be traced back to the systematic linking of basic scientific research with engineering the fundamentals of life, where man is the creator (in his own mind) leading to a paradigm shift. Man is merely shape-shifting matter created by God around and claiming title to it its novelty. What is most troublesome is the revolutionary vision of science: Life is to be reconstructed from inanimate material by scientific man. Bold promises, though proof is fragmentary, at best. Nevertheless these dramatic promises are dazzling consumers, politicians, scientists, and environmentalists.
The innovation of synthetic biology is not about creating new life. From time immemorial, this has been used through diverse breeding, which when refined culminated into cloning. This imprinted into the cultural memory of mankind, this form of biotechnology is commonly accepted as normal and morally justifiable. Yet, using inanimate materials to build and produce entities that will be widely accepted marks an ontological and cultural paradigm shift. Taking into account that the boundary between life and the inanimate plays a fundamental role in the governing and stabilizing power of the common sense and of many religions, it is apparent that any damage to this principle would be irreconcilable with these world views.
Precisely! We have witnessed 'diverse breeding' described in Genesis 6 and surely that tainted cultural memory has been manipulated and approved by those with an agenda seeking power and control. The consequences of such 'breeding,' resulted in man turning away from God and global destruction by way of the Flood.
Sober-minded observer should ask themselves, "by allowing such technologies, consciously or subconsciously, introduce changes in the Image of God in man? Does it jeopardize and irreversibly overstep carefully defined boundaries? Are biblical understanding or practices affected?" Does “Playing God” demand moral and ethical evaluation?
When we engaged with such emerging technologies are we acting in partnership with God as co-creators or are we sinning against God? This explosive controversy and ethical challenge is contentious and fraught with snares.
Synthetic biology: participation in creation or sin?
As with any good study one needs to start at the beginning. Man was commissioned to rule over the earth in Genesis 1:28. Did you know that in the late nineteenth century, scientific progress was identified with the striving for the Kingdom of God? Following those thoughts could lead someone to wonder if manipulation of the biosphere is on the same level as God’s creation. Another of the great deceptions of the End of Days.
Biblical hermeneutic reflection may be one way to discover the continuity between the Divine and human acting on one hand with the seemingly irreconcilability of the biblical testimony of God as the creator, leaves us nagging questions such as, would God say biotechnology is good, as He did with the rest His of creation? Great care must be taken with hermeneutics for as anything outside Scripture can and is exploited such as paving "new interpretations" of creation which is difficult to fathom by our human consciousness.
We need to determine if our actions are qualitatively similar to God's creative doing and may therefore affect or replace it. We do have creative powers but when we infringe upon His creation or replace His creation we have crossed a line which results in judgment, as we see the Genesis 6 account and the subsequent Flood.
Knowing that creation is a given fact oftentimes helps to explain the often opaque conditions of nature and world that seem to define man. This provides a unique lesson and challenge to all of us; do we allow our circumstances define who we are, our very soul? Or rather, does our faith and understanding of God define how we react to our situation? Mankind is yearning and stretching forth to define creation and then exceed those boundaries. God created in each of us the desire to know Him, have relationship with the Almighty. As we have driven God from our lives, cultural speaking, we are left with the that need of relationship but we express it by tinkering with the building blocks of the physical world, like a toddler trying to impress his father.
To a Believer there is a strict separation between the world, nature, God and His creation. The barriers instilled by God are good and proper providing abundant protections from both the seen and unseen realms. The world is being seduced into pantheism which is incompatible with a belief in God. A belief in God demands Believers differentiate between the Creator and the creature. Whether man accepts or denies the existence of God he cannot undo the shackles of what he perceives as limitations, for man is not God. Other belief systems recoil at the thought of not being into total control of ones destiny and all experiences arise by God's initiative from His free and loyal affection.
Creation vs. Big Bang
Secularists view creation as a model of interpretation paving the way to view the world and creation as a parable. They also are troubled that creation is not primarily linked to the past, in order to utilize it for a scientific explanation of the (Big Bang) of the world. To the contrary, Genesis 1–3 and Rev 21–22 are used as a frame in our bible to illustrate the connection between past and future, of origin and redeeming eschatological fulfillment. The composition of the bible suggests that past and future, origin and hope all function as a frame for understanding our present.
When we ponder creation we must attempt to reconcile how God achieved it all, difficult as that can be. Somehow God contracted, allowing room and time for His creation. In the Hebrew bible has a word bara (create) to lovingly create an opposite and the will to infinitely preserve it in its finiteness. It is an attribute unique to the Divine God. It seems almost paradoxical that a human being can create in this very sense. We can lovingly create, and even distance ourselves from our creation such as when our children grow, but to creation and preservation of life as a whole is God's realm exclusively.
How will you respond as man tried to breathe life into something inanimate, when you say science is Playing God? Secularists will say that our theology is flawed for if we even entertain the notion that man could manipulate God's creation, in strict hermeneutics, that would be an impossibility. Wrapping themselves in a twisted cloak of invisibility, scoffers see us faith simpletons as putting God in an arena fighting the competition with man for the job of a super engineer as a defense against Playing God statement. They will be in for more than a shock when their day to meet the True Judge arrives.
Is Synthetic Biology a Sin?
Does synthetic biology express the human wish of being God, arrogance, hubris, a destructive fantasy of omnipotence? Are such actions sinful?
Sin is described in the bible as a two-part process where man is told what God expects and man deliberately chooses to do the opposite. There is the original sin of Adam and Eve and our specific decisions and actions by an individual or entity. Reformers struggled with the issue of sin which according to secularists is multifarious and hard to identify—good deeds are done in the name of the evil and vice versa. For example, a tree may bear good fruit indicating no sin is at work but the truth is that at least for the fruits of man, we do have ever-present sins that need repentance.
The difficulty of identifying sins is further elaborated on in Karl Barth, a friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer theological model of sin. Barth demonstrates human failure by contrasting man’s behavior with the life of Jesus Christ, who, by ideally fulfilling the divinely determined function of man in creation, brought about reconciliation. According to this Christian model of reconciliation and the theology of sins deduced from it, sins are situation-dependent and may not only manifest themselves in arrogance, but similarly in lethargy or lies.
Are we looking at two-sides of a coin when we look at emerging technologies such as synthetic biology? Are these technologies a fantasy for omnipotence to gain control over life? Or, rather, are those who seek a ban on emerging technologies lethargic, despondent, and shirking responsibilities? For instance, could synthetic biology be of some value when treating resistant bacteria? As you can clearly see the technologies emerging come precarious close to sin, although remain in gray shadows so that it is difficult to determine the biblical truth of the matter.
Possibly we can glean a position when we look at what it means to be created in the Image of God which is an honor bestowed upon man which can see from God’s affection in His covenant and from the life of Jesus Christ. Being created in the Image of God does not confer Divine qualities upon man. Man is granted however distinguishing characteristics such as reason and the ability to directly address God.
The noble quality of being created in the Image of God raises the bar for us to continually strive towards our original calling to be a steward over creation, despite the fact that we continue to sin (fail).
The bible teaches that being created in the Image of God makes man unique among creations while secularists would have you believe that it is strongly anthropocentric with our job description to abandon one's own benefit and govern with reverence the unity of life in biodiversity (GAIA worship). Interestingly, secularists are irritated that we are loyal to God despite the fact that that we are sinful creatures missing the mark.
What Faith Lessons Can We Learn?
Synthetic biology and other emerging technologies are breaking through a boundary deeply rooted in human cultural memory by penetrating into a domain that is believed to be exclusively reserved to the Divine.
We should be thoroughly examining creation and sin show to see what the Holy Writ says as to whether synthetic biology and other technologies conquer the sacrosanct Divine domain.
We should be studying Scripture to refine our understanding of our biblical role at stewards of the earth, not orienting ourselves to the role model of preserving ecological variety.
There is grave risk with known and future biotechnologies when they are solely evaluated with regard to their durability, their exact purpose, their social relevance and, finally, to their level of safety and security without considering the spiritual ramifications and potential dangers by those who would exploit these technologies for greed.
Within the realm of the Spirit it makes no sense to evaluate technologies by science and metrics to determine whether they are responsible and justifiable.
We must look at the ethical challenge of synthetic biological through spiritual eyes and the resulting expectable consequences and side effects. In that light, does the general public have a right to question every discipline or branch of research as to its spiritual, social, and ecological compatibility? Theological and non-theological ethicist must keep a critical eye on these transformational technologies.
In societies marked by the mass media, exaggerated expectations, both optimistic and pessimistic, of synthetic biology as a new field of research will be encountered. The societal system of media works according to the code attention/non-attention. This code is not identical to the differentiation between true/untrue. A word to the wise, when traditional images of man, the world and of God are questioned, people are challenged to modify their ideas, there is too much at stake and even more to discuss.
Boldly Standing & Challenging
We live in a time when the world is questioning what life actually is, especially in light of Synthetic Biology and such technologies. It is up to the person of faith to stand boldly and courageously challenging the disciplines that seeks to alter our belief system and matter, creating a world devoid of God, which is not even possible for those foundational building blocks were created by the Creator with engineers merely shape-shifting the created matter.
We need to pause in amazement about the magnificence and complexity of this world and creation. While we are in that awe-struck state we will do well to remember that creation is inexorably linked to the Creator and their are forces and entities that are releasing technologies to deliberately attack to unlink our awe of God, this is in their own words.