Theology Matters: What Should We Think of Genetic Engineering?

“It is not your business to succeed, but to do right; when you have done so, the rest lies with God.”[1] C.S. Lewis

What should we think about genetic engineering?

Feeling overwhelmed on this subject of genetic engineering? You are not alone.   My goal in writing this short article is to whet your appetite with two very new developments in science. Are you ready?

Now is the time for the difficult part because I’m giving you homework. It came out April 26, 2016. If there is one thing you need to know about genetic engineering, you have to stay current. The science is always moving forward. Here is the article: Did you read it? Did you understand it? I know I read it like five times. Got it? Okay, so what did it say?

The article states scientists can create induced pluripotent stem cells (ipsc) from skin cells and then convert them into heart or brain cells without inserting genes into the skin cells. It is accomplished by merely treating the cells with a set of chemicals. This avoids actually having to insert genes or use genetic engineering. This procedure may allow skin cells from a patient to be used to convert them to ipscs and then use them to treat damaged or diseased tissues or blood cell types in the patient. This approach avoids the use of embryonic derived stem cells from fetuses and avoids the problem of using a donor stem cell to be put into a patient whose immune system may reject the donor cells. It may also avoid the possible outcome of causing cancer in the patient when modified cells are injected into the patient assuming the chemicals do no short-term or long-term harm. No need for embryonic stem cells here. Want to get behind this science and push it forward?

Okay, next article. Here is an article from May 13, 2016. Take a deep breath and read, now: Did you get it? Make sure you read the letter entitled “Should We Synthesize a Human Genome” at the bottom of the page. It explains that as a follow-up to the original Human Genome Project that aimed at reading the sequence of the three billion chemical letters in the DNA blueprint of life, the new project would involve not reading, but rather writing the human genome – synthesizing all three billion units from chemicals. Care for some new designer genes anyone? Do you want some of Einstein’s DNA inside you or your off-spring?  What are the ideals and who decides? These possibilities are coming to a world near you.    

I want to conclude this article with this quote from Garth Jones, an anatomy professor in New Zealand: “The current biomedical revolution may well have more widespread consequences for human life than either the Copernican or Darwinian revolutions.... Unlike social revolutions about how people live, this revolution is concerned with what human beings are, and what they are going to be.”[2] This may be even more obvious today in light of the rapid advances illustrated in the two articles mentioned here. Are Christians prepared for what is coming? Science won’t wait for us to catch up. Seeing what is at stake, I think we all need to be. What are our guiding principles as we debate this revolution? How do we heal the sick through the tools given to us by our maker AND do no harm to ANY human?

The Rev. Andrew Ray is Assisting Priest at St. Paul's in Prosper

For more reading:

[1] “Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C.S. Lewis” (2008)

[2] Jones, Gareth G. Brave New People, IVP, 1984, p.12

Posted by The Rev. Andrew Ray with

Commandments 1-3

Looking back from the Great Fifty Days of Easter, we should recall moments in which our Lenten worship had us recount the Decalogue, meaning “the Ten Laws” or “Ten Commandments.” The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) enumerates them in two prominent places (Rite I pp. 317-318; Rite II p. 350) and explains them in the Catechism (pages 847-848). Why go to such great trouble to remind God’s people of first principles? As we shall see in an exploration of the first three commandments, human nature has not changed since Moses returned with the tablets and a clear link exists between us and the Israelites. The Divine wisdom of the commandments reveals our innate need to reorient our lives to the Lord’s purposes by repenting and returning to the very wellspring of our existence.

The BCP relates that “…[t]he Ten Commandments are the laws give to Moses and the people of Israel…” and thereby reconnects us to Holy Scripture’s accounts in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:1-22. The first commandment states “…I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage…[t]hou shalt have none other gods but me…” (BCP Rite I, p. 317), or, in contemporary language “…[h]ear the commandments of God to his people…I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage…[y]ou shall have no other gods but me…” (BCP Rite II, p. 350). The second commandment declares “…[t]hou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them…” (BCP Rite I, p. 318), or, in the modern idiom “…[y]ou shall not make for yourself any idol…” (BCP Rite II, p. 350). We pause here to make two salient observations. First, the BCP adopts the construction found in Exodus of splitting the injunctions against other gods and idol worship. Second, while the Rite II prose provides clarity to the commandments for our 21st century ears, the Rite I language exhibits a richness of expression that clearly links to the Biblical source. Finally, for our purposes today, the third commandment proclaims “…[t]hou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain…” (BCP Rite I, p. 318), or, in today’s parlance “…[y]ou shall not invoke with malice the Name of the Lord your God…” (BCP Rite II, p. 350). The Catechism nicely summarizes that the first part of the Decalogue teaches us “…our duty to God…” then transitions to lessons on “…our duty to our neighbors…” in the second part. Thus, the covenant relationship between God and God’s people relentlessly radiates outwards to others, with some scholars suggesting the best way to understand it as one coherent Word that propagates in the world.  

To me, the post modern relevance of the first three commandments is readily evident by asking ourselves a series of questions related to spiritual practice as well as discipline. Do we have other “gods” in our lives? Unfortunately, the obvious answer seems to be yes when we examine the time, energy, thought, money, and devotion spent on career, entertainment, socializing, and acquisition. More pointedly, does our everyday schedule reflect that the Creator is the God of our daily lives? The first commandment places a call on us to “…[t]o love and obey God and to bring others to know him…” that should be self evident in our thoughts, words, and deeds (BCP p. 847). Next, do we make or create idols, or, more to the point, what do we idolize that is not God? Again, we need hardly rack our brains to realize that secular success, achievement, fame, fortune, and popularity attendant to business, sports, media, and cliques preoccupies us to the point of personal distraction and social anomie. One will not find a better spiritual redirection than the second commandment’s call “…[t]o put nothing in the place of God…” (BCP p. 847). Finally, besides acknowledgement that profane use of God’s name is reprehensible and never warranted, we might ask ourselves when have we maliciously invoked the Lord or vainly used the Creator? For instance, when have we conflated self purpose for Divine purpose, or bargained as well as bartered with God, or made a promise that went unfulfilled? In our consumer world, it is far too easy to fall into such a transactional misappropriation of life’s gifts when the third commandment would have us instead “…show God respect in thought, word, and deed…” (BCP p. 847). The BCP eloquently reinforces the commandments’ usefulness as recollecting that “…[s]ince we do not fully obey them, we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption…” (p. 848). These self reflections show that the hubris of our self centeredness and the illusion of our own control enslave us when, in stark contrast, God promises God’s people perfect freedom.

Rather than despair, the first three commandments predispose us to remember this grace at the core of God’s covenant. Christ’s self sacrificing life serves as the model and the touchstone for utter devotion to God, complete attunement to God’s will, and appropriate invocation of God’s name as well as Kingdom. William Temple, Anglican exemplar and Archbishop of Canterbury 1942-1944, suggests getting retuned to God through “…bringing of the inner life under the control of the Holy Spirit by the perpetual discipline which brings us back, day by day, to the remembrance and companionship of Jesus Christ…” (Christian Faith and Life, page 101). Put to practice in everyday lives, this could mean taking the first three commandments seriously in several possible ways. Keeping the Daily Offices in either the full or shorter form “Daily Devotions for Families and Individuals” (pp. 136 – 144) or simply reading the Daily Office Lectionary promises to re-order our time and bring God to the forefront of our family, work, or leisure hours. Studying the Scriptures, or Bible devotionals, or dedicated prayer that incorporates the lives of the saints helps us to see the Godly alternatives posed by Holy lives to the cultural heroes and false gods propped up by the world. All of us could also do a better job intently listening for God’s purpose through contemplation and silence that stills our willfulness then opens us to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Taking the time as well as effort to show care and regard for others, no matter how different from you, represents prayer in action and recognizes the Divine imprint of Christ in your fellow brothers and sisters. In such a Way, Temple says “…life and worship build one another up into a complete dedication, and you give yourself utterly to His service…” (Christian Faith and Life, page 120). In our over programmed, over-hyped, and over-scheduled world, the spiritual habit of making this space as well as time for God is the very disposition demanded of us as God’s people.   

 Christopher Rodgers is a postulant and a junior at Virginia Theological Seminary

Posted by R. Christopher Rodgers with

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Priests from throughout the diocese explore religious topics with depth and nuance.