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Peters, Ted. “Playing God with Our Evolutionary Future."

The theory of evolution leads Ted Peters to emphasize that God’s creation is not fixed but changing, and this may apply even to human nature. But should we seek to influence our own genetic future? Some denounce this as “playing God,” especially when it comes to germ-line intervention, but Peters analyzes this term in light of a Christian theology of creation. He claims that God’s creative activity gives the world a future, that humans are “created co-creators,” as Hefner puts it, and that we should be open to improving the human genetic lot and thus to influencing our evolutionary future.

Peters suggests three meanings for the term, “playing God”: learning about God’s awesome secrets through science and technology; making life and death decisions in medical emergencies; and substituting ourselves for God. Concern for the third may lead to an attack on human pride in when we confuse knowledge for wisdom or ignore the problem of unforeseen consequences of germ-line intervention. A separate concern is that DNA is sacred and should be off-limits to humans. Here Peters cites Jeremy Rifkin, who appeals to naturalism or vitalism in defense of leaving nature alone. Still neither Christian theologians nor molecular biologists are likely to agree with Rifkin - though for different reasons.

Actually the term “playing God” raises the question of the relationship between God and creation in terms of both creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua. In Peters’ view, giving the world a future is God’s fundamental way of acting as creator. God creates new things including the new creation yet to come. The human is a “created co-creator”: we are part of what God alone creates ex nihilo, yet we can have a special influence of the direction of what God continues to create. Indeed the meaning of imago Dei may well be creativity. Though the results of human creativity are deeply ambiguous ethically, we cannot not be creative. The ethical mandate concentrates instead on the purposes towards which we direct our work

Peters next turns to the Human Genome Project (HGP). The aim of the HGP is new knowledge and the betterment of human health, but the germ-line debate is over taking actions now that might potentially improve the health or relieve the suffering of people who do not yet exist. Should we instead only engage in somatic therapy or should we undertake germ-line therapy, and should the purposes of the latter include enhancement? Peters cites a number of church documents which call for caution or for limitations to somatic procedures; still others are open to germ-line therapy. At stake is the implicit association with eugenics.

By and large, religious ethical thinking is conservative, seeking to preserve the present human gene pool for the indefinite future. From this perspective, germ-line intervention triggers the sense of “playing God” both physically (we might degrade the biodiversity required for good health) and socially (we might contribute to stigma and discrimination). But Peters is critical of this perspective, because it assumes that the present state of affairs is adequate, and it ignores the correlation between conceiving of God as the creator and the human as created co-creator. Instead, we are called to envision a truly better future and press on towards it, though certainly with caution, prudence, and a clear concern for our hubris.

After recounting the summary of arguments for and against germ-line intervention stipulated by Eric Juengst, Peters turns to the position paper by the Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG). The strongest argument is that germ-line intervention will reinforce social discrimination. Peters endorses the CRG’s concern: the definition of the ideal norm may be governed by economic and political advantage. He reaffirms human dignity regardless of genetic inheritance and the technical possibilities in genetic engineering, but he recognizes that the underlying reasons for prejudice and discrimination today are not germ-line intervention. A more serious challenge raised by the CRG concerns persons who do not yet exist: should they be given moral priority over present populations? Future generations might blame us for acting, or not acting, in terms of germ-line interventions, and, arguably, we are morally accountable to them. But the problem is complex, as Hardy Jones and John A. Robertson point out, since actual, generational differences would occur depending on whether or not we intervened. We clearly need an ethical framework that is grounded in God’s will for the future, for the flourishing of all humanity, and for that which transcends particular concerns for contingent persons.

And so Peters asks the key question: would a future-oriented theology, with the human as co-creator, be more adequate than the CRG’s proposal? His response is affirmative: a future- oriented theology would not give priority to existing persons; it is realistic about nature as inherently dynamic; and our task is to seek to discern God’s purpose for the future and conform to it, while resisting the status quo. Rather than “playing God,” in directing ourselves to that future we are being, in Peters’ words, truly human.

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