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Theological Perspectives on <!g>Genetics - <!g>Ron Cole-Turner

While Perry demonstrated the weaknesses of several popular theological arguments against <!g>genetic engineering, Dr. Ronald Cole-Turner, the H. Parker Sharp Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, discussed theology’s historical attempts to “defend God” from the indictment of suffering’s presence in the world. In “The Human Condition: Theological Perspectives on Genetics,” Cole-Turner asks “Why do innocent people suffer?” “The question is as old as humanity and yet as new as today’s genetics lab, where scientists search for the relationship between genes and disease.”

“Some suffering, we might agree, is due to our behavior,” Cole-Turner says. “but not all of it, and so people who believe in God have tried to ‘defend’ God against the accusation that God is, at bottom, either weak or evil.” This defense of God “is the task of <!g>theodicy,” Cole-Turner says, and he presents three types of theodicies, each “with implications for how we see genetics and what we expect of it.”

The first theodicy Cole-Turner presents, the most popular in the Christian tradition, emphasizes “The Fall” of humans from the complete goodness and rightness of God’s creation. Attributed primarily to <!g>Augustine, this theodicy claims that the “fallenness” of Adam and Eve is carried to and through all of their offspring, even to contemporary humankind. “We are born in the image of God,” Cole-Turner says, “but the image is impaired or ‘defective,’ not the way God intends. Nature doesn’t obey us the way it should. Even our own body, our own will itself, is disordered and does not obey us.” Thus, Cole-Turner says, God is not responsible for suffering because all suffering results from humankind’s fall from the original perfection created by God, and redemption becomes restoration of creation’s original state.

“An alternative theodicy stresses that creation is incomplete,” Cole-Turner says, and the original creation was partial, or “<!g>embryonic.” In this theodicy, proposed to the early church by the theologian Iraneus, “Adam and Eve are like children who rebel.” Because they disobey God, Adam and Eve’s “adolescence is arrested at an early stage in development.” Redemption, then, puts humankind “back on the right track and restores the process, and true human identity is found not in the beginning, not by imagining what Adam and Eve were like,” but by moving toward Christ, the “full expression of the image of God.” And, Cole-Turner says, in the end “nature will be whole, and like a giant tapestry, will mix the different colors of suffering and joy into a magnificent picture that would be less if anything, even suffering, were omitted.”

The third major theodicy “does not try to get God off the hook, nor does it try to explain suffering,” Cole-Turner says. “Suffering is horrible and incomprehensible. And where is God? On the cross, in the rack, bearing the full brunt of the suffering.”

According to Cole-Turner, two ways to think of God suffering have been proposed. In the first, that of process theology, “God experiences the joy and the happiness of life, and the creativity of life, but God also experiences all that is awful, all that is tragic, all that is painful.” God is intrinsically limited “to being vulnerable to the full range of cosmic experience.” And the second way to conceptualize a suffering God suggests that God is a “perfectly rich, perfectly powerful triune community who is nevertheless, in love, self-limiting.”

“Each option has implications for technology, including genetics,” Cole-Turner says. The Augustinian theodicy “led to the whole notion that we could use technology to fix nature.” Francis <!g>Bacon, a 17th century English philosopher and statesman, “urged massive use of science and technology to repair the effects of the fall.” For Bacon, Cole-Turner says, humans could “cooperate with God in restoring Eden. God does this through redemption; we help through technology.” Even today, echoes of Augustinian theodicy are seen in the concepts of “normal” and “defective” genes. “And so, many think,” Cole-Turner says, that “genetic technology tries to fix defective genes” to restore the original, good form of nature and humanity.

The Iranean theodicy, “combined with <!g>Darwinian evolution, led to the idea that technology could advance evolution, almost without end,” Cole-Turner says. “Forget restoring Eden; go for the stars.” If the Augustinian theodicy “leads us to think of technology as repair or therapy, [the Iranean] opens up the idea of enhancement, of improving on what nature gives us.” In this theodicy there is no “normative state” or standard of “normal humanity,” opening the question of whether genetic enhancement is simply another part of the evolutionary process.

The question of whether genetics should be used only for therapy or enhancement, as well, Cole-Turner says, is simply “another echo of the debate between Augustinian theodicy and Iranean,” whether technology’s goal is to restore or exceed Eden. The danger, however, for Cole-Turner, is not the possibility of using gene technology for human enhancement. Instead, he says, the problem is “that we have jettisoned the theological framework” of our ethics. We have with <!g>evolutionary biology a view not like Iraneus at all, but a view in which there is not normative state, no Christ at the end of the process to which we ought to aim.” Quoting Hans Jonas, Cole-Turner says that “‘in a world of technological ethics, built within an evolutionary framework, nothing is sanctioned by nature, and therefore everything is permitted to us.’” There is no Adam and Eve to define normative humanity. There is even no Christ at the end of the process that defines the target to which we ought to use our technological interventions.”

It is in the theodicy of a God who suffers with creation, that Cole-Turner finds his hope for the ethical future of <!g>gene therapy and genetic technology. This theodicy “suggests something completely different,” Cole-Turner says. “Suffering, finally, will not be eradicated. Diseases may be treated, problems might be solved, pain might be eliminated, but suffering arises not just primarily from disease but from love and its vulnerability, from life and its irreplaceability, from joy and its transience. Suffering can be addressed technological but never removed finally, and it is a dangerous illusion to try. We may pursue technology,” Cole-Turner says, “but we need to devote at least some of our attention to learning to live with limits, with loss, with death.”

In this theodicy “God is present in the creation in the form of the second and third person of the trinity.” We thus experience “suffering and God at one and the same time, and what that creates as a possibility for human beings is . . . an emerging community, in which there is compassion and technology side by side.” If there is any hope “that we will use the [genetic] technology wisely,” Cole-Turner says, “it will come from a re-theologizing of the entire framework so that we understand anew the relationship between God and the natural world,” not from “attempts to remake Eden or exceed Eden.” Rather, Cole-Turner hopes we become “become a community of people who use technology wisely, even while we remain fragile creatures.”

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