"Another Voice: Religion and Measure H"
by Ron Epstein

Ukiah Daily Journal
February 22, 2004

Measure H is confusing to many people, because the scientific issues involved are complex, and few have the necessary scientific background to analyze them themselves. When those of us of more advanced years were growing up, the university scientific community for the most part was independent and objective, today even the best universities are dependent upon multinational corporations for their funding. Many scientists even have to go out and fund-raise for major portions of their own salaries. Nowhere is the situation worse in this regard than in the field of biotechnology. And no modern day Jesus has yet driven the money-changers from the temple of science. Where else can we look for guidance?

In the community discussion over Measure H, there has been little public consideration of the religious dimensions of the issues, on how the teachings of the great religious traditions of the world can be brought to bear to illuminate the moral and spiritual questions involved in the growing of genetically engineered plants and the raising of genetically engineered animals. I hope that the tasty tidbits that I present below will whet the appetite of the faithful, and stimulate a new dimension of fruitful dialogue. Recognizing that Mendocino County is home to a wide range of religious beliefs and practices, because of space limitations I shall confine my discussion here to Christianity. If readers are interested, I would be happy to discuss the viewpoints of other religions in a future op-ed piece.

Much of the Christian discussion centers on our relation to the rest of creation and our attitude and responsibility towards it. Bishop Jaydee Hanson of the United Methodist Church has stated, "Genes are God-given, and thus man should not be glorified as the creator of genes." The leader of the Southern Baptist convention, Richard D. Land, has said, "We claim it is wrong for scientists and corporations to own living, reproductive material…." "We believe [such material] is pre-owned by the Creator, and ought to be owned in common by all human beings…." "The altering of life-forms, and the creation of new life-forms, is a revolt against the sovereignty of God and an attempt to be God." A review of book covering the subject by evangelical theologian Wesley Granberg-Michaelson summarizes his views this way: "He touches on the question of genetic engineering, which he holds to be radically incompatible with faith in God's creation. He is aware that changes in species have occurred in the long process of evolution, but he holds that the wisdom behind these changes belongs to the Creator and may not be claimed by God's creatures."
The Seventh-day Adventist 'Guidelines on Genetic Engineering' do not condemn all uses of genetic engineering but caution: "Safe-guarding God's creation includes esteem for the diversity and ecological balance of the natural world with its countless species of living creatures (Gen. 1). Genetic interventions with plants and animals should show respect for the rich variety of life-forms. Exploitations and manipulations that would destroy natural balance or degrade God's created world should be prohibited."
Kerby Anderson, president of Probe Ministries International has remarked: "God created plants and animals as 'kinds' (Gen. 1:24). While there is minor variability within these created kinds, there are built-in barriers between these created kinds. Redesigning creatures of any kind cannot be predicted the same way new elements on the periodic chart can be predicted for properties even before they are discovered…. While this technology should be used to repair genetic defects, it should not be used to confer the role of creator on scientists."
Pope John Paul II has expressed opposition to GMOs, thereby provoking consternation in the bureaucracy of the Vatican that the Pope might antagonize major sources of Church funding and support. During a special outdoor mass for 50,000 Italian farmers, the Pope said that the use of GMOs in farming was contrary to God's will: "If the world of the most refined technology is not reconciled with the simple language of nature in a healthy balance, human life will face ever greater risks, of which we are already seeing the first disturbing signs.… Work in such a way that you resist the temptations of a productivity and profit that are detrimental to the respect for nature. God entrusted the earth to human beings 'to till it and keep it'. When this principle is forgotten and they become the tyrants rather than the custodians of nature, sooner or later the latter will rebel."

Although we have seen that many Christians are wary of the potential of genetic engineering for fundamentally altering God's sacred creation, a radically different stance comes out of liberal Protestant thought and is embraced by many Christian scientists today. Beginning in the Renaissance we find the image of the scientist as a Christian who moves closer to God by exploring the sacred nature of His creation. This view has recently been radically extended to justify the modern Christian geneticist as someone who is not only exploring God's creation but actively aiding God in his ongoing creation of the world. Yet a supporter of this view, Protestant Christian Professor Philip Heffner, who is director of the Chicago Center for Religion and Science, warns: "This religious world view tells me that having been created as a co-creator with God is in one sense a can of worms. It puts me in a position in which I am accountable for respecting the intrinsic or inherent value of the creation, because that value is ontologically grounded in God even though the discernment of that value is beyond my capabilities, while at the same time my power over things, also God-given, is operationally almost unlimited.… We will continue to pursue our knowledge and technology. We have no alternative. My tradition tells me that we will do so as sinners. This means that we will fail to understand fully enough. We will fail to act correctly enough. We will make mistakes. Since we are sinners and fallible, and we are also created co-creators, we ought to engineer in that fallibility-sinner factor, be as humble as hell, spend a lot of time on our knees, and recognize that if Oppenheimer thought that the atomic bomb revealed original sin, the era of genetic engineering will reveal it much more." Despite these reservations, Heffner advises: "Full speed ahead, and sin boldly." What do you think?


Ron Epstein of Ukiah taught comparative religion and environmental ethics at San Francisco State University.