We are living in a unique time – where the decisions taken by generations now living could have direct and perhaps irreversible impacts on future generations, whether for better or for worse. The advancement of modern science is presenting immensely challenging issues – and calling into question some of the most basic assumptions we thought we had about human life and the nature of our existences. And the force of the argument is felt in our culture because we have for several decades lived in such a way that when the possibility of doing something arises, it becomes the moral obligation to do something. If something can be done, something must be done.
Now that we know it is possible to eradicate genetic conditions from the human future, things like Downs Syndrome or Cystic Fibrosis, we are told that if it is possible to eradicate these diseases from the future, then we absolutely should. We have a moral obligation to do so.
At the same time, now that we know how to make ourselves more intelligent, or have better memories, or be able to maintain higher levels of physical performance for longer – we absolutely should. It makes no sense to willingly accept limitation, according to Nick Bostrom, Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, who says our bodies are “death traps”, which we should absolutely strive to escape from.
The philosopher Julian Savulescu says we simply must enhance ourselves because to willingly accept limitation when something could have been done, is just the other side of the coin of deliberately inflicting disability on ourselves or on our children. He says we have significant moral reason to select the best children through the screening of embryos and children in the womb, discarding or aborting as required.
This is powerful language; these are emotive debates and we are not far removed from the questions of who or what we really are and of what our responsibility for the future really is.
For Christians these are challenging questions. We perceive something of an inherent attraction to the idea – we do want to see less pain and suffering in the world – we do want our children to have the best lives possible. Perhaps God has endowed us with these abilities and allowed us to acquire this knowledge for reasons just like this. But something doesn’t feel right.
Let me be clear, we’re not primarily talking about the cure of disease in the future, or better care for people suffering in the future but rather, the prevention of people coming to birth with genetic disease. That is a very different vision – something more destructive than creative, less in line with human flourishing than with denying what is real and true about ourselves, that we are vulnerable creatures.
People will vote with their feet once [genetic engineering and human cloning] offer significant benefits. At the moment they have concerns about nature or God, but that will change if you can double somebody’s lifespan with genetic engineering, which we’ve done in animals.
What I want to do is introduce some of the issues operating at the level of the big picture in these questions. From a high vantage point, I want to discern some of the key themes in the debate that Christians will want to engage with and from which Christians may form the beginnings of opinions and from may be able to discern the difference the Gospel makes. I do so primarily as a philosopher and someone who has reflected at length on the worldview issues at stake. I am not a biologist, but I do my very best to keep up with what the biologists are saying. First, in our view of the future; second, in our view of humanity’s problem; and then third, in our view of what exactly happened at the cross.
Our view of the future
There seems to be a choice to be made between placing faith in human possibility or placing faith in the promises of God. I don’t know how much time you’ve spent thinking about the future in a serious way, about the hope you feel or the basis of that hope, about what you think the future will contain fundamentally? What is the direction of travel of not just your life – but of the whole cosmos, of everything and everyone you see around you? The theologian N. T. Wright says that what we think about the future: “[Is] a matter of thinking straight about God and his purposes for the cosmos, and about what God is doing right now, already, as part of those purposes… It is the key to thinking seriously about everything else – indeed, it is one of the main reasons for thinking seriously about anything at all.”
The idea of a future in the hands of human possibility and progress is deeply rooted in our culture and it underpins many of the arguments in favour of ‘cut-and-paste humans’ as we try to make ourselves better. This idea being that we are each responsible agents in a cosmic project that can and will continue to develop towards perfection and immortality – even a Utopia of our own making. In the words of the Christian medical ethicist John Wyatt, we now see, “Politics as a way of making a better world and fashioning stronger communities. Psychologists advise us how to build stronger relationships. Business entrepreneurs create wealth.”
Wyatt’s fellow Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan believes that “every activity is understood as making, every situation in which we act is raw material, waiting for us to make something out of it.” To entrust ourselves to human possibility means to refer ethical questions to what mankind can do, and to restrict our ethics only by what mankind wants. But if we were to refer our ethical questions not to the question of what mankind can do but to the question of what mankind is for, we would have an opposite idea of the future – a future coming from the other direction – not driven by what mankind can fashion out of its lot, but by what the immanent God has done, is doing and will do.
This would be hope not in what mankind discovers to be possible, but in what mankind discovers to be true of the promises of this God, of his character, of his action in history – a future not of mankind’s Utopia, but of God’s Kingdom. A Kingdom where it is promised there will be no more sickness, illness, pain or death, that is the direction of travel in the universe, but the point of entry is not with our own making but through relationship with the God whose Kingdom it is. Jesus says in Mark, “The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows–how, he himself does not know.” (Mark 4:26-29). He is calling for patient dependence, essentially saying, ‘I’ve promised you this – this is going to happen – don’t spend your time building your own version of a Kingdom already established – instead, concentrate on entering it yourself and inviting as many others around you as you can to be part of it too.’
Our view of humanity’s problem
Your view of the future and the balance of the hope you feel between mankind’s progress and God’s promises will to a large extent inform the urgency you feel about the need for genetic enhancement. And that is connected to the second worldview issue: our view of whether humanity’s deepest problem is material or moral. Is it a problem with our bodies or with our hearts? The answer will go a long way to informing the type of solution we think we need.
Luke Chapter 5 is very instructive here: “Some men came carrying a paralysed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they couldn’t find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
It was as startling to the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law then, as it is to us now, to hear that no matter how far human progress might take us, it is powerless to address our biggest problem: sin and estrangement from the God who created us, who knows us and who loves us. Relationship with him is the source of flourishing in this life and the next. Scientific progress cannot stop human evil – it cannot do anything about the evil in our past – hope is found not in mankind becoming God, but in God who became man. He has seen our pain; he has seen our sorrow and he has done something about it.
Our view of the cross
The third view will hinge on what you think happened at the cross? Is it tragedy? Nothing more hopeless in all the universe, a man who lived a better moral life than any of us ever could but to no avail; vanquished by physical death and failure of the material body like all the rest of us. A man who claimed to be the Son of God – on a mission he said to set humanity free, not from disease and illness primarily, though he did bring healing to almost everyone he met – but to set us free from sin and the consequences of estrangement from God at the heart of our problem. Is it tragedy? Or is it triumph? What happened next is the surest foundation for any hope in our future.
There in the ground His body lay
Light of the world by darkness slain
Then bursting forth in glorious Day
Up from the grave He rose again
And as He stands in victory
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me
For I am His and He is mine
Bought with the precious blood of Christ
Extract from ‘In Christ Alone’ by Stuart Townend
Through faith in Christ we will be more than conquerors over death. Through faith in him we have the entry point into His Kingdom, where sickness and death are no more and where those who have suffered in this life are comforted in the very presence of God. Faith in human progress cannot take you there – he has done it – “it is finished.”
This message is the source of future hope for the whole world. Christ has addressed our biggest problem through his death. And in his resurrection, he has secured for us the possibility of life and fulfilment and health and joy everlasting in his very presence.