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Theologian in the house

Posted to AgBioView discussion group from agbioworld.org on May 25 2000
From: Phil Larkin <P.Larkin@pi.csiro.au>
Subject: Andrew Apel asks: Is there a theologian in the house?

The notion that biotechnology is "playing God" and therefore forbidden (or at least, wrong in some sense) has constantly puzzled me. Is there scriptural or doctrinal authority which supports such a claim?

Just in case no one else dares attempt an answer, I shall take the risk as an amateur. There are two principles from the Judeo-Christian tradition that strike me as relevant to the discussion:

1. Humanity has a role in the creation to use, enjoy and care for it. This is sometimes referred to as our stewardship of the world.

2. Only men and women are made "in God's image" and we are to imitate God, adopt the family likeness in being loving and good especially toward each other. That image has been flawed but is being restored. Christians say it is being restored through the merits of Christ (his righteousness credited to us and consequently our striving to imitate him). There is a very real sense in which it is proper and encouraged to "play God".

3. John 1:11 "Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God." Leviticus 19:2 "… You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" 1 Peter 1:14-16 "As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the HolyOne who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, "You shall be holy, for I am holy.""Ephesians 5:1-2 "Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." 1 Thessalonians 1:6 Paul encouraged the persecuted Christians in Thessalonika "You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering" I Peter 5:5 "clothe yourselves with humility toward one another", because this is to imitate Jesus Christ as for example in John 13: 3-5 "You call me `Teacher' and `Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.

The Judeo-Christian Scriptures call on us to be like God; to imitate him in our dealings with the world; to act in the world in ways which imitate his love, care, goodness and sacrifice.

Of course when people say we must not "play God", they may mean we must not be arrogant. There is a focus in our imitation of God on actions of humble service of others. Philippians 2:5-8 "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross!"

The Bible also speaks of believers being adopted into the family of God and being expected to grow in the family likeness. John 3:5 Jesus says "Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother." Ephesians 1:4-5 "For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ."

The Christian hope can be expressed as becoming more like God: I John 3:2 "Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."

Andrew is right to question Prince Charles' theology. Is it also "playing God" to breed the grasses used on the royal organic farm, fashion the rubber tyres for the royal Rolls Royce, or prepare the slopes for the royal skiing holiday in Austria?

It is perfectly consistent to be innovative with plant genetics to enhance productivity and nutrition for both the developed and developing world, provided the other principle is not broken: to be good stewards of the world. Our innovations are essentially the copying of the best in nature. Many of the genetic improvements on the drawing board are well targeted for meeting production and nutrition needs while at the same time preventing the loss of more land to cultivation and loss of biodiversity and moving us closer to sustainability. This is an endeavour which I am confident most theologians would be happy to endorse as a worthy imitation of God. I suspect most religions, philosophies and world views could endorse these objectives. It may be that there are some modern western world views which see salvation in nature and see mankind as a cancerous aberation. For them a couple of billion people have to go - guess which ones.