Friday, September 15, 2006

Friday Khutbah: Playing God

Genetic engineering and its potential human application inspire some fear, especially with the release of such reports out of the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center, where scientists claim they genetically engineered a monkey. As it is with many stunning announcements from the realm of science, a terribly detracting phrase predictably stalks the issue: “Playing God”— apparently standard verbiage of those who strongly object to the ancestry of and methodology behind ANDi (the name of the monkey) and what could be in the future ANDi the neighbor’s perfect kid.

Advances in cloning technology have elicited in the faithful the feeling that humanity has somehow drawn too near the realm of activity reserved for God alone, and that this is perilous since crossing that threshold soundly requires a wisdom that approximates that of the Omniscient Himself, which is not possible for mortals.

But given the reality that we human beings have difficulty playing human, it is unimaginable that we can ever “play God.” We are essential bound by our well endowed curiosities, deep quarries of wonder and creativity, and the potential to stray, obsess, and ignore the signs. This is what humans are capable of doing, and this is what we’re supposed to deal with. However clever we may become in predicting tomorrow's outcome, it is always a guess, never knowledge, and more often a surprise.

What the objections of “playing God” raise have very little to do with “scary” science. It reveals instead a spiritual insecurity that reflexively rejects anything startlingly new. Strange righteousness like this has roots not in heaven but in fear, and not the fear of God but the “God of gaps.” This theology erects divine intervention as the cause behind “mysterious” events and phenomenon simply because these events cannot be explained rationally through science. But once an explanation is discovered for these gaps or a technology is invented that breaks down a once impregnable wall, the need for divine intervention appears weakened, and promptly the faithful get nervous.

Such a tragic view of God and of discovery creates a mindset that makes one’s faith in God friendly with ignorance and intimidated by science and its fundamentalist writers, like the late Stephen J. Gould or Dawkins. It also can make religion appear irrelevant in a technological world. The result: religion is all but dismissed from serious conversations about matters like the origins of life and the universe. And hence, we’re stuck with “Intelligent design” debates and, a disaster, “Creationism.” Science becomes uniquely associated with enlightenment, while religion with regression. And I understand why.

Science has outgrown its lab coat. It has become the alternate explanation for nearly everything, whether it relates to empirical knowledge or not. The general role of religion likewise weakens, even when it comes to ethics and morality. The debate on the serious ethical and social implications of genetic engineering, for example, turns into to a strictly technical discussion, with perhaps measly pontifications on social impact. The challenge, however, is essentially within the realm of religion and its relevance. Religion will never exit from human life. The struggle is at restoring relevance at an intellectual and public level, without the oppression of Medieval Papal Christianity nor the nasal morose whining of southern preachers, some of whom walk and work with a darkness of mind. If religion is to ever take back its seat on the board of important public discussions, its advocates would do good to dispense with “Playing-God” and the stiff vocabulary that usually accompany the culture of objection and push away the intelligentsia. This, of course, is not to say that objections are baseless. On the contrary, when stated seriously and methodically, they are a service, especially when technology races way ahead of a public utility and common wisdom that should naturally lead and not be led by the business of invention, whose outcomes may not be reversible. Scary?


Anonymous Irving said...

A marvelous essay :) The dangers of cloning are not even known yet. Someone will someday clone a person, then all hell will break loose. Someone else will want their dead child cloned, or will freeze tissue smaples to clone themselves when they die. But a clone is a weak and imperfect replica, not the same as the person. Replicate fading is real. You're right, they are not playing God, they are playing scared humans, scared of death, of aging, of losing their virility and themselves.

9/15/2006 10:42 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Nice point: "they are not playing God, they are playing scared humans, scared of death, of aging, of losing their virility and themselves." I really like that.

9/16/2006 12:01 AM  

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