Science in Christian Perspective



Human Engineering and the Church

Department of Communications
University of Keele
Keele, England

From: JASA 28 (June 1976): 62-64.

The American Scientific Affiliation, together with the Center for the Study of the Future, the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, the Christian College Consortium, the Christian Legal Society, the Christian Medical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, the Institute for Advanced Christian Studies and the Institute for Christian Studies (Toronto), cosponsored the International Conference on Human Engineering and the Future of Man, July 21-23, 1976 at North Park College, Chicago, Illinois. Here, one distinguished participant in that conference gives his responselreport on the conference for journal ASA readers.

How should Christians view human engineering? Seeking the way of humility, our first reaction might be strongly negative. "I'm content with what God gives me; I don't want to interfere." This reaction may be reinforced by sheer inertia. "It's dangerous. We don't know enough. Where will it all lead? Best keep out ... let the world get on with it if they will."

But will this do? "He knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin." It appears from these new developments that the sum of misery in the world is reducible. God is the Giver of the new knowledge. It is He who will one day ask: "What good did you do with it?"

At the outset, Dr. Callahan raised the key question: "Do we have a positive obligation to do good, or is our obligation only to avoid doing harm?" In response it was generally agreed that the Christian cannot stop at avoiding harm. We do have an obligation to do good, if the good is well identified and in our power.

The first thing we are faced with, however, is the ever-present risk of superbia, hubris, human pride. Even if Christianity rejects in principle all pagan and superstitiously fearful attitudes towards the natural world and natural laws, self-glorification is a constant temptation. Dr. Spencer reminded us that neither self-glorification on the one hand nor terror on the other are appropriate responses to the Biblical perspective on our human situation.

Secondly, Dr. Callahan reminded us that our power is bounded, limited power. It is an illusion to think that we can proceed without limit in any of these directions, because sooner or later costs catch up with us. It is therefore essential that we go slowly and if possible reversibly, remembering incidentally that we are not only finite, limited in our wisdom, but also sinful, therefore warped in our motives.

Thirdly, even good aims can conflict, especially between the different levels, individual, family, and corporate, at which human fulfillment is to be sought. For example, reduction of infant mortality, which is surely an individual and family good, conflicts with the aim of preventing mass starvation, unless we can find a humane and acceptable way of avoiding exponential population growth. There are many examples where it is not a simple matter of choosing whether or not to do good, but rather one of wondering whether we could ever see clearly enough to add up the sum of good and evil, and work anything out as a clear and final answer. We are continually fumbling for an understanding of the controls of an exquisitely complex mechanism, which we can all too easily wreck. We shall need all the wisdom that its Creator can give us if we are not to do more harm than good by our intervention.

Fourthly, the achievement of material goals and improvements can all too readily swamp the spiritual point and purpose of our human existence. We remember the rich man in Christ's parable: "Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry." And the answer of God, "Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee." The question with top priority is always: "How will it all end? To what end is it all being directed?" These things can conflict miserably.

Fifthly, the manipulative approach, even when well intentioned, can degrade human subjects. The sweeping generalization that medical science converts people into things we must reject as typical of the sort of extremist propaganda which brings discredit upon arguments that might otherwise deserve respect. But the danger is not to be ignored.

Sixthly, there are no human engineering substitutes for personal salvation, even if some feel that some of the virtues listed as "fruits of the Spirit" can be assisted by the kind of reinforcement (or perhaps encouragement is the ordinary word for it) that behavioral psychology is beginning to understand.

Principles and Situations

Where do we turn for guidance in such a maze? Will the old Judaeo-Christian values still serve? An immediate answer is that values or moral criteria don't serve us at all. They judge us. But it is a good question whether the old slogans will still serve to articulate the relevant Biblical criteria as applied to these new situations. Take, for example, the slogan of "the sanctity of life." This can be confusing if we take "life" in too strictly a biological sense. We have responsibilities to God as procreators to do the best we can with the data He gives us to bring God-glorying lives into being. o use only the slogan "the sanctity of life" to determine whether a fetus should survive for example, seems to many inadequate and simplistic. Again, the slogan of the sacredness (or the rights, or the worth) of the individual is admirable, and thoroughly Biblical as applied to the normal grown human being. But in borderline cases we may have to ask whether we in fact have an individual person here to whom it is meaningful to attribute rights. We sense here the difficulty of the duty to tread the middle way of Biblical realism between, on the one hand, an arrogant lack of respect for the fullest potentialities of the biological situation that exists before a conscious child comes into being, and on the other hand, superstitious and meaningless talk of "responsibilities" to non-persons. We have to recognize that the fetal situation at an early enough stage is essentially a physical and biological, not a personal one, whatever the potentiality may be. In all this the Creator is beside us, knowing the facts better than we, and affronted if we underestimate through carelessness or any other unworthy motive the personal capacities of that biological situation. By the same token, we must remember that if in God's sight, in a particular abnormal case, there is not anyone there with a claim on us, then we will do Him no service by going through pious or superstitious contortions as if there were. Nobody would wish to minimize the difficulties in practice in determining what is in fact the case; but at least it should help if we can get straight the questions for which we need answers.

In this connection it is important to beware of an illicit and confusing form of argument that I might term "Thin-end-of-the-wedgery". This (a twin brother of "Nothing-buttery") often crops up when people ask "At precisely what point in time do 1,ve have a fully human individual with rights?" This sounds a sensible and even an urgent question; if we cannot justify a precise answer the "thin-end-of-the-wedger" is liable to argue that there is then "no real difference" between a conscious human infant and a fertilized egg, or between a responsible human agent and a brain-damaged 'human vegetable'.

The logical fallacy is exposed if we consider a parallel case. Nobody can rationally establish an exact number of hairs, N, such that anyone with N hairs on his chin is bearded and anyone with N-1 is not. But this in no way proves that there is no real difference between being bearded and being beardless. In all such cases we recognize the difference by looking for contrasts between the ends of the continuous spectrum, and not by discovering a precise dividing line.

So it is, I think, with the way we should think of the development of the embryo. The search for a precise point at which we can prove that we have a "living soul" may be vain; but this in no way tends to debunk or reduce the real distinction between an object that J . s the body of a living human person, and an object that is too immature or too deformed to be so.

The same point arises when we ask under what circumstances it is meaningful to seek the "informed consent" of a mentally defective patient before operating. The suggestion was made that when either immaturity or infirmity made true dialogue impossible, the ethics of proposed treatment might still be checked by considering what answer one would make to an imaginary 11 advocate". For the Christian, Christ Himself is always a real "advocate" in that capacity, to whom we must answer in sober truth at the bar of judgment. When the fullest attention to the available facts, including the data of Scripture, leaves us perplexed, it is in dialogue with Him, asking His Spirit to illuminate for us the relevance of His revealed will and the other data we have, that the Christian has his most realistic resource for the good of his patient and those he seeks to serve. No casuistic book of rules, however expedient it may be in our sinful world, offers an adequate substitute for this experimental test that the Christian servant can and must make.

It is important however, that we should distinguish between this insistence on the need for direct reference to Christ for the wisdom of His Spirit, and what is popularly called "situation ethics". The point is not that in these cases a single clear Biblical law applies. The point is that we are confronting situations where several Biblical principles (respect for human life; compassion for other people including relatives; desire that God may be glorified by the fulfillment of human possibilities, and so forth) seem to tug us in different directions. This is the sort of situation where I believe reliance on the Holy Spirit, not apart from Scripture but showing us the relevance of Scripture and illuminating our minds to see the relevance of other things, is meant to be a reality for us, something very different from thumbing through a rule book. In the same way we must be careful to distinguish between what one speaker referred to as the "continual transformation of the Christian mind", which we recognized as a Christian duty, and what is popularly advocated as "the revision of our values in the fight of new knowledge". Someone quoted C. S. Lewis as remarking that you could no more expect to discover new values than to discover new primary colours. The kind of "openness" that we recognized as a Christian duty can never be expressed by way of blindness or disobedience to revealed truth.

So far I have been summarizing points of caution; but the Bible has much to say also on the positive side. Not surprisingly, very little of this is in the way of direct commandment. Encouragement comes more indirectly from the Biblical perspective and Biblical priorities.

(a) First among these, for the scientist and the human engineer himself, is the most general principle of all: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." This we found to be a very thoroughgoing one, especially bearing in mind all the risks of counter-attractions.

(b) Secondly, for the people we are seeking to serve, God's first priority is that they should be enabled to glorify and enjoy him for ever.

(c) To that end, the Bible urges upon us the creation ordinances of marriage and family life, and the moral ordinances of the law. Particularly relevant are the values of fidelity, integrity, loyalty, obedience in the family and in corporate relationships agreeable to the law of God.

Are these truisms? They are certainly familiar enough; but as I have already suggested, to work through what these things should mean in particular cases may be the best and most realistic way to get our eyes open to God's will in each case. What does it mean in this context for example, that man is made in the image of God? Primarily, no doubt, it means that he is answerable to God: be can be 'Tbou' to God, and knows what it means to be challenged by God. It also means that we are meant to be like God. In particular, God is dead straight, so our being in the image of God means that we are to be dead straight. I feel this is a major key to our problem. Almost every procedure we have considered is one whose merits have depended on whether and to what extent we envisaged the people concerned as trustworthy as well as adequately informed. You could make any of them sound sinister by imagining a case where the motives of the scientist were unworthy. Conversely, almost any can be envisaged as a duty of compassion in certain defined circumstances. This said, however, we find ourselves forced to recognize, sadly, that in a fallen world legislation may have to be framed for, if not the worst case, then at least a far less ideal case, than if everyone were guaranteed to have only the most transparent intentions and the best of motives. In all our discussing and thinking we must be careful to distinguish between what might be legitimate in God's sight-perhaps, in particular cases, obligatory in God's sight and what ought to be made legal.

We are confronting situations where several Biblical principles-respect for human life, compassion for other people, desire that God may be glorified - seem to tug us in different directions.

The Christian Church

What then should the Christian church be doing? First, the church might redeem its past by becoming the champion of science in areas where fearful and less informed people might perhaps oppose scientific research. It is essential, however, for the church to be a critical champion: criticizing in love, and being merciless if there are any signs of unbiblical tendencies. The implication would be that the church should oppose research only if it infringes Biblical principles, or if the research would take the place of and prevent our doing something still better, something more glorifying to God. This last point may be important. There are always going to be enthusiastic people who are bitten with an idea and want to sell it. To argue that
"there is nothing in the Bible against it" is not good enough. Part of our responsibility as Christians, as indeed of anyone else in an effective community, is to consider, whether there isn't something still better, or more urgent, that needs doing. We have to do our homework before we can be clear that it would be still better-more glorifying to God, but it is certainly part of our obligation to ask.

Secondly, a major responsibility of the church is to clarify some key concepts in the debate. By "the church" here, of course I mean Christian people; I don't necessarily mean parsons, let alone general assemblies. But qualified Christians ought to be busy, for example, working in what is at the moment a live area in philosophy, seeking to clarify such concepts of human nature, the person, human rights, consciousness, death. What "rights" can meaningfully be assigned to a fetus? Must a body which shows no signs of a continuing conscious personality be preserved because it is biologically alive? There is a huge package of concepts that need clarifying.

In another context there is a continuing need to clarify the concept of "chance", distinguishing its innocent technical use in science from that of its ~agan metaphysical namesake. To speak of the 1-ae of Chance," for instance, as if "Chance" were an alternative,agent to God, can be grossly misleading as well as scientifically unjustified. What the scientist means by "chance" is simply that which could not have been predicted on the basis of prior data. So when geneticists speak of "taking a hand from the genetic deck of cards," they must not be taken to be advocating a pagan theology. The metaphysical overtones have no basis in their physical image of the process. Moreover as far as the Bible is concerned, when 'the lot is cast into the lap," "the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord". In that sense, "chance" is a biblical concept without any pagan overtones.

Then take the concept of "liberty". Several papers brought out the need for deeper analysis of this notion in the present context. For the Christian, liberty does not mean just "doing one's own thing;" it also means "being subject to one another, for the sake of Christ". This is a humbling yet richly rewarding concept of liberty. Where the world in general thinks in terms only of absence of restrictions, the church should have much to contribute by way of a corrective emphasis. By the same token, current uses of the concept of "equality?', penetratingly explored by Dr. Sinsheimer, need evaluation and illumination in biblical terms.

Another task for Christians could be to promote and spell out in detail the implications of what Dr. David Allen called the "principle of city". "Would I want the same done to me?" he=us. In sufficiently clear-cut cases that is a good test. But of course there are awkward cases. If we are considering whether a fetus with Down's syndrome should be allowed to develop into a mongol child, there is little help in asking "Would I like it done to me?" I can never know what it would be like to be a fetus or a mongol. There are many borderline and gray areas where the outworking of the principle of reciprocity is far from clear.

Again, we were reminded by Dr. William Wilson that protecting the right to treatment might be as important as protecting the right to refuse treatment. Since the latter finds more advocates at present, Christians might well be on the alert to safeguard people's rights to the treatment that could help them.

Dr. Perry London gave us a text on which perhaps the church might well preach from time to time. "Only the responsibility for the future of man rests with man: not the future of man." We are responsible for what we can do to shape our future; we are not responsible for the real future. Responsibility for our future rests with God. This might be an interesting sermon to preach, because the distinction is not often observed in either utopian or anti-utopian literature.

Qualified Christians ought to be busy working in what is at the moment a live area in philosophy, seeking to clarify such concepts of human nature, the person, human rights, consciousness, death.

Finally, Dr. Carl Henry suggested that one of our prime functions as Christians is to seek to "sensiVze the conscience of the nation". No evangelical with a sense of history could dissent from this. At the same time we would do well to be wary here of the subtle and seductive temptations of scaremongering. There are many in our day who make a reputation out of being scaremongers: whose books sold because of the shivers they send down people's spines. Works of this kind, when they obscure the factual issues in clouds of emotional fog, bring despair to those fighting for proper and intelligent safeguards against the abuse of science. Christians must beware of jumping on the bandwagon of the scaremongers. It is a temptation, perhaps especially to evangelicals who have awakened suddenly to their social responsibilities, to be mere echoes of contemporary "doomsmen," rather than crities of the critics. Most critics today use essentially pagan criteria. Christians do not help by uncritically echoing them.

In this respect the church has surely its part to play in the most difficult part of this whole enterprise for our society, namely learning what to want. The theory of behavioral manipulation makes it clear that the greatest power lies in the hands of the man who can determine what we want, so that this is a sensitive and fateful area of the discussion on human engineering. What ought we to want? It is important for the Christian not to take the stance of the man who knows what he wants, and other people have just to listen. We will have to be ready to listen just as much as the non-Christian, even though our ear is bent primarily in the direction of God's word.

One more note of warning. The church needs to be wary of affiliating with groups who do not respect God's priorities and pursue them with all their hearts, because we can quickly find ourselves trapped in unrealistic compromise. We may then be rightly stigmatized as "letting the group down" if at some later point it becomes clear that it does make a difference whether or not you believe that man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Equally, we must pay specially loving attention to any misgivings expressed by those in the church who are not equally informed, and may be more hesitant and fearful than we. The function of the church as salt in the earth is a corporate one. Our thinking in this area must be a fully corporate enterprise if it is to be fully open to such guidance as the Spirit of God can give his church. The more conservative and fearful are equally members of His body. Whatever their difficulty in becoming articulate in our terms, we have no right to expect that His Spirit is going to be given more to us than to them in seeking the path of wisdom for His church.

I have tried in these reflections to indicate how the balance has swung, first one way and then the other, during our deliberations. Above all, what I beard us say to one another was: Let us be positive. This I think is not trivial. It was not at all to have been assumed in advance that a gathering of evangelical Christians should have consistently sought for positive good to come out of these new developments, one after another, and to have acknowledged by implication our obligation to further this positive good as God would enable us. It is remarkable, I think, that we had so much agreement. I trust and pray that it augurs well for evangelical involvement, with all the fear and trembling that Paul commands, and no self-confident strutting or arrogant postures, in the development of legitimate human engineering for the good of man and the glory of God.