Science in Christian Perspective


Christianity and Medical Frontiers

World Vision International
Arlington, Virginia 22207

From: JASA 30 (September 1978): 97-103.

Utopian Outlooks

All utopian outlooks have a curious similarity. Whether they approach the human predicament in terms of scientism, communism or Consciousness III, they tend to assume that the given order of things - if indeed they recognize an "established" order - places no restrictive limits on human proposals to radically alter and master man and society. They assign no governing role to God in the external sphere of nature and history; they suppose that man's future is open to wholly new possibilities; and they consider man himself free to chart the future of the human species. Human nature is regarded as evolving and as open to a superman or superrace (which Nietzsche mapped one way and the Nazis another). Man is considered the Kingdom-maker and his condition is thought to be unflawed by original sin.

When scientism shares this utopian mood, as for example in the writings of the Cambridge anthropologist Edmund Leach, the empirical spirit approaches nature and man on premises not unlike those with which revolutionary theologians approach history. No divinely-given plan or purpose, no created order or
structure, need get in the way; the road to a promising future is that of dramatic surgery or revolutionary change. More moderate and mediating alternatives are regarded as concessive and reactionary. As in history so also in the laboratory, eschatological transformation becomes a near-term ambition, and every next major breakthrough hopefully holds millennial possibilities.

The Biblical View

I mention this utopian mentality at the outset simply to bring the biblical view into early focus. The Bible too holds out the prospect of a future of man open to radically new possibilities. But it does so in the governing context not of human ingenuity and power but rather in terms of divine redemption from sin and the moral revival of man. God's new man, his new humanity, is conformed to the moral image of Jesus Christ, and will be "cloned" at last in a resurrection body beyond sin and death. In the biblical view God's revealed will and operative providence in the creation define the limits of human freedom; without God, man the creature would not and cannot be truly free, cannot be good, and in fact would not even be.

To the obstacles that nature erects to unlimited scientific manipulation God is in fact saying something both about nature and about himself, even as he does in the restrictions that human history imposes upon utopian revolutionaries and their millennial programs. The scientist is constantly brought to terms with the given in nature. This is not the case only when evolutionists discover that primates they consider to he as closely related as the gorilla and man differ so much genetically that they cannot crossbreed. It is the case also at other frontiers, frontiers that the brilliant medical technology of our times is now bringing prominently into view.

Conquest of Suffering and Death

A key test of the scientific spirit is what modern man proposes to do with suffering and death. Contemporary medical technology seems increasingly devoted to its human conquest. In the Judeo-Christian view suffering and death, whatever may and ought to be clone to relieve and postpone them, are part of the givenness of present human existence, inevitabilities complicated by sin, yet retaining for the person of faith both moral and spiritual lessons that contribute to the enrichment of life. Death is not for the Christian either a finality to be accepted with aquiesence or a foe that can he humanly destroyed; the only real dignity with which it can now he faced stems from God's gift of grace. Death has become an enemy whose sting is sin; only where grace wrests the moral victory from the foe does death become the transition to a greater good.1

Modern technology seems increasingly disposed to all-out war against suffering and dying as if these universal experiences were a needless human concession to a malign or indifferent cosmic order. It projects its assault upon them as if no limits exist to man's conquest of these hostile powers. Even the surgeon or family physician is now tempted to consider himself a failure if his patient dies. The secular modern is net ready to accept death either intellectually, volitionally or emotionally, except as a few stony intellectuals consider man to be a meaningless fragment of animated dust with no more future than the beasts of the field. The modern perspective in turn leaves secular man both unprepared to die and unprepared to live as he ought, that is, fully aware of the implications of finite and sinful existence and in view of the ministry of divine grace and the moral lessons that life holds for the spiritual man.

Only in the biblical view can suffering be purposive; in a non-Christian view it is only an enemy. In the biblical view the Suffering Servant is indispensable to human redemption, and the suffering of the righteous man is sanctified by his suffering, death and resurrection. To commit one's self to the biblical understanding of life and death and of the world to come carries for the secular spirit too high a price in the way of spiritual decision. Hence he expects the medical practitioner to bestow not only the gift of health and a welcome deliverance from affliction but something hopefully more than what the Christian recognizes as at best only a temporary delay of death. In this transferal of hope, death ceases also to he a delay of what the New Testament declares to be not only "better" but "far better" for the believer, that is, "to be with Christ" (Phil. 1:23).

The loss of spiritual frontiers in the modern probing of medical frontiers therefore risks the tantalizing but misleading implication that science holds potential for shaping a new creation. Finite man through a misdirected hope meanwhile loses his share in the new creation that God offers, and expects from his present state - for all that science can do to improve it more than the limits of his being allow. 

By no means, however, are these reflections to be taken as a questioning of the profound usefulness of scientific learning. Few people today would want to turn hack the clock on the scientific revolution; even its counter-cultural critics today hitchhike on a technological civilization while airing their grievances. Technology in some respects is as ancient as civilization; without access to water, disposal of sewage, and ready transportation, human communities soon wither. The widespread relief of human suffering, the fostering of health and preservation of life, has yielded worldwide benefits.

Yet the tentative nature of all scientific hypotheses is becoming evident in ever costlier ways. The more sophisticated our solutions, the more devastating is their destructive potential. Not only the field of medicine, but all scientific endeavor, engages in a balancing of risks. The scientific method is unable to identify finalities and absolutes; its role is rather a gradual elimination of long-revered myths and the reduction of inferior alternatives. When he openly acknowledges these limitations the scientist is to be commended; if the theologian must say "now we know in part," much more must the empirically-dependent technician acknowledge the restrictions his methodology imposes.

Isolation of Knowledge from Ethical Use

The isolation of scientific knowledge, medical knowledge included, from the question of its ethical use is a crucial concern for contemporary civilization. The utility of science is primarily connected with human comfort and convenience, and these often become synonyms in contemporary culture for human betterment. The earlier vision of science as an instrument serviceable to the glory of God, by its extension of his moral purposes in the world and by the social implementation of the good, has faded away in recent generations. As secularism encroaches upon modern life, fewer and fewer influential spokesmen press the question: "What ought scientific knowledge to be used for?" Even the conviction that the medical profession has its goal solely in the preservation of human life is challenged. Abortion, euthanasia, and recombinant genetic research also in frontier modes that anticipate a deliberately altered human species, frame the role of medical science in a notably different way. The mere mention of such modern developments as nuclear warfare and ecological pollution reflect the correlation of scientific learning with technical advances that threaten human survival itself. As ethical connotation terms are secularized, moreover, concepts like "quality of life" are formulated in an amoral way; 44% of Americans think life's quality has worsened in the past decade, according to a Harris poll. What do they mean by quality of life? They point specially to air and water pollution, energy costs, inferior product serviceability and safety, in short, to predominantly physical concerns and consequences, although a number do hold that a deterioration of education has contributed also to the depreciation of life quality. Of no less importance is the fact that the detachment of scientific utility from the question of moral norms strips the scientist himself of any firm basis for relating his scientific contribution to the good. Indeed, it leaves him without any firm basis for defending the value of science itself.

Because the scientist uses a restricted professional methodology, one that is ideally appropriate to identifying certain empirically observed sequences, has he no responsibility for distinguishing between moral and immoral uses of scientific knowledge? Anyone familiar with American Association for the Advancement of Science conventions in recent years, and with publications like Science magazine, cannot but he aware that many scientists now raise ethical issues with a zeal seemingly intended to compensate for long decades of neglect. l'his accelerating moral concern is to he fully commended, even if its tardy pursuit tends to grapple with many issues at the level only of mid-course correction.

Adam's eating of the Edenic tree of knowledge without moral sanction and ethical commitment cost him spiritual life. The temptation is now commonplace to devour the fruit of the tree of knowledge in order to become like gods. But knowledge pursued in moral alienation and indifferently to the good while it reaches for omniscience invites demonic manipulation and deployment of what we know. Our generation has passed beyond the end of the age of technological innocence, and antichrist seems ever eager to snonopolize the results of scientific learning.

Because the scientist is a man like other men, he like others is answerable to the express will of Cod for his creation. That answerability extends to the purposes for which the scientist seeks knowledge, and the rise for which he commends and approves it.

I am not here arguing that it is better not to have knowledge than to run the risk of its misuse. God himself does not conceal the revelation of himself because humans may distort and revolt against spiritual knowledge. By declaring all men to h sinners, the religion of the Bible emphasizes not only that humans are ignorant of much that they can know about God, but that humans in fact also possess revealed knowledge about God which rebellious man deploys. If man is divinely made for the knowledge of Cod, he need not balk at knowledge of God's universe. Ignorance may also he a sin, especially if one might have had knowledge that could have been used serviceably to the good. If, however, that knowledge is sought in rivalry with knowledge of God, or indifferently to God's claim upon man and the cosmos, we have a very different situation. Nor is our primary problem that of sharing scientific knowledge with developing countries that might misuse it; if the developed countries will moralize the use of knowledge, the developing countries will not be a major problem.

Knowledge and Its Use

Against those who insist that "knowledge is good (period)" the question needs to be pressed whether

The more sophisticated our solutions, the more devastating is their destructive potential.

we (-an excusably draw an absolute line between knowledge and appropriation in this way. We are here faced again with the crisis of Eden: we want to touch the tree of knowledge quite indifferently to God's consent and purpose. To perpetuate a divorce of scientific learning from the knowledge of the good is a costly development, the more so as scientific learning multiplies and concern about the good deteriorates. It may precipitate the destruction of the very civilization and culture that some spokesmen for science had only a few generations ago hoped to lift to the brink of utopia.

In this judgment I wish to avoid blaming science for decisions that are taken individually by human beings and in which nonscientists no less than scientists are involved. Yet the fact is that scientific learning all too readily accommodates a game of roulette in which moral questions are postponed until it is too late to moralize the choices. Call one wholly escape culpability if lie operates an escort service that enables one, in observing new frontiers, to walk so invitingly near the brink of perilous enjoyment that hazardous participation becomes well-nigh irresistible?

The breakup of the American home doubtless has many contributory causes, and there is no reason to think that even apart from certain recent scientific developments the society of the West might not have notably declined through alternative ways of expressing its spiritual vagahondage. But before the production of the birth control pill premarital intercourse by almost a third of all teenage girls between 15 and 19 years of age in the United States was unthinkable. The fact that many teenage mothers now undergo abortions in the more risky second term of pregnancy, rather than in the first term, indicates that other than prudential considerations control their appropriation of modern technical information, and that scientific techniques are welcomed because they accommodate sexual permissiveness hopefully with impunity. We have felt only the first shock wave of social upheaval in a society that postpones moral judgment to a sunset interaction and gives to the questions "Is it physically safe?" or "Is it useful?" a priority over the question "Is it good?" When Jesus said "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32) he did not mean "free of an unwanted fetus" or free of ethical answerability.

Nor an I saying that the Christian theologian has undiluted advance wisdom about ever'v decision to he made in the application of scientific possibilities. The Bible does not give us quick answers to all questions. But it does provide clear divine information about some matters. It insistently raises the question of why we propose to do what we do. Over all that humans think and do it inscribes the words what for? It nowhere encourages us to postpone the moralizing of our interests while we touch the tree of knowledge inquisitively. The Bible does not speak directly concerning some proposals, yet it is not therefore without relevantly applicable principles. It strips away any justification for human decision solely oil tile basis of pragmatic considerations. The Bible rejects human fear and pride as adequate motivations and declares the fear of God to be the beginning of wisdom in every human enterprise.

Atomic Power

The moral question confronts us with special urgency iii respect to recombinant genetic research even as it has already confronted us in respect to atomic power. It is beyond the capacity of human wisdom to calculate and balance potential benefits and liabilities in these developments. The Bible underwrites no rationale for producing the atomic bomb because Nazi scientists might otherwise achieve it first, or for pursuing recombinant genetic research because Soviet scientists might beat us to a breakthrough.

Not simply by concentrating on physical consequences while minimizing questions of ethical appropriation, but also by reading its experimental verdicts in a maximally optimistic way scientism betrays its fascination with gnosis. The crisis in atomic energy today mirrors the terrible dilemma of a generation that detaches moral imperatives from its investigative genius.

Atomic fission was heralded as carrying the prospect of an end to war and the promise of a new age of inexpensive energy. The outcome has been very different. And many now ask whether scientists who hailed their creation of the bomb as signaling the dawn of a luminous atomic age should not have known and said also that there is no known way to handle atomic waste. Touching this branch of the tree of knowledge has thrust us into an age in which atomic waste can be reprocessed into destructive nuclear bombs; and it has not significantly carried us forward toward a solution of the global energy crisis. If two things are to be added about the French government's recent announcement of the discovery of a new way to enrich uranium for power plants that eliminates the risk that the material could he used for nuclear weapons, the second is that, even if the process proves practical, it will also prove to have unforeseen side-effects.

Recombinant DNA Research

Can we presume that technological genius operating neutrally in a context of moral ambiguity and spiritual revolt decisively advances civilization? The problem now begins to face us urgently in the sphere of genetic experimentation, where all the motivations that underlay atomic experimentation are once again asserted. Some social critics affirm that recombinant genetic engineering could create more affliction than it relieves, that it may fashion a monster that will destroy us all; others claim it could cure cancer and other crippling diseases and lift the human species to new potentialities.

Recombinant genetic research cannot as such be considered an intrusion into nature, since the principles of mutation and species variation are already operative throughout the plant and animal kingdom. Yet the range of genetic exchange among living forms in most instances are very narrow. While the genetic code is universal, nature significantly restricts the exchange of genetic information between widely divergent species so that, heretofore at least, it has not been possible to cross major species harrier.

With the advent in the 1970s of recombinant molecular technology, however, geneticists engaged in the further manipulation of life. The test tube recombination of DNA molecules from organisms that do not usually exchange genetic information creates a new situation, one that is stirring wide debate over the

Atomic fission was heralded as carrying the prospect of an end to war and the promise of a new age of inexpensive energy. The outcome has been very different.

ethics of genetic engineering, over the safety of such experimentation, and over the regulation and legislation appropriate to such research.

Yet the recombinations presently described have also already in principle occurred in nature, in the phenomenon of so-called "jumping genes" or transpositions of fragments of DNA from one organism to another. In 1974 the microbe that produces meningitis in infants acquired from an unknown source a plasmid carrying the gene that resists the antibiotic ampicillin. In 1976 it was noted that the organism responsible for gonorrhea acquired a plasmid also encoding for resistance to asnpieillin. More recently plasmids have been recognized in streptococci, the organism productive of "strep sore throat," and this could hold profound medical

Revealed religion offers technological civilization its only persuasive means for overcoming the isolation of knowledge from ethical applications.

significance, perhaps reverting us to the pre-antibiotic era.

The dilemma now confronting us concerning the exchange of genetic information transcending normal species barriers is that of adequacy of containment and appropriateness of research. It should he noted that
medical science has faced biohazards whenever it has investigated and treated infectious diseases; precisely in the face of such risks, the polio vaccine and other scientific advances were achieved. It may well he that criticisms of genetic engineering and scenarios of disaster are greatly exaggerated. Yet prudence calls for caution in the area of the unknown, and a few observations on what presently seems to some of us to he the wisest course may at least provoke counter-suggestion in the area where theologians and scientist alike must settle for some political compromise.

Most of us are almost as reluctant to see legislative controls oil freedom of scientific research as we are on freedom of religion. The record of political omniscience is hardly more impressive than pretensions of scientific omniscience. Where research has a therapeutic objective, legislative controls should be avoided. Governmental licensing of researchers would multiply bureaucracy and introduce possibilities of political influence and intervention that a free society should resist. Guidelines issued by the National Institute of Health to safeguard public life and health already include both physical and biological containments that reduce biohazards from recombinant genetics to a minimum, and should he extended to include all recombinant molecular research regardless of the source of funding for such projects. Such guidelines, moreover, should be periodically revised as new information becomes available.

Scientists should be pressed to distinguish experimentation that probes new forms of life from experimentation that is ventured for therapeutic ends. Informed public debate should he invited on legal controls touching the former type of experimentation, so risks will be minimized by more stringent measures than the mere issuance of governmental guidelines. Any legislation should however be reviewed from time to time so it will be neither unnecessarily restrictive nor excessively tolerant.

We should doubtless clearly distinguish experiments that amplify or increase genes in the same organism, or in closely related organisms that naturally exchange genetic information, from experiments that propose an exchange of genetic information between unrelated bacteria and between more complex organisms with an organized nucleus. The latter kinds of experiment involve hazards beyond the risks attending current genetic procedures and should therefore be answerable to legislative regulation. Such regulation should guarantee at very least the existence of competent local review agencies. Whatever restrictions are placed on innovative research need not at all completely thwart such research, provided only that the sponsoring institutions are certified and held publicly responsible, and the nature and limits of liability are established.

Spiritual Reality

Legislative restriction or not, the scientist is answerable to Cod no less than to society, and here the biblical theologian pleads for conscious attention to that larger realm of spiritual realities that escapes sense perception and turns on Cod-in-his-revelation. Yet it is not to the scientist alone, but to contemporary man now widely given over to radically secular perspectives, that this call must he directed. The people doubtless have a right through the legislative process to set limits on the proposals of scientists no less than on those of the rest of us in respect to what they perceive to he life-and death issues. Yet even scientists who earnestly raise the question of moral norms now find themselves dealing with large remnants of society not deeply interested in these issues, so widely does the dissociation of technical information from questions of morality pervade our culture. All the more imperative, therefore, is the forging of an intellectual front in which concerns of theology, ethics, science, and human history are once again focused in a comprehensively unified way.

Revealed religion does not directly answer questions that modern science addresses to the universe, but it nonetheless bears on the whole of that inquiry. Moreover, it answers some questions with finality (and that is more than empirical science can do), and it has fully as much to say to our technological age - and of no less importance - than does contemporary science.

Revealed religion can identify the good in terms of God's expressly disclosed will and moral commandments which scientific man neglects at great peril to himself and to all mankind, Revealed religion identifies the chief end of life ("to glorify God and to enjoy him forever"); a disregard of this imperative impoverishes human existence, and invites the decline of civilization even amid illustrious scientific genius.

Revealed religion proffers ethical renewal that renovates the fallen will of man to do the right, instead of condemning 20th century mankind to its deadly nuclear arms race in unending pursuit of superior retaliatory or destructive capability. It invites our scientific age East and West to share the regenerative and restorative grace of Cod that can subdue both the secular communist and secular capitalist spirit to participation in the eternal world.

Revealed religion offers ethical guidance precisely at those frontiers where medical technology has been exploited in the service of moral permissiveness to the great detriment of social stability. Some moral prescriptions are no more welcome than some medical prescriptions. But they are not on that account misguided. The Bible declares that intercourse before and outside of marriage is wrong in Cod's sight, even if all the world should practice it and do so with gleeful delight. Adultery within marriage is wrong even when it becomes the social norm, and even if that should become the ease in the most powerful nation in the 'world, To defend the weak and helpless is right, and to take fetal life is wrong (moral exceptions being to spare the mother's life, offspring to victims of rape, and instances of exceptional deformity.) Abortion is not a biblically sanctioned means of birth control, even if destruction of the life of unwanted girl infants in ancient Rome or destruction of the life of unwanted fetuses in modern America should become the social custom.

Revealed religion offers technological civilization its only persuasive means for overcoming the isolation of knowledge from ethical applications. Where evangelical religion is forfeited moral relativism soon takes its place. The Bible holds before us Jesus Christ the ideal man, neighbor love and social justice as moral imperatives, and the extension of God's ethical purposes throughout the cosmos as God's divinely-intended vocation for man. It promotes the moral use of knowledge in the service of man under God, rather than merely in the service of nature under mail, or in the service of some political or scientific elite. The pursuit of knowledge in this context can do us no harm but can do us only a world of good. For all the technological brilliance and scientific innovativeness of our times, present-day civilization is doomed without a decisive alteration of the prevalent secular philosophy of life and of the norms of human behavior.



1Paul Ramsey, "The Indignity of 'Death with Dignity'," Hastings Center Studies 2, No. 2, pp. 47-62, May (1974)