Friday, 5 August 2016

How should Christians respond to new biotechnologies?

In recent years we have seen an explosion of new biotechnologies bursting on the scene, with promise (or threat) of much more.

In vitro fertilisation (IVF) has opened the door to embryo experimentation, egg and sperm donation, surrogacy, embryo selection, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, embryonic cloning, animal human hybrids, mitochondrial replacement and now gene editing.

Nanotechnology opens the possibility of ‘engineering’ minute biochemical systems at an atomic level.

Cybernetics merges human tissue with mechanical or electrical devices in order to restore lost function or enhance human abilities. With retinal implants, cyborgs – part human, part machine – may be just around the corner.

New drug treatments and enhancements are taking human performance to new levels: viagra to enhance sexual performance and modafanil to heighten concentration and memory.  

Humanoid Japanese robots can blink, smile, walk, talk, express anger, sing and provide healthcare.

Most of these so-called ‘advances’ have been justified on the grounds that they will prevent human suffering or lead to new treatments. Undoubtedly many will. But what biblical principles should we use to evaluate these diverse new biotechnologies from a Christian perspective?

First, as Christians, we must pray to be like the ‘Men of Issachar’ (1 Chronicles 12:32) who both ‘understood the times’ and ‘knew what to do’. John Stott popularised the principle of double-listening saying that as Christians we must approach the world with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other – listening both to God’s Word and God’s World.

Second, we must realise that ethical approaches based on a secular worldview are inadequate for dealing with these dilemmas. We cannot simply rely on uncritically accepting the world’s principles. It’s not enough, as some moral philosophers are saying today, to say that we should just do good, respect choice and act fairly. How are we to define ‘good’, ‘bad’ or justice without any agreed moral framework? What do when choice and justice conflict? And what is it that defines a person to whom we owe these responsibilities? Are humans with severe dementia ‘persons’ with right? Are fetuses? Are embryos? These key questions need to be answered from a biblical perspective first.

Third, we need to embrace a biblical view of humanity.  Thomas Sydenham taught that human beings have dignity because they are created in the image of God and because the Son of God became a man. We are not just the product of matter, chance and time in a godless and purposeless universe, but the product of intelligent divine design. We are godlike beings made for the purpose of knowing, loving and serving our creator forever.

Fourth we need to understand that there are limits to what we can legitimately do technologically to human beings. Professor of Neonatology John Wyatt has described human beings as ‘flawed masterpieces’. On the one hand, we are masterpieces made in the image of almighty God – analogous to the creation of a great painter or sculptor. On the other hand, we have become cracked and flawed over time – needing restoration and ultimately re-creation. In attempting to restore the human body we must be guided by the creator’s intentions. There is a difference between restoration and enhancement and there are also limits to our powers of restoration.

Fifth, we must keep an eternal perspective. The ultimate goal of the secular transhumanists is immortality and the elimination of disease. The most extreme amongst them believe that perfect health and unlimited lifespans are within our grasp using some of these new tools.  But as Christians, whilst we value the blessings of medicine, we look forward ultimately to the resurrection rather than the genetic revolution or cybernetics for our restored bodies. We need to be good stewards of technology but we should not seek to ‘build heaven on earth’.

Sixth, we must learn to embrace a wider love. Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ In telling the parable he taught the expert in the law who asked it what was he needed to do actually to be a neighbour even to those with whom he felt no human bond, regardless of age, size or degree of deformity.  The baby with special needs trapped inside a non-functioning and dying body is as valuable as the greatest athlete. The embryo in the petri dish is as important as the colleague in the laboratory who lends us a pencil. The child scraping an existence on a rubbish heap is as important as a world famous scientist.

Seventh, we must keep ends and means in balance. In God’s economy, the end never justifies the means – we must do God’s work God’s way. It can be very tempting to dispense with biblical principles such as the sanctity of life or the purity of the marriage bond in finding solutions to some of the vexing challenges in medicine and society. But we can’t justify breaking God’s commands in pursuit of some perceived greater good. This principle has profound implications for what we do with fetuses and embryos in particular.

Finally, in all this, we must keep the cross of Christ central – being prepared to follow in the footsteps that Jesus himself walked. Carrying the cross means two things. First, it calls us to stand up for the truth whatever the world may throw at us – to risk reputation, credibility and career if the situation calls for it. But carrying the cross also involves being part of the solution. Jesus did not live in blissful disengagement from the world, like the Buddha. By contrast, his life was one of painful engagement and involvement. He became part of the solution – and this must surely mean that we must be committed as his followers to fulfilling our role as God’s stewards, to use our God-govern gifts and abilities in God’s way to help provide just and compassionate solutions for human suffering whatever it may cost. That is our mission. 

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