Creative Science

We used to think our future was in the stars. Now we know it’s in our genes. (James Watson, The Double Helix)

A "new" biology, often called the "Age of DNA" has come to dominate our world of the late twentieth century. In 1866, the monk Johannes Gregor Mendel first speculated about the germ of inheritance as a result of work in pea breeding. Then, less than 100 year later, the dominant Age of DNA began in earnest with Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double helical structure of DNA. Since this discovery in 1953, gene-biotechnology has developed with breathtaking and, for some, ominous speed. By 1973, scientists were able to develop techniques for gene manipulation and genetic engineering. And today, this field of science has gone on to produce the enormous Human Genome Project – the attempt to map and sequence every gene in the human body. The information generated is predicted to become the source book for biomedical research well into the twenty-first century. Today also, many plant and animal species have been genetically modified and some are being commercialised. Analysts confidently predict that gene-biotechnology, which is already big business, will soon exceed such fields a heavy industry, electronics and computers.

As potential for commercial gain increases, so also do our fears of potential unknown dangers to health and to the environment. Countering this however, are the feelings of triumph and exhilaration that come with being able to gain new knowledge about the world and the organisms living in it. The Age of DNA is therefore asking the Christian many new and urgent questions, and consequently there needs to be an effective Christian mind in these areas of the "new" biology. The founding Director of the Human Genome Project, DNA’s co-discoverer James Watson, claims that our present technology is powerful, but it will pale in comparison with that of the future. How then, should a Christian working in gene-biotechnology, or any other field of science, react to this powerful technology? In this essay, I examine gene-biotechnology from a biblical perspective, using concepts such as dominion, stewardship and co-creativity. My intention here is not to produce a prescriptive list of "do’s and don’ts", rather I aim to outline some of the principles which might serve as a guide for the researcher.

Co-creativity

God’s original covenant mandate, described in the opening chapters of Genesis, consists of three essential components: communion with God, community building and co-creativity with God. However, the fullness of our participation in these covenant activities has been destroyed by the Fall. The new covenant in Jesus Christ has the aim of restoring and redeeming people to the fullness of life and work that existed before the Fall. In Jesus Christ a position of wholesome co-creativity is therefore possible again.

Co-creativity speaks of our relationship with God. It tells us that we are not divine, but rather we are in fellowship with the Divine One. In this privileged relationship our work here on earth is to bear the stamp of God’s creativity – we are called to be co-creative! This co-creativity should therefore be the dynamic heart of our living and working. In the Hebrew of the Bible, several words are used to describe the creating and working activities of both humans and God:

Yasar is used of both God and humans to suggest forming and fashioning, just as a potter fashions clay (Genesis 2:7-8, Isaiah 64:8)

Malaka speaks of God’s craftsmanship (Genesis 2:1-2) and of human craftsmanship (Exodus 31:3)

Bara is used only of God, as a designation of God’s creative work, indicating the initiation of something new (Genesis 1:1,21; Isaiah 41:20; Isaiah 48:6-7; Jeremiah 31:22; Psalm 51:10).

The philosophy underlying much of science today is that science holds the exclusive, or most reliable path to knowledge and truth. This is a philosophy which encourages the belief that the scientific abilities of humans occupy the spiritual centre of the universe. Opposing positions are often not tolerated. However, the concept that the work of the scientist, or more particularly the gene-biotechnologist, is co-creative (as in yasar and malaka), rather than creative in the ultimate sense (as in bara), shows a crucial distinction. Christians are in a relationship with the Creator and therefore redeemed science can be an expression of our co-creativity – our relationship. Creativity in the sciences is not therefore a mandate for doing away with God. Rather, science, and indeed all authentic work, if it both unfolds and heals creation, engages with God’s revelation through creation. Joe Holland, in his book Creative Communion: Toward a Spirituality of Work suggests that by understanding co-creativity we become explicitly conscious of the spiritual meaning of our work, of who we are and the things that we are meant to do.

Dominion

Dominion speaks of the role given to humans by God. Ultimately, God has sovereign dominion over all creation, but by His grace He has granted us sub-sovereignty. Psalm 8 shows well the position and the role of humankind in dominion. Humans are lower than God (8:4-5);

"What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour".

The dominion role is delegated from God (8:6-8);

"You made him ruler over the work of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas".

Another aspect of dominion comes from the special place that humans occupy in creation by virtue of being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). In Earthkeeping in the 90s: Stewardship of Creation, Loren Wilkinson suggests that this image of God characteristic is something that we do – it is relational, it describes our unique calling to be in a responsible relationship with God, with each other and with the rest of creation. In God’s image therefore, humans are installed as God’s managers of all creation with power to control and regulate it, and the power to harness its potential. What a concentration of power in human hands!

In the hands of the scientist there is the potential to manipulate the plant genome so as to produce plants with many new and different characteristics. There is the opportunity to regulate the course of nature, to the bane or blessing of the world. What guidance then, does the biblical view of our dominion role give for opportunities such as these? Any action focussed entirely upon a misreading of the subdue and rule of Genesis 1:28 will likely result in a forceful dominion over creation – an attitude that some Christians have quite rightly been criticised for in the past. However, a more balanced reading of Scripture will also recognise God’s instruction in Genesis 2:15 to work and take care of the garden. The Hebrew use of these words suggests working and serving, keeping watch and preserving creation. Therefore, they describe actions not undertaken primarily for the sake of the doer, but for the sake of the object of the action. For the scientist then, proper dominion represents a role of service to the earth, and to humanity, for its preservation.

Stewardship

Stewardship speaks of our responsibility to God. As stewards, humans are responsible to God for the way in which the earth is treated and the ends for which it is used. Two concepts of stewardship appear in the Old Testament. Firstly, there is the close identification of the steward with their master – the steward is considered as the representative of the employer, master or lord. Secondly, there is the insistence that the steward is not, after all, the owner or master. Clearly then, the steward is strictly accountable to another. In New Testament Greek, the word stewardship or oikonomia means management of a household. Many New Testament references support the concept that the steward is a manager of something or someone not belonging to themself (Matthew 20:8; Luke 8:3; John 2:8). A good steward is described as being watchful, trustworthy and blameless.

Loren Wilkinson claims that the responsibility of stewardship is the distinctive characteristic of our dominion and our humanity. Therefore, the responsibility of stewardship also speaks of our freedom and independence to act the way we wish. Scientists have the ability to manipulate the natural world, to name and to celebrate creation, to be rational and to have knowledge about it. For if scientists, or any other human being, did not have the freedom to act independently, we could not be held accountable, since our actions would be beyond our control. The industrial revolution and today’s highly technological society are ample evidence of the creative, and in some cases not so creative, ways in which humans have exercised their freedom in the use of science and technology. Issues such as deforestation, pollution, overcrowding and dwindling biodiversity indicate that humans can either use or abuse their freedom. By making humans stewards, God has not issued exact rules on how we are to manage creation, instead He has set general guidelines, and within those guidelines He holds us accountable for our decisions.

A Response

Human beings have been created with abilities of intellect, creativity and technique which can be expressed for good or bad. Today, with the Age of DNA upon us, scientists have been given the opportunity and freedom to focus their abilities on understanding and modifying the genetic code underlying life itself. However, as a redeemed person, the Christian working as a scientist in this area is called to fully use their abilities for the wise and loving management of creation and to assist in the development of the full potential of everything in creation, including human beings, and for the praise and glory of God.

Christopher Downs

 

Recommended Reading

Dumbrell, W. Genesis 1-3, Ecology and the Dominion of Man (CRUX, Vol 24, No. 1, December 1985)

Hall, D. The Steward: A Biblical Symbol Come of Age (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI, 1990)

Hindmarsh, R., Lawrence, G., Norton, J.(Editors) Altered Genes. Reconstructing Nature (Allen & Unwin, Australia, 1998)

Holland, J. Creative Communion: Toward a Spirituality of Work (Paulist Press, New York, 1989)

Kaku, M. Visions: How Science Will Revolutionise the 21st Century and Beyond (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998)

Nelson, JR. On the Frontiers of Genetics and Religion (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI, 1994)

Pollack, R. Signs of Life: The Language and Meaning of DNA (Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1994)

Watson, J. The Double Helix (Penguin Books, New York, 1968)

Wilkinson, L.(Editor) Earthkeeping in the 90s: Stewardship of Creation (Eerdmans, GrandRapids MI, 1991)

© 1999 Christopher Downs, Palmerston North, New Zealand