River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation

QRcode for page

Member Login


Password Forgot?


sermon list   


To Be Human
in the Age of Biotechnology

Rev. Gary M. Gallun

June 25, 2000

River Road Unitarian Church



Reading: from The Fourth American Faith by Rev. Duncan Howlett

It has often been said that the difference between science and religion is the difference between fact and faith, data and value, observation and commitment. These are superficial differences only. Science like religion, has faith; and religion like science, concerns itself with fact; science believes in values and religion has its data.; science has its commitments and religion makes its observations. The mood of science is one of agnosticism and skepticism. The mood of religion is one of credulity.

The man of science likes to quote the line from Sophocles' Antigone, "Don't only think your mind is the right one." Or he may say with Oliver Cromwell," I bid you by the bowels of Christ to think that you may be mistaken," and in this mood he continues his work. In the face of all those who say they know on the authority of the claims of a religion, he remains a not-knower and he continues his pursuit of such truth as he may know.

If theological matters are looked upon as living continuing questions, rather than unquestionable, or the final credal statements, there is less danger that they will cease to be discussed and eventually become inert. But the fact of quandary in the face of ultimate questions, does not permit us to suspend judgement on important questions. Religion cannot conclude with questions, for true religion is the basis of life. As William James observed, we may not know the final answers to the questions we ask, but we cannot avoid giving some kind of answer by what we decide to do.



Sermon - To Be Human in the Age of Biotechnology by Rev. Gary M. Gallun

My family recently gathered for brunch to celebrate my Aunt and Uncle's 60th anniversary. At the cookout, next to the barbecue was a fork that was able to test the meat and let us know when it was done. The CD player was programmed to play music all day long, but only certain tracks of each of the CDs. My cousin just bought a new car. It talks to him and helps him find the best route. Another cousin's Palm Pilot enabled him to catch up on his email during dessert. None of this technology existed just a decade ago.

Every day, not figuratively but literally . . . every day the newspaper or the television or the radio trumpets another technological breakthrough. Some are yet more "labor saving devices" like the fork at the barbecue or a pasta maker or a faster computer. Others increase our pleasure like better surround sound or new ways to get movies brought into our homes, and some are life saving advances in science.

Y2K is here and we have found ourselves in a different world than the one of only a few short years ago. It is truly mind-boggling. There are times when I want to just sit back and let the world go by, to take a vacation from change. I am often exhausted by the sheer magnitude of the pace of technological change in our society. While the pace of change is increasing exponentially, we still need to keep our feet solidly on the ground. In an age of high tech -scientific breakthroughs we find ourselves continuing to rely on common sense to get us through the day: common sense, that knowledge that we have of how the world works just from experiencing it. Common sense is what we are taught by our own senses of touch and taste and smell. Common sense is the understanding of cause and effect, of the consistency and stability of things. We know how to dress appropriately and maintain social relations because we use our common sense. We know that a barking dog might bite. We can cook our food using certain techniques and certain seasonings without concern because they are tried and true. Common sense enables us to keep from walking in front of a moving car, from eating rat poison and encourages us to save for a rainy day.

In addition, tradition, preserve what we treasure in society. It is this that makes up the backbone of how we live our lives day in and day out. It is this, also, that is preserved and celebrated by religion. Religion not only talks about God or the gods or the spiritual or supernatural but also preserves explanations for how things happen and why they happen, for how to live our lives and what needs to be celebrated.

Religion is the way human beings have found to protect common sense, tradition and the treasures of the past. The moral teachings of great leaders are preserved and taught to our children anew each generation. The wisdom of the ages, the lessons, techniques and understandings that have helped us to build and maintain a successful society are treasured and preserved and passed down to each succeeding generation.

Religion had preserved and treasured ethical and moral rules of social conduct from the Code of Hammurabi through Moses bringing the 10 Commandments down from Mount Sinai to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount to Jefferson's Declaration of Independence to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" sermon. Reading and writing were preserved and handed down primarily by Religion. Even while the Christian West destroyed much of Greek learning during the Middle Ages, the Moslem word preserved and built upon it.

The Jewish Bar Mitzvah is the confirmation that the 13 year old has mastered literacy and can now read the Bible, that book that preserves the history, myth and wisdom of their Jewish ancestors. Until the invention of the printing press the Christian Church and monastery were the primary locus of reading and writing. It is only since the end of the Middle Ages that literacy and structured education has become available outside of the monastery. The word "clerk" comes from the word "Cleric" and academic graduation gowns are versions of clerical vestments. In fact, most early colleges and universities were established primarily to train priests. Doctors and lawyers learned their trade the same way blacksmiths and tailors learned theirs, by becoming apprentices. Religion has had a central role in society because it is the institution whose purpose it is to maintain and preserve the wisdom, knowledge and methods of society. Without this cultural museum-library-scriptorium-school the society would have to reinvent the wheel each generation.

Science, on the other hand, is the discipline that uses methods and processes to look anew at the world. It attempts to understand how things work with the goal that every investigation may result in replacement of the current understanding with a new but superior understanding or, if not, confirmation of the current understanding, technique or method. Either result is welcome. There is no preference for novelty over the status quo or the status quo over novelty.

To say that religion has battled science over the centuries and still does today is to state the obvious. In fact, religion and science are age old and natural antagonists. They are by their very nature engaged in opposite tasks. This has often been seen as a hardship for UUs who cherish one as much as the other. Yet, while science's goal is to search out and explore the unexplored, religion is in the business of protecting the status quo.

If we had to make an exclusive choice of something in which to be blind believers many of us would probably choose science over religion. UUs have often, in fact, been accused of worshiping science rather than God! Yet we would make that choice with regret. We know that religion has great value for us that is not completely fulfilled by science. Fortunately for us we don't have to choose between science and religion.

When Copernicus proclaimed mathematically and Galileo confirmed visually that the earth was not the center of the universe the Catholic Church needed to resist this idea. It was the Church's job! If the earth were not at the center then the primacy and uniqueness of the earth was in question. In fact, if the earth was surrounded on all sides by empty space then how could God physically reside "above" the earth, and the devil below? What would this do to the theological position that the Catholic Church had maintained for a millennium that Jesus was "physically" resurrected.

It was the task of theology to try to reconcile the difficulty that science caused to the religious faithful. A new theology was required that could conceive of God and Jesus as transcending the physical boundaries of space. Such a theology would enable people to preserve the important aspects of religion while accepting the scientific discoveries of the 17th century. Those that could accept the new theology of transcendentalism, like Unitarians, or the one that perceived God as a spiritual presence that resides within like the Quakers, became comfortable with the new scientific explanations of Copernicus and Galileo while those clinging to the old theologies continued to resist it.

Fifteen years before he published The Origin of The Species, Darwin confided to his friend, Joseph Hooker, that while he was "almost" convinced that species are not immutable, "it is like confessing a murder." Everything seemed threatened: the authority of the Bible, the purposefulness of the universe, the autonomy of man, the efficacy of God. As we have seen just this year with the Kansas City school board ruling that Creationism be taught in high school science class the issue is still so hot that a century and a half after the scientific community embraced the theory of evolution, there are still those who resist it. Theologies that were able to appreciate the value of the Bible as religious literature produced by human beings rather than being literally written by the hand of God , however, were able to accept the Darwinian thesis within the context of their religious understanding.

The world of science and knowledge continues to move on and even while we sit here there are experiments going on just up the road that are requiring a reexamination, a new understanding, a new accommodation, a new definition - that is, a new theology. The basic answers of common sense, tradition and religion are again on the line not only for fundamentalists but also for UUs. Technology has become married to human biology in ways that we never imagined just a few short years ago. Science fiction has become science!

The mapping of the human genome is almost complete. The goal of this project, is that once we know what makes us tick maybe we can change the way we function. Once we know where all the nuts and bolts are, perhaps, we can reconfigure the machine. This may be a bonanza for treating illnesses, but we need to ask ourselves how we feel about merging this technology with that of in vitro fertilization. It is not so far fetched to imagine that in a few short years it will be possible for parents to determine the color of their baby's eyes, or, perhaps their height so that they would grow to become an eight foot tall basketball player or maybe produce a baby with four lungs so that she could be a superior athlete?

Dolly the sheep has foreshadowed the cloning of a human being as simply being matter of time. What is a clone of a human being? Is a clone of me the same as my twin brother or something else? If viable cell of Einstein were available would it be appropriate to clone him, or Mozart, or Babe Ruth? And what if only one's heart or liver or lungs were to be cloned to replace worn out ones. How long will a human lifetime be when everything, including, perhaps, brain cells, are replaceable?

The harvesting and storage of human embryos for later use is now being accomplished. Are these embryos human? Is destroying them destroying human life? What do you do with the embryos of parents who were killed in an airplane accident? While the trash bin might seem callous, does a funeral and cemetery plot make more sense?

The use of human fetal tissue for research has been put on hold temporarily. Now that we understand the techniques we need to ask about the implications.

To all of these questions, an ethicist might ask: "Just because it is technologically possible is it desirable?" Then, again, can we really prevent it? It was not possible to stop the production and spread of nuclear weapons or germ or biological warfare agents. It seems clear to me that, "Just say no" will not work.

Sorting out the meaning as well as possible solutions to these and other, unforeseen, yet to come, advances in biotechnology, begins with the question of what it means to be human.

This is a job for theology!

Unitarians were born of the assertion that God is one rather than three and Universalists insisted that God would not condemn his children to eternal torment, both theological positions that made them different from those who held onto traditional Calvinist theology. Yet, UUs of the modern era are less interested in theology than in social action; self-enrichment; finding a Sunday school experience for our children that conforms to our way of thinking; or just joining a comfortable social group that shares our perspective on the world. I don't mean to say that UUs are not intellectually sophisticated and curious. We clearly are. But, without a clear God focus we have are less than enthusiastic about a discipline that sounds like it should be translated as "the study of God."

I would like to suggest that a better definition of theology is the bridge that enables a religion to incorporate new facts and ideas and understandings into a plausibility structure that is consistent with the common sense and traditions of the culture - The bridge between religion and science.

A new discovery is going to require change in the religion's common sense ideas, teachings and/or traditional understanding of the world. The threat remains so long as a theology cannot be found to reconcile the new with the old. Only after an acceptable theology is worked out can the threat be nullified and a new understanding of the universe established.

Theology is concerned with attempting to provide a coherent and plausible explanation for some of the most basic of human questions:

What is a human being?

What is the reality of the Universe?

What is life?

What is death?

What are the moral obligations that we have to each other and the world?

How should we properly relate to all of these issues?

These are questions that just don't go away. And, in fact, the answers of one culture or generation, though informative, are often inadequate for another. As we enter the 21st century we are finding, again, that the answers of the 20th century may not be adequate.

Where do we begin? How does one start to come up with a new theology?

Well, we probably should start with what we have already. What might the 20th century theologies that we UUs find most compelling have to say about the impact of science and particularly, biotechnology upon the age-old quest for understanding what it means to be human and how human beings fit into the big picture?

The ones that seem to me most compelling to UUs are Existentialism, Humanism, modern Stoicism and the spiritual understanding of Albert Schweitzer.

The Existentialists would probably begin by suggesting that all we can hope to do is raise the issue. They then would like to remind us that they have already defined the essential component of being human as our subjective experience.

Jean Paul Sartre was the clearest spokesperson for existentialism when he wrote:

"Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism . . . But what do we mean to say by this, but that man is of a greater dignity that a stone or a table? For we mean to say that man primarily exists - that man is, before all else, something, which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so. Man is, indeed, a project, which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or a cauliflower . . ."

The Humanists would insist that however we choose to explain or define what it means to be human be based upon uncompromisingly scientific and rational investigation. We should not be misled by wishful thinking or faith statements that do not have rational validity.

The signers of the Humanist Manifesto II asserted that:

"The controlled use of scientific methods, which have transformed the natural and social sciences since the Renaissance must be extended further in the solution to human problems. But reason must be tempered by humility. Nor is there any guarantee that all problems can be solved or all questions answered. Yet critical intelligence infused by a sense of human caring is the best method that humanity has for resolving problems . . .

We would resist any moves to censor basic scientific research on moral, political or social grounds. Technology must, however, be carefully judged by the consequences of its use: harmful and destructive changes should be avoided . . . Technological feasibility does not imply social or cultural desirability."

I am humbled when I read the following from Albert Schweitzer:

"Through reverence for life we enter into a spiritual relationship with the world . . . It is not given to us to put ourselves at the service of the infinite and inscrutable creative will which is at the basis of all existence. We can understand neither its nature nor its intentions. But we can be in touch with that will, in a spiritual sense, by submitting ourselves to the mystery of life and devoting ourselves to all the living creatures whom we have the opportunity and the ability to serve.

An ethic, which enjoins us only to concern ourselves with human beings and human society, cannot have this same significance. Only a universal ethic, which embraces every living creature, can put us in touch with the Universe and with the Will which is there manifest. In the world, the will-to-life is in conflict with itself. In us - by a mystery which we do not understand - it wishes to be at peace with itself. In the world it is manifest; in us is revealed. It is our spiritual destiny to be other than the world. By conforming to it, we live our existence, instead of merely submitting to it. Through reverence-for-life we come to worship God in a way that is simple, profound, and alive."

The phrase "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part" that is part of the UU Principles that appear on the inside cover of our Order of Service every week affirm just such a theological perspective.

And then, I wonder if, perhaps I am not asking all the right questions. Rabbi Kushner, in his book, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? , on the last page finally answers the title question like this:

Is there an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people? That depends on what we mean by "answer" . . . the word "answer" can mean "response" as well as "explanation," and in that sense, there may well be a satisfying answer to the tragedies in our lives . . . In the final analysis, the question of why bad things happen to good people translates itself into some very different questions, no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it has happened.

Perhaps this is also the question that we need to ask about the technological changes that offer challenges to our lives. How are we to respond to the advances in biotechnology in particular and in science in general?

Perhaps, we need, not only, as the Dalai Lama has suggested, "An Ethics For A New Millennium" but also a "Theology For A New Millennium" - a bridge between science and the religious ideals that we hold dear. One that will enable us to comprehend and deal with the questions of who we are and how we relate to our world that such advances as gene research and embryo research have placed before us.

The Humanists have insisted that we not abandon the quest for new scientific investigation, the Existentialists have helped us define what it mean to be human, Albert Schweitzer has reminded us that all life is to be valued, and Rabbi Kushner has cautioned us that the obvious question may not be the most important or helpful one. Where we go from here is the challenge before us. May we accept this challenge with humility, perseverance, dignity and confidence?


Closing Words - by Albert Einstein

It is not enough that you should understand about applied science in order that your work may increase man's blessings. Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors, concern for the great unsolved problems of the

organization of labor and the distribution of goods- in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind.

Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.



   sermon list