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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
I am humbled when I read the following from
"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
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