Toward a more natural theology

Some implications of genetic mutation: Toward a more natural theology

Heller, Jan C

The Problem

Following the theologian and physicist Ian Barbour, David H. Smith characterizes the ideal relationship between theology and the natural sciences in terms of dialogue.1 With this characterization, Smith suggests (among other things) that each field has sufficient integrity on its own to warrant a respectful treatment by participants in the other, but not enough to justify compartmentalizing or isolating one from the other. Said differently, Smith claims that each field has its own contribution to make to the dialogue, but that each ought to be open to input and critique from the other.

I accept this characterization, but want to explore some implications of it for Christian theology and ethics that Smith does not pursue. For when Christians engage in a genuine dialogue with the natural sciences in the sense that Barbour and Smith understand it, questions can be raised concerning whether and, if so, how and to what extent, the findings of these sciences affect our fundamental conceptions of God and God’s purposes for creation and humankind. My motivation for raising such questions arises from observing how Christians too often evaluate developments in the natural sciencesthey do so exactly as Barbour and Smith suggest we ought not. That is, Christians too often evaluate the findings in the natural sciences solely in terms of their own, prior faith-commitments, holding these normatively constant as it were, and appropriating only those scientific findings that do not directly challenge these prior commitments. However, if a genuine dialogue is to take place between participants in these fields, Christians must be willing to consider how the findings of the natural sciences might lead them to re-evaluate their commitments, perhaps even to the point of reconceptualizing or relinquishing some of their most fundamental and cherished beliefs.

Given the limitations of space for this article, I will here simply try to illustrate how such questions arise as a problem internal to Christian theology, and then sketch some implications of them for theology and ethics. To do this, I will utilize one of several possible issues arising with our current understanding of evolutionary theory, namely, the mechanism of genetic mutation. In the end, I suggest that such implications drive us to reconsider what has traditionally been called “natural theology.”

How the Problem Arises

Smith correctly points outs that the three traditional sources of authority for Christians generally, and Anglicans particularly, are scripture, tradition, and what he calls the “standards of rational or coherent thought.” The third source is often characterized in terms of human experience understood in its broadest sense. It can thus include not only the widely accepted standards of rationality that Smith discusses, but also the widely accepted empirical and theoretical findings of the natural sciences as well .2 In this way, then, the findings of the natural sciences can be viewed as one authoritative source (among others) for Christian theology, and this because knowledge of the natural or “created” world presumably permits us to infer something about God as Creator and about God’s purposes as Creator and Sustainer for creation and humankind.

Of course, just what substantively the natural sciences permit us to infer about God and God’s purposes have been and continue to be matters of much debate. I take up this issue momentarily. Here, I want to suggest that we not overlook the importance of this claim. For the claim that the findings of the natural sciences permit us to infer something about God and God’s purposes for creation and humankind suggests (in principle, at least) that the findings of these sciences can be viewed as a concern internal to Christian theology. This view is in contrast (perhaps since Copernicus) to the way the sciences have too often been viewed by Christians, namely, as a concern external to theology and one that raises questions from which Christian beliefs must be insulated. (Happily, one can find a number of exceptions to this observation, but it still holds as a generalization, I think.) In any case, if it can be accepted that the findings of the natural sciences are properly viewed as a concern internal to Christian theology, then the question of whether these findings can affect our fundamental conceptions of God and God’s purposes for creation and humankind is not really at issue. They can and do. The more interesting and vexing question, then, is the substantive one, namely, how and to what extent these conceptions are affected.

This substantive question typically arises when the three authoritative sources for Christian theology conflict-in our case, when the centrally held interpretations of scripture and the tradition conflict with interpretations of human experience as they are represented in the widely accepted findings of the natural sciences.3 1 qualify “interpretations of scripture and the tradition” with “centrally held,” and the “findings of the natural sciences” with “widely accepted,” in recognition of the fact that none of the participants in this dialogue can claim final certainty for his or her interpretations or findings, but that some of these are nevertheless so central or basic to the ongoing development of the fields that they enjoy a status that is now rarely questioned. Such conflicts may be construed as a theological problem for Anglicans precisely to the extent that Smith is correct (and I think he is) in asserting that, “We [Anglicans] have always been attracted to the notion of the unity of truth,” that is, to the notion that these sources, if properly understood, would not finally conflict.

This said, I submit that one centrally held interpretation of Christians is the claim that God’s purposes for creation include a special concern for humankind, both collectively and individually, and that one widely accepted finding of the biological sciences is the mechanism of genetic mutation as it is understood in contemporary evolutionary theory. I further submit, however, that this Christian interpretation and this scientific finding may be in such confict with each other that they cannot be held coherently in the same theological construal of reality.

Construing Genetic Mutation as a Theological Problem

In his intriguing book Human Evolution, Reproduction, and Morality ,4 Lewis Petrinovich suggests that genetic mutation is only one of five basic biological phenomena that that we need to understand in order to grasp the central claims of contemporary evolutionary theory. The others are inheritance, natural selection, isolation, and genetic drift. Here, however, we need focus only on the role that genetic mutation plays in the evolution of life, and this only in a very general sense. The point I am interested in highlighting has to do with why genetic mutations are absolutely necessary for life to survive on this or any other planet.

Genetic mutation refers simply to the random, spontaneous changes that are introduced into an individual organism’s genotype. These changes may be introduced in a variety of ways, and they may or may not be evident in the organism’s phenotype. Natural selection works on the phenotypic level, and those mutations that manifest themselves on this level are sorted generally by how well they increase the reproductive success of the individual organism and its offspring. Thus, whether a genetic mutation is “selected” depends on a number of complex factors in both the cellular and extra-cellular environments of the organism. Petrinovich puts it this way:

To understand the action of genes at an adequate level one must understand the structure and characteristics of the environments in which particular genes are expressed because environmental influences determine the range of reactions that are possible, in terms of phenotypic expression?

The implication of Petrinovich’s statement is profound, for without genetic mutation life on earth would not survive as the environment changes. This insight is commonplace for biologists, but consider some of its implications for the theological and ethical questions addressed during the Presiding Bishop’s Consultation on Bioethics (8-9 June 1999, Washington, D.C.).

Our concern during the consultation was primarily directed toward the consequences of current genetic research for humans, particularly those humans who suffer from anomalies resulting from genetic mutations. If we, as Christians, accept that the continuation of human life and the reduction of human suffering are goods warranted by our tradition, then current genetic research is uncovering with everincreasing sophistication some of the molecular mechanisms by which we might realize these goods, at least in the long term. However, this same research adds to our knowledge of evolution on the molecular level, and it suggests that individual humans (along with individual members of all other species) must experience genetic mutations if life on earth is to survive collectively. But of course, it is only the very occasional mutation that proves beneficial (i.e., is selected) for the individual organism experiencing it. Given common environmental conditions at both the cellular and extra-cellular levels, the vast majority of mutations do not contribute to the survival of individual organisms or of life in general. Indeed, in humans, these mutations are the source of much suffering and the principal justification for the massive research effort in molecular biology now being conducted around the world. Nevertheless, were it not for these mutations, humans would not even exist, for all life would have died on this planet eons ago.

Genetic mutation, then, is not only a problem that Christians might be motivated to address in therapeutic terms (because the continuation of human life and the reduction of human suffering are viewed as goods), but also a problem that Christians may wish to address in theological terms. The theological issues come into sharper relief when we put the environmental determinants of genetic mutation just discussed alongside the traditional Christian claims that God is specially concerned with humankind as a species and as individuals. Cast in this light, it appears that God, the presumed creator and sustainer of genetic mutation as an evolutionary mechanism, is willing to permit untold numbers of individual organisms to endure untold numbers of genetic mutations, the vast majority of which will not be beneficial relative to the organisms in question, in order to advance God’s purposes for life on earth collectively. And, as some commentators observe:

A God of unlimited power and goodness certainly could have created a world with somewhat different laws than the present ones which would have produced the same results in the biological world with the same mechanism of natural selection but without its present fantastic wastefulness. This could be done, e.g., by assuring a larger percentage of favorable mutations. 6

Some Theological and Ethical Implications

Such issues raise a number of theological problems, but again I wish to focus on our traditional notions of God’s purposes for creation with respect to human flourishing. Is God as concerned as the tradition claims about human flourishing? Can the Christian claim that God cares about humans (to the point of “loving” them) be sustained in light of what we know about the role that genetic mutation plays in evolutionary theory? I suggest that these questions can be addressed on both the collective and individual levels.

On the collective level, the mechanism of genetic mutation may or may not give us grounds to question God’s purposes for humankind, depending on how evolution is interpreted theologically. For example, human existence and our current domination of other species are commonly viewed by evolutionary theorists as an accident of evolution. We arose as a result of the complex, random forces of evolution, and we will eventually become extinct or evolve into other forms of life in the same way. But others, perhaps most notably for Christians, Teilhard de Chardin, argue that evolution can be understood teleologically. In this view, evolution is said to lead quite naturally to the “higher” qualities represented in the human species (though it must also be acknowledged that this same argument suggests that evolution might also lead humans to continue to evolve into other forms of life that are not recognizably human). In any case, the first view-which has greater scientific support-may be impossible to reconcile with Christian claims about God’s special concern for humankind as a species. It stands as a continuing challenge to the tradition’s views on God’s purposes for humankind. The second view, however, enjoys some support among Christians, and is thought to be coherent with at least many traditional Christian claims about God’s special concern for the human species.

On the individual level, however, evolutionary theory may be utterly irreconcilable with traditional Christian claims. Christians have always claimed that individual humans and their suffering matter to God. This is perhaps best represented by pointing to the overall soteriological thrust of the tradition. Here, God-at great cost to God and for our benefit as humans-is portrayed as directing the course of (post-fall) salvation history to the calling of Israel as a chosen people, to the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, to the founding of the Church, and to the eventual restoration to some kind of (pre-fall or better) existence at the end of history. And, while the salvation God provides for humans is.always mediated through a community (i.e., a collectivity), it is clear that Christians have consistently claimed that God’s concern extends to the salvation of individuals. Obviously, however, the salvation that God offers to individuals does not guarantee they will not suffer.

The problem of undeserved suffering or natural evil cannot be pursued in any depth here. Suffice it to say that interpreting the implications of genetic mutation-even if we understand it on the collective level in terms of a teleologically biased evolutionary theory-suggests that countless individuals (with most never surviving gestation) must suffer the effects of countless deleterious mutations in order to advance God’s purposes for life collectively. God may “save” such individuals if they are human, or somehow compensate their suffering (if such a thing were even conceivable) in an afterlife, but we are left wondering if God could not have achieved the same ends with less suffering.

There are also a number of ethical implications we could pursue in light of the above discussion, but I believe the most imortant one concerns how these questions at least seem to undercut central Christian claims regarding God’s special concern for humankind, if not as a species then at least as individuals. I discuss this ethical implication elsewhere as the “de-centering of the human person,” building on the work of James M. Gustafson.7

The ethical problem such questions raise for Christians can be put starkly: Christians believe that God can be viewed as benevolent at least to the extent that God has established the conditions for life collectively to flourish on earth, and this includes human life. This belief (if we ignore for now the theological analogue to the “naturalistic fallacy”) provides Christians with ethical warrants to be concerned with how our actions affect those conditions that promote and sustain life on earth, both now and in the future. Such warrants could include, for example, a concern for the rise and extinction of species, global warming, and genetic research both for scientific and therapeutic ends-all of which presumably contribute to our understanding of how humans might work with God to promote God’s purposes for creation and humankind. However, in light of what we are learning about the evolutionary mechanisms that God has evidently established in order to promote the flourishing of life on earth, it may be that our traditional warrants concerning individual humans are undercut; that is, it may be that we have warrants to treat individuals as means to some good end in the same way that God evidently treats individuals (or, perhaps better said, permits individuals to be treated), namely, as a means to advance God’s purposes. But of course, in traditional Christian terms, without the prior consent of the human persons in question to be so treated, such actions would represent a gross violation of their dignity.

Such ethical implications, when they cannot be rationalized (in the best sense of the term), create a possible dilemma for Christian theologians and ethicists with regard to the weight they give to the sources of authority for theology when they conflict. Should we integrate the widely accepted findings of the natural sciences into our fundamental conceptions of God and God’s purposes for creation and humankind when these findings conflict with centrally held interpretations of scripture and tradition, or should we (irrationally) continue to hold these interpretations and perhaps risk the charge that we are doing so for self-interested reasons (self-interested because they promote our favored view of reality)? This is not an easy choice in my estimation, for the implications with which genetic research in general and genetic mutation in particular confront us go “all -the way down,” that is, to some of our most cherished and basic Christian beliefs. Moreover, in trying to decide how much weight we should give scientific sources, we may need to reconsider the importance of what is typically discussed as “natural theology.” Largely ignored by most of the twentieth century’s prominent theologians, natural theology can be understood as theological reflection on the created order, that is, as asking what might be inferred about God and God’s purposes for humankind based on observations of the created order. And if Smith is correct that we Anglicans seek the unity of truth, then integrating such observations into our theology is not only a matter of intellectual integrity, but also a matter internal to theology itself. That is, it is a matter of Christian faith itself, not a matter imposed on us by sources externa-I to our faith. And this makes it all the more urgent.

1 David H. Smith, “Creation, Preservation, and All the Blessings. . . ” Anglican Theological Review LXXXIA.

2 Of course, this category can also include other fields not considered here, for example, history.

I These sources can also conflict internally, but I do not consider this complication here.

4 See Lewis Petrinovich, Human Evolution, Reproduction, and Morality (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998), pp. 43-52.

5 Ibid., p. 44. Emphasis added.

6 P. Hare and E. Madden, Evil and the Concept of God (Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, 1968), pp. 54-55, quoted in Charles Taliaferro, Contemporary Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), p. 342.

7 Jan Christian Heller, Human Genome Research and the Challenge of Contingent Future Persons: Toward an Impersonal Theocentric Approach to Value (Omaha: Creighton University Press, 1996), pp. 132-136.


* Jan C. Heller, Ph.D., is System Director, Office of Ethics and Theology, Sisters of Providence Health System based in Seattle.

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Fall 1999

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