Presentation to the Association of Teaching Theologians

[1] At the onset, a disclaimer: these are reflections for a half-hour, not so much comprehensive as suggestive, investigative, provocative ¼ characterized as much by musing and wrestling as by research, especially from one on the theological side of the equation:

[2] “I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”

[3] “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness.” (Gen. 1:1-4).

[4] “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)

[5] “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17)

[6] “O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! Who hast set thy glory above the heavens. ¼When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained; What is man that thou art mindful of him, the son of man that thou carest for him, for thou has made him a little lower than the angels, and has crowned him with glory and honor. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou has put all things under his feet ¼” (Psalm 8:l, 3-6)

[7] “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

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[8] The “Yahwist account” in the second chapter is, as the scholarship runs, the older of the two Genesis renderings of God’s good creation. Both of them testify, in modest-but-brilliant contrast to other ancient accounts, to the essential unity of creation – that is to say, by the action of God, and spoken into reality: “And God said, ‘let there be light,’ and there was light.” No cosmic struggle here, to say nothing of open warfare between the good and evil deities. No split between spirit and matter, of whatever dualistic stripe. No conjugal setting between goddess and god, whether of the nurturing sort or the competitive. The creation is not God’s victory over enemies, nor the fruit of divine lust. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit spoke the κoσμoσs into reality, in the beginning. The Spirit of the living God moved over the face of the deep. The Logos is the One by Whom and for Whom all things are made. No other surviving account of any ancient people as to the origin of the universe couches that origin in the One God Who Created by Declaration, accomplished through the instrumentality of the Logos, in Whom all things cohere.

[9] From light years and a hundred million galaxies to subatomic particles, from the wholeness of humanity to the specifics of genetic structure, a common Source and a common Author. St. Paul claims that in Him all things cohere. In Him all things hold together.

[10] As to the nature of creation and the nature of humanity, the affirmation that “in Christ all things hold together” has been challenged from two fronts, the spiritual and the material. The first challenge was from the existing gnostic Weltanschauung, that “spirit” is both antecedent to and transcendent to matter. That the two are products of separate creations, separate gods. The Apostles Creed affirms the Christian response: that God created heaven and earth; that Jesus was truly human rather than only appearing to be human; that belief in the resurrection of the body is central to the faith, rather than merely a base way of affirming intrinsic immortality now pleasantly destined. The gnostic challenge of the ascendancy of spirit over matter is countered by Christian affirmation of the essential wholeness of God’s creation as to both provenance and intent.

[11] On the other hand, since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, at least, the challenge has come as to a merely “materialist” account of both the origin of the universe and the origin of life. That is, from the “big bang” to the current events, there is no direction or intrusion from a Transcendent Force, of whatever sort. Materialist causality attributes to the laws of nature only “emergence” as to their provenance. Mind, rationality, and spirit are human attributes that represent the current “peak” of evolution ¼ now able to probe space for evidence of other mind and other spirit. Is this the only mind in the cosmos that is “conscious of itself as mind”? Perhaps, given the billions of stars, there are other planets on which life and mind have emerged and evolved. Perhaps. I had a conversation with a friend in Chicago during the past week, a friend of high academic stature who teaches constitutional law at Loyola. He argued that friends from the University of Chicago in the physical sciences are persuaded that all of the cosmos has its basis only in matter, that in the billions of galaxies and stars, “life” of one sort or another is ¼ by mere percentages ¼ likely if not necessarily “emergent” ¼ in forms and paradigms alien to our own ¼ that the universe is, as Aristotle once argued, without “beginning.” It follows, for these folk, that biochemistry, genetic research and other related disciplines will not only map but explain in the complexities of matter the genesis of life and mind.

[12] There is currently, and more prominently in the last fifteen years, a rejoinder from “intelligent design.” What Hume consigned to religious superstition and thus to the philosophical dustbin has been resurrected (!) by scholars in sciences as diverse as astrophysics and biochemistry. As to both cosmic forces and cellular structure, the resident complexity implies – indeed, requires – consideration of a designer, probably even a Designer. Mathematicians such as Walter Dembski and biochemists such as Michael Behe (Darwin’s Black Box, citing “irreducible complexity” in cellular structure) have reopened the case for what Hume prematurely dismissed in his rejection of teleology. In the discourse of some circles of the academy, as to creation, God is back. Or at least Intelligence, with a capital “I”. Even as by an inference, materialist reductionism is thus challenged.

[13] Christians affirm that from light years and a hundred million galaxies to subatomic particles, from the wholeness of humanity to the specifics of genetic structure, there is a common Source and a common Author. St. Paul claims that in Him all things cohere. In Him all things hold together. Which is to assert that the present enterprise to map the human genome and to explore genetic intricacies is in principle a legitimate subject for investigation and research, a project not alien to human enterprise and human well-being.

From this theological understanding of God and creation, one is prompted to ask in the present day, as the agenda records: “In the Light of Genetics, How Do We Think about Human Uniqueness, Human Identity, Freedom and Determinism, the Nature of the Soul, etc.?”

The Nature of the Soul

[14] The “nature of the soul” is the least accessible concept to the science of genetics and related fields of inquiry. For Lutheran Christians, the nature of the soul is not reducible to a radical dualism of being, certainly not to a “pre-existent soul pool” from which an individual soul enters a body for a biological sojourn. St. Paul speaks of an anthropology of “body, mind, and spirit” in I Thessalonians (5:23), of which Apollinaris of Laodicea and others made much in the Christological debates. But one does not have a soul. The human being is “a living soul,” rather than a “being” who possesses, among other things, a pre-existent, immortal soul.[1] For Christians, immortality is a gift in resurrection to eternal life, not an intrinsic characteristic of a pre-existent soul.

[15] Is there only a genetic or purely materialist answer to “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”? Are the collective phenomena of deploying human emotion, strength, reason and will in the service of taking advantage of one’s fellow humanity, or not telling the truth, or doing harm to others, or committing murder ¼ reducible only to biochemical imbalance, or the history of human evolution? I think not. Intellect, memory, and will – however much inadequate to Luther as “exhausting” the imago dei – are not reducible to matter only.

Freedom and Determinism

[16] During the Trinitarian discussions of the early fifth century, Augustine argued that intellect, memory and will are vestigia trinitatis, vestiges of the Trinity within the human being, reflecting if not constituting creatio imago dei. Are intellect, memory and will reducible to biochemical or electrochemical impulses, or random firing of brain cells? Are mind and spirit (intellect, memory, and will) reducible to brain chemistry or genetic manipulation? Are they random functions of body chemistry, rather than dimensions about which human beings self-consciously ponder, intend, and direct? I think not. However much the cellular environment may affect brain chemistry, the will has great capacity to be deployed. At this level one must not only reject mere materialist reductionism, but also explore freedom and determinism vis-à-vis human will.

[17] Consider an example from my own life: for a little over twenty years, I was a smoker. First a pack or two of cigarettes, during the sophomore year. Then, after marriage and ordination, more often a pipe – at home, at night, rather than carrying the pipe and tobacco. In graduate school, cigarettes again ¼ but back on the campus as chaplain and then professor, the pipe was daily, but not ubiquitous. I remember smoking the pipe during discussion sessions of both honors and community-based Great Books, in the Lenoir-Rhyne board room ¼ a circumstance not now imaginable, to say nothing of forbidden. And, on the occasion of Synod Council meetings, a pack of cigarettes, as a “reward” for enduring the confinement of the gathering.

[18] Came February of 1986, and a bout with the flu, perhaps even a little pneumonia. During the week-long illness, no tobacco. Afterward, searching for my pipes, eldest son Nathan calmly told me that he and Joshua and David had thrown away the tobacco and the pipes. That I should quit, because “we love you, Daddy.”

[19] I quit cold turkey, on the spot. No nicotine patch. No “one last bowl” or “one last puff.” No nothing. Second hardest thing I ever did. Brain and body chemistry were captive to nicotine. During the first six months, I probably spent two hundred dollars on bubble gum. I vowed that if I lived to be ninety, I would begin smoking again and smoke as much as I pleased. The craving, the narcotic, had hold of me. But in the times when the will became weak, the bubble gum served as proxy. And the echo: “because we love you, Daddy.” After about six months, the craving went away. Tobacco is a distant memory. I am 21 years closer to 90, and have no intention of ever smoking again. Anything. Ever.

[20] Love for my sons, and desire for their continued respect, put the necessary steel in my spine. In that sense, love and will overcame the addiction. The brain, as repository of neurons and electro-chemical impulses, reflected and demanded satisfaction that the whole body yearned for in the nicotine fix. Freedom, exercised as will, overcame the addiction’s determinism. The will directed and controlled intellect and memory – Augustine’s vestigia trinitatis – to enhance purity of lungs, if not purity of heart.

[21] Are mind and spirit (intellect, memory, and will) reducible to brain chemistry or genetic manipulation ¼ are they random functions of body chemistry, rather than dimensions about which human beings self-consciously ponder, intend, and direct? However much cellular environment may affect brain chemistry, the will has great capacity to be deployed.

[22] On the other hand, there is, at least as things now stand, a certain kind of genetic determinism. That I am 6’3″ instead of 6’1″ may have a partial factor of diet and nature to it. But that I am 6’3″ instead of 5’8″ is a piece of genetics. That I have brown eyes instead of blue is a piece of genetic determinism: the genes “fell” that way in the moment of conception, and carried through embryonic development. Allow me thus to assert the present condition, and historic hegemony, of “genetic determinism,” bracketing out cosmic or theistic determinism.

[23] In my own life, something on the order of genetic determinism made itself prominently evident two weeks after my baptism, and ten weeks after my birth. On a Monday morning in early August of 1943, my mother observed in her firstborn a paleness in the face, a paleness unprecedented in her limited experience. Despite the advice of my grandmother to the contrary, she took me to the doctor. Dr. John Fitzgerald examined paleness and checked the hemoglobin, the latter of which was extremely low, and said: “If we can get some blood into this child within the hour, we may save him.” With no time to match for blood types, my mother became an instant donor, the blood running directly from her arm into a vein they found (on first prick) in the tiny forehead. No match, no child. No transfusion, no child. High stakes on a doctor’s examining table.

[24] The blood was a match. The color returned. But the problem was thus noted. Monitored during the next several weeks, the phenomenon recurred, but with sufficient advance observation that a second transfusion was not conducted in such dire time constraints as the first. After an autumn of testing here and there, the doctors at Duke rendered the verdict in December of ’43. “The situation is not leukemia, but the child was born with a bone marrow that does not produce red cells, an anemia to which there is (i.e., was then) only one answer: transfuse the child when he needs it. That’s all we know to do. He may live a few years, absent a bad match on the transfusion. If you want a child, you’d better have another one.”

[25] Over the next two years, and counting the ones from the beginning, there were twenty-seven episodes of transfusions. A roster remains from Mama’s notes, of young men home from the war, young men not yet off to war, and young women from Daniels Lutheran Church in western Lincoln County, North Carolina.

[26] Then in January of 1946, two years after the diagnosis, Dr. Fitzgerald made the careful but astonishing observation, on the occasion of a scheduled transfusion, “I think I see some new cells. Bring him back in a week.” The next week: “I do. I see some new cells.” In short, the otherwise non-functioning marrow had “kicked in,” a circumstance rarely otherwise observed in that era. A congenital deficiency was rectified by a process or event otherwise not premeditated or mediated through medical knowledge or effort. What was determined by incomplete prenatal formation became suddenly, and for the duration, functional. A circumstance certainly not expected, I am told that it was recorded in the medical journals of the day, though I’ve never verified that by research. At any rate, that event was for the doctors unaccountable if not unprecedented and, for my parents, a miracle.

[27] At that level, genetic determinism, however great a factor in the past, may well in the future concede to science. Human freedom of inquiry is having significant success in the science of genetics, both as to mapping and as to the possibility of altering. But it is in the possibility of altering that other issues of freedom and determinism emerge.

[28] Allow me to use the personal instance from 1943 and following in extrapolating to a contemporary, or near-future, phenomenon. Consider, for example, my grandchildren. What are the possibilities for one of them to be born absent the ability of the marrow to make red cells? Doctors told my parents, and later my wife and me, that the chances of such a circumstance were dim. But if the knowledge and technology advance sufficiently to learn, in advance, of such a deficiency, and such a deficiency is discovered, what then? If the capacity to alter the deficiency exists, either by gene therapy or some other means, then ¼ is it affordable and available? If it does not exist, or is not affordable, do the putative parents decide to terminate the pregnancy? Forewarned is forearmed. Should that kind of decision be an option for the parents, or for anyone, vis-à-vis the developing fetus? For myself, I am grateful to parents who did their best in a difficult circumstance, and to God for the dramatic turn of events.

[29] The possibilities of, on the basis of data and foreknowledge, interdicting genetic determinism by genetic therapy or, failing that, to terminate the pregnancy, were not there for my parents. They wept all the way back from Durham to Lincolnton on the day that they learned the diagnosis. They endured two more years of radical uncertainty as to how long they would have their first-born with them. They persevered with the help of friends and neighbors to find blood for transfusions. Their vigil of prayers and devotion and faithfulness was blessed by what they considered a miracle.

[30] The task of interdicting genetic determinism (as classically understood) takes not only knowledge, from science and technology, but also the means that would enable one even to consider it. Not just for the effete and frivolous categories of preference, but also for interventions of purely therapeutic nature. The question of how much and who can afford it is not one that the poor can entertain. Back to my possible grandchildren: the health plan that enables those events to occur will be even more expensive than the already-expensive ones of the present. Health plans for the elite ¼ genetic engineering, whether of the “shopping” for egg or sperm sort, or of the alter-the-embryo sort, separates to an even greater degree, in terms of social justice, those who “have” from those who “have not.”

A Serious Question: Who Counts, as a Human Being? – the Dimension of Abuse

[31] New knowledge and new frontiers bring new conceits. Consider the frivolous: New York Times columnist David Brooks, writing on June 15 of this year, cites “a Harris poll (that) suggested that more than 40 percent of Americans would use genetic engineering to upgrade their children mentally and physically.” Brooks describes the present level of inquiry as “shopping” for egg or sperm donors with certain physically and mentally desirable features: “Nor is brainpower neglected. One sperm bank has one branch located between Harvard and M.I.T. and the other next to Stanford. An ad in the Harvard Crimson offered $50,000 for an egg from a Harvard woman. A recent ad in the Chicago Maroon at the University of Chicago offered $35,000 for a Chicago egg and stipulated, “‘You must be very healthy, very intelligent and very attractive, and most of all, very happy. Liberal political views and athletic ability are pluses.'” That for the frivolous.

[32] Or the unthinkable: S. M. Hutchens, a Senior Editor at Touchstone, observed in May of this year (Volume 20, Number 4. May 2007, p. 6.) the following (quoting Hutchens): “A news story in the Sunday Telegraph on ‘a shake-up of Britain’s embryology laws’ reported that ‘one of the key proposals would allow research on test-tube embryos that were part-human, part-animal-referred to as “Chimeras.”‘”

“This, more than anything else, makes me wonder whether human history may soon be brought forcibly to a close by God’s concurrence in man’s self-destruction. As odd as this may sound, it is one thing to massacre human infants in huge numbers, but something else to attempt the annihilation of the human race by effacing the divisions between the species. The public has been prepared for it, though, not just by The Island of Dr. Moreau, but by ‘mutant’ films and fiction-the Dark Shadows and Animorphs series come to mind, and books like James Patterson’s Lake House, with its beautiful avian children. One can say this, at least for H. G. Wells: He knew he was inventing a horror, and appeared to shrink from the prospect he was contemplating.”

That from Hutchens. One need not subscribe to apocalyptist perspectives to be concerned by the prospect of “chimeras.”

[33] For me, less immediately pressing but of much greater importance in the question of “who counts, as a human being?” is, of course, the matter of abortion. What Hutchens refers to as a “massacre ¼ in huge numbers” is a question long and hotly debated, but it resides also at the core of this discussion. Given the present declared social “right” to abortion, and given the possibilities of what genetic research will reveal about how a given embryo or fetus is “constructed,” what about abortion for cosmetic, as well as therapeutic or merely prudential reasons? I find no grounds for abortion in the Christian understanding of creatio imago dei. But the dimensions resident in the questions of genetics, human uniqueness, the soul, freedom and determinism carry the discussion to new levels of implication and meaning.

[34] In the matter of frozen embryos, how long to preserve? Whether to use for research, a classic utilitarian dilemma. The biological processes of nature generate and discard embryos and zygotes, apart from human will. But the present laboratory processes produce frozen fertilized eggs in multiples. How long to keep frozen? And to whom do they “belong”? The scriptures declare that God knows us, even when we are yet in the womb. Is implantation in the womb a necessary precondition to God’s knowledge of the person?

The “simul” in Lutheran Theology

[35] The mythic and fabled stories and paradigms caution the limits of both human arrogance and human striving: Icarus, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In Goethe’s Faust ¼ Mephistopheles reports to God, in response to the question, how goes it with humanity? “Der Mensch bleibt Mensch.” But one need not turn to myth and story. The factor of rebellion is evident for all to see. St. Paul only put into scripture what is already otherwise everywhere evident: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Lutherans understand, in the simul of Lutheran theology, the dimension of abuse, even within intentions devoted to what is understood as the good. We are, at the same time, saints and sinners, always penitent. And thus we are cautioned at the outset.

[36] The paradoxical pattern of simul justus et peccator, semper penitens characterizes the Lutheran understanding of the humanum, as well as the entire enterprise of theology. On the one hand, we are saints, called to be God’s children in the waters of baptism. On the other hand, there remains in us the old self. Daily we die to sin and rise to Christ. At the far reaches of “on the other hand,” the peccator presence in the genetics discussion resides with the putative “chimeras,” which are, to me unthinkable. But, in the memory of the Third Reich, not unimaginable. Human will unfettered by laws of decency or laws of God has produced ghastly results.

A Serious Set of Impedimenta

[37] We are, in that vein, presently up against a serious set of ethical impedimenta. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” There have been two significant “sunderings” of this quotation from the Lord in St. John ‘s eighth chapter. The first was the secular disengagement of the conditional introduction from the second main clause: that is, the separation of “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples” from “you will know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Modern education follows the Enlightenment premise that indeed knowing the truth is a necessary precondition for freedom, but that both knowing the truth and being made free are enterprises that can be carried on quite apart from any discipleship to the Lord. Indeed, from the secular point of view, they can only be carried on quite apart from any prior commitments to transcendent authority, other than to the ascendancy of reason and an often unspoken adherence to material causality only.

[38] The search for the truths of art and science and philosophy are everywhere being conducted apart from any overt assertion of the cosmic Christ, in whom all things hold together. Is it enough that it is the church that knows this, and not the present age? Perhaps. But, however one argues it, one cannot deny that the sundering of “continue in my word” and “disciples” from “you will know the truth” and “the truth shall make you free” has both accompanied and facilitated not only the relativization of truth and but also the enhancement of a freedom that desires few bounds.

[39] That’s the first sundering: to separate continuing in God’s word from knowing the truth that makes us free¼ But there is another divorce, more recent and more serious, and, for the church, more virulent. That is the sundering of “truth” from “freedom,” not only in the culture but even, especially, in the church. I cannot improve on the work of John Paul II in this regard. His Veritatis Splendor, 1993, stands as a monument at the end of the 20th century, a brilliant attempt to correct errors in moral theology in the church.

[40] Wrote the late Bishop of Rome, in 1993: “A new situation has come about within the Christian community itself, which has experienced the spread of numerous doubts and objections of a human and psychological, social and cultural, religious and even properly theological nature, with regard to the Church’s moral teachings. It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of anthropological and ethical presuppositions. At the root of these presuppositions is the more or less obvious influence of currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth. Thus the traditional doctrine regarding the natural law, and the universality and the permanent validity of its precepts, is rejected; certain of the Church’s moral teachings are found simply unacceptable; and the Magisterium itself is considered capable of intervening in matters of morality only in order to ‘exhort consciences’ and to ‘propose values,’ in light of which each individual will independently make his or her decisions and life choices.” (VS, # 4, emphasis added)[2]

[41] Catholic moral theologian Russell Hittinger describes this situation of what he calls “uncommanded man” as accurately illustrative of men and women inside and outside the church who will not be commanded by God but who have usurped with their freedom the prerogative of defining the content of the good. That is, interpreting Hittinger: in our freedom we wrest from God the truth of what is good and what is evil. Adam and Eve began the enterprise and humanity has continued it across time, sometimes surreptitiously. But in the present day now openly and often with great pride: the Bible is culturally conditioned. All truth is culturally conditioned. Truth is radically subjective. I will spin as I will. I will decide what is good. Your definition is not the same as mine. Words are what individuals make them.

[42] This in the church of Rome. Absent a formal Magisterium since the sixteenth century, now awash in dissent from the authority of the scriptures, many Protestant communions are reduced to task forces, discussions, and democratic majority votes. The diagnosis is often the therapeutic “I’m ok, you’re ok” rather than the theological: “we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. In Christ we are called to repentance and amendment of life. We are forgiven and again made whole. Go and sin no more.” Instead of submitting to the will of God, we absolutize freedom and relativize truth: if my freedom is absolute then I can define my own truth.

[43] The theological problem with this is primary. Primary that is, as to the first commandment: Who is God here? The ethical problem is immediately following: Who will determine what is Good, much less mandate one to do it? What is the Good becomes a matter of personal judgment or preference and, finally, a matter of power-whether of force or of votes.

[44] The questions resident in the genetics discussion test the limits of this understanding of freedom. And they are yet to be resolved.

There is no reference, so far as I can recall or find, to the term “immortal soul” in the Christian scripture. St. Paul is the only biblical writer to reference immortality, per se, and that in four locations: first, in Romans 2, concerning the judgment of God, “who will render to every man according to his deeds: to them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality; eternal life” (2:6-7). Second, in I Corinthians 15, “For this corruptible nature must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality, so when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’ The sting of death is sin; and strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (15:53-56). Third, in I Timothy 6 (speaking of Christ) “Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto, whom no man hath seen nor can see, to whom be honor and power everlasting. Amen.” (6:16). And finally: II Timothy 1:10 “But (which holy calling) is now made manifest by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

The present Bishop of Rome has declared, in the same vein: “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.” – Joseph Ratzinger