From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Commentary: What does genome project mean for Christians?

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.UMC.ORG>
Date 28 Jun 2000 12:48:53

June 28, 2000  News media contact: Tim Tanton·(615)742-5470·Nashville, Tenn.

A UMNS Commentary
By Kenneth H. Carter Jr.*
Scientists and political leaders are hailing the achievements of researchers
in mapping the human genetic code, a step that has staggering implications
for science, medicine and the quality of life.
The goal of the Human Genome Project has been to map, in comprehensive
detail, "the genetic instructions that shape a human being." It has been
called the most important biology project ever, biology's "Holy Grail," and
"more important than the moon race." 
The project has involved mapping the identity of roughly 100,000 genes and,
coupled with additional information about the structure of proteins encoded
within the genes, gaining insights into the origins of and susceptibility to
The maps produced by the Human Genome Project have the potential to improve
the diagnosis of diseases and prevent their onset, reconfigure molecular
defects and prolong the human life span. The project, a 15-year, $3 billion
international research effort, successfully completed all of its major goals
in the period of 1993 to 1998. Project leaders joined with President Clinton
and private-sector researchers on June 26 to announce that the first map of
the human genetic code was virtually completed.
Beyond the implications for medicine and other fields, what does this
breakthrough mean for the faith community? How can Christians in particular
understand the genome project in the context of their own faith?
The Human Genome Project and genetic therapy in general lead us to new
understandings of the doctrine of creation. 
First, they help us clarify how God, as creator, is in relationship to the
natural world, the creation. 
Second, they enable us to understand more clearly the parameters of God's
creative activity, and our role as stewards of creation. Keeping a
distinction between creation and transformation will help future dialogue
between theology and the sciences. Cambridge physicist/theologian John
Polkinghorne describes the distinction in terms of "creatio ex nihilo" and
"creatio continua." Creatio ex nihilo (out of nothing) emphasizes the freely
exercised will of God in shaping human life, and is grounded in God's
transcendence (otherness). Creatio continua focuses on the open-ended
character of life, and our participation, as stewards, in the unfolding
process of creation. Both are held in what Polkinghorne calls "creative
Third, the Human Genome Project encourages us, as people of faith, to
continue exploring the relationship between creation and hope. Our hopes lie
beyond death, in the life to come, but our hopes also reside in the material
world, in God's creation. 
Tough questions about justice
Another critical element of the discussion is justice. 
"There is no doubt that significant challenges lie ahead in the proper
application of the powerful revelations in human genetics," writes Francis
Collins, director of the project. "Right now, for instance, an urgent need
exists to provide protections to prevent the use of genetic information to
deny health insurance or employment, a situation that should be a moral
outrage. The church, with its powerful tradition of effective advocacy on
moral issues, can contribute much to the navigation of these difficult
The rationale for the Human Genome Project was largely for its therapeutic
benefit to prevent and treat diseases. Another reason given for the
tremendous governmental support was competition among nations for the
knowledge that would be generated by such an effort. 
That such knowledge could be used for less than humane purposes was a given
in discussions among scientists. This led to the "Ethical, Legal and Social
Issues" study, which has been an integral part of the project. Of course,
the possibility that human beings could abuse the power of knowledge is as
old as the texts in Genesis that speak of the "tree of life," our
prohibition to eat of its fruit and the hubris of the tower of Babel. 
The knowledge created by the Human Genome Project has led to reflection on
important justice issues. Who has access to the information? Who owns and
controls it? Is a disability a disease? What are the implications of genetic
enhancement? Who owns the genes and other pieces of DNA? Does genetic makeup
determine behavior? These questions flow out of a concern for justice: what
is required of us as stewards of God's creation? 
A first response would be to acknowledge that each person is created in
God's image. United Methodist Bishop Kenneth Carder has noted the danger of
patenting human life forms as "the commodification of life and the reduction
of life to its commercial value and marketability." 
An additional point of emphasis would be to distinguish between genetic
engineering in the service of alleviating suffering and genetic therapy in
pursuit of a utopian human experience. Where should the line be drawn?
Another basic concern is the question of who will benefit from medical and
therapeutic advances. Will some benefit and others not? 
The justice question, and our response to it, is also shaped by the
limitations of our knowledge. Overconfidence in our knowledge breeds
injustice, while caution about our knowledge leads to humility.
If taxpayers fund the Human Genome Project, but private corporations and
their stockholders benefit financially from the research; and if the
therapies that arise from the genetic mapping enhance the lives of some
parts of a society or some nations to the exclusion of others, then the
vision for good that has motivated this project will fail to match the
When our human lives do not match our ideals, the Scriptures offer the
guidance of the prophets. The prophetic texts in the Old Testament included
lament and hope, all grounded in the vision of the preferred future (shalom)
that God had revealed. For this reason, justice is connected with hope, hope
in this life and hope in the life to come. 
Our hope for years to come?
Genetic therapy is emerging as a form of secular hope. Scientists must
sometimes restrain themselves as they envision the possibilities. They
employ religious language in describing the "powerful revelations of human
genetics," to borrow Collins' phrase. 
The average life span of a human being could reach 90 to 95 years, and
gaining a deeper understanding of aging genes could lengthen lives even
more. Of courses, such efforts can be understood as inadequate sources of
hope, bordering on denial of death.
A Christian understanding of hope will help us be truthful to one another
amid the conflict presented by our human condition and mortality, on the one
hand, and God's power and providence, on the other.
Efforts such as the Human Genome Project may well offer hope to people in
this life, through the completion of research. For example, scientists have
virtually identified genes that are predisposed to such diseases as breast
cancer, colon cancer, Alzheimer's disease and diabetes.
Many people in scientific and medical professions are clearly motivated by
hope. They seek a concrete and material outcome as envisioned by the
prophecy of Isaiah. A stereotype about religious people is that they
spiritualize matters in ways that exclude human reality. In like manner, a
stereotype about scientists is that they deny spiritual reality. 
Could it be that scientists, as stewards of considerable gifts, will be used
by God in ways that bring fulfillment to biblical passages such as Isaiah
65, which tells of a glorious new creation? If so, surely this could help us
to enlarge the basis for our hope, in this life and in the life to come.
# # #
*Carter is senior pastor of Mount Tabor United Methodist Church in
Winston-Salem, N.C., and a pastor-theologian in the "Theology, Science and
Eschatology" project sponsored by the Center of Theological Inquiry in
Princeton, N.J.
Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily
represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

United Methodist News Service
Photos and stories also available at:

Browse month . . . Browse month (sort by Source) . . . Advanced Search & Browse . . . WFN Home