Few authors are able to bring major themes in genetics and Christian ethics together in so short a work without coming off as either pedantic, pretentious, or so vague so as to render a book of little use. Robert Song has attempted this tenuous and difficult task in the Ethics and Theology Series, and succeeded. A large part of what makes this work so delicious is Song’s able skills in not only bringing contemporary bioethical dilemmas into contact with Christian theology, but also in uncovering some of the major cultural, philosophical, and historical trends which have brought us to the very precipice of the genetic revolution, a revolution which has been decried as nearly everything from the end-all panacea to a Pandora’s box, promising mind-boggling potential for the treatment of disease and equally astonishing possibilities with respect to human enhancement.
Dissatisfied with over-principlized philosophical and theological bioethics which tends towards an ‘applicationist approach’ at the expense of cultural expectations and the dynamics of technology, Song argues for an embodied ethic which recognizes the context in which ethics is done, uncovering fundamental causal factors, attitudes, beliefs, as well as the commercial pressures and existential commitments of the medical community. He identifies Gerald McKenny’s account of the ‘Baconian Project,’ named after the British philosopher who lived from 1561-1626, as underlying the project of modern medicine, espousing the twin themes of (1) the elimination of suffering and (2) the expansion of choice. The biggest fallout from this project, says Song, is the self’s alienation from the body. Hence, technological control over the body in the name of freedom, autonomy, or the right not to suffer, has effectively trumped all alternative views of medicine.
A Christian corrective to the Baconian Project begins by locating all instances of healing and suffering within the cosmic drama of creation and redemption, recognizing that there is a fundamental tension after the Fall (Gen. 3) between healing and caring for people and at the same time an acceptance of suffering where some ‘good’ may be found-a tension largely absent from our therapeutic culture which tends to see all suffering as bad or pointless. Song views three relevant genetic issues-pre-implantation diagnosis, reproductive cloning, and stem-cell research-from this vantage point, questioning and exposing troubling cultural trends associated with these procedures balancing brevity with lucidity and incisive theological insight.
When Song turns his attention to genetic enhancement, he sees the transformed resurrection body as informative to treatment/enhancement distinction, a uniquely Christian understanding of embodiment which avoids the dualistic extremes of emphasizing either the spirit over against the body, or the body in exclusion to the spirit, centuries-old extremes that that either greatly diminish the significance of the body, or accord the body more significance than it is due. The resurrection body, says Song, reminds us that limitedness is part of our very humanity. Such a recognition gives rise to a helpful diagnostic question when considering a specific genetic intervention: “Does this symbolize a recognition of human limits or an attempt to transcend them?” (p. 77)
In his chapter on justice and community, Song invites us to imagine two, distinct, albeit hypothetical communities, one which espouses individual autonomy as the greatest value, and the other which places an emphasis on solidarity. He then takes us on a journey with these two communities and their response to what initially appears to be unrelated issues: behavioral genetics, gene testing for insurance purposes, and gene patenting. With respect to genetic determinism, Song observes that while the threat to our ‘liberal anxieties’ concerning freedom or autonomy is a valid response, the more profound problems involve distributive justice and the common good. Equally valid, says Song, are fears concerning discriminatory use of genetic information by insurance companies. However, these concerns reflect the prevalent atomistic, individualistic mindset, failing to account for the community as a whole in assisting its members in the management of burdens-an unavoidable New Testament ethic captured in the language of bearing one another’s burdens, supporting orphans and widows, and visiting the infirm. Song expresses similar concerns over genetic patenting, asserting that the central problem with the patenting of genes is that it is essentially patenting life itself. He asserts that the church has a vested interest in promoting the second vision of society, not by promoting a utopian or post-millennial agenda, but as a witnessing community, living out a counter narrative marked by the carrying of each other’s burdens, the sharing of possessions, and an unconditional love which recognizes the marginalized and the suffering as those most worthy of God’s love.
Song successfully recasts several major themes concerning human genetics against the backdrop of the cosmic drama of creation and redemption, developing a nuanced response that is neither technophobic nor technoutopian, a response which rejects both a ‘hand-winging’ lamentation at the complexities of the moral issues and our inability of such moral wisdom to keep apace with technological developments on one hand and the ‘ambulance work’ of rushing to make a public response to the latest breakthrough “as yet another scruple is run over by the juggernaut of technology.” (p. 123)
Song’s book is extremely readable-whether one is a newcomer to either genetics or Christian ethics-and is highly recommended. He even includes a concise glossary of technical terms for those of us who do not have the benefit of a scientific background. My only lament is that Song might be accused of falling prey to the very concerns he raises regarding applying principles to problems posed by genetics. While the theme of cosmic redemption through the person and work of Jesus Christ is undoubtedly a theme arrived at through Biblical reflection, there almost no references to scripture. One could safely assume however that the sheer scope of topics dealt with in such a short space has essentially prohibited any extended theological reflection on any one issue with reference to specific texts, and broader consideration of the Christian tradition throughout the centuries. In this respect, Song has left some of us wanting to hear more.
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