Human Nature and
Professor Mendiola and Professor Gula
In contemporary bioethics, religion
is often excluded from any meaningful contribution. The justification for this is that unlike
other methods, religious ethics is founded on faith, and therefore should not
“be allowed into the marketplace of ideas in a tolerant, pluralistic society.” Such an understanding of tolerance, however,
is problematic. Religious tolerance in
The reason that any of this has relevance for ethics, and particular significance regarding the role of religion and religious ethics in public discourse, is because ethical methods in general are based on understandings of the concepts Sulmasy uses in his definition of religion. Sulmasy summarizes this by saying “that every normative ethics (ethos) requires an underlying myth (mythos).” In other words, every ethical system is dependent upon some understanding of the very list of things that Sulmasy identifies above as constitutive of religion or religious-like systems. Even if a system’s understanding is not expressed in religious language, it can still be considered religious in a sense because “[n]one of this comes from logic. It is the stuff of mythology.” Since this is the case, the exclusion of religious ethics or even religious language in public discourse is unfounded. In fact, it is a violation of the “principle of religious tolerance” because it “’establishes’ one set of moral mythologies and unduly limits the ‘free expression’ of the other set.” Religious ethics and language cannot be refused a place at the public table simply because it sounds more religious than other approaches. It has been shown that all ethics are based on assumptions that may not be expressed in explicitly religious vocabulary; however, they are still based on the same kinds of assumptions as approaches that are distinctively religious.
An understanding of human nature that is explicitly religious provides a more complete anthropology than nonreligious understandings and the differences between the two perspectives change the way genetic enhancement is examined. After a briefly explanation of what genetic enhancement is, three understandings of human nature that are not explicitly religious will be examined. Then a Christian perspective of human nature will be synthesized from various sources. This perspective will be compared and contrasted with the nonreligious understandings, emphasizing the differences. Finally, these differences will be applied to the issue of genetic enhancement.
Genetic enhancement is difficult to define, for several reasons. A broad definition of enhancement “is the directed use of biotechnical power to alter, by direct intervention, not disease processes but the ‘normal’ workings of the human body and psyche, to augment or improve their native capacities and performances.” The first distinction made then, is between enhancement and therapy. Therapy restores health or functioning to a normal level, whereas enhancement improves upon the standard or normal function or ability. This distinction however, is tenuous at best, since “all successful therapies are enhancing, even if not all enhancements enhance by being therapeutic.” Although enhancement and therapy are related closely, they can be separated for this discussion. Examining disease and health is a possible way to reevaluate the relationship between therapy and enhancement, but because space is limited and the focus of this paper is on enhancement and not disease, this question must be set aside.
There is a second distinction commonly made in genetic enhancement, between somatic and germ-line enhancement. Somatic enhancement is “changing the genetic make-up of cells in the body, but not of those cells that will pass the genetic change to future generations.” The focus of somatic enhancement is on the individual, and even if the individual were to reproduce, the changes would not be passed on to the child. Germ-line therapy, on the other hand, would pass changes on to the next generation because it affects “the cells found in the ovaries of a female and the testes of a male that give rise, respectively, to eggs and to sperm.” There are several ways in which somatic cells and germ-line cells could be modified genetically. One example of somatic enhancement “is the use of growth hormone on boys of average or low-average height to make them taller, enhance their status, or make them more desirable as athletes.” Adding or modifying genes can be an example of either somatic or germ-line enhancement, depending on where the modification takes place. A specific example of genetic somatic enhancement also involves human growth hormone. Instead of just giving children HGH, genetic enhancement would use gene therapy to introduce the gene that codes for an above average expression of HGH into their bodies. To make this situation an example of germ-line genetic enhancement, the gene for HGH would be introduced into the germ-line cells. This would not create changes in that particular individual, but the change would be passed on to their offspring.
Modifying humans genetically, however, is not yet possible, for technological and legal reasons. In other words, “[t]he science of enhancement, if it comes at all, will only come later.” Saying this does not invalidate an analysis of genetic enhancement. Instead of trying to catch up with the pace of scientific and technological advances, the possibility of genetic enhancement offers ethics an opportunity to explore the issues without a specific timeline or deadline. Enhancement is also important because the question of what it means to be human is central to both somatic and germ-line enhancement. Analytically, this makes genetic enhancement an ideal issue for comparing understandings which claim to have no religious foundation (although they rely on some mythological assumptions of human nature) with distinctively religious approaches.
“Nonreligious” Understandings of Human Nature
Human nature is very complex, and no one understanding of it is accepted universally. In order to see what Christianity offers that is different from other understandings, at least some attention initially must be given to the latter. Three examples of understandings that are not explicitly religious will be discussed. First of all, Joseph Fletcher’s understanding of human nature will be examined because it establishes a threshold. He describes several things that humans are not and provides a list of requirements needed to be included as part of humanity. The President’s Council on Bioethics examined the issue of genetic enhancement and in their analysis they highlight aspects of human nature that Fletcher does not. The council expands the physical aspect of human nature beyond the mind. While their anthropology is not the only one to highlight the fact that humans change over time, they explore the potential impact different life stages have for an understanding of human nature. The other important aspect of the council’s anthropology is their discussion of the soul. Genetic determinism is the final nonreligious understanding of human nature to be examined. Although genetic determinism is a fallacy, it is probably the most popular of these three understandings. Including and disproving this anthropology challenges the reliance on purely physical understandings of human nature as well as the potential success of genetic enhancement.
Fletcher’s Minimum Qualifications of Humanity
Fletcher starts with a list of positive criteria; they are traits that individuals must possess in order to be considered a human person. With two exceptions, these positive qualifications can be divided into two groups: mental and relational. The first mental qualification is that there must be a minimum level of intelligence. Fletcher defines the absolute minimum at an IQ of twenty. To be considered human, individuals must be self aware and have some self control. Additionally, people must have a sense “of the passage of time”, including some understanding of the past and of a future to come.
The relational qualities are not only traits directed toward other humans, but also society and the environment. The ability to relate to others is the first relational quality. Fletcher defines this ability two ways. The first is being able to form meaningful relationships with people and the second is having a basic understanding of society, since “society is based on culture – that is, on a conscious knowledge of the system and on the exercise in some real measure of either consent or opposition.” The next relational quality is caring about others to some extent; “whether concern for others is disinterested or inspired by enlightened self-interest it seems plain that a conscious extra-ego orientation is a trait of the species; the absence of this ambience is a clinical indication of psychopathology.” The third relational trait is the ability to communicate. Humans must also have some level of control over their existence. While this seems similar to self control, Fletcher appears to expand this trait beyond just mental control, to control over the body and desires. The reason this is relational is because “to the degree that a man lacks control he is not responsible, and to be irresponsible is to be subpersonal.”
The next relational trait involves potentially everything outside of the individual; this trait is curiosity. Fletcher argues that humans have a thirst for knowledge and that “[i]ndifference is inhuman. Man is a learner and a knower as well as a tool maker and user.” Another environmental relational trait is openness to change. It stands to reason that if humans are curious and learn, then what is experienced or learned should lead to some change. This includes physical, mental, and behavioral changes because “[a]ll human existence is on a continuum, a matter of becoming.” The final relational trait is achieving a proper mental balance between reason and emotion. Although this is a mental trait, it belongs in the relational category because there is no one way to achieve this balance. People “are not ‘coldly’ rational or cerebral, nor are we merely creatures of feeling and intuition. It is a matter of being both, in different combinations from one individual to another.” This trait is also connected to the ability to relate to others, since all humans are a balance of reason and emotion, different ways of how to balance them are likely part of our cultural knowledge and it also plays a role in forming relationships.
The balance between reason and emotion is related closely to one of the traits that cannot be classified as either mental or relational. Fletcher calls this trait “idiosyncrasy.”  Individuality is another way of saying it. In fact, Fletcher says that “[t]o be a person is to have an identity, to be recognizable and callable by name.” In other words, there is something unique about each individual which in part makes them human. The final positive trait is the most important for Fletcher; in fact, it is “the one all the others are hinged upon.” In order to be human, people must have “[n]eo-cortical function,” without it, “the person is nonexistent.” Ultimately, Fletcher believes that this is the critical positive trait, and if his understanding of humanity had to be reduced to one, this would be it.
Fletcher identifies negative qualifications as well. Instead of traits that humans possess, these are things that humans are not. The first of these is that people “are not non- or anti-artificial.” In fact, Fletcher argues that since humans are curious and creative, that a “baby made artificially, by deliberate and careful contrivance, would be more human than one resulting from sexual roulette – the reproductive mode of the subhuman species.” The second thing that people are not is “essentially parental. People can be fully personal without reproducing.” This is self-explanatory; while a species needs members to reproduce, it does not require all to reproduce. In fact, evolutionary biology is founded on the premise that not all will be able to reproduce. All of this leads to Fletcher’s next qualification, that people are “not essentially sexual.” This is not to say that people cannot be parents or be sexual, but rather they do not have to be. Fletcher asserts that “[s]sexuality, a broader and deeper phenomenon than sex, is of the fullness but not of the essence of man.” In other words, sexuality and parenthood are not requirements of humanity, but often are understood as enriching human experience.
The fourth negative characteristic is that an individual “is not a bundle of rights.” In other words, there is not something outside of human existence that confers a certain status on people. Fletcher believes that the common understanding of human rights is that they “are objective, pre-existent phenomena, not contingent on biological or social relativities . . . as if they were absolute, eternal, intrinsic. But as the law makes plain, all rights are imperfect and may be set aside if human need requires it.” The final thing that a human is not is “a worshipper.” Like sexuality and parenthood, “[f]aith in supernatural realities and attempts to be direct in association with them are choices some human beings make and others do not.” Although the understanding of humanity that Fletcher posits can be considered very controversial, he thoroughly identifies aspects of human nature which many people do hold, whether they articulate it in the same way or not.
The President’s Council on Bioethics
Another understanding of what it means to be human is provided by the President’s Council on Bioethics. Such an understanding is not spelled out comprehensively like Fletcher, but elements of it can be drawn together from their report Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. This analysis occurs on several levels. The first level can be described as a physical or biological level, emphasizing the nature of the human body. The second level focuses more on what it means to be human over time, emphasizing the meaning of life stages and aspirations.
The very fact that people create a distinction between therapy and enhancement, the council argues, is based “on the assumption that there is a natural human ‘whole’ whose healthy functioning is the goal of therapeutic medicine.” This assumption is a false one, because bodies are not stagnant, but exist over time. Time causes change to the body as well; “[t]he healthy body declines and its parts wear out. The sound mind slows down and has trouble remembering things.” The council’s discussion of muscles serves as a bridge between the first and second levels of their analysis of humanity. Muscles have biological importance for humans; they are involved in all of our action. However, this is not the only function that they serve; they play a part in how people see themselves as well. Muscles “also play a role in human attractiveness and in our sense of well-being and even our sense of who we are. Our path through the life cycle is displayed most vividly in the changes of our musculature.” Each of these needs to be examined in at least some detail.
It is obvious that muscles play a role in what is considered attractive, especially in men. Men are often evaluated by society based on their physical strength. Muscle mass is often equated with masculinity. Not only do we judge people’s appearance based on muscles, we also judge their health. Additionally, muscles “make manifest the deep qualities of our character, our dispositions and intentions, our self-discipline, self-development, and self image.” Muscles can be an outward expression of who we are. The generation and maintaining of muscle mass takes time and effort, and doing so shows others that we are capable of taking care of ourselves and are disciplined in what we eat and how we schedule our time. Another way of saying it is that muscles are the physical fruit of a person’s virtues. Finally, muscles often mirror the human life cycle. Muscles start out like humans, undeveloped. Over time, they grow and are strengthened. At certain points in life, like puberty, muscle development is also accelerated, just as growth in general is. For a good portion of life though, muscle is maintained through action. Eventually we “lose the ability to do various physical tasks, sometimes in part, sometimes altogether.” As stated before, such an understanding of muscles serves as a transition from a physical understanding of humans to an understanding over time.
The council argues that different times in humans’ lives have significance. This discussion focuses on two major points in the life cycle, childhood and aging. Both of these are also important in the discussion of enhancement for several reasons. Life span is one aspect of life that is already a goal of enhancement. Similarly, germ-line enhancement and genetic modification of embryos have the goal of enhancing children. Childhood is “not only about school, work, and networking. It is also about leisure, play, and friendship. At no other time in life are these truths more evident – and more realizable – than childhood.” In other words, childhood has meaning beyond just preparing children for the future. Although the intentions of enhancement might be for the future benefit of children, it should not come at the sacrifice of enjoying the opportunities of childhood.
Just as childhood is not about the
future, there is often more to life than what tends to consume people. The council says that “[l]
There is no comprehensive definition of the soul in the council’s work. Instead of classifying the soul in religious terms, it is classified as psychological. This is followed by a list of what the soul entails. It includes the “powers of reason, speech, understanding, intuition, memory, and imagination, as well as of desire, passion and feeling – powers that make us human, powers that we know from the inside that we enjoy (and that dead or inanimate bodies lack).” Surprisingly the list provided by the council is fairly similar to Fletcher’s criteria, although it appears to be more inclusive. These are not generalized attributes only, however, but are also “shaped by our own experiences, aspirations, attachments, achievements, disappointments, and feelings. We mean at once that which makes all of us human and that which makes each of us individually who we are.”
The final non-religious understanding of human nature that will be examined is genetic determinism. Genetic determinism is the idea that instead “of seeing ourselves as determined by external environmental forces, we are gradually seeing ourselves determined by internal biological predispositions.” Specifically, genetic determinism asserts that our genes control who we are. Ted Peters identifies two sides of genetic determinism, the first of which he calls “puppet determinism”. Said simply, humans are just puppets to their genes; it is the genome that controls who people are. The other aspect of genetic determinism, termed “promethean determinism”, has three parts. Scientists are the subjects of the first two parts. They study genes and how they work and how to “develop appropriate technologies based upon this understanding.” The final part of promethean determinism is control. Using the information and technology “we will be able to guide the future evolution of the human race. We will have wrested from nature her secrets, and this will transform us from the determined into the determiners.” Promethean determinism is only possible because of puppet determinism; since everything is controlled genetically, it is possible to understand how this is done and manipulate it.
A simple refutation of genetic determinism can be found by looking at identical twins. Identical twins have the same genetic makeup but have different fingerprints. People also consider identical twins to be separate people, with their own identities. The differences between identical twins are from environmental factors. If there are things that are outside of the control of genes, then it stands to reason that human evolution cannot be controlled by manipulating genes alone. Genetic determinism is a false understanding of human nature, but it is one that is held widely, even if people do not recognize or define their views by this name. Such an understanding is also the most pertinent to the issue of genetic enhancement because even the concept of genetic enhancement assumes some level of determinism and ability to control.
These three understandings of human nature share some common themes but also differ with one another. All three of them form a connection between human nature and human bodies. In other words, humans are naturally embodied creatures and at least part of their identity is found either in their bodies or how they experience their bodies. There is also some agreement that humans change over time and that these changes are significant. Humans are also relational by nature; Fletcher emphasizes the importance of communication and caring for one another and the President’s Council articulates directly that friendship is an active part in at least one stage of life. Each of these understandings, however, places the emphasis of human nature in a different place. Fletcher places the emphasis on individuality and mental capacities. Genetic determinism defines human nature in DNA and gene expression. The President’s Council rejects the notion that we are just biological automatons. Their understanding of the human soul, although it is rooted in psychology and experience, transcends a purely physical understanding of human nature. Overall, these nonreligious understandings of human nature state that humans, while there may be more than just the physical, are embodied relational creatures that change over time.
Christianity and Human Nature
Just as there are many understandings of human nature that claim to not be religious, there are many religious understandings of human nature. Even within a religious tradition, Christianity for example, there are multiple perspectives. For the sake of this discussion, one Christian perspective of human nature will be presented. It is not intended to be a normative or even comprehensive perspective. In fact this perspective is pieced together from multiple places within the Christian tradition. It highlights sources that Christians draw upon when formulating an understanding of human nature, and illustrates how a Christian understanding can interact with genetics. In particular scripture and theology will be used to generate one Christian perspective of human nature.
Biblical Perspectives on Human Nature
In order to understand the Christian myth of the human person, attention must be given to the sources of this myth. Scripture is the first place to turn, because “questions concerning the nature of the human person are not simply a product of the history of philosophical reflection or a focus of contemporary scientific study. For Christians, ‘portraits of human nature’ are also deeply rooted in the biblical traditions of the people of God.” Although it is a source, it would be false to assume that scripture explicitly articulates only one understanding of human nature. It can be assumed, however, that the authors of scripture “worked with an assumed depiction(s) of the human person – sometimes in order to counter competing portraits.” Their assumptions about human nature can be uncovered by examining and analyzing what they say about humans.
Old Testament Anthropology
In the Old Testament, the first mention of humanity comes in the creation narratives. Genesis chapters one and two provide two distinct accounts of creation, each of them contributing to the Hebrew understanding of human nature. In chapter one, referred to by many scholars as the priestly account, humans are created on the sixth day after the animals. However, “the man and the woman in Gen. 1 do not emerge from the depths of the earth; they are completely independently created, without the materials being provided beforehand and without the co-operation of the earth . . . by God’s own personal decision (v. 26).” God’s decision also includes creating humanity, both man and woman, in God’s image or imago dei.
After God creates humans, God addresses and blesses them. It is in addressing and blessing that God “confers on man the office that distinguishes him. Psalm 8.5 understands it as a ‘crowning with glory and honour’. According to the Yahwist too, when the Creator gave created beings over to man, he also gave him responsible tasks (2.12-17) and powers of decisions (2.18-23) within creation.” God tells man and woman to “[b]e fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Although the blessing seems to be separate from being created in the image of God, Wolff argues that acting out God’s request “is precisely in his function as ruler that he is God’s image.” God’s actions and words establish a number of relationships. These relationships are explored further in the second creation narrative.
The narrative in Genesis chapter two, the Yahwist account, humans are created on the same day as the earth, but before plants and animals. God fashions man from the earth and breathes life into him. The garden is then created, including plants, but man is still alone so God creates the animals. Man names the animals but does not find a suitable companion. God takes a rib from the man and forms woman, with whom man identifies. Although the story is simple, there are four distinct relationships embedded within it. The first of these is man’s (and ultimately humans’) relationship to God. Humanity’s relationship with God in this narrative is one of utter dependence. The description of man’s creation shows “that man receives his form and his life from God. The material of his body is completely and utterly earthly.” Although humans and God are very different because we are created and from the earth, we still have an intimate relationship with God because God is willing to give us life and provide for us.
The second relationship in this narrative is between humans (since woman came from man) and the animals. In the priestly account being created in the image of God is linked to human’s dominion over the rest of creation. Dominion plays two roles in this narrative. God brings the animals to man and allows him to name them. The dominion of the first narrative is present here, but it does more than just establish the relationship between humans and animals. It also reminds humans of their relationship to God. Wolff argues that when humans form relationships with things in the created world, they also enter “objectively into relationship with God, as their Creator, who has apportioned these things.” Another way of saying this is that humans are reminded that God created them in God’s image when they interact, and in this narrative’s model, dominate the rest of creation.
Man’s relationship with woman is the next relationship in the narrative. God does not make woman from the earth, but rather from man. Humans can be understood to be in relationship with one another by their very nature. In other words, humans are social creatures. The final relationship is between humans and the earth. They are created from the earth, and after the fall must work hard in order to receive food from the earth. Finally humans will die and return to the earth. Even though the two creation narratives differ in their details, there are three things they hold in common. The two narratives state that “(a) Man belongs in immediate proximity to the animals. (b) Through the special attention God devotes towards him, man is at the same time unmistakably differentiated from the animals. (c) It is only man and woman together who make up a whole and useful person.” Humans are created around the same time as the animals and are similar to them. However, God chose to create humans in God’s image and interact with us, giving us a status different from animals. Another way of understanding Wolff’s third point is that humans are by their nature relational. They have relationships with each other, God, the animals, and the rest of creation.
creation narratives are not the only useful places in the Old Testament to
learn about human nature; the language used to describe humans and how these
words get translated are also helpful sources.
Although there are many words which describe humans and their nature in
the Old Testament, this discussion will focus on the words nepeš and
Turning to lēb, Wolff states that the various forms of lēb are more numerous in the texts than nepeš and that traditionally lēb is translated as heart, even though the original intent was not what is meant by modern use of the word heart. The functions of the heart in the Old Testament are “mental and spiritual in kind.” Most, if not all, of the functions modern society attributes to the brain were understood to be found in the heart. This includes reason as well as emotions. Wolff’s conclusion about the meaning of lēb is that “it undoubtedly embraces the whole range of the physical, the emotional and the intellectual, as well as the functions of the will, yet we must clearly hold on to the fact that the Bible primarily views the heart as the centre of the consciously living man.” Together nepeš and lēb give additional insight into the understanding of human nature presented in Old Testament. Humans are dependent on God, but they know that God acts in the world. There is also more to humans than just their physical appearance; the heart contains what can be known only by God. This is not the entire story when it comes to scripture, however. The New Testament is also a scriptural resource for Christians.
New Testament Anthropology
A large portion of the New Testament is attributed to the writer of Luke-Acts and Paul, so these two authors might offer us the most insight into a New Testament understanding of human nature. The author of Luke-Acts focuses on the concept of “’salvation,’ and it is through this emphasis that we are able to gain insight into how he understands human nature. That is, Luke’s soteriology of necessity raises questions about ‘what needs to be saved’ and ‘what saved existence would look like,’ and these point to his understanding of authentic human existence.” Using stories about healing, Green shows that “Luke regularly depicts human beings with a need, often physical, that turns out to be set within a much more complex interrelationship with what it means to be human.” In other words, Luke connects physical problems and suffering to larger questions of humanity, rejecting a dichotomy between body and soul. Another point of emphasis in Luke is community. The context of healings is often in public settings. In fact, “central to Luke’s thinking is the inseparability of humans in their embodied and communal existence, with the result that his soteriology is oriented radically around the restoration of old or provision of new relations in the community of God’s people.” Like the authors of the Old Testament, Luke describes humans by nature as embodied and communal.
In his letters to the Corinthians, Paul discusses the soul and the afterlife. In order to understand what Paul says, he must be understood in relation to the rest of “the Greco-Roman world.” There were several strains of thought in Greek philosophy. Some upheld the distinction between the body and the soul. Even if the two are separated, the “’soul’ was not immaterial; even if ‘soul’ is not the same thing as body.” The Jewish faith was also influenced by Greek philosophy. One example of this influence “is in the developing belief among the Jewish people, first, that humans have ‘souls’, and second, that these ‘souls’ had prior existence before taking up residence in material bodies.” However, as was stated before, many Jews would disagree with this understanding. Disagreement was occurring in the Corinthian church as well, specifically regarding class and the afterlife. Paul’s writings illustrate several points about his understanding of human nature. The first is that “[t]here is a profound continuity between present life in this world and life everlasting with God. For human beings, this continuity has to do with bodily existence.” However, continuity does not mean that everything will be the same. Paul envisions the body changing, but it will still be a body, just a different kind.
There are differences and similarities between the Old and New Testament anthropologies, just as there were differences and similarities between the two creation narratives. God’s action in the world took on new meaning for the New Testament authors. Despite this large difference, it is possible to describe a general biblical anthropology. Humans are created beings, dependent completely on God. As created beings humans have a physical existence but we also have a spirit or soul as well. We are different from the other created animals because God chose to create humans in God’s image and this image is reflected in our relationships with God, other humans, and the rest of creation. God did not just create one human, but all humans and by nature we exist in community.
Another source for a Christian understanding of human nature is theology. There are many ways in which theology can inform an understanding of humanity. In order to remain focused, only two theological concepts will be examined. First, more attention will be given to imago dei and several interpretations of what this represents. Out of this discussion comes the second theological concept. Being made in the image of God raises the question of the limits of human power. Often in discussing issues in genetics, this is phrased as the question of whether or not humans are “playing God.”
Image of God
Returning to the brief analysis of imago dei already presented, there seem to be at least three aspects to being made in the image of God. The first is that humans, by the very nature of their creation and existence, have an inherent dignity bestowed by the Creator. Secondly, humans are social creatures that have relationships with God and creation. The third aspect is that being made in the image of God carries responsibility; it has implications for the way that humans act. Human dignity is given by God. This means that every “human being, regardless of health or social location or genetic endowment is loved by God, and this recognition should translate into social equality and mutual appreciation.” Dignity then is not based on any characteristic or qualification. Additionally, dignity cannot be properly understood just on individual terms. Instead, “the individuality of dignity has a relational dimension to it. It is in the relationship, wherein a person experiences being treated by someone else as an end and not a means; once dignity has been conferred by someone else, then one’s own internal sense of dignity arises. Dignity is conferred on individuals, but it is established in relationship.” It is possible then, to expand an understanding of the image of God beyond the individual and in so doing, connect the first aspect of imago dei to the other two.
While it has been established that human dignity comes from God’s creative love, and is experienced in relationships with other humans, these relationships are not the only kind that humans have. Humans are also in relationship with God and the rest of creation. All three types of relationships (with God, other humans, and the rest of creation) can be understood through the concept of covenant. The idea of covenant is not a legal contract, but it does require action. Just as God loves us, we should love God and others. The discussion of dignity explains that humans have responsibilities towards one another; we should love one another and acknowledge the dignity in each other. When it comes to the rest of creation, “humanity is given the divine mandate to reflect God’s own covenant love . . . with all that God has created.” Through the discussion of covenant it becomes clear that humanity’s relationship with the rest of creation is central to a Christian understanding of human nature.
The Christian tradition has given us several ways of interpreting what it means to reflect God’s love to the rest of creation. Historically, Christianity seemed to take the biblical command of dominion seriously. It was humanity’s rightful place to rule over the rest of creation because God gave creation to us. Such an understanding leads to the notion that “humans, by virtue of bearing God’s image, have vice-regal powers and responsibilities to use their wisdom and power on earth.” There are two problems with this understanding. The first is “the emphasis on superiority, showing how different humanity was from all other creatures.” A proper understanding of love would call for humans to be more humble when dealing with the rest of creation. Since humans are also in relationship with God, and are meant to reflect God’s love to the rest of creation, humans should love creation, not seek to dominate it. The second problem with this understanding is that humans, in fact, are not that different from other organisms. We are genetically similar to many other organisms, sharing numerous genes. In fact, it seems that being made in the image of God, which confers dignity and responsibility, is what really separates humans from other organisms.
Over time, it has been argued by many that the model of humans being stewards of God’s creation should replace the model of dominance. The model of stewardship is seen as less imperialistic because “it accentuates the fact that humans are entrusted with responsibility for conserving and preserving creation. It tends to place limits on human freedom to alter what the divine has created.” For many, this serves as a better representation of covenant. Others argue that humans are still set apart from the rest of creation, but this understanding is still an improvement over domination. Stewardship is probably the most widely held understanding of the responsibility required by imago dei. It is often used in discussions of genetics to remind people that humans’ power and freedom are limited.
Stewardship complicates the discussion because it connects the two theological issues that are being examined. It comes out of an understanding of imago dei, but is connected also to “playing God.” Those who argue against genetic enhancement say that modifying the genome is “playing God” in the sense that “’playing’ implies taking on a role which does not belong to the role-players.” Ted Peters analyzes what people mean by the phrase “playing God” and identifies three understandings. The first of these has to do with information. Through scientific research, we “are shedding light down into the hitherto dark and secretive caverns of human reality. Mysteries are being revealed; and we the revealers sense that we are on the threshold of acquiring ‘Godlike’ powers.” Humans are playing God because they are learning things that were known previously by God alone.
The second understanding of “playing God” focuses on technology and medicine. Increasingly, doctors are seen as having “power over life and death.” Peters identifies two aspects to this articulation of “playing God.” The first of these is that “decisions regarding life and death belong to God’s prerogative and not to human beings. Second, when we humans make life-and-death decisions we exhibit hubris or pride – that is, we overreach ourselves and transgress divinely imposed limits.” Lastly, humans take the knowledge we have gained, and through our hubris use science “to alter life and influence human evolution. ‘Playing God’ in this case means that we – at least the scientists among us – are substituting ourselves for God in determining what human nature will be. It refers to placing ourselves where God and only God belongs.” This understanding is the one most applicable to genetic enhancement. Instead of respecting our covenant with God and taking care of God’s creation, we assume we know what the next step is, or worse, that God was wrong and something else would be better. All of these understandings of “playing God” can be understood as sins.
However, a third understanding of the way humans relate to the rest of creation challenges the negative connotations of “playing God” which arise from the idea of stewardship. James Walters argues that because “the stewardship model tends to limit human activity through its emphasis on conserving and preserving creation, the claim of improperly playing God will frequently arise from those who subscribe to this model. The reverse tends to be the case for those who argue for a created cocreator model.” Returning briefly to the original discussion of imago dei, some argue that the image of God is the ability to reason, while others argue that at least part of being made in the image of God is possessing creativity. If God is Creator and by virtue of being created humans are in covenant with God and creation, then it stands to reason that one way of reflecting God’s love is through creativity. In fact, “human beings, by virtue of this endowed creativity, have the ability and responsibility to shape creation according to the future plans of God.” The term created cocreator accentuates the fact that humans are not God, they are created by God, and therefore do have limits.
These limits, however, are not necessarily as restrictive as those proposed by the stewardship model. This is because the focus is not on conservation and maintaining, which has the past in mind, but rather on the future. A vision of the future in which humans can have a creative influence is not possible unless God is still creating. Modern science, including evolution, illustrates that the universe is not stagnant. Theologically speaking, it can be said that “(1) Creation is an evolutionary process in which God is continuously active; (2) God is everywhere present, affecting the creation at every moment and at every level of complexity; and (3) the future of creation is uncertain, for God has not guaranteed its outcome. Taken together, these three affirmations summarize the doctrine of continuing creation or creatio continua.” Looking specifically to genetic enhancement, “science and technology serve God’s ongoing creative work. Together they offer God a new way to create and a new modality of divine agency in the physical world.” The created cocreator model, like the other models that have been examined, does have several problems.
First of all, it is possible that this model is too optimistic about what humans can know about God. It requires that humans are able to “discern the purposes of God in creation, which we must be able to do if we are to cooperate with these purposes.” In order to be able to discern God’s purpose, we have to assume “that nature expresses God’s intentions,” but this is also problematic because “nature is only influenced by God and only partly completed,” and therefore, “it cannot be held that nature fully reflects God’s intentions.” The model of created cocreator might assume too much knowledge about God and about God’s intentions derived from nature, but it also can assume too much about humanity as well. It is at this point that the critique of “playing God” can be applied to the created cocreator model. The term cocreator, even with the caveat of being created, can assume a standing before God that we do not have. In other words, “[a]s much as we might participate with God, we never have an equal role in that relationship.” Although there are problems with these theological understandings of what it means to be human and how humans should relate to God and the rest of creation, people still operate using these models.
Central to the discussion of “playing God,” which comes from an understanding of the stewardship model and can be applied to the created cocreator model is the question of sin. A simple understanding of sin is that it is “that which destroys or disrupts relatedness to God, as well as that which damages our relatedness to others.” In other words it is possible for people to sin against God and against other humans as well as the rest of creation. Since this project is concerned with genetic enhancement, and not genetically modified organisms or environmental ethics, the question of sinning against the rest of creation will not be addressed. The previous discussion has made it clear what sinning against God could mean in the discussion of genetic enhancement. Those who are opposed to genetic enhancement would argue that by manipulating the genome, humans are sinning against God by assuming power and knowledge that they do not have and because of this, violate their covenant with God. What is given considerably less attention is how genetic enhancement can be considered sinning against other humans. One of the strongest arguments against enhancement is that we do not know what affects it will have ultimately on those who are enhanced. It can be argued that harming people through genetic enhancement would be sinning against those who are harmed, but this is only a problem so long as enhancement is unsafe. If these problems can be overcome, then enhancement fails to be a sin.
The central point of the Christian understanding presented here is that humans are created in the image of God. Scripture states this and explains that it means humans are loved by God, have relationships with God, other humans, and the rest of creation, and that these relationships require action from us. Theology expands this understanding moving from a system of dominance over creation to that of stewardship. Stewardship argues that there are limits to the power humans have over the rest of creation. Humans are “playing God” when they cross the line between stewardship and domination. Doing this can harm others and our relationship to God and is considered sinning. Sinning is the breaking or damaging of relationships.
Now that one Christian perspective of human nature has been proposed, it is possible to compare it with the nonreligious understandings examined earlier. This comparison will show that a distinctively religious approach provides a more complete understanding of human nature and that this depth is extremely helpful in analyzing genetic enhancement. Most of the understandings of human nature relate to time in some way. Fletcher’s understanding takes into account change and time, because personhood can be revoked if the qualifications required are lost. The President’s Council’s understanding also highlights the fact that humans change over time. In fact, the human life cycle, which is part of our nature, has some connection to our understanding of our place in the universe. Life is not just about the past, present, or future; each of these has their place. A Christian understanding of human nature also has an emphasis on time. Humans are created and exist in time. The doctrine of continuing creation means that creation is not finished and in some ways is open ended. The same can be said of humans; we are created but also unfinished.
Although the President’s Council places an importance on the future or looking to the future, there is no real content to the future. Fletcher says that humans are becoming, but fails to define the end. A Christian understanding, on the other hand, is more descriptive of the future. Even though individuals die, this is not necessarily the end of life. Paul asserts that bodily existence will continue after death, but the body will be transformed. The future is not just something we hope for, but through God’s action we can attain salvation, eternal life with God. Such an understanding of the future is not just based on human desires and experience; it is beyond human comprehension.
The Christian understanding conflicts with the other understanding when it comes to individuality. Although Fletcher does include relational criteria, his understanding is focused ultimately on the individual. Individuals either have or do not have the characteristics that qualify humanity. Humans in Fletcher’s model seem to have minimal responsibilities to one another and no fundamental relationship to the transcendent. The President’s Council discusses the importance of friendship, but restricts the prevalence of it to childhood. Genetic determinism is also focused on the individual, since individual people are determined by their unique genetic makeup, but there is also some attention given to community. Promethean determinism is an attempt to give humans as a group control over their individual natures and those of future generations. The Christian understanding, on the other hand, is just as focused on the community as it is on the individual. Scripture and theology affirm that humans by their very nature are communal. Dignity cannot be understood outside of relationship. As stated before, humans do not have relationships with each other only, but also with God and the rest of creation. These relationships are fundamental to human nature. These relationships are also associated with responsibilities. Humans are called to enact divine love to the rest of creation.
Although neither the Christian understanding nor the other understandings presented are exhaustive, the Christian understanding has elements that the others do not. The emphasis on community is not absent in the other understandings, but it takes a central place in a Christian understanding. Inherent dignity is another concept that seems to be missing in the other understandings. Fletcher even argues that there is nothing external to humanity that can confer an idea like dignity. The Christian understanding is that because humans are created in the image of God, we have an inherent dignity that is not based on having particular characteristics and cannot be taken away. The concept of a soul is mentioned by the President’s Council, but this understanding is not developed fully. In fact, what the council lists as composing the soul is very similar to Fletcher’s profile. Although the Christian understanding of the soul is not uniform, instead of referring to characteristics, it refers to something about human nature that transcends the physical. The body and the soul are not separate, so both of them are important and need to be taken in account. A Christian perspective of human nature connects humans to the rest of the universe through an understanding of the meaning of covenant. This connection is also marked by a responsibility to reflect God’s love.
Something else that a Christian perspective of humanity addresses that the others do not is providing reasons why. Fletcher argues that humans have at least a basic level of concern for others but he gives no reason why this is, only that society identifies a lack of this as a disorder. A Christian perspective though, explains that humans have concern for one another because that is how we were created. God created humans to be in relationship with one another. If that was not enough, being made in the image of God comes with the responsibility of recognizing and upholding the dignity in others and trying to love as God loves us. Fletcher also says, without explanation, that humans are curious and make use of what they learn. The created cocreator model emphasizes that humans are creative because God is creative. Part of being made in the image of God is being creative, learning, and using what we learn. God is still creating, and humans are able to participate in this process. Human action, however, does have limits. We are not God and ultimately have to answer to God for what we do.
The fact that a Christian perspective highlights the deficiencies found in the nonreligious understandings of human nature is also relevant for genetic enhancement. Since human genetic enhancement is not a reality yet, the whole discussion is about future possibilities. Not only the discussion of genetic enhancement, but also the object, is oriented towards the future. There is something in the present, such as height, intelligence, or length of life, which can be improved. The goal of enhancement is to expand or increase our capabilities. Germ-line enhancement, even more than somatic enhancement, has the goal of future changes. The changes created by germ-line enhancement would affect all future generations, not only the individual treated.
Nonreligious understandings of human nature might look to the future, but they do not provide a specific answer of what the future might look like. For Fletcher, it seems that the future holds one of two possibilities. People will either lose the characteristics that make them human, thereby losing their status as human persons, or they will use their curiosity to generate change, but what kind of change is not specified. Although the President’s Council argues against just extending present life into the future, they fail to give a substantial reason why not. There is the potential, they say, to disrupt the meaning human life has, but do not offer enough evidence of why this might be the case. A Christian perspective of the future, however, does provide a reason for not extending human life indefinitely. Death is not the end of human life and therefore there does not need to be as much focus, if any, on improving an already healthy life.
Genetic enhancement, in addition to being oriented towards the future, is also oriented primarily towards individuals. People seeking enhancement want to change something about themselves, or their children. Parents want the best for their children and to give them the best start possible. The nonreligious understandings of human nature reinforce the notion of humans as individuals who have only a vague and completely voluntary relationship with others. A Christian perspective, on the other hand, reminds humans that they are social by nature, created to be in relationship with one another. Being made in the image of God comes with the responsibility of loving the rest of creation as God loves us. Having this perspective in mind when examining genetic enhancement raises a question of justice; is using scientific research and resources to improve the lives of otherwise healthy people the best way of showing God’s love to the rest of creation? Humans are supposed to be stewards of God’s creation. Instead of spending time and money on increasing the capacities of the healthy and wealthy, since at least at first enhancement will most likely be expensive, resources could be used to take care of people who suffer from hunger and disease. Distributive justice is too large to be examined here, but a Christian perspective of human nature requires that justice be a part of the analysis of genetic enhancement.
Related to the discussion of what action is appropriate for humans to take is the question of limits. The nonreligious understandings of human nature barely mention the limits of human action. Fletcher says that if humans were to be created artificially, they would be even more human because they were the direct result of human ingenuity. The model of stewardship, on the other hand, sets limits to human action. We are supposed to care for God’s creation, which implies that humans have a limited role in shaping God’s creation. On the other hand, the created cocreator model argues that God is still creating, and since humans are created in the image of God, we are able to participate in this continuing creation. The question of limits is still important, however, because humans have limited knowledge of God and what God wants. Humans are capable of many things through scientific research and application. Over the years, however, both beneficial and terrible things have been done in the name of science. A Christian perspective of human nature says that we are ultimately accountable to God for what we do, so we need to think carefully about what is appropriate and what is going too far.
Although a Christian perspective of human nature does not provide a position to take regarding genetic enhancement, using it raises questions that nonreligious understandings of human nature do not address. The issue is framed in a different way when an explicitly religious perspective is used. Issues that previously had no direct relation to genetic enhancement, like distributive justice, become a direct part of the analysis. In other words, a more complete examination of genetic enhancement is possible with a distinctively religious perspective. Recognizing the role of religion in the discussion of genetic enhancement and encouraging religious voices can only help as the possibilities for enhancement come closer to being reality.
Brown, Warren S. "Conclusion: Reconciling
Scientific and Biblical Portraits." In Whatever
Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature,
ed. Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy, H. Newton Malony, 213-228.
Bryant, John, Peter Turnpenny. "Genetics and
Genetic Modification of Humans: Principles, Practice, and Possibilities"
In Brave New World? Theology, Ethics and
the Human Genome, ed. Celia Deane-Drummond, 5-26.
Cole-Turner, Ronald. The New Genesis: Theology and the Genetic Revolution.
Fletcher, Joseph. "Indicators of Humanhood: A
Tentative Profile of
Green, Joel B. "Bodies - That Is, Human Lives”: A
Re-Examination of Human Nature in the Bible." In Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of
Human Nature, ed. Warren Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Malony,
McGee, Glenn. The
Perfect Baby: Parenthood in the
Meeks, Wayne A., ed. The HarperCollins Study Bible (New Revised Standard Version).
Page, Ruth. "The Human Genome and the Image of
God." In Brave
Peters, Ted, Gaymon Bennett. "Defining Human Life:
Cloning, Embryos, and the Origins of Dignity." In Beyond Determinism and Reductionism: Genetic Science and the Person,
ed. Mark LY Chan, Roland Chia, 56-73.
———. Playing God?
Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom.
President's Council on Bioethics. Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Reiss, Michael J., Roger Straughan. Improving Nature? The Science and Ethics of
Shannon, Thomas A. An
Introduction to Bioethics.
———., James J. Walters. The New Genetic Medicine: Theological and Ethical Reflections.
Sulmasy, Daniel P. "Every Ethos Implies a Mythos:
Faith and Bioethics." In Notes From
a Narrow Ridge: Religion and Bioethics, ed. Dena S. Davis, Laurie Zoloth,
Weng, Ng Kam. "Co-creator or Priestly Steward:
Theological Perspectives on Biotechnology." In Beyond Determinism and Reductionism: Genetic Science and the Person,
ed. Mark LY Chan, Roland Chia, 74-94.
Wolff, Hans Walter. Anthropology
of the Old Testament.
 Daniel P. Sulmasy, "Every Ethos Implies a Mythos: Faith and Bioethics," in Notes From a Narrow Ridge: Religion and Bioethics, ed. Dena S. Davis, Laurie Zoloth (Hagerstown, MD: University Publishing Group, Inc, 1999), 227.
 Ibid, 228.
 Ibid, 229.
 Ibid, 231.
 Ibid, 244.
 President's Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the
Pursuit of Happiness (
 Ibid, 17.
 John Bryant, Peter Turnpenny, "Genetics and
Genetic Modification of Humans: Principles, Practice, and Possibilities"
in Brave New World? Theology, Ethics and
the Human Genome, ed. Celia Deane-Drummond (
 Michael J. Reiss, Roger Straughan, Improving Nature? The Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 202.
 Thomas A. Shannon, An Introduction to Bioethics (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), 142.
 Ted Peters, Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1997), 145.
 Joseph Fletcher, "Indicators of Humanhood: A
Tentative Profile of Man," The
 Ibid, 2.
 Ibid, 3.
 Ibid, 4.
 President's Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy, 20.
 Ibid, 127.
 Ibid, 129.
 Ibid, 128.
 Ibid, 108.
 Ibid, 226.
 Ibid, 228.
 Ibid, 237.
 Peters, Playing God?, 6.
 Ibid, 7.
 Joel B. Green, "Bodies - That Is, Human Lives”: A Re-Examination of Human Nature in the Bible," in Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature, ed. Warren Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Malony (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 149.
 Hans Walter Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 95.
 Gen. 1:27 NRSV (New Revised Standard Version). All future scripture references will be from the NRSV.
 Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, 159. The Yahwist account is the second chapter of Genesis.
 Gen. 1:28.
 Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, 160. More attention will be devoted to the concept of imago dei when Christian theological sources are discussed.
 Gen. 2:4-24.
 Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, 93.
 Ibid, 160.
 Ibid, 95.
 Ibid, 10.
 Ibid, 11-16.
 Ibid, 24-25.
 Ibid, 25.
 Ibid, 40.
 Ibid, 44.
 Ibid, 55.
 Ibid, 43.
 Green, Whatever Happened to the Soul?, 163.
 Ibid, 169.
 Ibid, 160.
 Ibid, 161.
 Ibid, 170.
 The relationship with animals is not shown because it can be understood to be a part of humanity's relationship with the rest of creation, of which animals are a part.
 Peters, Playing God?, 151.
 Ted Peters, Gaymon Bennett, "Defining Human
Life: Cloning, Embryos, and the Origins of Dignity," in Beyond Determinism and Reductionism: Genetic
Science and the Person, ed. Mark LY Chan, Roland Chia (
 Green, Whatever Happened to the Soul?, 156.
 Gen. 1:26-28 NRSV
 Ruth Page, "The Human Genome and the Image of
God," in Brave New World? Theology,
Ethics and the Human Genome, ed. Celia Deane-Drummond (
 Ibid, 73.
 Thomas A. Shannon, James J. Walters, The New Genetic Medicine: Theological and
Ethical Reflections (
 Page, Brave New World?, 73.
 Ibid, 77.
 Peters, Playing God?, 10.
 Ibid, 11.
 Ibid, 10.
 Ng Kam Weng, "Co-creator or Priestly Steward:
Theological Perspectives on Biotechnology," in Beyond Determinism and Reductionism: Genetic Science and the Person,
ed. Mark LY Chan, Roland Chia (
 Ronald Cole-Turner, The New Genesis: Theology and the Genetic Revolution (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 99.
 Ibid, 101.
 Ibid, 102.
 Warren S. Brown, "Conclusion: Reconciling Scientific and Biblical Portraits," in Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature, ed. Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy, H. Newton Malony (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 226.
 1 Cor. 2:9.
© 2008 Braden Molhoek
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