It's the stuff of science fiction. Scottish scientists announced that they have successfully cloned a sheep - making it the first mammal ever born without the union of egg and sperm.
On our local television newscast Sunday night, a reporter said, "This leaves us with one question: What about ethics?" The anchor replied, "Ethics? What about theology?"
I can't remember the last time I heard a television anchor use the "T-word." He was right. Cloning is an ethical issue - concerning moral questions of human-animal interaction - but it pushes into the realm of theology, raising questions regarding the nature of God and creation.
Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian at Duke University, sees "a kind BTC of drive behind this for us to be our own creators." Oddly enough, Pat Robertson echoed a similar sentiment in more popular terms: "One wonders when the God who created us would say, 'Enough, enough. Your science has gotten into areas that are dangerous.'"
Since the 19th century, when geologists proposed that the Earth was older than the Genesis account suggested, science has undermined traditional Christian conceptions of creation. Darwinian evolution, Einstein's theory of relativity, nuclear fission, quantum physics, "big-bang" theories, life on Mars - all have conspired to give humanity godlike qualities and make the creator God a less awesome divinity.
For the past 150 years, science and religion have warred over philosophical territory. Many scientists work in isolation from theological concerns; many theologians ignore the advances of science.
Their mutual hostility has left the United States in a legal and political morass over issues such as genetic engineering - and created profound public confusion regarding both science and theology.
As a result, people tend to take sides in the quarrel. Some reject science, refusing to deal with the theological possibilities raised thereby. In 1997, an astonishing number of Americans still do not believe in evolution. Although scientific reasons exist to modify Darwinian constructs, most Americans who reject Darwin do so based on religious conviction.
Some take the opposite approach. They reject traditional conceptions of God as creator, relegating religion to the "dung heap" of history. Science becomes their god - the arbiter of meaning and morals - existing without reference to external sources of judgment.
Most people, however, do not embrace these polarized extremes. Rather, most of us try to navigate technological change and traditional beliefs.
Regarding cloning, one scientist stated: "The biotechnology industry is opposed to human cloning," arguing that nations should pass laws prohibiting such experiments. Cloning is limited by the belief that each person's uniqueness is denigrated by the possibility of a genetic copy.
Our most hopeful option is to thoughtfully adapt to these changes.
Scientists should recognize the moral and ethical implications of their research. Academic freedom demands responsible application. People of faith, however, must adapt to the reality of scientific discovery. Science and religion must come together in mutual accountability.
Human culture cannot afford hostility created by intellectual isolation and overspecialization.
Cloning challenges the idea of divine creation. However, the Christian tradition contains resources to interpret this technology. Drawing from the Bible, there is a historic theological tradition that insists human beings are "co-creators" with God - that God cannot accomplish divine will without the cooperation of grace-filled humanity.
Because of this, my initial impulse is not to fear cloning. While recognizing the incredible potential for abuse (and the absolute need for regulation), cloning could also extend human life, increase food supplies and save endangered species. These benefits must please the God who endowed humanity with intellect and curiosity - thus expanding both justice and happiness to suffering creation.
Science has changed the world - yet again. As frightening as it seems, religious traditions have negotiated such changes before. We will argue and fight, struggle and think. And, eventually, we'll figure it out. Of course, by that time, science will be onto something new.
I'm optimistic. After all, it only took the Vatican 150 years to admit Darwin was right.
Diana Butler, Ph.D., writes a religion column for the Santa Barbara News-Press and is visiting professor of religious studies at Macalaster College, St. Paul, Minn. Her latest book is "Standing Against the Whirlwind: Evangelical Episcopalians in 19th Century America," published by Oxford University Press.
Pub Date: 3/02/97