Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Gnostic Reprogenetics

In his book, Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family (Harper Collins, 1997), Princeton biologist Lee Silver describes how what he calls "reprogenetic technology" will allow same-sex couples to have children biologically related to both of them. He lauds this as a good thing and throughout the book approves of reproduction being separated from sex and of children being cloned and having more than two biological parents. It is all wonderful because it expands choice and allows people to "achieve their reproductive goals."

The confluence of reprogenetics and evolving patterns of family structure in the coming decades will eventually make the traditional marriage and family something people must consciously choose. The question I have is whether the Church can form and shape people to choose God's way for marriage and family or whether Western culture will simply overwhelm the Church and seduce Christians into abandoning God's intentions for marriage. I think this is a serious issue and I think that the future of the Church as a witness to the Gospel in an increasingly pagan culture is at stake.

What we are facing is a new Gnosticism that treats bodies as just so much raw material that we can manipulate to produce whatever we want. The "we" in this sentence is some sort of mind or brain or will that looks at its own body as something other and lesser than it. This devaluation of the material world is simultaneously a devaluation of man. Consider this quote from Silver. After describing a process by which human spermatogonial cells could be transplanted into animals, which would then be able to produce human sperm indefinitely:

"And since spermatogenial cells are easily frozen and can be transferred from animal to animal, it would be possible," he says, "to keep producting new sperm from the same original man for thousands of years after he has died."

"Once again, the bioethicists were called upon by the media to respond to another new reprogenetic possibility. This is what Arthur Caplan had to say . . . 'Part of the way we think of who we are and how we value ourselves has to do with our origins and reproductio. Something is challenging the specialness of humanity if you originate human beings in some animal's reproductive tract."

Then, we have Silver's revealing response:

"He is absolutely right. The 'specialness of humanity' has been challenged, and it's been found wanting. What this new technique, and so many others like it, tell us is that here is nothing special about human reproduction, nor any other aspect of human biology, save one. The specialness of humanity is found only between our ears; if you go looking for it anywhere else, you'll be disappointed." (p. 204)

The Gnostic worldview of modernity could not be expressed any more clearly. It is only our conscious willing self that is really us; our bodies are just tools and raw material to manipulate to our liking. This is the exact and precise opposite of what Pope John Paul II means by his "theology of the body." For John Paul II the human body is the human person and the human person is his body. We express our personhood through our bodies. It is time to take a second look at John Paul II's theology of the body, if the Church is going to think through the exact nature of the Gnostic challenge posed by reprogenetics.

1 comment:

Nathan Smith said...

Wendell Berry's "Feminism, The Body, and the Machine":

"It is odd that simply because of its 'sexual freedom' our time should be considered extraordinarily physical. In fact, our 'sexual revolution' is mostly an industrial phenomenon, in which the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of 'freeing' natural pleasure from natural consequence. Like any other industrial enterprise, industrial sexuality seeks to conquer nature by exploiting it and ignoring the consequences, by denying any connection between nature and spirit or body and soul, and by evading social responsibility. The spiritual, physical, and economic costs of this 'freedom' are immense, and are characteristically belittled or ignored. The diseases of sexual irresponsibility are regarded as a technological problem and an affront to liberty. Industrial sex, characteristically, establishes its freeness and goodness by an industrial accounting, dutifully toting up numbers of 'sexual partners,' orgasms, and so on, with the inevitable industrial implication that the body is somehow a limit on the idea of sex, which will be a great deal more abundant as soon as it can be done by robots"

Not too long ago I was asking some middle-school children in Sunday school about what they thought about cloning and designer babies. They didn't think much (which is not surprising for that apathetic age-group). Yet I think you are right that intentionality (including education of our children) is necessary moving forward.