Monday, April 28, 2014

Human cloning

Scientists have cloned adult humans, producing early stage embryos with DNA that matches the original human. These embryos do not have the potential of reaching maturity. Efforts to produce viable embryos from adult monkeys after years of effort remain unsuccessful. (Gautam Naik, "Scientists Make First Embryo Clones From Adults," Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2014)

The early stage embryos hold exciting promise for producing cells identical to those found in the cloned individual, offering hope of new treatments for diseases that include Alzheimer's and heart attacks. The older a diseased person is, the greater the potential for cell replacement therapy. Research in this area had largely stalled because the only source of cells has been early stage embryos. Anti-abortion groups contend that using such an embryo, because it destroys the embryo, is equivalent to taking a human life (murder, in their estimation).

Production of human embryo clones raises two ethical questions. In the nearer term, the cloning—if scientists are successful in producing viable embryos—poses questions about humans producing designer humans, altering clones to include or delete particular genes. This obviously has great possibilities for abuse and most ethicists oppose, for good reasons, this prospect. Longer term, if cloning became widely practiced could adversely affect the human gene pool in ways analogous to inbreeding. Species that reproduce sexually tend to flourish for a longer period, have more complexity, and live in a greater variety of settings that species that reproduce asexually.

Research to improve human life using cells produced in processes that depend upon non-viable cloned embryos merits support because of its potential for improving human life. However, the research should occur with strong controls to prohibit producing viable embryos, a morally disturbing prospect.

Incidentally, even if scientists can someday produce viable human cloned embryos, such an embryo, if it matured into an adult human, would differ from the original in important ways. Experience, nutrition, and numerous other environmental factors significantly influence who a person is; no human is simply the produce of his or her genes.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Additional thoughts on Easter

The performance of Darryl Curry's The Elephant Piece consistently highlighted the responsibility of human's to care for creation. The musical portrayed humans as sitting at the peak of the evolutionary pyramid—at least for the present. Even if one disagrees with that assessment, humans are in a unique position to shape creation's future. No other species can do so much harm, nor does any other species have the potential to make changes that appear likely to ameliorate past harms. The biblical concept for this is stewardship: humans are God's stewards (or caretakers) of creation.

The Elephant Piece also consistently highlighted the responsibility that humans have to care for one another, or at least those with whom we are kin (a concept that when taken to its logical conclusion links a person to all other humans).

Caring for creation and one another is an essential element of Easter that is often lost in the hype of Easter eggs, bunnies, and empty tomb stories. Reducing Jesus to resurrection guts the gospel, substituting self-interest for the transformative power of God's enduring, unshakeable love. When we turn our faces, following Jesus' example, toward Jerusalem, following God's call to love one another and all creation radically, then we, like Jesus, experience God's presence in a way that draws more deeply into the eternal mystery of abundant life.

Charles Murray ("Advice for a Happy Life by Charles Murray," Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2014) offers five pieces of advice on how to live life to the fullest, adapted from his new book, The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead:

  1. Consider marrying young
  2. Learn how to recognize your soul mate
  3. Eventually stop fretting about fame and fortune
  4. Take religion seriously
  5. Watch "Groundhog Day" repeatedly

Murray's first four recommendations are all reflect social science research and offer practical advice for improving the quality and length of one's life. Even #4, take religion seriously, has more to do with the benefits of community than with any doctrinal elements.

But recommendation #5, watch "Groundhog Day" repeatedly, echoes what I advocate in this post: learn to live, truly live, by learning to love. That is Easter's message for those of us who inhabit this fragile yet beautiful island home.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter thoughts

Last week, I attended The Elephant Piece, a musical by Darryl Curry, produced in a small theater in Portland, ME. Although the play is unlikely to become a hit on New York's Broadway or in London's West End, the play raises questions about life, death, and what—if anything—may follow death.

The result of a collaborative creative process, The Elephant Piece feels disjointed in places and has multiple themes. One theme centers around the capture, display in a zoo, and death of the last elephant. Another theme features a young boy (invisible) being reared by his father following the mother's death. A third theme involves a minstrel group that functions as a proxy for Homo sapiens. Added to the mix are overtures of Hinduism (the god, Ganesha, has an elephant body) and Christianity. Interpretations of the musical's meaning may vary widely, sometimes in conflicting ways, because of the swirling, intertwined content.

The Elephant Piece felt appropriate for Holy Week and Easter. If honest, a close look at the themes woven into the Christian narrative that runs from Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his empty tomb on Easter morning swirl and intertwine in conflicting, provocative, and incomprehensible ways. Consider, by way of illustration, the following:

  • Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem sets the stage for his execution by the Romans as an insurrectionist. Yet the Jews conspire and agitate to have the Romans kill Jesus because the leaders of the Jews regard Jesus as a blasphemer.
  • Jesus was supposedly buried in a rich man's tomb. The Romans would not have guarded the tomb—they would not have permitted Jesus' burial in the first place. The Romans left an executed criminals hanging on the cross, a grizzly and graphic warning to potential miscreants to behave. Defenders of the Christian belief in the resurrection created the guards as a literary device to defeat arguments by non-Christians that Jesus did not rise from the dead, but that someone stole Jesus body from the tomb.
  • No amount of harmonizing can force the three gospel accounts of the resurrection (Mark's gospel does not include a story of the resurrection) to form a single, interlocking narrative that makes good sense. For example, no known life form or other substance can pass through solid walls and be able to be touched, as if solid, by human hands.

In The Elephant Piece, the motif of story links the three major themes. The characters want to remember the story. The gospel narrative is a story that Christians want to remember. This story resides permanently in the Creator's mind. One theological interpretation of resurrection life that has emerged out of process theology in the work of Marjorie Suchocki is that life after death is being part of the Creator's story, forever, held in the mind of the Creator, receiving an abundant, dynamic, and imperishable existence.

If that theological interpretation of new life is correct, then the resurrection of Jesus is also a part of that story. The power of his resurrection does not lie in the resuscitation of Jesus' physical body or in an effort to prove an empty tomb but in how the story of Jesus changed following his death. Jesus' story changed as his disciples told a story intended to communicate God's presence and love that they experienced in their relationship with Jesus, an experience that incredibly continued even after his death—hence, the importance of the resurrection.

Conflicting themes, historically inconsistent details, paradoxical actions—these reassure rather than interpose obstacles to following the Christian way. If the Christian way were reducible to a comprehensible, logically coherent, and tightly interlocking mosaic that a human mind can fully grasp then the Christian way could be nothing more than an entirely human invention. Conflicting themes, historically inconsistent details, and paradoxical actions may also point to an absurd nothingness, a human invention that flopped.

However, they may also point to a power and presence that we call God or the Creator. The disciples' changed lives that changed the world suggest the latter, which is the hope and new life that we celebrate on Easter.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Campaign contributions, the unemployed, and voting

The affluent use their campaign contributions to buy political influence in two ways legally. First, campaign contributions may buy access to a politician. The politician may invite large donors to special events at which the donor will have an opportunity to express his/her views to the politician. Individuals may also initiate a request to meet personally or through a paid lobbyist with a politician, a request much more likely to receive a favorable response if the requester is a major campaign contributor.

Second, large donors may seek out candidates to support based upon the candidate's position on issues of interest to the donor. Tory Newmyer, in his lengthy article, "Why Mitch McConnell Really Matters" (Fortune, April 7, 2014, pp. 92-100) describes this approach as "investing" in an election (p. 98). Only if a donor expects, or at least hope, to influence an election's outcome in a way that will lead to greater profits can one accurately describe a political contribution as an "investment."

As a Christian ethicist, I think that reducing political contributions and involvement to questions of personal interest is morally deficient. Politics should be about communal rather than personal well-being. This, at a minimum, is one clear message in Jesus' last meal with the disciples and his death on the cross.

Self-abnegation is not necessary. Every person is worthy of self-respect and the community should value all of its members equally.

However, a political system that allows excessively large political contributions (e.g., $4 million spread across numerous candidates and organizations) is a system that values the wealthy more than it values persons of average or below-average wealth.

For example, Jana Kasperkevic ("The ghosts of America's long-term unemployed," The Guardian, March 27, 2014) identifies an often unseen group of people, most of whom have significant economic problems. These are the 3.8 million people out of work for more than six months. Research by the Brookings Institute indicates that about a third will permanently leave the workforce; another third, after more than fifteen months of unemployment, are still looking for work; and only 10% have returned to full-time employment. Long-term unemployment will potentially create an underclass, impose significant economic costs on the larger society, and greatly diminish the self-esteem and happiness of the unemployed. What political access or influence do the long-term unemployed have? What assurance do we have that our political system will work for their benefit?

The North Carolina 2014 election cycle begins with primary voting on May 6. The 2014 primaries will occur on other dates in various states. The primaries are a prelude to the general election on November 4, 2014.

Voter turnout in years in which there is not a presidential election (i.e., years such as 2014) is generally very low. This presents a good opportunity to influence the election's outcome. Perpetuating gridlock in Washington may be strongly preferable to a US Senate and House both controlled by a single party, with incumbents in whom the wealthy have large and disproportionate "investments." Your vote is a low-cost opportunity (only your time and travel to your polling place) to help the wealthy earn a negative return on their "investments."

Monday, April 14, 2014

Singing the Lord's Song: Justice and the Church

Owen Thomas was first a physicist and then a theologian in the Anglican tradition. He is Emeritus Professor of Theology, Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, and an adjunct professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. Additionally, he has taught at the Gregorian University in Rome and served as president of the American Theological Society.

His credentials caused me to pause when I read the following in an article he authored:

The presence of the reign of God is a matter primarily of outward signs and actions rather than the progress and perfection of the inner life. The focus of the reign of God is primarily on public, communal, political, economic, and historical life rather than on private interior life. The traditional emphasis in Christian ascetical theology on interiority has led the Church in its mission to focus primarily on private, emotional, and family life to the exclusion of public, work, and political life. ("Interiority and Christian Spirituality," The Journal of Religion, Vol. 80, No. 1 (Jan 2000), 59)

Lest one succumb to the temptation to dismiss his view on the primacy of the external over the interior for Christian spirituality with an ad hominem attack (e.g., what else should one expect from a physicist?), Thomas' justification for his conclusion is worth considering. He argues that Christians splitting the spirit from the body and assigning priority to the former is odds at with the totality of our tradition. Jewish spirituality emphasized the unity of body and spirit. The Gospel of John echoed that message by prominently declaring that the Word became flesh. Thomas stands in good company. Contemporary historians of Christian spirituality like Urban Holmes share Thomas' assessment that Christian spirituality rightly emphasizes the external over the interior.

Lent is an especially appropriate season in which to revisit this insight. In Lent many of us pay extra attention to our spiritual journeys (this is good). However, we tend to interiorize this focus seeking to identify the breaks in our relationship with God and to become more attuned to God's presence through more time in prayer and study. We may choose a spiritual discipline designed to help us in that achieving those goals, even using nominally outward oriented disciplines such as fasting or helping others to improve our interior life. Inadvertently, perhaps unintentionally, we further divorce the spirit from the body, as the spiritual slowly becomes ever more synonymous with the interior life (this is not so good).

Over the last few decades, I have listened as numerous Episcopalians – as well as persons from other Christian traditions – criticized the Episcopal Church's seeming preoccupation with social justice and human rights to the exclusion of evangelism, prayer, etc. Perhaps one source of this criticism has been that we have failed to express our concern for social justice and human rights effectively and consistently in Christian language. Assuredly, a second source of this criticism has been the widespread preoccupation with interiority that Thomas noted.

Thankfully, the Episcopal Church has made enormous strides towards more fully incarnating God's justice. Although far from perfect, we more clearly stand for the dignity and worth of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or gender orientation. We seek to welcome all, regardless of income, political affiliation, or theological/liturgical distinctions. With each step we have taken in these directions, others and I have discerned God's presence and activity in our midst.

Now, I hear God calling us to sing another stanza in the Lord's song. This stanza has us:

  • Bringing good news to the poor (e.g., working to create a strong social safety net and to ensure all have quality, affordable healthcare while questioning the justice of an economic system that allows one corporation to buy another for $2 billion when the latter has no marketable product, let alone made a profit),
  • Proclaiming release to the captives (e.g., campaigning to free hundreds of thousands from among the millions incarcerated in our nations jails and prisons),
  • Helping the blind recover their sight (e.g., teaching people to see as God sees),
  • And liberating the oppressed (e.g., aiding the victims of addiction, wounded warriors returning home with unrecognized psychic and moral injuries, and opposing tyranny, slavery, and exploitation everywhere).

Such is the year of the Lord's favor.

This is not a ministry of ashes on the street, which is sadly more often theater than a ministry of enduring substance. Singing the Lord's song is a ministry of transformation, of awkwardly, perhaps even uncertainly, living into a new reality, the Kingdom of God on earth. In singing the Lord's song, we follow in the footsteps of the prophets and of Jesus, doing as they did, not foretelling the future, but discerning God at work in the world establishing justice, embracing with love, and empowering for life.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Simplicity AND Complexity

Writers about the spiritual life often advocate simplicity. Richard Foster's book, Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World, brings together many of those thoughts and is worth reading.

This anecdote highlights one reason simplicity is important:

A tourist stops at the home of the great Rabbi. Since the Rabbi has such a world renowned reputation the visitor expects to see a great home filled with valuable treasures. However, he is shocked when he sees a bare home with almost nothing in it. “Where are your possessions,” he asks in astonishment. The Rabbi responds, “Where are yours?”; “What kind of question is that?” the tourist said. “I’m a visitor here.” “I am too,” the Rabbi replied.

And simplicity can invite us, lead us, toward the divine:

Too often it is we who won’t let life be simple. Why must we squeeze it and bite it and slam it against what we’ve convinced ourselves are our great powers of reason? We violate the innocence of things in the name of rationality so we can wander about, uninterrupted, in our search for passion and sentiment. Let the inexplicable sit sacred. (Marlena De Blasi, A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected Romance, Kindle Loc. 402-5)

However, complexity is also valuable and essential. Philosophers as diverse as John Rawls and Aristotle have recognized that complexity can add texture, richness, and enjoyment to life.

Theologian Mark C. Taylor recommends embracing complexity as the first component of a post-absolutist theological ethic. The other three elements are promoting cooperation as much as competition, accepting volatility, and cultivating uncertainty. (Mark C. Taylor, After God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 356-358)

Perhaps most importantly and surprisingly, complexity rather than simplicity brings stability to the cosmos and may thus (like simplicity) reveal the presence of the divine. Ecologist Paul Ehrlich has written:

… we have both observational and theoretical reasons to believe that the general principle holds: complexity is an important factor in producing stability. Complex communities, such as the deciduous forests that cover much of the eastern United States, persist year after year if man does not interfere with them … A cornfield, which is a man-made stand of a single kind of grass, has little natural stability and is subject to almost instant ruin if it is not constantly managed by man. (P.R. Ehrlich and A.H. Ehrlich, Population, resources, and environment (San Francisco: Freeman, 1970), p. 159)

Discerning the path of life – an excellent Lenten discipline – consists in some considerable measure of knowing when to choose simplicity and when to choose complexity.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Are zombies for real?

Zombies – corpses that are theoretically dead but still act as if partially alive – are popular today, featured in the TV series, The Walking Dead. In my sermon on John 11, I suggest that Jesus taught that most of us are zombies but that restoration to the fullness of life is possible. To read more, follow this link.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


The biblical story of Noah is told in Genesis 6-10. The story is a complex narrative, consisting of multiple strands woven together that embody multiple layers of meaning.

In other words, the story is exactly what I expect from one of the oldest portions of the Bible. The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, consists of materials from at least four different streams of tradition. Each tradition had a lengthy period of oral transmission that preceded the written version. The written versions were redacted, edited, and combined over several hundred years.

Furthermore, the ancient story of a flood that destroys the known earth is common to a great many people, e.g., the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh bears striking parallels to the biblical story of Noah.

Some Christians naively attempt to harmonize the existence of these various flood stories, pointing to them as evidence for the truth of the Bible's historical record. Unfortunately, no archaeological or geological evidence of a global flood exists. In other words, the story lacks the essential corroborating evidence that one would expect to find if the flood had been an actual historical event.

Alternatively, Christians more constructively join most Jews in regarding the story of Noah as a myth, i.e., a story that reveals insights into life or God rather than reporting factual history. This approach interprets the story's details in light of information about the story's historical origins, its transmission, and its literary form. This approach then sets that interpretation in the wider context of the interpreter's faith tradition to discern what meaning the story might have for people today.

In other words, the story of Noah (like all Scripture) is a window through which we seek to perceive God's light. In this way, the story is a work of art, similar to a painting, poem, sculpture – or movie.

The outrage that some evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have expressed over the new film "Noah" which stars Russell Crowe has achieved only one thing: free publicity for the film. This is similar to the outcry over Dan Brown's bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, evoked because the book hypothesized that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife.

I don't read a novel expecting to find a faithful, insightful, and straightforward exegesis of the Bible. I don't go to the movies for any of those, either. I read novels and watch movies because in the artistic license of their creators, I sometimes experience the story from a fresh perspective and gain new insights about our world, humans, and – occasionally – about God. I never fault creative spirits for taking liberties with a story when they, by virtue of their medium, implicitly identify their word as art, i.e., fiction that may let the light shine through.