A True Read on Reality

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Growing up in the South, evolution wasn’t something you brought up in polite conversation. And the Lord knows you never talked about it in church. It’s not that my church necessarily rejected evolution, mine was one of those liberal mainline Southern churches where the deacons smoked outside between services. It was more the realization that admitting you descended from monkeys struck too close to home.

My church wasn’t what you might call “Bible-believing” either. We celebrated Christmas and Easter of course, but Santa was the star in our annual Christmas pageant (instead of the Star) and the big event of Holy Week was always Saturday’s egg hunt. Still, I always liked reading my Bible, a King James version my dear Sunday School teacher named Bertie gave me in second grade. She told me that these words had life inside and I should make sure and chew on them every day.

By the time I made it to college, my daily Bible reading had connected me to a network of serious-minded Christians for whom faith and life were intricately entwined. They were an ethically-minded bunch too, noticeably demarcated from your average college student by their sobriety and virginity. I admired their passion for the poor, their concern for the earth, their zeal for authenticity, and their basic love of life. As I fell into their faithful circle, I found that their ethics and passions were fueled by their own read of the Bible, a reading that exalted God as Creator and thereby rejected evolution. The world described by science—old and random and merciless and meaningless—could not be the world made by the Bible’s God.

Working around the scientific evidence was not so easy to do. I tried by taking an astronomy class for my science requirement, assuming that would save me from the indictments of fossils and DNA, but the stars couldn’t lie. The universe was billions of years old. To alleviate my growing cognitive dissonance, a campus pastor taught me the trick of “apparent age.” He told me how God created the world already matured, like he made Adam as a full-grown man. The universe looked older than it really was on purpose. It sounded awfully tricky, but who was I to doubt the mysterious ways of the Lord? The trick lessened my dissonance, and as a psychology major, I appreciated the importance of reducing cognitive dissonance.

Remarkably, I was able to trick myself all the way through seminary, years of pastoral ministry and a PhD program in psychology. By then, psychology changed from my undergraduate years. It was less about observing and controlling cognitive and behavioral outcomes, and more about neurons and brain function; that is, observing and controlling the causes of cognition and behavior. Psychology now emphasized the physiology of thought and behavior as its prime locus for study, having adopted an organic, biological model over an information-processing model. A biological model of the mind inevitably links psychology to human development which is inextricably linked to human evolution. Suddenly the question before me, as both a pastor and a psychologist, was what we meant by “mind” or “soul” if those notions were now understood mostly as material brain function.

While evolution still wasn’t a topic deemed appropriate for church, I was starting to worry that the college students in the university congregation I served struggled with the same dissonance that had returned to my own head. The “apparent age” trick was no longer adequate. Not only did it fail scientifically, but it failed theologically too, in that it seemed to portray God as an intentional deceiver. This would not do.

Unfortunately, integrating science and Christian faith proved a struggle. For instance, I tried to preach how entropy was a consequence of The Fall (Adam’s sin), but physicists in my congregation were quick to correct me on that. Had there been no entropy in the Garden, Adam and Eve would have been up to their necks in bacteria and bugs. I also tried to make a distinction between a person and her clone based on logic from the Nicene Creed. Since what we make is inferior to what we beget, we might infer a human clone to be somehow less than a human person. But biologists set me straight there as well. A human clone is genetically the same as one’s identical twin.

This latter misstep wasn’t made in front of a forgiving congregation, but before a skeptical crowd at an MIT science conference. For reasons still inexplicable, I was invited to serve as a “religious voice” at a conference otherwise populated by accomplished faculty and clinicians, pharmaceutical executives and congressmen. Human cloning was a particularly hot topic at the time, and I was assigned to a panel to discuss cloning ethics. The auditorium was packed. Spotlights brightly burned the stage where four chairs were parked behind microphones. In front of the seats were name-cards: Nobel Science Prize Winner for PhysicsFaculty Chair, Brown University Biology DepartmentBioethics Professor, University of Pennsylvania; and then me, Insignificant Church Minister. The moderator welcomed the audience and invited each panelist to give opening remarks. What was each of our positions on human cloning?

Cloned animals are a regular staple of human diets these days, and some countries allow the cloning of human embryos for stem cell research in medicine. Screening of in vitro fertilized embryos for a limited number of diseases and abnormal development already occurs prior to implantation, as does the availability of human eggs and sperm from Ivy League donors online (presumably making it easier for babies to get into Harvard some day). But there remains a moral consensus against birthing fully developed human clones for both developmental and psychological reasons. There’s also what ethicists regard as the “yuck factor.” Cloning yourself is gross.

Nevertheless, the bioethicist on our panel challenged the idea that cloning is unethical just because it doesn’t feel right. What’s wrong with duplicating genes? Your body does it naturally with millions of new cells everyday—and that’s just to keep your skin healthy. He said that eventually people will get over the yuckiness, just as they got over it with in vitro fertilization. Then, so-called “replacement babies” will be as normal as “test tube babies” are now.

It was up to me to offer the “religious” response, which I tried to do with my Nicene Creed analogy. I suggested how children “begotten” as a gift of marital love are somehow distinguishable from children “made” as cloned products of personal preference. A cloned child could not be “a replacement baby” if by that was meant the same baby, recreated. A clone is only a genetic match, not a duplicate person. A clone could not be the same as one’s reproduced offspring either, because a mother’s produced clone is her identical twin sister. Yuck.

A young man with a question stepped up to the microphone positioned in the aisle. He asked, “Would a clone nevertheless have a soul?”

Please join us next time for the second part of this post!


About the Author

Daniel Harrell

Daniel Harrell is the Senior Minister of Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota. He is the author of the books Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, How To Be Perfect: One Church’s Experiment with Living the Book of Leviticus, and the forthcoming Wisdom of the Saints (And Near Saints): Christian Inspiration from A-Z. He also teaches theology at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul.

More posts by Daniel Harrell