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Spirituality - a potential source of wisdom for BIOETHICS, and the regulation of GENETIC ENGINEERING TECHNOLOGY

Greg Hughson


We welcome Greg Hughson back to our site. Greg is the Ecumenical Chaplain at Otago University. He himself is from a scientific background, and this article is a thoughtful and stimulating contribution to immensely important issues that exercise the minds of scientisits and theologians alike.




In recent times, spirituality  has  become a more officially sanctioned  source of  wisdom  for bioethics  in Aotearoa-NZ . We have for four  years  now  had a NZ  Government funded  Bioethics  Council, Toi  te  Taiao”. [1]   The Māori words 'Toi te Taiao' mean: 'the sphere of the spiritual and natural worlds'. This refers to the Māori understanding that bioethical decisions emerge at the point where the spiritual and natural worlds meet.  In the western  world, interest  in spirituality  has never been greater. [2]    Wherever profound and difficult  decisions  need to be made, great wisdom is needed. Traditionally, spirituality has  been a  source of  wisdom. 


When the NZ  Royal Commission on Genetic Modification  began its important work during 2000,  the forms  it distributed   to elicit responses from the NZ  public contained  space  for ethical  and cultural  responses, but no specific space  for spiritual  concerns to be expressed.  In the submission  from the NZ  Inter-Church  Commission on Genetic Engineering,  of which I was a member,  we needed therefore to  add  our  own paragraph within which we could express our  distinctively spiritual  views and ideas in relation to genetic   modification  technology. [3]   We also  chose to  precede  our  submission with a pre-amble which  gave expression to our  distinctively  spiritual  perspective on the issue of genetic  modification. [4]

After extensive national  consultation and  discussions, the first recommendation  of   our  Inter-Church  Commission  on Genetic Engineering  to the Royal  Commission  on Genetic Modification  was that   that an independent NZ Council be set up,  specifically to address the ethical and spiritual concerns being raised by many New Zealanders, in relation to all GM research and applications. The Royal Commission  subsequently  recommended  the establishment   of  a NZ Bioethics Council. In making this recommendation  to Government,  the Royal Commission highlighted   the evident  importance of spiritual  aspects of  biotechnology in addition to  the cultural and ethical   aspects. As an Inter-Church  Commission  we were pleased to see that the ongoing brief of the NZ Bioethics  Council was to include  “spiritual” concerns.    One significant  outcome  of the Royal  Commissions  work  was their discovery that  spirituality is very  important  to  many New  Zealanders, and that spirituality  impacts not  only upon personal  experience  but upon our individual and   societal  attitudes to the world.  

The Inter-Church  Commission on Genetic Engineering  widened its scope  of reference in 2001.   It re-constituted itself as the Inter-Church  Bioethics  Council (ICBC). This  Council continues to meet to  prepare submissions and produce helpful  educational  resources, which are  accessible  via the NZ Churches  Agency on Social  Issues  website . [5]   There is ongoing contact between the ICBC and the NZ Bioethics Council.  During  2004  The ICBC contributed a  chapter  to a Bioethics  Council publication on the Use of Human  Genes in Other  organisms [6]



Cultural, ethical and spiritual considerations   have become  part  of the regular vocabulary of  NZ Bioethics  Council’s  discussion  documents,  reports  and activities  since  December  2002.   The Bioethics  Council   defines  spirituality as  “a term commonly used to describe how people relate themselves to other generations, the natural and created environment, the universe, other's beliefs, and to their idea of an agent/agency of significance (eg God).”   [7]

Spirituality can be defined  more comprehensively as that  which  “ pertains to the life of mind, soul or spirit; relates to virtue, good character or conduct; is distinguished from the physical or material; expresses a depth of faith, love or knowledge; is the agent for the divine will; is that which creates, guides and sustains life; is expressive of energy or power; has ultimate values and meanings in terms of which we live; is something holy, or of ultimate importance, is in contact with non-local mind or God; recognizes  omnipresence and oneness with God” [8]

Spirituality therefore is a distinctively different  category to  both the   “ethical”  and “cultural”  dimensions of life. How might  spirituality helpfully contribute towards  bioethical  explorations  and decision  making ?

Recent publications  made  available by the Bioethics Council  include  attention to the spiritual  dimension  of the issues  being explored, including   xenotransplantation,  the transfer of human  genes  into other organisms and  the use of human embryos  for research. [9] The  Bioethics  Council discussion  document on the issue of  xenotransplantation  included a section entitled  “Spirituality, Culture and Human Need”. [10]    Specifically spiritual  contributions  include drawing attention to  the sanctity/sacredness  of  nature and life, respecting  appropriate  God-given relationships within nature and between humans and God, the need for  wise stewardship  of creation, a compassionate response to suffering as well as specifically spiritual  understandings of the value of life and the significance of death.

New Zealanders’ cultural, ethical and spiritual beliefs are far from homogenous, even within groups that might be imagined to share common interests. [11] Nevertheless, it is  gratifying to see the Bioethics  Council  facilitating discussion and  reporting in a manner consistent with its  stated  purpose,  which is   to   enhance New Zealander’s understanding of the cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of biotechnology,  and to ensure that the use of such technology has regard for New Zealanders' values, even though  not all New Zealanders  share the same values  or  spiritual  experience.

The Council is  also charged with  providing independent advice to Government on biotechnological issues that have a significant cultural, ethical and spiritual dimension,  promoting and participating  in public dialogue on cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of biotechnology, enabling  public participation in their activities  and providing  information to the public on the cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of biotechnology.

In recent  years  therefore spirituality appears to have  entered  mainstream  Aotearoa-NZ bioethics discussions in a way which has at least some  academic  credibility and justification.  To some extent this   is attributable to  widespread  commitment  to the Treaty of Waitangi,  which includes  acknowledgement  of the right of the tangata whenua to  retain traditional  spiritual  taonga, practices,  ways-of-seeing and ways-of-being.    In  21st Century secular  NZ,  our  Treaty commitment has preserved for us all a  society which promotes tolerance of a  way of  life which may still, potentially at least,   incorporate  an awareness of both the “spiritual” and “natural”  worlds and of how these  worlds  interrelate.  Christianity and other  ancient religions are  also still available as  reservoirs of spiritual  wisdom. In some  cases  Maori and traditional Christian spirituality enrich each other.  The Protestant  Reformation, ironically  led  to a contraction of the spiritual  realm, a withdrawal from  advocating a role for  “spirit” within  the operations of nature. [12]   In recent decades however it has been increasingly affirmed that  whilst science and spirituality ask different questions of the same  reality,  both pursuits  can  interact in an edifying way to  yield mutually enriching insights.  [13]   [14]

Spirituality impacts  upon bioethics  primarily through the way in which it   affects  the perception, the way-of-seeing  of  those engaged in both  bioethical exploration  and  the regulation of  biotechnology.   In response to the question  “what is really going on   here ?”  someone who  pre-supposes  a spiritual dimension to life   may well come up with different  conclusions to   someone who has no spiritual   inclinations  or experience. For example, Richard  Dawkins,  Professor  of the Public  Understanding of  Science at Oxford  University and leading light of the New Atheism  movement sees  the world very differently to Francis  Collins, a  prominent  evangelical Christian  Biologist   who headed  up the human genome project. Dawkins’  latest book “The God Delusion” [15]   is  currently eliciting  a wide range  of varied responses internationally.  In a recent  Time Magasine dialogue with Collins   Dawkins  expresses his  belief that  “once you buy into the position of faith  you begin losing your  scientific  credibility”. [16] There is  no room for  spirituality in Dawkins’  view of the world.  Collins  however believes that science  is entirely  compatible with  (Christian)  faith and spirituality.    Similar differences of  experience and opinion co-exist within the scientific  community  here in New  Zealand .  Many people  who suspect that the “new atheists” might be  right,   are repelled by their  strident tone. [17]   Lloyd  Geering  finds  Richard  Dawkins  a little too zealous in his denouncement  of zealots. [18]

Genetic  engineering and  spirituality .

For those who view the world in a spiritual way through the eyes of faith in a loving and creative God, genetic engineering  (GE)  raises profound issues relating to the legitimacy of applying this intrusive technology, especially in contexts which involve release of genetically modified organisms into the environment. G.E. involves modifications of DNA at the very “heart”  of life. This is a mysterious  and some would say, sacred  domain. GE is a highly specialised and somewhat contentious scientific technique developed recently by humans to improve nature. Opinion varies on the appropriateness of genetic engineering in various contexts. Applications of genetic engineering technology are currently justified ethically on the basis of their positive medical and agricultural outcomes. The ends are considered to justify the means. From one scientific perspective, GE represents an advance in our capacity to control and modify other organisms.  This perspective is anthropocentric,  in that the goal is to produce therapeutic proteins for human healing or  improved crops for human consumption.  GE  is a complex  issue which continues to provide  a   challenging way-in  to  discussions of  ultimate spiritual and theological    issues,   including  what it means  to be human.


GE can be viewed from many perspectives alongside  the scientific perspective. This became very apparent during the period  of time when the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification  was active.  Scientists and others, differ considerably in their attitudes to genetic engineering. All genetic engineering applications involve a certain amount of risk, a risk which is often difficult to quantitate.  In  recent years in Aotearoa-NZ every human emotion has been elicited as people continue to express their  concerns. Dialogue and debate are extensive and ongoing at every level, especially in relation to the lifting of the moratorium on GE agriculture which took place from October 2003.  Spiritual contributions to the debate have become more common  as theologians and people of faith have begun to realise what is happening and where  this  technology may lead. Currently  (November  2006)   there is an application  to the NZ  Environmental  Risk Management Agency  (ERMA)   for approval to field  test  several  genetically engineered  crops  for  pest resistance  in the Canterbury area over the  next 10 years.   The Inter-Church  Bioethics  Council has  made a submission in favour of these  trials  proceeding.


Creation spirituality


From a theological  perspective, genetic engineering discussions can be enriched and informed by the age old traditions of Creation spirituality [19]    specifically within the wider context of panentheism. Panentheism  advocates for an awareness of God’s presence and activity at the “heart”  of creation. God is not believed to be distant, but intimately involved with every living cell. It is important to acknowledge that a great deal of the language used  in relation to spirituality is  metaphorical,  that is,  language which points  towards  the  truth.  We cannot help thinking in terms of  metaphors, analogies,  models and  images; they are  embedded in our  language and in the very structure  of our thought.  Sheldrake  believes that  the language used  to express  both animistic/spiritual  and mechanistic  thinking  is metaphorical language. [20]


Panentheism  images  God as the encompassing spirit  undergirding everything that is. The Universe  is  perceived not  to be  separate from God,  but  “in”  God. [21] Panentheism can be defined  more precisely as a model of the relation between God and the Universe which regards the whole created order as contained within God, and yet considers that this does not exhaust the divine being, unlike  pantheism  which would  perceive  God’s  presence  to be solely  within creation.


The logistics of how  “spirit”   operates  within nature  at the intracellular  level  or in the wider Universe  are not amenable to biochemical  or astrophysical  analysis. The physical and  metabolic   energy  about  which physicists  and biochemists  speak  is, according to traditional  Christian  faith, not  the same thing as “psychic” or  “spiritual”  energy  about  which mystics  speak. [22]   The presence of Spirit and  intracellular metabolism are nevertheless,  mysteriously interconnected.  Diarmuid  O’Murchu   writes  that   “It is a central  paradox of evolution that  Spirit  comes to birth  in matter, and without the material universe  it remains not merely hidden, but, in a sense, paralysed. Spirit  needs matter as the expressive medium  of its  prodigious  creativity. [23]      In his first letter to the Corinthians  St Paul writes  that  “There are  different kinds of spiritual  gifts,  but they all come from the same Spirit”. [24]   Physical energy and matter are interrelated  (E =mc2) ,  but the spirit of God   cannot be entered  into this  or  any mathematical  equation. God, by definition cannot be defined in scientific or  mathematical  terms  as God  is  spirit.   The reality of God’s presence  cannot be  proven scientifically. God is not a hypothesis.  “God”  is the  word which people  of faith use  in an attempt to express our  intuitive sense of a  relational  reality which  undergirds and sustains humanity and the whole of  what we can  see, touch and  (to some extent) measure.   The  dependence of all living creatures  on the continuing sustenance  of  God is confessed  by the Psalmist  in what has been called a summary statements  of God’s  providence. [25]    


“O  Lord, how manifold  are your works!  In  wisdom you have made them all; the earth is  full of your creatures  ….. When you hide  your face, they are  dismayed, when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust”  (Psalm   104:  24,29)  “The Lord  covers the heavens with clouds, prepares  rain for the earth, makes grass grow  on the hills.  He gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens  when they cry  (Psalm   147: 8-9).  


People  of faith today  continue to affirm  in a diverse  range of ways,   the activity of  a  Creator-spirit-God  in the ongoing  biological, ecological and  evolutionary processes  of life.  Francis  Collins  and Diarmuid  O’Murchu  for example  are both  strong advocates of  theistic evolution .  For O’Murchu, “Spirit-power”   is the driving force of the evolutionary process, the deep secret to unravelling  the evolutionary story. 


Denis Edwards  advocates   our  need  to develop a  comprehensive   ecological theology of the Holy Spirit. [26] He believes that this  theology  needs to embrace  both the “sacramental” and the “prophetic-eschatological”  approaches to the work of the Spirit in creation.  For Edwards,   the Spirit  can be rightly understood as the ever-present  life-giving creator. Edwards’ excellent  article  provides  a  helpful overview of the understandings  of  prominent contemporary theologians  in  the  area  of Ecology and the Holy Spirit.  These  theologians  include  John V.  Taylor,  Wolfhart Pannenberg,  Jurgen  Moltmann, Michael Welker, Karl Rahner, John  McIntyre and  John Zizioulas.  Clearly, the development of a theology of the Holy Spirit  in Creation  has occupied and will continue to occupy some of the finest theological minds. It is tragic that such wisdom is yet to be made available to the wider  community, or  more particularly,   to those  given responsibility for the regulation of  biotechnology  in Aotearoa-NZ.


Creation spirituality, physical science and biological science.


Modern Physics and Theology both  acknowledge the realm of mystery and awe at the sub-atomic level.   In the study of Physics,   Newtonian understandings   on the sub-atomic  level are being replaced by a mysterious  world  in which physical  entities  that by all rights should be  waves, sometimes act as particles.  Electrons and neutrons  somehow produce  wave-like interference  with themselves.  These discoveries  “stand  common sense on its  head”  [27]  


It has become more acceptable and common  to make interdisciplinary academically sanctioned connections between physics and theology. The authors of books about physics and cosmology are more often  making excursions into the realm of the mystical or religious. “God and the New  Physics”   by Paul  Davies [28]   written in 1983   has been followed by many  other  thoughtful and academically credible   attempts to create  bridges of understanding   between   spirituality/religion/theology  and science.  John Polkinghorne, internationally known as both a theoretical  physicist  and a theologian  is well known for making  helpful links  between Physics and Theology. [29]   Well versed in both physics and theology, Kitty Ferguson holds out hope for reconciling rigorous science with sincere faith in God  in her book “The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion, and the Search for God”. [30]

Polkinghorne’s latest book is  entitled Quantum  Physics and Theology. [31]   One reviewer  of this  yet to be released  book   has written   His exploration of the deep connections between science and theology shows with new clarity a common kinship in the search for truth.” 


Diarmuid  O’Murchu’s  book “Quantum  Theology”    provides   an  in depth  exploration of the implications  of the new  physics  for  our understanding of  spirituality today. O ‘Murchu  writes that “Quantum Theology is not another dialogue between science and religion. It is instead a bold exploration of the divine co-creativity emanating from one of the most ingenious scientific discoveries of the twentieth century: quantum theory and the profound theological questions it unravels.” [32]


Modern-day biologists also,   are beginning to write about their  attempts to  integrate their  spirituality with their  science.   Jackie  Leach  Scully  a  molecular  biologist who has worked in cancer and neurogenerative research  has written  about  science and spirituality and how the two are connected  for her.  Scully  who is a bioethicist and a Quaker,   has written a  book  about  ethical  decisions in genetic manipulation. She writes  “Embodied in cells and tissues, in biochemical reactions and molecular processes, are the mystics’ reports of universal oneness.”  “Biochemistry and molecular  biology tell  me a spiritual  story  about life as well as a scientific  one” [33] “I went into science for the religion ……and found it in molecular genetics  …”  [34]


Graeme  Findlay, a NZ cell-biologist  also  has an interest in cancer  biology and lectures in the Department of  Molecular   Medicine and Pathology in the University   of Auckland .  He has  produced a  helpful series of  Science and Faith  booklets  including  on entitled  “Evolving Creation” [35]   and another  entitled   “God’s  Books; Genetics and Genesis”.  [36]

Francis  Collins, one of the world's  most distinguished  physicians and scientists and head  of the Human Genome  Project  is  also a  sincere  evangelical  Christian.  He came to faith through an encounter  with one of his patients. His recently  published  book  "The Language of God"  [37]   is a blend  of biography, testimony, evolutionary  biology, genetics and theology.  Collins provides a helpful overview  of  evolutionary  genetic  processes.  Then, following a critique  of atheism, agnosticism, creationism, and intelligent design, he puts  forward a case  for theistic  evolution  which he refers to as  "BioLogos"  where  faith and  science  co-exist in harmony. The book concludes with a helpful overview of modern  bioethical issues  including stem-cell research, cloning, somatic  cell  nuclear  transfer and  genetic enhancement.  Collins believes  that the long-standing post-Darwinian battles  between "scientific" and "spiritual"  world views, need  to be resolved.  I   would agree.  

Sharron Cole, a Researcher for The Nathaniel Centre, the NZ  Catholic  Bioethics  Centre  writes in the context of article on genetically modified  foods : “Christians believe that we are called to be stewards of creation, for this and for succeeding generations. The relationship between humans and the rest of creation is an important aspect of this belief - we are an integral part of the community of living organisms which depend upon one another and the physical resources of the earth. In other words, we must respect the integrity of creation.”  [38]


Writing from the perspective of a Christian biologist and anatomist, Gareth Jones sees cloning as a parable which can tell us a great deal about human expectations and aspirations, our world-view and how we live our lives.  [39]


The spiritual perspective of each individual physicist, biologist bioethicist or physician  will inevitably  influence the way they  view  reality.  For those  who have some sense  that humans are “created in the image of God”  for example,  there will be a greater  sense of the sacred  operating  when dealing with patients and issues, than would be the case  for an atheistic  practitioner.  This does not of course  imply that the atheist will have any less  respect for the life of the patient.


A spiritual  perspective  on life  imbues  those  who indwell such a way of seeing with an awareness  of the deeper  significance  of life and death.  Spiritual  perceptions  are both subjective and intuitive.  A spiritual  “way of seeing”  can add depth  and quality to otherwise  arid  intellectual  assessments.  Spiritual  perceptions are  likely  to lead to compassionate and other concerns  being expressed  which would  not otherwise  emerge. 


For example,  members of our  Inter Church  Commission on Genetic Engineering, in dialogue  with members of  NZ  Church  groups  encountered a certain amount of concern  (intuitive dis-ease)  elicited by the prospect of  some applications of  genetic engineering.  When pushed to explain cognitively why they  felt   such applications were inappropriate, many people  could only allude to  spiritual  disquiet and a “feeling”  that such applications should not  proceed.


Maori spirituality speaks of the life-force or mauri  which is  also  a panentheistic   concept.  Mainstream Trinitarian Christian spirituality also  advocates  an understanding of the spirit of God,  flowing through and permeating  creation “like a river.”  Maori  spirituality has  concerns  about the potential of genetic engineering  to re-direct  or disrupt  mauri, through the crossing of previously un-crossable species barriers, and “alterations” to intracellular metabolism and protein synthesis.  Transfer of the DNA code between species now  permits the expression of one species’ DNA code, in another species.  Some would say this was playing  God. Others would say this gives us the opportunity to be careful co-creators with God in the evolutionary process.  Some believe that the ends justify the means, others disagree.  Greg  Lewis  has  written  a helpful  article about Maori spiritual  concerns  in relation to xenotransplantation . [40]


The Psalmist (Ps 139) declared that God is the one who knits us together in our mother’s womb.  Christian faith is founded on the belief  that God is the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe and every creature therefore owes its existence and being to the Spirit of God which moved  over the primordial  waters  when God began to create. [41] God’s creativity is ongoing and it is God who sustains all creatures and enables all creatures to continue to exist. God is present in creation. And creation is present in God.


Theology has  traditionally  held the doctrines  of creation  out  of nothing  (ex  nihilo ) and  continuing creation  (creatio  continua) to be interrelated  as  complementary aspects of God’s creative involvement with the physical universe.  [42]


From the spiritual perspective God is perceived to be  “present”  (metaphorically speaking)  in creation both at and  “below”  the intracellular level. God is intimately familiar with the processes and regulation of DNA transcription and protein synthesis and with other dimensions of metabolism of  which we are currently completely unaware.  Creation, metaphorically  speaking is “God’s treasure”  [43]     As  the Psalmist  declares, God is the One who   knit us  together  in our mother’s  womb. (Psalm 139)  We now know that it is the  ribosomes  which provide the context within which amino  acids are “knitted  together”  in the dynamic process/dance   of protein synthesis, but this  does not exclude  God’s  ribosomal presence  and  involvement ! 


God is conceived pantheistically by some “process  theologians”  and  others  as the spiritual energy at the very heart of life, the life-force flowing through creation. God may also  be conceived in terms of process.  Biochemists have studied and charted pathways of energy metabolism within the cell. We now have a basic understanding of how biological cells are energised and empowered to do their creative work. The energy of God’s spirit however is not amenable to such analysis. In theological terms the spirit of God inspires and sustains life in a way which under-girds and enables biochemical processes to exist and operate. 


Theological language differs from scientific language in that it does not seek to describe how molecules inter-relate, rather, theology seeks to explore the deeper significance of molecular relationships. Biological  being and  spiritual  being  are different.   They  interface in the study of  theogenethics [44]   which seeks to help preserve the integrity of  creation.   



Cell  biology and spirituality


Bruce Lipton, a cell  biologist  has  recently postulated  a  cognitively comprehensible  link between  biological  being and spiritual  being.  In ‘The Biology of Belief” [45]   Lipton  refers to the experience of organ transplant donors   who sometimes  are able to experience  memories  previously held by the donors of their new  organs, as  evidence of  an ongoing spiritual  transmission from the spirit of the donor to the recipient  via  receptor membrane  proteins  on the transplanted organs.   If these  ideas  are proven to have substance there will be interesting long-term  implications  for human to  human  transplants and also for xenotransplantation  as  human recipients might expect to  receive more  than just  organic  contributions  from their  new  organs. Cultural and religious  prohibitions and hesitancies  in relation to xenotransplantation may one day  be shown to have a spiritual-physiological  basis. There is a potential  link here with cautious Maori  spiritual  attitudes  to human to human transplants and to xenotransplantation, especially issues concerning  departure  of the spirit  at the time of  death and the perceived existence  of spiritual  “aura” [46] . As  with the existence of God, there  is no way of scientifically proving such concepts although a new  discipline  of neurotheology has  recently emerged [47]   to explore  a possible  neurological  basis for theological and spiritual  experiences.  Neurotheology  is one  somewhat reductionistic  attempt  to define  and quantitate mystery in scientific terms.


Lipton, previously an agnostic, now  concludes that humans  are spiritual  beings   temporarily  located in physical bodies . He is a proponent  of  “epigenetics”    which  attributes  less metabolic significance to  DNA  and more importance to membrane  proteins  which he equates to the brain of  the cell.  He believes that human beliefs, thoughts and feelings directly influence  human intracellular  metabolism -  including  the dynamics of DNA  transcription,  and that cell membrane receptor  proteins  have a vital role  to play in this  process.


Pierre Teilhard  de  Chardin  (1881-1955)  a professional paleontologist as well as a Jesuit philosopher  had a vision of the Universe as a psychic-spiritual  as well as a  physical-material  process.  He attempted to shift the focus of Western  religious concern from redemption to  creation. [48] The ultimate goal  of both    Teilhard  de  Chardin  and  the great  Indian philosopher and mystic  Sri Aurobindo  was to comprehend the nature of consciousness as the key element  in a spiritual  understanding   of the evolutionary process. [49] Bioethics  will  need I believe, to attend far more to the centrality of  both evolutionary and  “consciousness  issues”    in the future.  


Science deals with the metabolic  processes of biochemistry  Theology explores the spiritual significance of these processes and asks more profound questions such as “Is DNA sacred” ?  Science deals with issues of  quantitative measurement, manipulation and enhancement. Theology deals with issues of belonging and creativity.   Whether or not genes “belong” where they are relocated by genetic engineers is a  spiritual issue for all  who think in evolutionary terms.  For example, Sue Kedgely writes : “GE puts genes into places they don’t belong in an evolutionary context”  [50]   Belonging is an inherently  spiritual  concept.  To  live full and healthy lives  we all need to have a sense of deep spiritual belonging. Anything which militates  against this  sense of belonging   at the genetic or  societal levels  of life  is potentially destructive.


Wisdom   for today


God’s spirit is believed by Christians to bring about life and health and peace. God is the “burst of life in living things.” For people of faith, to study biochemistry is to be amazed by the beauty and intricacy of intracellular protein metabolism, and to rejoice in the order which gives expression to God’s creative presence within the cell.


The Psalmist had no understanding of genetics, DNA transcription or protein synthesis. Now that we have a growing understanding of these processes [51]   our appreciation of the truth the Psalmist was struggling to express, is  from a  spiritual  and scientific perspective not diminished, but enhanced.


The wisdom of the creation-spirituality-panentheism tradition  is one major stream within history which can be drawn upon to provide spiritual insight and balance in our otherwise scientifically dominated age.  The advancement of human technological understanding need not  (and does  not)  take away our sense and belief that God exists, that God is present, that God “cares” intimately  not only for us but for the whole of creation . Theologians and people of faith will continue to understand God in a wide diversity of ways, but nevertheless a common theme will be to acknowledge  the sacredness of creation, for to speak of God inevitably  introduces “sacred”  and  “spirit”   into  our  vocabulary.


Through the eyes of faith we are able to discern God’s  non-physical “presence” as  spirit and God’s design and sustenance  in both  intracellular protein metabolism and throughout  the universe.


Incarnational theology within Christianity affirms that God came in Christ, but the cosmic Christ was already present with God from the beginning of time. God does not exist exclusively outside of creation.  On the level of intracellular DNA metabolism God is, metaphorically  speaking  the “choreographer”  of the dance of the genes. God operates intracellularly as both “composer” and “coach.”.  Genetic engineers now have the capacity to alter the musical score.  This  type  of language need not operate in isolation from  academic discourse, as it seeks  to provide a link between  poetic/metaphorical/spiritual  concepts and scientific  concepts.   To believe that  “in God we live and move and have our  being”  (Acts  17)  is to  affirm the spiritual  undergirding and  significance  of all  life.


Some of the ancient mystics of the Church can enhance our awareness of the sacred.  Modern day  advocates of creation spirituality seek  to re-connect  us  with the wisdom and world-view  of these  ancient  people  of faith  including  Hildegard of  Bingen (1098-1179) and Francis  of Assisi.  (1182-1226) .  All quotes  below from  Hildegard  (IHB and HB)  and  Francis come via  Matthew  Fox . [52]


Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)  painted mandalas to elicit and experience of the cosmic Christ.  In one of her paintings “The man in sapphire blue” she depicts what she calls “the golden and fiery ropes of the Universe” that hold all things together  (IHB 23,  cf. modern string theory.) In another painting she depicts the Universe as residing within the belly of divinity, who is called a “Lady Named Love” (IHB,39). This is an amazing picture of panentheism – all creatures in God and God in all creatures.  Hildegard wrote “It is God whom human beings know in every creature”   For Hildegard the Cosmic Christ is “the divine image”  or “mirror” that “glistens and glitters” in every creature.


“I adorn all the earth

I am the breeze that nurtures all things green

I am the rain coming from the dew

That causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life”  HB  30-31


For Hildegaard, every creature is a ray of God, a radiance of God, a divine expression of God. She believed it is especially in our creativity that the divine shines forth.


‘Humanity alone is called to assist God. Humankind is called to co-create”  HB  106


Genetic engineering can be justified theologically as a new way in which humanity can assist God, to co-create with God, to improve nature.  This position was advocated  by the NZ Catholic Bishops in their year  2000 submission to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. I am not entirely sure Hildegard would be impressed.  Hildegarrd had no understanding of intracellular protein metabolism or of genetic engineering,  but her insights  and calls for caution are nevertheless still  relevant for the   21st  Century GE debate.  For example


“The earth is holy and must not be injured or destroyed”    (HB 78).


Any application of GE technology which would “injure” the earth would be as unacceptable as much in the 21st Century as in Hildegard’s day.  One  distinctively  spiritual  reason therefore for proceeding  very cautiously with GE agriculture  is  that the earth is  holy.


The dilemma faced by those bodies regulating GE technology outside of the lab is that the degree of future injury to the earth resulting from GE agriculture and GE food consumption is not able to be quantified scientifically.  The level of risk associated with many agricultural applications is currently assessed as being “very low” but our perspective may well be very different in 100 years time.  We are not yet in a position to be able to assess the  long-term ramifications of human-initiated crossing of long established evolutionary species barriers.  In  NZ  it is the Environmental Risk Management  Agency  (ERMA)  which has responsibility for approving  genetically engineered  crop trials. [53]     ERMA  is charged  with administering the  NZ   Hazardous  Substances and New Organisms  (HSNO)   Act  (1996)  , the  purpose of   which  is to protect the environment, and the health and safety of people and communities by preventing or managing the adverse effects of hazardous substances and new organisms.  ERMA  assesses the costs, risks and benefits of particular organisms.  The NZ Bioethics Council and ERMA have no direct relationship.  The deliberations of the  NZ Bioethics Council  do  not  currently   "feed in" at any point to the ERMA  decision-making processes in relation to GE  agriculture.  However the deliberation of the  Bioethics council would  impact on the area of genetic modification of human gametes and human embryos.  ERMA would be the organisation to assess applications to undertake this type of work.  [54]     It seems that  ERMA’s  focus is  anthropocentric  rather than  holistic.  There appears to be a lack of openness  to spiritual  wisdom  which might enhance  environmental  management as well as human  integrity.


Francis of Assisi acknowledged and celebrated divinity in its creative and creaturely manifestations. Francis believed and taught that the divine is incarnated in the flesh of nature. Francis takes seriously the idea of the family of all creation, and the interconnectivity of all creatures.


“All praise be yours, my Lord

Through sister Earth, our mother

Who feeds us in her sovereignty

And produces various fruits and coloured flowers and herbs”


Both Hildegard and Francis give expression to a form of Creation Spirituality which provides a very relevant source of  spiritual wisdom for those charged with the regulation of GE technology here in Aotearoa-NZ and throughout the world. 


For Francis, the light who enlightens all who have life is present in all creatures and therefore all creatures are brother and sister to one another.


Creation spirituality  music 


In recent years contemporary Christian hymn and song writers across the theological spectrum have been composing material which helps give expression to our faith in God as Creator, in continuity with the mystics of old. Songs from Pentecostal and charismatic sections of the Church are less panentheistic than songs from more liberal sources.  Nevertheless,  many song and hymn writers  across the Christian  theological  spectrum  affirm the importance of  caring for God’s creation.  It is important to note that such a focus need not necessarily replace  traditional redemptive-focused theology. Helen Kenik  writes  “Creation spirituality does not negate the classical focus upon God as Saviour. Rather, it suggests that there is an alternative to the one-sidedness of salvation theology” [55]


The hymn  writers  Marnie  Barrell [56]    and Shirley Murray [57]   express their  awareness  of God’s  involvement  with creation  as  follows :


God of all beauty, creation is your treasure 


God of all beauty, creation is your treasure,

Charged with your presence, and speaking your voice.

Holy your world, you made it for your pleasure;

Here where we dwell we know you and rejoice.

God of all beauty, creation is your treasure.


by Marnie   Barrell


Maker of Mystery


Maker of mystery,

Dreamer of what will be,

Well-spring and fertile ground of all our growing:

Tending the buried seed,

Foreseeing every need,

You draw us into life beyond our knowing.


by  Marnie  Barrell 


I am the Vine 

I am the vine, and you are the branches,

I am the vine, and in me, you thrive,

Cut from my being, you can do nothing,

I course through stem and leaf, leaping, alive.


by Shirley  Murray.


God  of the galaxies


God of the galaxies  spinning in space,

God of the smallest seed,  our  living source,

Yours is the gift of this  beautiful   place

      Let us care  for your garden

      And honour  the earth.


By Shirley  Murray


Beautiful prayers and hymns such as these  implicitly allude to the presence of God’s spirit at work in a dimension which spiritually-undergirds and permeates  biochemical activity at   the intra-cellular level of creation. These prayers and hymns I believe need to be made available way beyond the confines of the Church, to inspire reverence and care for God’s creation  by genetic engineers, those who  are charged with regulating  GE  technology,  and all people. Biochemists need to be given the  permission and encouragement  which physicists now  enjoy to affirm the poetic and mysterious complexities operating at the heart of life.


It is my hope that the relatively recently established NZ Bioethics Council  and the Inter-Church  Bioethics  Council,  which have  the task of offering spiritual resourcing  in the context of decisions relating to  the release of GE organisms, will be able to effectively convey the importance of  a credible and influential creation spirituality for today and that regulatory  bodies such as ERMA will broaden their parameters and  become more receptive to such wisdom. There is a great deal at stake.  It is not only Maori in this land who have spiritual concerns about genetic engineering beyond the lab.   In  a day when both priests and physicists stand in  awe and wonder at the beauty of the natural universe, we need to nurture  our spiritual  capacity   to become more aware of  the  privileged  part we play  in  the great unfolding  evolution  of life,  and  to sense that we are part of a  “grand  scheme”  [58]




This article has been  written to offer a spiritual-ethical perspective on  the GE debate, grounded in creation spirituality . I believe that it is helpful to bring our thoughts and feelings concerning genetic engineering intentionally into the presence of God, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe who loves and cares for us and the whole of creation. My prayer is that bioethical and regulatory decisions relating to GE applications in Aotearoa-NZ  will  continue to be helpfully informed by at least some people who unashamedly   draw  upon both ancient and contemporary spiritual  wisdom.

[2] Tacey, D  The Spirituality revolution  Harper Collins  2003

[3] See  http://www.casi.org.nz/gecommission/  Inter-Church  Commission  on Genetic  Engineering  report  to the Royal  Commission on Genetic  Modification  Section B  (j)  (v)  Spiritual concerns 

[4] See    http://www.casi.org.nz/gecommission/  Report Preface

[6] Transgenics: A Perspective from the Interchurch Bioethics Council In Reflections on the Use of Human Genes in Other Organisms: ethical, spiritual and cultural dimensions. Edited by Toi Te Taiao:Bioethics Council, January 2004.

[8] http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~thegroundoffaith/   The Ground of Faith -  Exploring Science, Mysticism and Experience Together : What is Spirituality and how do we apply it to expand the quality of life? Rev. L. Richard Batzler, Ph.D. ( USA ).


[11] Coyle,  FJ.  Maslin, C.  Fairweather, JR and Hunt  LM .  Public Understandings of Biotechnology in New Zealand: Nature, Clean Green Image and Spirituality . Studies in Innovation and Change . Lincoln University  2003 

[12] Sheldrake,  R. p.22  in The Rebirth of  Nature.  Park  Street Press  1991,  1994 

[13] Polkinghorne   J   Belief in God in an age of Science.  Yale   University Press 1998.

[14] Findlay ,  G. Evolving  Creation  Telos  Books, Auckland  2004

[15] Dawkins, R.    The God Delusion.    Bantam  Books  2006  

[16] Time  Magasine ,  pp.33-39 in  “God  vs  Science” November  13th 2006

[17] WIRED Magasine   “The  New Atheism”  Nov   2006 pp182-193  www.wired.com/wired  

[18] NZ  Dominion  Post  Sat  Nov  18th  Book review of   “The God Delusion”   by Professor  Lloyd  Geering   (p.20 in “Indulgence  insert” ) 

[19] An introductory correspondence course in  Creation  spirituality is offered  by  the NZ Ecumenical  Institute of  Distance  Theological  Studies   See  www.eidts.ac.nz  

[20] Sheldrake, R.  p.13 

[21] Borg, M. p.66  in The Heart of  Christianity .    Harper Collins  2004

[22] Findlay ,  G.   Evolving  Creation  Telos  Books, Auckland  2004 

[23] O’Murchu  D  p.128  in Evolutionary   Faith  Orbis  Books,  New  York   2003 

[24]   The Bible  :  1  Corinthians   12  vs  4-12 

[25] Worthing , MW.    God, Creation and Contemporary Physics  Fortress  Press   1996

[26]   Edwards, D.  Ecology and the Holy Spirit:  The “Already” and the “Not  yet”  of the Spirit in Creation.   Pacifica   Vol  13  No.2.  June  2000   pp  142-159 

[27] Knight,  R.D.  Chapter  VII  “Relativity and  Quantum  Physics”   in  Physics for  Scientists  and Engineers  Pearson.  Addison  Wesley, San Francisco  2004

[28] Davies,  P.  God and the New  Physics   Chaucer  Press  Ltd.,   Suffolk .  1983

[29] Polkinghorne   J   Belief in God in an age of Science.  Yale   University Press 1998.

[30] Ferguson ,  K . The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion, and the Search for God   Bantam  Press  London    1994

[31] Polkinghorne,  J. Quantum  Physics and Theology.  Yale University Press March 28, 2007

[32] O’Murchu  D.  Quantum  Theology -  Spiritual  Implications  of the New Physics.   Crossroads  New  York ,  2004

[33]   Scully,  J. L.  Playing in the Presence.  Quaker  Books,  London  2002    p.10

[34]    Ibid.  p.9 

[35] Findlay ,  G. Evolving  Creation  Telos  Books, Auckland  2004

[36] Findlay ,  G. Gods  Books  Genetics and  Genesis    Telos  Books  Auckland  2004

[37] Collins,  F. The Language  of  God . Free  Press  New  York  2006

[38]   Cole  S.  Nathaniel  Centre, The Catholic   Bioethics   Center ,  Wellington   NZ

[39] Jones, G.  Clones.  Paternoster  Press,  2001

[40] Lewis,  G .  NZ Bioethics  Journal  p.31  Vol  4  No  1  Feb  2003 

[41] The Bible : Genesis  1  vs  1

[42] Worthing   p.112

[43]   Barrell,  Marnie .  Marnie  “God of all beauty”  No.48  in   Alleluia  Aotearoa.  Hymns and Songs for all Churches.  NZ  Hymnbook Trust,  2004 

[44] Hughson, G. A.  Theogenethics and the integrity of creation . Methodist Theological  Review   1993 http://www.casi.org.nz/issues/science/ge/theogen.html

[45] Lipton, B.  The Biology of Belief. Mountain of Love/Elite   Books  2005.   www.BruceLipton.com

[46] Lewis,  G.   NZ Bioethics  Journal  p.31  Vol  4  No  1  Feb  2003 

[47] Newberg, A.  Director  Centre for Spirituality and the Mind of the University of Pennsylvania .  http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/radiology/CSM/cf.html


[48] Hope, M and  Young  J .  Thomas  Berry and a New Creation Story  Christian Century  106:  750-753

[49] O’Murchu , D.  p 12

[50] Kedgely,  S.   GE Food -  Eating safely in a toxic world .  Penguin Books  1998

[51] Tate, W.   A rap on the unveiling of  a cellular  nanomachine.   Distinguished  Research Medal  Lecture , University    of Otago   14th November 2006

[52] Fox,  Matthew.  The Cosmic  Christ and Creation Mystics-The Medieval West  The Coming of the Cosmic  Christ  Melbourne:  Collins  Dove  p.p.  109-127.

[53]   ERMA     www.erma.govt.nz 

[54]  Personal  correspondence : Susan Thomson, Compliance Co-ordinator (New Organisms) ERMA New Zealand, PO Box 131, Wellington  11/12/2006.

[55] Kenik,  Helen. Towards a  Biblical Basis  for Creation Theology p.p  27-74  in  Western  Spirituality:  Historical Roots, Ecumenical  Roots.  Matthew Fox  (ed.)  Santa  Fe : Bear. 1981

[56]   Barrell, Marnie  “God of all beauty, creation is  your treasure”  from  “God of all beauty”  No.48  in   Alleluia  Aotearoa.  Hymns and Songs for all Churches.  NZ  Hymnbook Trust,  2004   “Maker of  Mystery”  No.  47  in Faith Forever Singing  NZ  Hymns and Songs for a New  Day.  NZ  Hymnbook  Trust  2000 

[57]   Murray,  Shirley.   “I am the Vine”  No  35  in Faith  Forever Singing  NZ  Hymns and Songs for a New Day.  NZ  Hymnbook Trust  2000.   God of the Galaxies,  No.54  in Alleluia  Aotearoa.

[58] Urone,  P.   Epilogue  p..893 College Physics  Second  Edition  Brooks/Cole  USA    2001 . 





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