Krista's Journal: On Cloning and Religion

March 3, 2005

A biologist, Carl Feit, once gave me a useful description of how religion and science are not only fitting but necessary partners. He said: "As a scientist, I'm compelled to discover anything I can discover. But the problem arises, what do you do with something once you've discovered it? What's going to happen with that knowledge, and how will it be used with human beings?" Science does not pose those questions, but religion does. The great traditions are ancient repositories of reflection across generations, rooted in texts and teachings that have endured. Carl Feit says they are the richest resources we have for asking sophisticated questions of meaning and morality — and for helping us think about where science is taking us. In this week's program, we look at the farthest reaches of cloning — the potential technology to clone a human being. This sounds like science fiction. But it is a vast field of research. It is yielding knowledge and advances that might find their way into routine medical care. It might even one day change the way we think about fertility. Bioethicist Laurie Zoloth suggests that we must carefully frame our debate about what is at stake on this medical frontier. A cloned human being would come into the world as a baby. But this biotechnological aspiration is not, she speculates, really about birth and new life. Our impulse to create human beings in our image, she says, is driven at heart by a familiar human reluctance to accept mortality and frailty. It is about our fear of death. Religion, she says, is there to grapple with this reality. It would ask us, for example, to consider how the reality of death imparts meaning to life. It can provide a moral vocabulary to name the perils that always emerge when we underestimate the complexity of the human condition. Laurie Zoloth speaks as one steeped in the living tradition of Judaism, bringing it to work creatively at the cutting edge of bioethics. I will never again hear a reference to the prophet Ezekiel's vision of a valley of dry bones, knitting themselves together and rising up, without realizing this as a fantasy we recreate in modern test tubes. I will never again recall the biblical image of the Book of Life without imagining Laurie Zoloth in her laboratory, making an analogy between the alphabet technology of DNA and sacred legends of lost letters that, if found, could bring a man-made creature to life. Here's one of my favorite thoughts she offers in today's program — enriching my understanding of how religious symbols and narrative can offer practical resources, both on scientific frontiers and in our public debate:

The texts that come to mind for me are the texts of this tradition — the Talmudic texts and the arguments — in part because it's a complicated compilation of law and fantasy and a moral universe constructed of the powerful language to tell us a story that reminds us of what we might and/or must do. …We are faced with what's been called fiction science, science that's just beyond the borders of our imagination, just shifting from possible to probable. And because it's such a fantastic idea, I think we need rather fantastic and metaphorical allusions to think about them — as just one more voice in the complicated response we have to this sort of science.

In other words — counterintuitively perhaps — the more fantastic our science becomes, the more deeply and practically we might draw on rich, story-based ethical sources like the Talmud. Next week, we'll continue in this vein, with physicist and Anglican theologian John Polkinghorne. He suggests that recent advances in quantum physics make new room for theological insights and questions. He quotes the Australian physicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies, whom I plan to interview later this spring, and to whom I'll give the last provocative word this week: "It may seem bizarre, but science offers us a surer path to God than religion."

Krista Recommends Reading:
Born Again: Faith and Yearning in the Cloning Controversy
by Laurie Zoloth This week I'd like to recommend the linked essay by Laurie Zoloth — intriguingly titled "Born Again: Faith and Yearning in the Cloning Controversy" — which is included in the book Cloning and the Future of Human Embryo Research. Reading this essay made me want to interview her in the first place. It provides much to ponder, and elaboration on some of the ideas and stories that made their way into our conversation. In writing as in speech, Laurie Zoloth is as warm and engaging as she is erudite and thought-provoking.

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is director of Bioethics at the Center for Genetic Medicine at Northwestern University, and a scholar in the Jewish Talmud and ancient rabbinic texts.