The Rev. Dr. Nancy J. Duff of Princeton Theological Seminary addresses the subject of genetics through the lens of animals as considered in the Bible and in science. This enhanced version video is part of the Day1 Faith & Science in the 21st Century Series, made possible through the support of a grant by the John Templeton Foundation.
The first theological question I asked as a child was whether animals go to heaven. Although I wanted the answer to be yes, I really only wanted some animals in heaven: cats and dogs, horses and bunnies, but certainly not spiders or snakes. Those childhood thoughts stand in contrast to a comment made by a 5th grader when his Sunday school was asked which animals they wish hadn't been on Noah's ark. When some children identified the same animals I had wished not to see in heaven, one 5th grader protested: "This is wrong," he said. "Whether we like some animals or not, God created all of them, and the Bible says all of them were saved from the flood. We can't be glad some were saved and wish others hadn't been." This child saw in the biblical story what many adult Christians have failed to see.
Although we let beloved pets make demands on our lives, we can be indifferent to the welfare of animals we cannot see, or do not like. Our being made in the image of God and having dominion over the earth, so the logic goes, means we are radically different from other animals and can keep our distance from them.
But both the Bible and science challenge that attitude. The Bible says dominion over animals should reflect divine care, which certainly excludes indifference. And science teaches that humans share some DNA with all living organisms and a lot of DNA with a few of them. (98.5% of our genes are shared with the chimpanzee). Both the Bible and science show - one by divine revelation and the other by scientific data - that we are closely related to living creatures of every kind.
Genetic research also puts us in closer relationship with other animals by using animals for our benefit. In what sounds to some of us like science fiction, researchers can incorporate a gene from one species into the germ cell of another to produce what's called a transgenic animal. The use of transgenic animals has increased knowledge of such human diseases as cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and diabetes, and has increased the promise of better treatment. But the promise of genetic research is accompanied by potential threat to the wellbeing of animals who can be patented - as if they were inanimate objects - and who sometimes suffer, not for their own benefit, but for ours.
In the Bible, Job said to his friends: "Ask the animals, and they will teach you." (Job 12:7-10). Elizabeth Johnson points out that theology has seldom asked the animals anything. But the author of Revelation listened to the animals, and he heard them singing praises to the Lamb of God. An attitude of indifference toward the threat that genetic research can sometimes pose to the wellbeing of animals will not do. What will do is that we join the animals in their song of praise and - as we thank God for the benefits of genetic science - we promise to care for animals as God cares for them.
Elizabeth Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.
The Day1 Faith & Science Series project was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in these documents are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.