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Searching together for answers

Members of Pa. church raise questions about genetic technology

Think: "genetics." What comes to mind? High school biology? Cloned sheep? Bioengineered food? For members of Zion Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh, it was these questions:

• Since we can now clone animals, where does God fit?

• With genetic testing, will abortion become a common practice as a way of gender selection?

• As we are able to alter genes, how perfect will a child need to be?

In response, Eric Riesen, pastor of Zion, began research that led him to develop a nine-session adult forum curriculum on genetics.

Riesen, who developed the curriculum en route to his doctorate of ministry, consulted bioethics experts such as Gilbert Meilaender, Ronald Cole-Turner and Ted Peters. Through his study, he uncovered two distinct worldviews, the prevailing and the Christian.

"The prevailing worldview," Riesen said, "is that the issues of morality, right and wrong, and ethics are always secondary to financial considerations. 'It's feasible; we can do it. Somebody will pay for it. Why not do it?' The Christian worldview says, 'What does God want us to do? How can I be faithful to the God in whom we trust and believe to use technology to benefit people?' "

Zion's forum attracted 65 participants from the congregation and community. They explored the prevailing and Christian worldviews and discussed genetic testing and screening, reproductive technologies, ethics, stem cell research and cloning. Each session included information on genetics presented by Riesen, a guest speaker or a video, plus group discussion, a question-and-answer period and prayer.

People attended for several reasons: curiosity, to be sure science wasn't vilified, fear of what might happen if Christians aren't involved in bioethics, an interest in science and morality, and to try to gain a more comprehensive picture of genetics.

"Pastor told us from the beginning that we didn't all have to agree," member John Braughler said. "These issues are too new, but we have to have a place to stand. We all need to know how our faith can apply. We're not to play God in his absence but to imitate God in his presence," he said. "We have to remember God is the creator. In our prayers, in our worship, in our reading, and in our living, we live by the light. We try to do God's will, to his glory and to the benefit of all humankind."

Member Dorothy Braughler said: "Many people separate science from religion. They think they don't impact on one another. The value of this course for me was that it reinforced and broadened my conception of God. Learning about the genome and gene patterns helped me realize what a miracle the human body is. We are evidence of the omnipotence of God."

Riesen emphasized that the intent of the forum was to bring together science and faith perspectives.

"During the period of Enlightenment, the scientists said, 'We'll deal with the physical world, and the church can deal with values and things spiritual,' " he explained. "After two or three hundred years of separation, now we're finding the two can't be separated. We've got to come together somehow. Scientists need good values."

Riesen said the church can be a place where people of faith reconcile their struggles with genetic technology and where wrangling with ethical considerations is encouraged among scientists and non-scientists alike.

"The church needs to bring values to the table, values such as justice, compassion, the sanctity of human life, the concern for the neighbor for whom Christ died, and the knowledge that God can use imperfection to bring his reign into the world. We need to say, 'These things are important when we make those decisions,' " he said. "The classes provided a time for people to come to grips with where we're at and where we're going, to be proactive, to think about what kind of values we as Christian people want to bring to this so we're able to affirm all that is good.

"This isn't in any way to say that technology itself is somehow bad. It's not. God has given us this ability. It's often a worldview that's tied to technology that begins to raise some concerns for us — the misuse of that."

Genetic research and testing will continue to affect more lives. Ethical decisions may need to be made quickly. Congregations that have studied the issues and have helped to educate their communities will be prepared to support those who must make such decisions.

"The first thing a congregation needs is an atmosphere of some kind of tolerance, not being judgmental," member Charles Wingert said. "Otherwise, you're not going to get people to share their problems."


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