The Wrong Road to Utopia

Churches on the Wrong Road, edited by Stanley Atkins and Theodore McConnell (Regnery, 1986, 270 pp.; $7.95), and Shepherds Speak: American Bishops Confront the Social and Moral Issues that Challenge Christians Today, edited by Dennis Corrado and James Hinchey (Crossroad, 1986, 225 pp.; $12.95). Reviewed by Doug Bandow, senior fellow of the Cato Institute and syndicated columnist for the Copley News Service.

While America has drifted right politically, many church leaders have moved left, treating everything from disarmament to poverty as matters of theology. In Shepherds Speak, 18 Catholic leaders illustrate this growing trend as they grapple with a variety of controversial issues.

Several of the essays deal with controversies within the church itself, but the book’s most interesting writing involves the major policy issues of the day. The authors pronounce their views to be based on more than just currently fashionable political theory: “When the United States Catholic Conference addresses the question of El Salvador, or the impact of budget cuts on the poor,” writes Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul/Minneapolis, “it must be very clear that these actions are rooted in, directed by, and in fulfillment of a theologically grounded conception of the Church’s ministry.” Yet the volume’s many essays only demonstrate how difficult it is to transform general scriptural principles into specific policy prescriptions for a secular society.

For instance, in his discussion of capital punishment Rene Gracida, bishop of Corpus Christi, admits that “the Christian’s moral judgment on the rightness of using the death penalty cannot be based directly and simply on Sacred Scripture.” Thus, Gracida is forced to make essentially public-policy arguments—that the punishment is not “absolutely necessary to protect society,” among others—to back his call for abolition of the death penalty.

The chapter on the arms race does not even cite the Bible, and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s discussion of poverty is similarly flawed. Aside from occasional references to a papal address, Bernardin sounds like any liberal social scientist; his assertions as to the necessity of wealth redistribution and government economic regulation are backed by political rhetoric rather than scriptural passages.

The Illusion Of Perfectibility

It is this tendency to turn the eternal message of Christ’s salvation into just another program for a human utopia that disturbs the variety of intellectuals and churchmen who contributed to Churches on the Wrong Road. For, writes Edmund Fuller, churches now seem to be moving toward “some idea of the temporal perfectibility of humanity, the advent of a New Man, a new Adam, through human agencies.” Such is not, of course, the message of the eternal Christ; instead, these “goals tend to become political and economic ideologies,” Fuller warns.

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Some of the authors raise practical objections to political activism by religious leaders. The Reverend Canon Edward West, for instance, complains that history has shown that “the clergy so often take the ‘wrong’ side.” But the book does not focus on the relative merits of different policy options.

Instead, the commentators’ most serious concern is over the effect of the church’s growing worldly entanglements on its spiritual role. Clerics are increasingly tying crime and other problems “to collective rather than personal causes,” writes Jesuit James Schall, and speaking “of sanctity in terms of politics, wherein the burden of good and evil is unobtrusively shifted to a corporate whole and its structure.” Personal liberation is then sought through ideological movements rather than Christ, undercutting such basic theological tenets as Christ’s divinity. Yet “it seems rather absurd to be a Christian if Christian orthodoxy contains no abiding doctrine not derived from the political ideologies,” Schall concludes.

Does this mean that the Christian faith has no relevance to public policy? Of course not. But a godly society will come about only through the spiritual transformation of individual lives. “Christianity has no political, social or economic solution to the ills of the world,” observes University of Michigan historian Stephen Tonsor.

Thus, it is “the Gospel, the Good News” that “I want my church to speak out about,” writes Madeleine L’Engle in the concluding essay in Churches on the Wrong Road. “It is impossible to listen to the Gospel week after week and turn my back on the social issues confronting me today. But what I hope for is guidance, not legislation,” she adds.

Church leaders should not remain silent in the face of social injustice; the contributors to Shepherds Speak rightly want to promote Christian values in the worldly institutions around them. But Christ’s message—upon which the church is based—cannot be enforced by government. Clerics should follow L’Engle’s advice: preach the gospel, week after week. Only when individuals begin to follow Christ will they also begin to solve such problems as poverty, racism, crime, and international conflict.

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Genetic Engineering For Beginners

What Are They Saying About Genetic Engineering? by Thomas A. Shannon (Paulist Press, 1985, 103 pp.; $4.95). Reviewed by David B. Fletcher, associate professor of philosophy, Wheaton College, and coauthor of a forthcoming book on bioethics in evangelical perspective.

In vitro fertilization, surrogate mothering, embryo transfer, gene surgery, recombinant DNA technology, and other new developments in biotechnology are enough to baffle and worry those who wish to keep abreast of crucial social developments. Falling under the general term “genetic engineering,” they arise from the recent explosion in scientific knowledge about genetics. Because the issues are so new and the technological possibilities are both complex and awe-inspiring, the average thinking person needs basic orientation to this seemingly forbidding territory.

Paulist Press’s “What Are They Saying About …” series has met a similar need, particularly for its Roman Catholic readership, in such diverse areas as mysticism, Christian-Jewish relations, the end of the world, Mary, the social setting of the New Testament, virtue, and peace and war. In this recent addition to the series, Thomas Shannon, social ethicist at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, informs the reader about the current genetic engineering technologies while providing groundwork in the philosophical, religious, social, and ethical issues that bear on them.

Surprisingly in such a brief book, Shannon spends almost half of his pages on these background issues before discussing genetic engineering specifically. For Shannon, there are “thematic” issues, or “general ethical questions,” that span the various specific concerns in this area. These include the basis on which one would intervene into an individual’s genetic structure; criteria to justify such an intervention (behavioral, social, medical, political, and economic); who is to set the criteria; risks and benefits of intervention; the sort of future we are planning; and the relationship between genetics and behavior. Shannon then very helpfully addresses society’s different understandings, models, and roles of the scientist and the scientific enterprise, and discusses whether knowledge ever should be restricted for social and moral reasons. Considering the impact of genetic intervention on the future and our descendants, he suggests that our attitudes toward our descendants depend on our eschatology; an apocalyptic view will lessen our concern with the environment and the genetic legacy we pass on to our descendants.

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A prominent view on the relationship between biology and behavior is that of sociobiology, pioneered by E. O. Wilson, that rather than being noble and freely chosen, altruistic behavior is but the expression of genetic programming. While Shannon is skeptical about such reductionism, he holds out hope that “a better understanding of the biological basis of behavior would … help us establish a more adequate understanding of human responsibility.”

Our evaluation of issues in genetic engineering depends on our value framework, says Shannon. Therefore we must ask, What is “nature”? Does it set limits to what we can do, as many people maintain, so that any attempts to improve upon nature are seen as Promethean rebellion? Or is an alternative understanding preferable? What is “health”? Is it merely physiological function or does it have social and cultural dimensions? To what extent can humans validly claim to be cocreators?

Looking briefly to Scripture for a perspective on technologies such as genetic engineering, Shannon interestingly suggests that the Book of Genesis ambivalently contains two attitudes toward technology: technology as a means of salvation (represented by Noah’s ark), and technology misused (symbolized in the Tower of Babel).

Although Shannon is more prone to display different options than to argue his own views, he questions society’s drive to perfect intelligence and power, rather than to foster the virtues of kindness, compassion, mercy, or decency, and he warns that given our record on such matters, we may be expected to attempt such abuses as the use of gene-splicing technology to create subhuman slaves from human and animal genes.

Among specific genetic engineering technologies he addresses is recombinant DNA research, the splicing of genes from different organisms to create new organisms. This has proved useful in agriculture, and in health care, bacteria have been designed to mass produce the critical drug interferon. This research has spawned a perhaps uneasy, multimillion-dollar partnership between academia and business, a partnership Shannon encourages us to watch.

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He also addresses new birth technologies, including sperm banks, amniocentesis, in vitro fertilization, embryo transfer, sperm separation for sex selection, and surrogate mothering. Unfortunately, Shannon slights other crucial areas, including genetic screening and counseling, and although he mentions amniocentesis, he says little about the arguments for and against selective abortion of genetically affected fetuses.

It is also unfortunate that Shannon generally reports on specific technologies without going into sufficient detail about different kinds of cases, and rather than do serious analysis of the issues, he is content to sketch the main positions. Religious perspectives are raised only cursorily, and conservative positions such as those of Paul Ramsey or Jeremy Rifkin are seen as “panicky.”

As a brief, readable, and fair introduction to genetic engineering, Shannon’s book is of considerable value. He raises important, often-neglected questions—including the extent to which cultural values subtly shape the agendas for research, the seeming irresistibility of the technological imperative (“if it can be done it should be done”), and the responsibilities we have to future generations.

The Bible In Two Worlds

Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in America, by Mark A. Noll (Harper & Row, 1987, 255 pp.; $19.95, binding). Reviewed by Donald K. McKim, associate professor of theology, University of Dubuque Theological Seminary (Iowa), and author of What Christians Believe About the Bible (Nelson, 1985).

A key question for evangelicals today is how to relate to biblical criticism. To understand why evangelical responses vary, we can turn to this interesting study by Mark Noll. Here we learn how evangelicals have interacted with critical biblical scholarship over the last century. Noll shows the breadth and diversity of evangelical views guided by the central conviction that Scripture is the Word of God.

The context of the story is two communities. One is the world of the professional biblical scholar who must be rigorous and honest to be heard in the academic community. The other is the community of faith where churches nurture their own convictions and interpretations of Scripture. In the last century, these communities have often clashed for those scholars who seek to live in both at the same time.

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Noll impressively documents evangelical entry into the intellectual marketplace as full partners in the academic discussion of Scripture when critical views of the Bible were introduced. Biblical critics like Charles A. Briggs were challenged directly by Old Princeton scholars such as B. B. Warfield (1880–1900). Noll tells how evangelicals retreated in light of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy to the fortresses of faith (1900–35). He details how they moved into the wider world through graduate education in universities such as Harvard, and through new professional organizations like the Institute for Biblical Research, while publishing companies such as Eerdmans broke new paths with major biblical commentary series (1935–74). Today, evangelicals are shown meeting the challenges of new questions in the midst of critical biblical studies.

One important element in the growth of evangelical biblical scholarship has been the influence of British evangelicals. They have given Americans models of conservative yet highly responsible professional biblical scholarship. This tradition extends from Lightfoot, Westcott and Hort, to F. F. Bruce and I. H. Marshall. Noll notes that British and American contexts differ and their emphases vary. But under British influence, American evangelicals are “drawn to a study of the Bible which attempts to find an appropriate place for believing criticism in the church.” This has been a key legacy.

Inerrancy And Criticism

Noll finally defines the challenges to evangelical scholarship in its clash with critical views over the “truth” of Scripture. One evangelical response is “critical anti-criticism,” which sees the inerrancy of Scripture as “the epistemological keystone of Christianity itself.” Another response is “believing criticism,” which maintains that “evangelical interpretations are, in principle, reformable” so “biblical inspiration is compatible with reinterpretations of venerable positions.” Noll describes the potentials and perils of the latter approach. The cases of Robert Gundry (CT, Feb. 3, 1984, p. 36) and Ramsey Michaels (CT, July 15, 1983, p. 35) display the difficulties “believing critics” can face.

According to Noll, larger frameworks including the issue of inerrancy must be considered. Some evangelicals have maintained Scripture’s authority while not trying to defend its errorlessness. Others fully embrace a careful doctrine of inerrancy, but then discuss further great issues. Noll personally opts for this second scenario as having “more potential than the first.” But he calls evangelicals of each persuasion to “move beyond the external examination of Scripture to an internal appropriation of its message.”

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This is a valuable book on many levels. Along with much else, it shows that evangelical responses to critical scholarship in America have not been uniform, just as evangelicalism itself is not a monolithic structure. Such knowledge should encourage evangelicals of all shades if they are told they betray their heritage by being open to critical concerns. Evangelicals need not fear losing their faith before the scrutiny of biblical criticism. Nor should they be afraid of engaging in full and vigorous study of Scripture from the perspectives and commitments of their evangelical faith.

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