The end of man is knowledge but there's one thing he can't know. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can't know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn't got and which if he had it would save him.
-- Robert Penn Warren, "All the King's Men"
This echo from an old college literature course came drifting back to me this week when scientists announced that they had succeeded in decoding the human genome. Like the secrets of the atom, unlocked in the 1940s, our knowledge of the genome may one day have the power to save us or to doom us.
And like so many recent scientific breakthroughs, it raises the question of whether humanity can be trusted with the fruits of its own intellect. We have proved that we are sufficiently smart, but we have yet to establish that we are sufficiently wise.
Much has been written about the ends, both beneficent and destructive, to which our ever-increasing genetic knowledge might be put. Our primary ethical challenge, it would seem, is to facilitate the former while obstructing the latter. But this presumes that we can distinguish between the two.
I am not so sure about that. Knowledge of the genome may do us profound harm, even if it is used only for virtuous purposes. It is the greatest weapon we have yet created in our species' long battle against its natural weaknesses. As such, it raises the question of whether humanity would be better off without such weaknesses.
I don't believe we would. Perverse as it may sound, I know of no other condition through which God communicates with us so deeply or directly. In ways we cannot fathom, our physical weaknesses and emotional turmoil are intended for our good.
This notion is not a new one. The Greek dramatist Aeschylus wrote: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God." And the narratives of holy lives, from his time to ours, bear this out.
Imagine the life of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, had his dreams of courtly glory not been dashed by a war wound. Imagine the loss to Western spirituality if John of the Cross had never been afflicted by the "dark night of the senses" and the "dark night of the soul." Imagine Augustine or Dorothy Day if they had never sunk into the profound disillusionment that inspired their conversions.
Or train your gaze closer to home. Have you ever known anyone whose physical suffering precipitated a spiritual rebirth? Have you ever been knit closer to individuals with whom you shared either sorrow or crisis? Has the need to be comforted inspired you to comfort others?
But the argument that human beings should have no weaknesses and face no suffering is equally dangerous, and far more seductive. For the more sophisticated we become in our struggle against weakness and imperfection, the less tolerant we will become of flaw, or even difference. The more we can fix, the greater will be the affront of those who can't be fixed, or won't accept fixing. In making ourselves more durable, we might easily make ourselves less feeling. In making ourselves more self-sufficient, we might well make ourselves more isolated, in both the personal and the cosmic spheres.
The complexity of our situation may be most evident in the life of Christ. Francis S. Collins of the National Institutes of Health, a Christian who led one of the two teams that decoded the genome, has pointed out that Jesus spent much of his public ministry healing. In that respect, an increase in genetic knowledge makes it possible for humanity to become more Christ-like.
On the other hand, in the most anguished moment of his own life, as he prayed in Gethsemane, Jesus realized that our redemption required his suffering-- indeed, his death--and though he could have turned away from that knowledge, he did not. Neither, after his death, did his disciples.
To paraphrase Jack Burden, the wonderfully named narrator of "All the King's Men": The end of man is suffering, but he can't know whether suffering will save him or kill him. He will be killed all right, but he can't know whether he will be killed by the suffering he did do, or by the suffering he didn't do, and which, if he had done it, would have saved him.
Fortunately (and regrettably, this being the nature of paradox), the mapping of the genome does not presage the disappearance of suffering from our planet. Each of us retains the ability, indeed the proclivity, to manufacture turmoil, both for ourselves and for others. But various diseases, infirmities, and imperfections will soon be on the run. We will tolerate fewer and fewer manifestations of our mortality. And that is what I am afraid of.