Beliefnet

Q:

The rising fear of Frankenfoods seems to be based on the fear of any artificial tinkering with the genes of vegetables or grains that we eat. But many scholars believe that the ban on bio-engineered crops will lead to the starvation of millions in poor countries. What can religious thought offer to resolve this dilemma? In gratitude for the good things the earth gives us, how do we make responsible choices about the technology we use?

A: Bio-engineering may well be territory in which "angels fear to tread." One need not be an angel, though, to fear dealing too glibly with questions of this magnitude. Yet, I prefer fear to fearfulness. Fear can become fuel for courage; the greater the fear, the greater the blaze of courage when we own our fear and let go of it. Fearfulness owns us; it holds us in its grip.

Ideologies differ from religious thought as fearfulness differs from fear. People who panic over "Frankenfood" (the very name begs the question) may have little in common with those who panic over birth-control; what they do share is fearfulness which makes them cling to an ideology. Religious thought, no matter how sensitive to reasonable fears, lets go and takes risks.

Religious thought, no matter how sensitive to reasonable fears, lets go and takes risks.

Nature takes risks. One aspect of the attunement that makes thought religious is being in tune with nature. "The good things that earth gives us" include for some of us the smarts to become bio-engineers. They show themselves to be grateful for this gift by using it in tune with nature.

For endless ages, earth has been "tinkering with genes." Our intelligence and our technology are of one piece with this evolving universe. That we are aware of this makes wings of freedom sprout from our shoulders and hangs weights of responsibility on our feet. We must make choices. The question is, how to make responsible ones, how to respond gratefully--that is, fully--to the gifts of nature. What we are and what we can do is also nature's gift.

Only once have I been shown around a bio-engineering lab. What struck me most forcefully was the contrast between these lab rooms and a garden. It frightens me to think that the mentality of people working there could be as far removed from a gardener's way of thinking as their antiseptic environment is from cold-frames, compost, and humus.

A ban on bio-engineered crops may win us time, but experimentation will go forward. My concern is for the kinds of people who will make the choices. I would like to see genetic engineers get dirt under their fingernails once in a while. I want the decisions made by men and women well familiar with humus.

The curriculum for bio-engineers ought to include hands-on gardening and conscious cultivation of religious thought.

Humus makes us human. The word "humility" comes from the same root. Even "humor" has long, though fancifully, been connected with humus. Humor does for the soul what humidity does for the soil--makes it fertile. The way a gardener thinks is the prototype of religious thought: grateful, down to earth--which means humble--and with an edge of humor.

The curriculum for bio-engineers ought to include hands-on gardening and conscious cultivation of religious thought--thought in harmony with nature and the mystery nature embodies. It is not as if religious thought had this or that comment to make on bio-engineering. Rather, it is a matter of life and death to ensure that decisions in this field will spring not from ideology but from genuinely religious thinking.

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