Christianity and GMOs: An Interview with CICCU

By Nick Dinan

As a scientist and atheist, a perspective of genetically modified (GM) crops rooted in religion is one that is naturally foreign to me. I sat down with James Roberts, representing the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU), to explore the moral conflicts of GM foods – are they rebelling against scripture or are they acceptable within the standards of the Bible?

Nick Dinan: What are your personal views on GM crops? 

James Roberts: Personally, I think they’re a bad idea, but not from a Christian perspective. I don’t think that the technology is good enough to ensure that something bad doesn’t happen.

ND: Do you think that your particular views are representative of the Christian church, or at least the Christian Society within Cambridge?

JR: I think there’s a broad spectrum of viewpoints. There’ll certainly be some people who are against it, because quite stereotypically you’re ‘playing God’. However I don’t particularly think it’s an issue. The Bible in Genesis calls for us to be stewards of the world, care for God’s creation and to look after it under his ultimate rule. So I don’t think GM crops are particularly different from what we’ve been doing for thousands of years through selective breeding – it’s just skipping out a couple of steps.

ND: You point out that we help the plants skip a couple of steps ahead. Technology is progressing to the stage where we may take a few steps further than that. Where do you think the line will be drawn for GM crops to still fall under God’s natural order of things?

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Credit leyink

JR: It’s a very grey area. It depends what you’re trying to do and what you’re trying to achieve. If there is some kind of beneficial goal at the end then I think that probably justifies what you’re doing. For example, if you’re going to end up with a plant that produces something beneficial, you can probably justify it. However, if you’re just fiddling around with genes out of curiosity then that’s not such a great thing.

ND: Developing these techniques to eventually reach a positive goal is often the result of ‘fiddling around’ without knowledge of what future benefits may be. In that respect, how would you distinguish between fiddling around and aiming towards a positive goal?

JR: It comes down to your motivations – are you being a good steward? Are you keeping in mind the risks and what could potentially go wrong? Are you taking precautions? Basically, we want good scientific practice. Thinking through those things is what differentiates between carelessness and actually doing something that can benefit the scientific community and humanity.

ND: From your own perspective, do you believe that someone who disagrees with GM foods for religious reasons should then logically be against gene therapy in humans?

JR: I think the underlying question is that there’s a difference between humanity and the rest of creation; humanity is made under God’s image as a special creation. However gene therapy and GM crops seems to me almost as one in the same thing, you just need to be more careful with humans. I don’t think that if you’ve decided to be against GM crops you could say that gene therapy is okay, but I’d add a pinch of salt to that as I don’t know the ins and outs of gene therapy.

ND: So in terms of a being a steward to these resources, surely we should be doing the best to help those around us. For example, golden rice provides a precursor to vitamin A, and vitamin A deficiency is something that kills 675,000 children a year – GM crops can really help people. Is there a moral dichotomy between tampering with God’s work and helping these people?

JR: So I think being a good steward involves not only making the best use of resources, but also being responsible with what we’re using. If the risks involved in creating golden rice were too great, then no matter what the potential gain of the end goal is, it’s not right. The ends don’t justify the means if your means are full of hazards. But I don’t think that you’re tampering with God’s creation if you’re manipulating crops.

ND: I know that you’re very much focused on the risks of GM food, but putting yourself in the shoes of a someone who is against GM crops from a Christian moral context, is there a conflict between the potential gains of GM crops and the fact that GM crops could be a moral injustice?

JR: I think if their conscience is telling them that ‘to do this would be to go against God’s rule’, then for them to sanction it is wrong no matter what the potential gain is. If they see it as rebelling against God, then it is not something they should do.

ND: I want to return to your concerns that you mentioned in your first answer about the risks of accidentally putting toxins in. A wheat crop undergoing testing in the UK has been engineered for Aphid resistance using naturally occurring, non-toxic proteins existing in the food chain. Toxins are therefore highly regulated and the risk is low. Do you think that despite the chance of toxicity being very small, we shouldn’t support GM foods?

JR: I think it’s something you’d need to think very carefully through. You need to think about the long term as you could have something that could build up in the ecosystem and be toxic at higher concentrations. It’s just about caution, really. I think we should be against GM crops as a whole as it’s just not something we should rush into. We need to make sure we’ve thought of all the hazards and risks. If it’s fine, then why not, but we always need to bear in mind that we don’t think about these things properly a lot of the time. The scientific process is riddled with potential biases and errors and things that we don’t spot like thalidomide and that kind of thing. We often have an under appreciation of the hazards involved

Part 2 of this interview will appear on the 4th of February 

Job: Righteous Sufferer or Eco-Warrior?

By Tom Pryce

Approaching a stranger – with no particular Biblical expertise – on the street, asking what the Bible says concerning the natural world, one can anticipate the answer. Having been given the supreme position at the start of the canon, Genesis 1-3 comes to the forefront of their memory. It reminds them of God’s creation in 7 days and that terribly slippery notion of humanity’s ‘dominion’ over the planet. And yet – foregoing the heated debates regarding its place in ancient Israelite faith – creation plays a significant role elsewhere, in oft-neglected corners of the Hebrew Bible. Such passages offer a counter balance to the divinely ordained environmental exploitation committed under the banner of ‘dominion’. They provide a deeper understanding of what it really meant when God made humanity stewards over creation.

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Léon Bonnat’s “Job”

The beautifully constructed divine speeches of Job 38-41 are one such text. After 37 chapters of bitter complaints from the righteous sufferer Job, God bursts onto the scene, speaking from the whirlwind. Belittling rhetorical questions challenge Job’s misguided presuppositions: it is God, not Job, who is the all-powerful, all-knowing Creator and carer for creation. Further, God’s role extends far beyond the individual cares and well-being of Job, or of humanity in general. God cares for the wild ass, beyond human control. God cares for where no humans inhabit, causing rain to fall in an otherwise barren desert. God cares even for the Leviathan, the great Biblical emblem of the chaos that constantly threatens the natural and social order; described by God as a play-mate in the oceans, what to humans is the destructive ‘other’ is to God a rubber duck in the bath.

These speeches are often interpreted as a heartless God, apathetic to Job’s misery, challenging the petty human’s anthropocentrism. I believe something much subtler is going on. In the existential crisis preserved in these passages, Job’s anthropocentrism is challenged, yes. But this induces a tragic sublimity in the fullest sense: with his self-understanding decentred, and his perceptions of the created order shown to be misguided, the rug has been pulled from beneath Job’s feet. God, however, does not do this in a cruel manner, revelling in Job’s suffering. Destroying the categories through which Job understands the world, God intends to elicit self-knowledge from Job. Challenging him to reach a fuller understanding of himself, the tragic sublime knocks Job down, so as to then elevate him to new insight. Job  is challenged by God to a new understanding of what it means to be a steward over creation. Being created in the God’s image, the description of divine providence serves as a reminder to Job of his responsibilities.

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Julius Schnorr von Carosfeld’s “Creation (Day Seven)”

Job is forced to appreciate that ruling over creation does not mean, or even allow, the creation of a hedonistic paradise where all creatures – or at least humans – may have their inner-most desires perpetually satisfied. Instead, it requires care for all of the creatures which inhabit the earth, even if this care requires the self-sacrifice of some. Providence over creation requires that some creatures may suffer, to allow for the general well being of the created whole. This even requires that God allows the eagle prey on the fallen human soldier, so as to feed the young waiting in the nest. God challenges Job to appreciate the nature of divine providence. In doing so God elicits a new self-understanding of Job, who can recognize what his role as the imago deo truly requires of him.

If one were to ask Job – after his dialogue with God – what the Bible has to say about the natural world, I believe that the answer would be quite contrary to that of the stranger on the street. Rather than dominion, I believe the righteous Job would call for responsible stewardship over creation. I believe Job would recognize the value and care which humans, as stewards, should have for creation, even if this is sometimes to the detriment of their personal desires. I believe Job would understand the full sense of what the stewardship given by God to humanity in Genesis 1-3 really calls for.