When Backward Is Forward

Christmas may be the best argument against genetic enhancement.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today, December 2004 (vol. 48, no. 12), p. 66.

Even by reality TV’s bizarre standards, UPN’s Amish in the City was something of a milestone. The show featured five Amish teenagers in the midst of rumspringa, the period when young people decide whether they will join the community as adults. Amish in the City placed its adventuresome subjects in the oh-so-realistic environs of a Beverly Hills mansion, along with five city kids straight out of MTV central casting.

Long before it aired, Amish in the City was decried for exploiting a religious community mortified at the thought of owning a television, let alone appearing on one. But as the episodes went by, one thing became clear: The Amish kids were awfully sympathetic characters. Sure, they lacked style, street smarts, and experience with parking meters and sushi. But their upbringing in a rural, Christian culture had equipped them with qualities their urban counterparts lacked—such as, say, maturity. Amish in the City didn’t do much for the reputation of reality TV, but it did something for the reputation of the Amish.

If you no longer see life as a gift, you are no longer able to love.

Non-Beverly-Hills-dwelling Amish are readily identified by their plain clothing and horse-drawn carriages, symbols of their collective decision to step off modernity’s technological treadmill. But should this Anabaptist movement survive for another century, they won’t just look different from other North Americans. More than ever, they will be different—because our culture will have changed the nature of human being itself.

Based on our growing knowledge of the human genetic code, we are on the threshold of not only curing disease but of redefining “normal.” Parents already are pressuring doctors to prescribe human-growth hormones for slightly shorter-than-average—but perfectly healthy—children. Within a few years athletes will have access to undetectable genetic therapies that boost the production of muscle tissue. By the end of the century, parents may well be able to engineer not only their descendants’ height and hair color, but longevity and intelligence as well.

Just as with pharmaceutical blockbusters like Viagra and Botox, the explosive growth (and profits) will be not in healing but in “enhancement.” But enhancement based on genetic engineering will be permanent in a way that drugs are not.

Even people of no religious faith are uncomfortable with this prospect. “Genetic tinkering gives me the willies,” The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in August. Harvard philosopher Michael J. Sandel wrote an important essay for The Atlantic titled “The Case Against Perfection.” Biotech’s “promise of mastery is flawed,” he wrote. “It threatens to banish our appreciation of life as a gift, and to leave us with nothing to affirm or behold outside our own will.” Genetic enhancement will erode our collective sense of humility and responsibility. It will make the world “inhospitable to the unbidden, a gated community writ large.”

A Christian might put it even more plainly: If you no longer see life as a gift, you are no longer able to love.

But I suspect that the most eloquent arguments of columnists and philosophers will be fruitless. Name one technology that human beings have developed but not used. If we were willing to use the awesome and awful technology of nuclear weapons, why would we prevent people from “enhancing” their descendants?

So followers of Christ will have to decide whether to join our culture in its quest for mastery. It’s hard to see how we can do so and still celebrate Christmas. To grasp the meaning of that event, early Christians turned to the language of fulfillment. Even in the cradle this baby was “fully” God, they said. But he was also fully human. He lacked nothing essential to the good human life, even in that dark night where the best available technology was fire to heat the water for his birth. He lacked nothing, Luke says, as he grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man. He lacked nothing when he died in violent pain in that long-ago age before anesthesia. Even now, we believe, he is still fully embodied, fully human, yet more truly embodied and more truly human than ever before. He has the divine life, the perfect human body that our technology feverishly and vainly seeks to achieve.

Do we want his life? Or do we want technology’s alluring facsimile? Are we willing for our children to be less than normal, that they may understand something essential about humility, responsibility, and love? We may have something to learn from those awkward, admirable teenagers on Amish in the City. Their choices will be ours all too soon.