More than a decade ago, church leaders thought long and deliberated over the rapid changes set to take place as our understanding of the human genome seemed complete. Since then, scientists have uncovered so many other lines of inquiry regarding our genetic makeup, including findings that we all appreciate as they lead to advancements in the treatment of challenging and potentially lethal conditions such as cancer and rare diseases.

We have had rapid advances in using popular tests from companies such as 23andMe to find out what our genes say about us, and every so often we hear in the news that a criminal cold case has been solved thanks to the voluntary sharing of our genetic makeup.

As I write about in this month’s feature, faith leaders recently met on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with scientists and later at a luncheon off-campus to share views on genomics. This was part of the recent Genomics for Faith project hosted by the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Genomics is the study of DNA, and whether we are talking about the DNA of humans or other species it remains a work in progress, which faith leaders were able to learn about directly from the researchers who openly shared the contents of the work that is underway in their labs.

Many of us had questions about the use of embryonic stem cells, which can still be a controversial topic. Even in the initial small group dialogue between genomic researchers and faith leaders over lunch, we were pressed to drill down to what both groups saw as important. In fact, faith leaders were still familiarizing ourselves with what was meant by stem cells in the first place. Many of us had examples of life-saving medicine, but stem cells were not involved.

Some wondered, should we be praying for scientists or keeping tabs on them? 

The ELCA Social Statement on Genetics, published in 2011, encourages “theological attention to other themes and practices that have been and increasingly will be crucial for preaching, teaching and practical ministry, such as baptismal vocation, moral formation and community deliberation.” The statement even encourages attention within seminary curriculums to pastoral care issues stemming from advances in genetic sciences.

It is hard to say how many courses have been offered at seminaries over the last decade with a focus on the human genome. Yet, such a course could come in handy in understanding medical situations parishioners may face in the future.

What struck me in observing this past month’s dialogue was the unpreparedness of both the faith leaders and the scientists for how each would consider the others’ views. The topic was quickly met with curiosity of what people of faith should know about stem cells. There was even a detour into bad sci-fi plots where embryos were being raised for research on a farm somewhere, which brought some concern mixed with nervous chuckles.

Behind the smiles and uncomfortable laughter, progress happens. It is slow, it may seem fleeting, but it happens. No one saw the discussion as a waste of their time. There seemed to be an interest in carrying it on further, although no one seemed sure what was next.

There was a subtle but ever-present level of distrust of scientists by the pastors in the room, as was the dismissiveness of the pastoral concerns over the health and wholeness of creation. A middle ground, emerged as it often does — almost like a mirage — when talking about how comfortable scientists are about discussing religion with colleagues. Some thought it would rarely come up, even in a conversation with a lab partner outside of work.

According to one of the organizers, the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology usually completes its educational work with police officers and journalists over a dedicated three-day set of meetings in classrooms. They thought the less formal approach, even over lunch in our last meeting, was the better way of working with pastors and faith leaders.

The question many of us left with, or at least I did, was “What if we could host discussions like this more often?”

 Maybe that is the task of groups such as the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology, which, since 1991, has sought to affirm the work of science and encourage the church to boldly explore how we may theologically respond. That exploration seems to have many miles and years yet to go. And that leads us all forward — together.

Susan Barreto
Susan Barreto

Susan is an author with a long-time interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology’s online magazine. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member for the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our Bodies Are Selves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.

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