"God, meet Synthia. Synthia, this is God."

John Kleinsman
Issue 31, August 2010 

The creation of the first life form with a totally synthetic genome, affectionately dubbed "Synthia," has generated huge interest. While some would claim that J. Craig Venter and his team have mimicked the creation of life rather than originating something new, there is no doubt that it represents, as Julian Savulescu puts it, "a step towards something more controversial: [the] creation of living beings with capacities and natures that could never have naturally evolved." [1] Savulescu has also noted that while the potential for good is real and significant, even though far in the future, "the risks are also unparalleled." [2]

Venter himself readily admits the dangers of releasing such life forms into the environment. Thus he has included a 'suicide gene' to prevent his bacteria from reproducing should they be accidentally released. While this is reassuring in the short term, the stated hoped-for promising applications of synthetic life forms – such as microbes that eat oil – highlight the underlying intention that synthetic life forms will eventually be released into the environment. Add to this the real possibility that such technology could easily be used by terrorists, and some are saying that we are about to open a Pandora's Box and that we need to pull back.

As a theologian I want to ask: "Where is God in this?" "How might theology inform our response to Venter's achievement?" It is fascinating that it is secular commentators who have mostly brought 'God language' into the discussion by suggesting that Venter's work may represent a case of humans 'playing God'. The use of this term invites more comment.

Many scientists would object to the term; albeit unwittingly, it sets up a false dichotomy between science and faith. Generally speaking, scientists are motivated by a beneficent concern for humankind – it is this that drives research for new cures and other advantageous outcomes. And these scientists are on solid 'holy' ground in taking this stance. As the New Zealand Catholic Bishops have noted: "We believe that all human beings have a role as co-creators with God, and as participants in the evolutionary process." [3] That is to say, it is part of our God-given human nature to push the boundaries, to modify the world and ourselves.

I suspect that for others the term 'playing God' represents a metaphor; a means for raising the question about whether we are going too far, doing something that may not, in the long term, benefit us or our world. It's a way of flagging the idea that there are limits to what we do, that there are lines in the sand we shouldn't cross, and it's mostly used in a pejorative way.

From a religious perspective the term 'playing God' is undoubtedly a positive affirmation of the awesome creative power of God over life; a totally benign power that exists for the good of all creation, humans included (but not humans alone). However, the way in which the term is most commonly employed would seem to suggest an understanding that God's involvement in the world is what some philosophers would call 'predicamental'. It implies, incorrectly, that God regularly intervenes in the predicaments of our world, acting directly to exercise absolute control over the events surrounding our birth, development and death.

Leaving aside the question of miraculous interventions, which are the exception rather than the rule, this is not how God works. The awesome power of God which lies behind the wonder of creation is expressed always within a framework of care and responsibility that proscribes the use of power in arbitrary, interventionist ways. God exercises power with restraint while engaging with us through a mode of self-giving that respects human reason and free will and upholds the integrity of creation. The problem with the power being unleashed by technological advances such as Venter's is that we humans are all too likely to use it in ways that do not reflect the caring and carefully proscribed way in which God's power manifests itself in creation.

The problem is not just the technology, nor even the power it brings, but our inability to use that power only in ways that respect the integrity of creation in all its biodiversity. To the extent that we believe in the (mistaken) image of an all powerful, controlling, unrestrained and predicamental God then we are all the more likely to imitate this God and less likely to eschew the use of power in the way God does.

Even if we can agree on where the boundaries lie with respect to the use of technology, we have to take into account that our track record in caring for the environment is not good. Identifying the line in the sand is only part of the challenge. Ensuring we stay on the right side of the line presents an even bigger challenge. While we recognise the potential for good that might follow from Venter's achievements, given that the commercial windfalls associated with synthetic biology could run into the trillions of dollars, and given that there is nothing like the 'smell of money' to blind us to our ethical responsibilities, there is plenty to be concerned about.

The challenge, theologically speaking, is not our desire to 'play God' but the likelihood, in the face of our increased power to influence the world, that we act less and less like God. Only if we can become more like God should we entertain opening further the door that Venter is showing us.

John Kleinsman is Director of The Nathaniel Centre.


[1] Quoted in http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/may/20/craig-venter-synthetic-life-genome

[2] Ibid.

[3] See the NZCBC Submission to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, October 2000.