How do people wrestle with the novel bioethical issues raised by modern genetics? Many turn to their clergy for advice, but find them too uninformed to help. In a new course called God, Adam and Eve: Theology and Science in the Genome Age, theology students in Chicago are exploring the interface of science and religion in order to better address their future congregations' concerns.
The class at Chicago Theological Seminary on the city's South Side is taught by faculty members from both the seminary and neighboring University of Chicago; the collaboration is supported in part by a grant from HHMI. Because the seminary's students include Protestants from various denominations as well as Catholics and Jews, and because they are preparing for a variety of professionssome are ministers or plan to be; others work in helping professions such as social work, and the Ph.D. graduates often become community and denominational leadersthe course is nonsectarian and could have far-reaching effects. The class will publish a Web-based bioethics course for public use.
The syllabus includes some controversial topics: "gay genes," genetics and violence, and genetic determinism and human freedom. Sessions on key concepts in classical genetics and modern issues in genetic research, such as genetic similarities and differences among races, or genetic testing for diseases that can't be treated effectively, provoked lively discussion among the first class's 19 students, most of whom are working toward advanced degrees.
The students are not the only participants to profit from the course. "This class has been a learning process for me too," says Lainie Ross, associate professor of pediatrics at the university and one of the instructors. "The premises of some religions are entirely different from mine, and ethical choices flow from these premises. These premises also help define one's world view." Or as Laurel C. Schneider, associate professor of theology, ethics and culture at the seminary and another course instructor, puts it: "Religion is a lens for viewing the world; science is another lens. The lens you are using helps determine the choices you make."
The University of Chicago already teaches bioethics to life sciences majors (both undergraduate and graduate) and medical students, but that's just scratching the surface as far as the life sciences faculty is concerned. "We wanted to have a broader impact," explains José Quintáns, professor of pathology and director of HHMI programs at the university. "This course is taking the mystery out of science for nonscientists." He wants to develop a similar course for journalism students to help them better communicate bioethical issues to their future audiences.
Susan B. Thistlethwaite, president of the seminary and one of the bioethics course teachers, is as enthusiastic about the experiment as Quintáns. "It's important to break down the literal and figurative walls between science and religion," she says. "We have things to teach each other."
Jennifer Boeth Donovan
this story in Acrobat PDF format.
Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
March 2002, pages 30-33.
©2002 Howard Hughes Medical Institute