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Feminist & Process Theodicies - Nancy Howell

Humans, created by God, imago Dei - in the image of God.

For the Judeo-Christian, we are made in the image of a Creator God; thus, we create. In centuries past, human creativity mirrored that of God’s in music and art. Now, however, we can create ourselves - with genetic technology we possibly can, and most likely will, influence the biological direction and development of both humankind and nature. But what does this imply for a the theological understanding of the relationship between God and humankind? And if genetic science influences theology, does theology have any reply to genetic science?

According to Nancy R. Howell, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy of Religion at Saint Paul School of Theology, “Scholarship bringing science and religion together for the purposes of dialogue and integration uses the concept of created co-creator to think about the impact of evolutionary biology and genetics on Christian theology.” This concept of created co-creator “fruitfully tells us that humans will be involved in genetic research and technology,” Howell says, “but as a theological construct it does not yet tell us how humans should conduct and apply genetic experimentation.” Thus, Howell suggests “a theology of redemption, informing both theological anthropology and theodicy, is key to discerning how genetics should address human suffering.”

Theology of the Created Co-Creator.

The term “created co-creator,” Howell says, as defined by Philip Hefner, indicates the “primacy of God’s creativity.” Creation of the cosmos ex nihilo, out of nothing, demonstrates the universe’s dependence on God for existence. Humans, in turn, are “simply creatures and not God, who emerged in evolutionary processes under divine rule ... created by God to have a place in the processes that are part of the design of nature.” Secondly, “created co-creator” reflects the imago Dei: the “co-creator creates with God” - not as God’s equal, but in relationship with God. “The co-creator is the evolutionary process-become-aware, who can be God’s instrument and agent in evolutionary processes,” Howell says. “Thus, humans and human technology are parts of nature itself . . . Human co-creators have the energy and freedom to shape the future toward the telos of God.”

Ted Peters, in Playing God?: Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom, elaborates on the term “created co-creator.” For Peters, Howell says, created co-creator is to be the imago Dei and “to participate in the world’s future. God creates and redeems . . . through future-giving, and humans are part of future-giving through their creativity.” This view, Howell says, quoting Peters, “calls humans to ‘work creatively in the present in light of a projected vision of a redeemed future.’” Genetic technology, therefore, “could be a visionary and benevolent act of human creativity.”

Ronald Cole-Turner, too, uses the concept of co-creation, although in a modified form. For Cole-Turner, Howell says, “creation cannot stand alone but must be joined with redemption. Human creators must be understood to participate in both creation and redemption.” And secondly, Cole-Turner proposes that “God calls human creators to participate vocationally in creative, redemptive transformation of nature and, further, that genetic engineering is a natural extension of God’s creativity.”

However, while genetic technology has the potential to do incredible good for humankind, Hefner, Peters, and Cole-Turner each note that “unrestrained optimism about human creativity and genetics is unwise.” Genetic technology is a human endeavor, and as such it is tainted by original sin, death, exploitation, and greed. Consequently, “for these and other reasons,” Howell says, “I urge further reflection on theodicy, redemption, and genetics even as I am happy to concur that genetic research and technology are instances of human creativity with the intrinsic and instrumental potential for good.”

Theodicy and the Tragic Structure of Creation.

In order to reflect on genetics and suffering, Howell introduces Wendy Farley’s theodicy of the tragic structure of creation. Farley’s theodicy “emphasizes the centrality of suffering,” Howell says; “Suffering rather than sin is the focal point,” and “tragedy rather than the Fall is the conceptual locus for reflection on suffering.” Farley’s radical suffering, such as that experienced by a victim of child abuse, “can never be explained as deserved punishment or retribution for sin,” Howell says. Radical suffering “compromises all that is human in persons” and “is the loss of all power to resist suffering.”

Radical suffering is the result of the world’s diversity, which generates “conflict of values and opposition of ends sought by the multiplicity of creatures. Suffering is born from the conflict of values and ends,” Howell says. Similarly, a theodicy by David Griffin suggests that “any capacity for good carries with it the capacity for evil.” Creation has a tragic structure - and this concept is not uniquely theological. “Diversity in the gene pool is the treasure that enables adaptation and survival for populations and species,” Howell says. “The genetic flexibility that assures a dynamic and changing population is a value, a good. However, the mechanisms that promise species survival, such as natural selection, function simultaneously to generate tragedy.” As Farley writes, “Tragedy is the price paid for existence.”

Radical Suffering and Genetic Defects.

“In tragic cases,” Howell says, “genetic expression is defective and fosters radical suffering. The question is, what do we mean by ‘genetic defect’?” Cole-Turner, Howell suggests, “genetic defects are conditions comparable to those conditions touched by Jesus healing,” such as skin diseases, mental and neurological disorders, and loss of hearing, sight, or limb. But while “Cole-Turner extricates understanding of genetics from simple associations with the doctrine of creation and begins to relate genetics with the redemptive and healing work of Christ,” Howell says, “my concern regards the fallibility of theology and science in naming what constitutes a defect.”

While science often labels as defect anything causing an organism inability to reproduce, Howell cautions that “defect” is often a socio-cultural distinction. Take, for example, the Deaf community, which “has resisted cochlear implants” and has “already used prenatal genetic testing to assure that their children will also be deaf. What the medical community calls disability or defect, the Deaf community sees as a gift” Howell says. Similarly, both theology and science have been used to label femaleness, race, and ethnicity as defects, exemplifying how much “of what is labeled disease, defect, or disability is socially constructed.” Consequently, Howell suggests that we should look more closely at Scriptural accounts of Jesus-healing.

Howell points us to Rita Nakashima Brock’s theological interpretation of the healing of the hemorrhaging woman in Mark 5:21-34. For this woman, the bleeding “has social consequences: she suffers from her femaleness. The woman cannot be healed because social structures interfere, even with Jesus’ healing since he is a Jewish male. With courage to violate a social taboo, the woman touches Jesus in public, and her courage makes her whole. The touch literally saves her and she is not simply cured medically. Jesus affirms that the woman’s faith has made her whole rather than that he has healed her. Brock points out a vital healing in this story that is rarely mentioned,” Howell says. “The brokenness maintained by patriarchy and social hierarchy is healed.”

“The paradigm in Mark’s Gospel is significant for interpreting genetics and healing,” Howell says. “It does not deny suffering and the importance of physical healing or sin and the healing that comes by faith.” But as important as the physical cure in this paradigm “is the model of the transformation - the redemption - of culture as it is healed from its social defects.”

Divine Compassion and Redemptive Power.

“Particularly when suffering and oppression are the standpoint of theodicy,” Howell says, “resistance and redemption take on theological importance.” For Womanist and Black theologies, remembrance and retelling of the stories of ancestors’ suffering empowers Black women to resist and survive. “Redeeming gives meaning to suffering as Black women and God become partners in redemption of black people and their suffering,” Howell says. Similarly, for Martin Luther King, Jr. the “redemptive role of Black suffering was as a model for bringing new meaning to community and civilization. Humans cooperate with God to overcome evil and restore community.”

Liberation theology, as seen in Gustavo Gutierrez, suggests a theological model of a “relation between God and humans to enact redemption out of the context of suffering,” suffering rooted in social and political oppression. “Humans are involved in ongoing creation and salvation through political liberation, which is the self-creation of humans and the transformation of the world.”

Black, Womanist, and Liberation theologies hold that redemption can be born from suffering inflicted by socio-cultural oppression. These theologies demonstrate one character of Wendy Farley’s theodicy, Howell says - “divine compassion and redemptive power address radical suffering, as in race and class oppression. Compassion and redemptive power resist the dehumanizing, tragic conditions of suffering,” Howell says. And this divine compassion “is redemptive because it makes transcendence of suffering and resistance to evil possible.”

“Thinking about radical suffering as a consequence of social sin and oppression,” Howell says, “and about redemption in relation to resisting evil” as it is found in Black, Womanist, and Liberation theologies “causes me to pause and reconsider genetics and suffering.” Using as an example the controversy of the “gay gene” and the deaths of homosexual individuals from “gay bashing,” Howell asks whether suffering in such cases results from a genetic “defect” or from the cultural constructs of a “human community that cries out for healing in acts of violence toward gays.”

“What are compassion and redemption in the tragic structure of heterosexism?” Howell asks. Where are compassion and redemption in the tragedy of socially constructed defects?

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