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Respecting Life by Neil Messer

As both a theologian and a scientist, Neil Messer brings depth of insight to complex debates about bioethics.  His scientific explanations of cloning, for instance, are sharp, crisp and easy to follow.  His theological reflection is less clear, but winds its way competently through a particular theology of public engagement on issues such as cloning.


However, Messer does not seem to reach the depths either of the scientific or theological issues at stake in these debates.


For many people, cloning seems unnatural, and when something seems unnatural it is not difficult to conjure up theological arguments against it.  In so doing, Messer has not listened fully to the voice of nature:  for life to flourish, the gene pool must stay open to new gene combinations (as in sexual reproduction), not simply duplicate itself (as in cloning).  For sure, cloning does happen in nature: most plants can clone themselves, and often do so when they have failed to reproduce.  Could this be why cloning goes against our natural instincts for life?  From here we might begin a fruitful theological exploration both of cloning and of our natural instincts.


All too often, however, theological convictions lead theologians prematurely to try and articulate theologically why cloning is unnatural.  They then find themselves having to justify quoting Scripture at the world.  A large part of Messer’s book is given over to doing precisely this:  the demand for a Christian hearing in the public space, now that the glory days of Christendom have passed.  As such, the book seems to imply that the demand for one’s own voice to be heard is more important than acquiring a voice worth hearing.  


Messer explores a range of issues in a similar vein, and certainly makes you think.  The book is well worth a read in this sense – not because of his conclusions, which at times are hard to unravel and with which I happen to disagree.  It is, however, only through following Messer’s theological tour through complex public issues that I have learned why I disagree.  It is, without doubt, a tour worth taking.