180: Finding Our Way Forward (and Backward) in a Rapidly Changing Culture

fter centuries of a relationship almost always characterized by the term ‘versus,’ the scientific and religious communities seem to realize that we need to move beyond our deadlock, our polarization, our binary, either/or thinking regarding faith and reason, religion and science, matter and spirit.”

    from Brian McLaren’s new “Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices”

    This idea sounds so reasonable when Brian McLaren describes it this way. (And we soon will be telling you much more about this landmark series of new books about “Ancient Practices,” published by Thomas Nelson. Stay tuned — we’ll have an upcoming review and an in-depth conversation with Brian and series editor Phyllis Tickle.)
    But then — then we hit an issue like Stem Cells — and all that hospitable context that Brian is describing between religion and science goes out the window for many people.

    Today, we’re recommending a powerful new documentary film, “Mapping Stem Cell Research: Terra Incognita.” (Click on the title or the DVD cover below to jump to our review and purchase a copy via Amazon if you wish.)
    But, before any of us dig in our heels at the very mention of “Stem Cells,” consider this:
    Brian McLaren is correct. We are living in a remarkable era when new kinds of dialogue are opening up between religious leaders and scientists. That’s especially notable in new relationships between the most deeply entrenched combatants — traditional evangelical leaders and top, university-based scientists.
    If you’re not a regular ReadTheSpirit reader, let us recap a little bit: We just featured a lengthy Conversation With one of the leading evangelical participants in such new dialogs, author and pastor Ken Wilson. We’ve also been covering some of this profound change — for instance, around faith and the need to help preserve our natural world.

    This new documentary we’re recommending today opens up another area in which professionals in both faith and science have a whole lot of work to do: emerging issues in medical ethics.
    The question is: How do we evaluate the moral and spiritual issues in medical research that is, as the new documentary’s title suggests, really “Terra Incognita” (or “unknown land”)? Specifically, as Stem Cell research inches ever closer to demonstrating its dramatic potential for transforming human life — will those faith groups that oppose this work continue to condemn it or will they find nuanced ways to work with scientists on the most powerful methods for healing?

    That’s the question this film raises through the story of Dr. Jack Kessler, head of Northwestern University’s Department of Neurology and Clinical Neurological Sciences.
    If you spend an hour and a half with Jack, his colleagues, their patients and families, I can almost guarantee you’ll come away really liking this guy. He talks about spirituality like we do here at ReadTheSpirit. For example, he says, one of his spiritual benchmarks is, at the end of each day, wanting to know he has done some small amount of good in the world.
    Although he’s obviously pro-research — and some Americans are not — he’s not a demon.
    For example, he wants to establish moral guidelines around this area of science. He believes that cloning human beings should be made illegal, he says at one point in the film. His entire focus is on healing, improving the lives of suffering men and women. And he’s working in the truly big leagues of such research — trying to demonstrate the potential of stem cell therapy in healing the spinal-cord injuries that cripple people’s lives profoundly.

    The film raises religious voices — making the film perfect media for individual reflection or small-group discussion.

    Today, we’re going to leave you with a couple of the voices — just a couple of tiny excerpts from the film. Read these over and tell us what you think. Consider seeing and discussing the entire film with friends.
    One voice is Dr. Laurie Zoloth, head of the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society and professor of medical ethics and humanities at Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine. She’s also a professor of religion and a member of the Jewish Studies faculty at Northwestern.
    The other voice is the Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, a neuroscientist and ethicist who serves as director of education at the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center. The center has been around since 1972 and, according to its mission statement, the center adheres closely to Vatican teaching and works to articulate Vatican perspectives on scientific questions to the larger world.

    At one point in the film, Zoloth says:
    “Stem-cell research is so important to us because it really is about core issues: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be free? And, what must I do to confront the suffering of others?”

    Pacholczyk speaks a couple of times in the film, including this:
    “Suffering is not an easy thing for any of us to process. It’s an existential moment for each of us and as we watch others who we love suffer — it’s an incredibly hard thing. The question becomes: Are there some kinds of cures that simply can never be pursued because they require us to do something that is intrinsically evil?
    “I am convinced the question of the meaning of suffering is central to being human. We actually grow during those trying times and we are changed — and changed for the better in mysterious ways –- not to say that suffering itself is good, because it isn’t, but that it offers, by passing through it, some very positive outcomes.”

    Zoloth also says:
    ” We live in a country that needs not to choose one religious perspective, but to hear many religious voices.” And, “What makes me human is not my suffering. What makes me human is my yearning to heal. And that’s a very big difference between us and our colleagues in Catholic moral theology.”

    These are tantalizing voices — just fragments of a cutting-edge conversation unfolding right now between religious and scientific voices. But, think about these issues in the midst of your busy life this week. Keep reading — we’re going to explore our rapidly changing culture in several ways this week!
    And, please — tell us what you think! Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm. Or click on the “Comment” link at the end of the online version of this story.

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