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ERLC institute notes relationship between biotech, Christian higher education issues

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A look forward at some fantastic but fearsome forecasts in biotechnology and a report lamenting a lack of interconnectedness between faith and learning in Christian higher education dominated discussion during the fall meeting of the Research Institute of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission Sept. 20.

Explaining the Research Institute is committed to equipping Christians to make a difference in the culture as salt and light, Richard Land, president of the ERLC and a founding fellow of the institute, introduced two new fellows, Shannon Royce, legal counsel in the ERLC’s Washington office, and Randy Singer, executive vice president at the North American Mission Board, in his welcome to the institute’s fellows at the Nashville, Tenn., meeting.

Ben Mitchell, professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Ill., presented a vision of the biotech future that includes robots capable of independent thought, self-generation and genetic manipulation of humans that could produce a class of elite genetically engineered humans.

The current melding of technology and biology raises the question in a new way of “what it means to be human and how we define our humanity in a culture that is increasingly devaluing our understanding of humanity and at the same time embracing a new high-tech notion of humanity that is consistent with technology,” said Mitchell, who is also consultant on biomedical and life issues for the ERLC.

In light of the ominous future proffered by Mitchell, the need for a model for higher education that successfully integrates faith and learning should be a primary concern for Christians, said the institute’s director, Barrett Duke.

“It is imperative that we reconnect faith with learning in higher education so that those who will be developing the technologies that affect our future in such profound ways will do so with a better understanding of the implications of their work on people as spiritual beings, not merely biological entities,” explained Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for research.

Institute fellow David Dockery, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., noted that Christian colleges and universities provide the best opportunity to produce men and women who can understand what is at stake with such issues as biotechnology and who are then able to influence developments in those fields.

The integration of faith and learning is a primary distinguishing feature between Christian colleges and universities and other schools of higher education, Dockery said. Many colleges and universities have a two-spheres approach to faith and learning, treating faith as a personal, private matter and learning as a secular, public matter, he said. In contrast, Christian colleges and universities should treat faith and learning as parts of a single sphere, Dockery continued.

The integration of faith and learning in Christian higher education derives from the First Commandment, Dockery said, noting the commandment calls on people to love God with their minds, as well as their hearts and souls.

“Loving God with our minds — thinking Christianly — points us to a unity of knowledge, a seamless whole because all true knowledge flows from the One Creator to his one creation,” Dockery observed. Consequently, he called Christian schools of higher education “Great Commandment schools.”

Treating education as a seamless whole, with God as the source of all true knowledge, leads to a kind of Christian higher education that does more than simply impart knowledge to students, Dockery said. “The purpose of Christian higher education is to educate students so they will be prepared for the vocation to which God has called them, enabled and equipped with the competencies necessary to think Christianly and to perform skillfully in the world, equipped to be servant leaders who impact the world as change agents based on a full orbed Christian world and life view,” he said.

After hearing the reports, the institute’s fellows discussed strategies for communicating the dire predictions from the field of biotechnology to the local church, choosing to examine the feasibility of developing a video presentation as well as literature on the subject. Duke said it is critical that Christians both understand the potential dangers in this emerging field and how to interact and influence those engaged in biotechnological innovation. The fellows also decided to produce a guide to Christian higher education that can help parents and prospective students determine how well a particular Christian school has managed to integrate faith and learning.

The institute will meet again in March 2001 to discuss progress on these projects and to assess other needs in the church and society. Those interested in the work of the Research Institute can find out more by contacting the institute’s director, Barrett Duke, at (615) 782-8407.

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