Genetic engineering and other threats
Faith & Inspiration | Graduates, in 2005 and today, need to stand firm in the faith. The fourth in a series of “stump speeches”
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 8/01/20, 12:47 pm
Over the past few months, we’ve posted in the Saturday Series a few of my never-published speeches on topics that are still relevant. (See my other “stump speeches” about how concerns over corrupt Anglicanism helped spur American colonists to revolt, how President Andrew Jackson often went against the tide, and how to glorify God while working in the White House.) The final speech in this series is one I gave in 2005 on graduation day for the students of The King’s College in New York City. King’s was then fighting to maintain accreditation while a member of the New York State Board of Regents tried to kill the upstart institution. The school won that battle. I had no idea in 2005 that I would become the provost at Kings in 2007 and continue in that position, along with editing WORLD, until early 2011.
It’s great to be here at The King’s College commencement. Regents such as John Brademas may cause mischief and mayhem, but the King is in charge.
The attack on this college from people who should be supporting higher education reminds me of the story about an elderly man who lay dying in his bed. He suddenly smelled the aroma of his favorite chocolate chip cookies wafting up the stairs. He gathered his remaining strength. He forced himself down the stairs. He gazed into the kitchen.
Spread out upon platters on the kitchen table were literally hundreds of his favorite chocolate chip cookies. Mustering one great final effort, he threw himself toward the table. He reached out, but—smack!—a spatula came down on his hand. “Stay out of those,” his wife growled, “they’re for the funeral.”
Well, there’s not going to be any funeral here. With God’s grace, you graduates will be able to come back to your 10th reunion, your 25th reunion, and your 50th reunion.
The graduating class then will be much larger, and students will ask you what it was like in the old days. You’ll be able to speak about your fellow graduates here today: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
Four groups of people could get in the way of that happy reunion.
The first group is the New York State Board of Regents, but that battle can be fought and soon will be won, I pray.
The second group is made up of terrorists. We don’t have to venture more than several miles from this site to see the reality of terrorism and the need for a war on it.
That war is being fought, and we may have sad setbacks to come, but it’s going far better than we would have expected at this time of day on Sept. 11, nearly four years ago. The cross that now stands where the twin towers fell is only a short boat ride from the Statue of Liberty. Our enemies hate Christ and freedom. We must stand for both.
The third group is made up of people who want you to think only about “jobs” and not about “callings.” Earlier this spring, U.S. News & World Report had a front cover headline: “Great Jobs Ahead!” Its subheads were equally exclamatory: “Cool options for college grads,” “How to land that great spot now.” That all sounds like news you can use, and U.S. News & World Report performs an additional service by noting occupations “where the hiring is the hottest,” such as “biomedical engineer” or “casino worker,” and reporting three pieces of information about each: “How hot,” “How to land the job,” and “How much.”
What’s missing from the picture U.S. News & World Report presented? Before answering that question, consider a second article, a recent New York Times piece about college students who are majoring in … poker. The New York Times poster boy was a Princeton senior who has won $120,000 this year in Atlantic City and, according to the Times, plans to make poker his postgraduate occupation: “I don’t think I can make $120,000 doing anything but poker.”
Not bad, you say? Well, if the senior can make that money gambling, he’s very rare—just about everyone who goes that route ends up losing, big-time—but what if he could? What’s missing from both The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report was one word, “calling,” that I hope and trust you’ve heard at The King’s College. The word suggests that the King is calling each of you into an occupation that productively uses your God-given talents.
You may make a lot of money in your calling and you may not. I’m not saying that money is irrelevant—you need some to live—but it’s not the prime reason for working, and by itself money does not make a job “useful.” You may have to wait for the right position and in the meantime work at something else to make end’s meet, but a job that is a God-glorifying calling is well worth striving for. You don’t want to come back to a reunion of The King’s College having traded your birthright for just a paycheck.
The fourth group of people who could get in the way of a happy reunion is the hardest to battle because it’s made up of neither politicians nor terrorists nor job placement folks, but scientists who come bearing a gift called genetic engineering, a gift likely to figure profoundly in the lives of today’s graduates.
Genetic engineering means altering our genes and our children’s genes to create stronger bodies and, in theory, stronger minds. Genetic engineers come bearing benevolence, perhaps even the ability to knock out genes that make a person liable to suffer physical illness—or put on too much weight.
That all sounds good, but we need to be careful, for one step after the battle against physical disease will come an attempt—not by all genetic engineers but by a genetic engineering left wing—to minimize psychological disease, anything that keeps us from happiness.
You might easily think, “What’s wrong with that?” After all, you probably remember your mom or dad sending you off on a trip with the smiling admonition, “Have a good time.”
But what if someone made you an extraordinary offer? Here it is: You’d be told, “I have a pill that will make you happy, and the only cost is that you must permanently give up the option of being sad.” Would you swallow that pill? What if sadness sometimes leads to breakthroughs? What if some emptiness comes from God to make us realize that we need Him to fill the hole in our soul?
Pills, of course, are primitive ways of doing things. The better offer will come from the genetic engineering left for your children or your children’s children: “We can change them so that they will have immunity against misery.”
Let me offer you a backstory here. For two millennia, Buddhists have proclaimed their cure for human misery. They have said that human beings should graduate out of human passions such as love, which causes dependence and may cause misery. We should embrace present-mindedness: Blow in, blow out, immerse yourself thoughtlessly in this moment, and don’t start thinking about tomorrow.
For over two centuries, followers of the French philosopher Rousseau have offered their cure for human misery. They have proclaimed that natural man is content, and that if only we could be like animals, playing and loving without thinking about death and God, we could turn the planet into Eden.
Most people didn’t follow Buddha or Rousseau. So the 20th century brought the biggest attempts at change in human history, with Soviet and then Chinese Communists insisting that altering material environments and social structures would change human nature.
Hardliners still say the experiment was given up prematurely, but most observers say the result is clear. Marxists thought their revolution was an unstoppable force, but it came up against what proved to be an immovable object, human nature—and human nature won.
Marxism is now gone from America, except in enclaves like the institutions north and south of us, Columbia and NYU. But a new genetic engineering left has emerged. It looks down on primitive efforts like the Buddhist or Rousseauian emphasis on present-mindedness or natural man. It looks down at the old left’s emphasis on Marx or the New Left’s embrace of Marx plus drugs.
The genetic engineering left certainly looks down on religion and on the alternative religions some of us embrace: sex, food, or the love of power and money. The genetic engineering left says don’t just think something else or take something else or escape to some other pursuit: Be someone else. Change human nature. Be rid of your human hang-ups, your restlessness.
The genetic engineering left has put its finger on something, on an anxiety that is uniquely human. Animals don’t know that they are here today, gone tomorrow. Many of you graduates today may feel anxious about job prospects but not about life itself because you are likely to have many more decades on this earth. I can tell you, though, that your parents and certainly your grandparents are becoming more conscious of the coming of death. No matter how affluent we are, we are stuck with a poverty of time, unless we gain the understanding of man’s eternal life that comes only with an understanding of God.
Anyone without a strong faith in God and His promises of eternal life lives in a quagmire. At the least, we are anxious—and, as novelist Walker Percy observed, anxiety is evidence that we are strangers in the world. But what if we could be genetically engineered not to be desperate? Since we know that the grass on the other side only seems greener, what if we could have engineered contentment so that our glasses would register green thoughts in green shades wherever we were?
That may well be the choice before us in future decades, a chance to change human nature. Forget bestsellers about why good women chase after bad men. No one would have to make such mistakes again. And why must men be from Mars and women from Venus? A little genetic engineering could make all of us at home on Earth.
You’re graduating from The King’s College today, but the genetic engineering left may be able to offer your children the opportunity to celebrate a graduation out of our human nature. What will you say to that?
Here’s backstory number two: A long time ago, in a country far, far away, restlessness was growing among people who lived in what was, for ancient times, an affluent society. One disconsolate old man named Simeon was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” One 84-year-old woman, Anna, widowed for decades, had such an ineradicable longing that she “did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.”
As Luke suggests to us in the second chapter of his Gospel, Simeon and Anna longed for a better world. They longed for God. So do we. It’s important to recognize that this longing, this sense of displacement we sometimes feel is not a symptom of disease but a pointer toward the cure. The restlessness within riches that is typical of our society shows the truth of the Christian understanding that we all have ineradicable spiritual longings.
Those who offer drugs now or the permanent drug of genetic engineering reject human creatureliness, which includes individuality and idiocy. They want to eradicate mystery. They can make us brighter and more articulate animals—and who will have the courage to say no? For it takes courage to embrace reality with all its sharp edges.
Graduates, do you have the courage to resist that type of terrorism? Will you agree with Walker Percy that it is “better to be a dislocated human than a happy chimp”? Will you choose to be a restless self rather than a diverted self? Do you want your children and your children’s children to be the product of God’s intelligent design or man’s purportedly more intelligent design?
I am pro-contentment. One of my favorite books is a Puritan treasure by Jeremiah Burroughs called The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. But it is a rare jewel, and like other rare jewels, it must be searched for and perhaps found deep beneath the surface of things. Some people come across the jewel right away, and others have years of miserable mining in front of them—but if we don’t mine, we don’t find. So a key question is: Do you claim for yourselves and your posterity the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of misery if that’s what it takes to find the rare jewel?
Simeon in the Bible knew that it is right to be restless even amid good material circumstances. He knew that the human condition, unless God is really there, leads to inevitable failure. Old man Simeon could finally rejoice only when he held the Christ child in his arms. We can rejoice only when we realize, not just at the surface but deep in our bones, perhaps after much groaning, that God holds us in His arms.
Lots of people don’t get that. I don’t know him, but maybe John Brademas does not get it. We should pray that he will. It seems clear that the terrorists of al-Qaeda don’t get it, and we should pray that they will.
But how should we react to the Brademases of the world who want to shut down this college, or the terrorists who want to kill us, or the job placement helpers who don’t understand that work is a calling, or the genetic engineers who want to change human nature? How will we react when they curse us or call us names for not going along with their materialist philosophy?
The good way to react is contained in a good essay, “The Inexplicable Prayers of Ruby Bridges,” written by Robert Coles. The essays describe a little girl who desegregated a New Orleans elementary school in 1960, walking in and out every day between federal marshals.
Coles describes the daily greeting party of 50 or 75 adults at that school: “They called her this and they called her that. They brandished their fists. They told her she was going to die and they were going to kill her.” Ruby Bridges was a tiny heroine for going to school each day.
But she was more than that, Coles found out. Told that Ruby seemed to talk to the people verbally assaulting her, Coles asked what she was saying, and Ruby replied, “I wasn’t talking to them. I was just saying a prayer for them.”
Coles asked, “Ruby, you pray for the people there?”
“Why do you do that?”
“Because they need praying for.”
All of you will all face hostility as you follow your Christian callings. Will you have the strength to do what this little girl did, walking between her tormenters, not just once but day after day? Will you have the strength to pray for, rather than holler at, those who hate you?
You won’t be able to do it on your own strength. But when you’re surrounded, read the Gospels, and pray for the grace to walk in the steps of Christ. People told Him, as they told Ruby Bridges, “We’re gonna kill you.” In His case, they meant it. They killed Him. But Christ rose from the dead. By His grace, so shall we.
Read the Gospels. Follow Christ. Congratulations on your graduation, and may God bless you and The King’s College.
Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.