Sea of Faith Hawke's Bay Group

We welcomes all who are willing to explore religion and spirituality without fear. Radical views and contemporary concerns are debated, traditional doctrines and practices are questioned in order to renew or reject them. Is available to people of all beliefs or of no belief who are searching for and wanting to practice a new kind of open-minded, open hearted faith. *Spirituality can be defined as a sensitivity to the things of the human spirit such as caring , justice, beauty and truth.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Research on Human Embryos :How Our Theology Shapes Our Attitude

An Unofficial web blog for members to express their views. The Sea of Faith welcomes people who are willing to explore religion and *spirituality without fear of being criticised or rejected. All contributions are accepted, radical views and contemporary concerns (eg climate change) are debated, traditional doctrines and practices are questioned in order to renew or reject them. The Sea of Faith is available to people of all beliefs or of no belief who are searching for and wanting to practice a new kind of open-minded, open hearted faith. *Spirituality can be defined as "a sensitivity to the things of the human spirit such as caring for others, a passion for justice, an appreciation of beauty and a concern for truth." (Lloyd Geering)

Research on Human Embryos:
How Our Theology Shapes Our Attitude
by Audrey Jarvis

Some background; the Interchurch Bioethics Council represents the Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian churches of New Zealand. It was created first in 2000 as the Interchurch Commission on Genetic Engineering, in order to present a submission to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification in New Zealand. We than realized that the ethical, spiritual and cultural issues raised by biotechnology were only to get bigger and that we were well placed to have a voice in these matters. And so we took a slightly different name and have been active since. We have nine members, with between them expertise in medicine, science, ethics, theology, education and cultural issues.

I chose tonight to talk about the use of human embryos for research. This is a major topic, and has been particularly studied during the past 18 months. It is an important topic for two reasons: there is the possibility of huge potential benefit from the research and application of the knowledge to be gained: but there are major ethical questions to be addressed.

I chose this topic also because it shows how the theological beliefs that we hold play a major part in determining our attitudes to difficult ethical questions.
In considering embryonic research, these are the 3 questions which first need answering:
1. Are there situations in which it is acceptable to use human embryos for research?
2. If so, where should these embryos come from?
3. Should there be restrictions on the type of research to be done?

It helps in thinking about the status of the embryo or the importance of an embryo to look at the milestones in its development and what they mean.

The fertilized egg produces 2 identical cells and by day 4, a cluster of cells The number of cells continues to increase and at 5 to 7 days the mass of cells has an internal cavity and this stage of the embryo is termed a blastocyst, a milestone in the development of the embryo.

This outer layer of cells when implanted into the uterus will eventually become the placenta. The inner cell mass, or ICM is still undifferentiated and it is from a few of these cells that the future individual arises. At nine weeks the developing human being is termed a foetus. So at 0-8 weeks it is termed the embryo.

Blastocyst in utero –totipotent, has everything it needs to become a human being
Blastocyst in the laboratory is potentially totipotent, cannot become a human being outside the human environment. This is seen as a very significant difference between a blastocyst in utero, which is on its way to becoming a person, and a blastocyst which cannot develop in its present circumstance develop into a human being.

The cells here in the centre of the blastocyst, the inner cell mass (ICM) are able to differentiate into any of the types of cell which are found in the body. It is possible in the laboratory to take cells from here and grow them, and they are called embryonic stem cells. The ICM and embryonic stem cells derived from the ICM cannot become a human being because they don’t have the cells that will become the placenta, and they are not in the uterus, but they can differentiate into any of the cell types that are found in the human body but cannot become a human being. Having said that, there is still a lot to be learnt about how to develop just the cells that are wanted.

Another milestone. At 15-16 days the primitive streak appears –this is the beginning of the nervous system and in New Zealand it is illegal to allow an embryo to develop in the laboratory beyond 14 days—in fact in any country which does allow research on human embryos 14 days is the generally agreed cut-off point.

Why does anyone want to use human embryos for research? To study growth and development of the human being. To find ways of treating diseases, including cancer, which involves the abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells. To study infertility, and to hope therefore to find ways of treating infertility and to improve the rate of successful pregnancies in IVF. To find ways of detecting and preventing inherited diseases.

I have talked about stem cells, and they have been held up in the media as the cure-all of the future, perhaps as penicillin was the magic bullet in the 1940s. The hope is that by putting stem cells into people whose cells are not functioning, e.g. cells which will develop into brain cells into people suffering from Parkinsons disease, a cure will be effected. Another example on which research and clinical trials are currently being undertaken is that of repair of a damaged spinal cord. Undoubtedly there is promise in some of these areas, but we have to be realistic about the speed with which all this will occur. I would like to quote Prof Richard Faull, who carries out research on brain cells and diseases of the brain. He said at a seminar last month that the hype and media statements are unrealistic and that there are enormous challenges ahead. He said that in Parkinsons treatment trials, which gave mixed results, 4 aborted fetuses were required to treat one patient and he, I quote, ‘couldn’t go down this line’.

The significant point about all this research is that whether to develop stem cells or to carry out other work, the process requires that the embryos will be destroyed.

We go back to the first question I listed. Are there some situations in which research on gametes or embryos should be allowed?

The answer to this will depend largely on the spiritual value or status which we give to human embryos. The embryo can be seen as a potential human being or it can be regarded as a tissue or group of cells which has no intrinsic value.

At one end of the spectrum (quoting from Prof Edwin Hui, a well known ethicist, Professor of Biomedical Ethics, Christianity and Chinese Culture at Regents College Canada) is the belief that the soul is present at conception . This is a position I have met a number of times, often with definite statements but without any clear reasons as to why this belief is held. I therefore found it helpful and challenging to hear the reasons stated by Professor Hui. In his belief, personhood is constituted by a covenant of love initiated by God and expressed in the marriage covenant. The use of assisted reproductive technologies (ART) forces God to accept a child when he has not given that gift of life. Thus the argument that the soul is present at conception, and therefore the embryo must be completely protected as a human being, is based on relationship and God’s purpose.

This position leads to a rejection of any ART including IVF for infertile couples, and of course any research on human embryos.

There are some obvious difficulties with these arguments, e.g. why is a longed-for loved child created by IVF not a gift of God, but an unwanted child born naturally but not in a loving context is a gift of God? And in rejecting any technologies related to the reproductive process as unnatural, do we then have to reject all medical intervention in illness?

Additionally, it is not clear how the theological principles enunciated by Hui are to be applied in pluralistic societies, such as we increasingly have in New Zealand. The ethical principles outlined are based on theological principles. There is a major gap between those who hold to these principles and those for whom they are not significant. and it is not clear how Christians holding these ideals are to function in an alien environment or how those who are not Christian are to cope with the restrictions placed on them by these rules. We might say we see this in a small way in Easter Trading. It is easier to see that the gain from Easter Trading is ephemeral and comparatively minor. This would not necessarily apply to benefits which might accrue from medical technology.

Further along the spectrum, there are other beliefs relating to the concept of personhood. Ersonhood may be seen as the acquiring of a soul (still difficult to define) or of individuality. Personhood is believed to be acquired at different times in different cultures. If the embryo is protected only when it has acquired personhood, research may be acceptable until this stage. If the embryo before implantation, when it can differentiate into different types of cells but cannot become a human being without being implanted in the mother’s uterus, is only a bunch of cells, then it might well be an appropriate subject for research.

At the other end of the spectrum, another way of looking at research on an embryo is directed by the belief that creativity is fundamental to human existence, our gifts are given to us by God and we have a responsibility to use our gifts to extend knowledge and to make decisions for good.Compassion is a Christian virtue. In this context the potential for healing and scientific advance in reproductive and other medicine may be more important than the harm done to an embryo which has not yet reached the status of personhood.

We may then make a decision on the idea that good to the community is greater than the harm to the embryo.

There are particular beliefs shared by Maori, and I emphasise that there is no one Maori belief, which refer to whakapapa (genealogy) mauri (life principle) wairua (spirit)…tika (correct) tikanga (custom or practice)

Having looked at these different beliefs and positions, if we have decided that there are some situations in which research on human embryos is permissible, the next question is ‘where should these embryos come from?’

1. The first possibility is to use embryos created for IVF, (the process used to create embryos in a test-tube to assist infertile couples to have children). These embryos may not be stored for more than 10 years. So if the embryos are going to be destroyed anyway at 10 years so why not make good use of them for research?
2. Another option is the creation of embryos specifically for research. This does seem to make an embryo a commodity. However, there is a narrative argument that an IVF embryo was created to become a child and was loved and valued c.f. an embryo created for research was never on that path. It was never intended to become a child so it was always just a collection of cells.
3. SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer). This is a little different. It involves making an embryo without using an egg and sperm. Against is the slippery slope argument re reproductive cloning, which is illegal in most countries. Also we would still be creating an embryo for research.

So our third question was if we approve embryonic research, and if we decide where the embryos may come from, are there any restrictions on the type of research which should be allowed, is some research more appropriate than others?

This raises the question of informed consent. Both parents have an input into what happens to an embryo. The parents could have the opportunity to deny some sorts of research or specify areas of research e.g. someone who does not support abortion may agree to research into how to raise fertility rates but not agree to research related to the termination of a pregnancy.

One point which I have not made up to now is that there is work being done on using stem cells as a tool in therapy e.g. using stem cells to repair a damaged spine, which uses adult stem cells and therefore sidesteps some of the ethical issues I have mentioned. However, not all research on embryos is directed to stem cell research and the basic ethical questions still remain.

The ICBC acts on the assumption that in deciding to respond to an ethically difficult situation, the way forward is to consider the theological issues, the core values which we hold, the balance of benefit and harm, the questions of justice. By ‘we’ I mean the people we call our constituency, the members of the three churches by which we were appointed. We research the issues, including what is being done in other countries and communities, add input from our own various areas of expertise and work by consensus.

We have a website which can be reached through the CASI (churches agency on social issues) at

Monday, March 26, 2007



In 1996 former Presbyterian Moderator Alan Brash wrote a short book on the Bible, one chapter spoke of the difficulties readers face when confronted with biblical texts which portray God as violent. These violent images of God pervade the Bible - and indeed some other sacred Scriptures - and present a challenge which none of us can ignore.

The heart of the problem, as I see it, is the continued and widespread belief in a theistic God, that is belief in a personal supernatural being "out there" who intervenes in and has control over all human affairs. In the theistic world-view God is the all-knowing, all powerful landlord who created an earthly home for us to live in, who gives us rules to live by, who has mapped out our lives from birth to death and who has promised us that, come what may, his Will would finally be done. While it is freely acknowledged that over the centuries belief in a loving personal God has been and continues to be a source of comfort and inspiration for many people, theistic views of God are declining. They no longer make sense to growing numbers of people and can now be justly labelled as dangerous. For some years I possessed a German soldier's belt buckle which was inscribed with the Nazi swastika and underneath were written the words "Gott Mittuns". (God with us) The name of God is still being used to support questionable and sometimes ruthless nationalistic purposes while TV evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell regarded the 9/11 terror attacks as punishment from a violent God for their nation's acceptance of homosexuals and other so-called social evils, e.g. feminism and abortion. My argument therefore is that the theistic God must go. Efforts are already being made to re-imagine, or portray God, in new and more satisfying ways.

Lloyd Geering has written that God is a term used "to focus on all that we supremely value and on the goals which make human existence meaningful and worthwhile; and there is no thing and no place in which we do not encounter this God.

The first epistle of John links God with love. Others simply use the term Presence or a Voice to express their understanding of God. John Hick, the eminent multi-faith scholar, has even offered the view that God will have to be dropped - at least for a while. Shades of Bonhoeffer who said of God that we must now learn to do without him.

Whichever view of God we take, whether he is a reality "out there" or a human construction, all our views of God have to be filtered through our human consciousness. (1) We invent God in the same way that we invented politics, science, sport, education and all the various religions. As Richard Holloway in his superb little book "How to Read the Bible" says, in our imaging of God we have frequently gotten God wrong!

As Christianity struggles to take new shape and leaves many of its former traditional beliefs and practices behind, one of its enduring contributions to society at large would be to publicly and openly disavow all belief in a theistic God. Of course that will not happen, not yet anyway, because there is too much at stake. The authority of a theistic God confers privilege and power which influence the decisions of individuals, churches and governments like the United States. So we live in hope as a new day and new Christian age slowly begins to dawn.

(1) See ref. to Holloway below, pp 16 and 17.

Contributed by
Alan M Goss



Thursday, November 30, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth- Al Gore

Al Gore's film on 'An Inconvenient Truth'

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science

I found this video on the internet which you may find informative . If you watch it it is self explanatory

The goal of The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science is to promote rationality. Of course that means the attacking intelligent Design promoters and Creationists and religious superstition but that's just a consequence of promoting rationalism and common sense.

Here's a video where Richard Dawkins explains his objectives

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

WRESTLING WITH GOD. The Story of My Life,

WRESTLING WITH GOD. The Story of My Life,

By Lloyd Geering (Bridget Williams Books in association with Craig Potton Publishing.)
A Reflection.

Those of us who have lived through and been associated with many of the events and personalities covered by Lloyd Geering in his autobiography turned the pages with anticipation and with pleasure. Those with a fleeting or casual interest in religious affairs will also find it a lively, even gripping, read. Lloyd Geering writes in clear and concise prose and it flows. The content is part personal and part theological, lightened with touches of humour and sharpened with conflict. Although it took place nearly forty years ago the 1967 heresy trial is still a defining moment in New Zealand public life. But this autobiography is above all the story of one man's wrestling with the big deep questions of life, especially when viewed through a Christian lens. This struggle has involved a lifetime of hard thinking, reading, lecturing, writing and broadcasting which has influenced many lives and which (I will claim) is on the brink of bringing to birth a new religious species, post-christian man.

Those who have seen the excellent Swedish movie "As it is in Heaven" will have caught glimpses of post-christian man portrayed in the attitudes and actions of members of the local church choir. Under the tutelage of a famous young and handsome conductor the choir develops not only musically but in ordinary human ways. Its members become more at ease with one another, more honest and open - but not without episodes of emotional and physical conflict. An obese man taunted and pilloried all his life sees the wrong righted; an intellectually handicapped boy is welcomed into the choir and cared for when he soils his pants; a young abused wife is given refuge; sexual feelings are expressed but not flaunted. The musical repertoire of the choir is expanded to include secular as well as sacred pieces, performances are held in the Village hall as well as in the church, the choir have fun and games and parties and when the conductor falls ill at a national competition in Austria the members take over - and apparently win! All this happens during a crisis with the very conservative and authoritarian village pastor who is jealous of the young conductor, especially because of his appeal to the women members of the choir. The pastor rails against sin until his wife - also in the choir! - can take it no more. In one explosive scene she shrieks at her husband, "Sin, sin, there is no sin. It's all in your head, all in your mind."

The movie highlights the contrast between the more conservative and traditional Christian era passing away and the post-Christian era now emerging; it was as though Lloyd Geering had written the script in his autobiography. The choir members found, under the guidance of their young creative conductor, a wide range of possibilities opening up before them. These were not imposed by any external authority but welled up from within. And they became a new people.

Post-christians, I am suggesting, are of the same ilk as the members of the church choir. Post-christians, if they choose to use the term God at all, will be aware of a Voice, a Presence, a nudge or niggle or prompting from within, "Someone" of "Something" calling them to realize the highest moral and spiritual values one can live by. Often this Voice is deafeningly silent, cruelly absent - or seems so. Post-christians will see Jesus as a sage or visionary who saw further than other mortals and who is altogether human though not divine. Some may experience Jesus in a transcendent though not other-worldly, way.

Post-christians will be citizens of the secular world which is the only world we have and know. Their mission will be to add as much value as they can to this world which they share with other races and peoples. They will be constantly aware of the wonder and mystery of life which they may choose to call "God".

Post-christians will not "go to church" but will be participating members of a small group or fellowship of their choice which may or may not be specifically religious. These groups will have a "liturgy", a work to do, whose function will be to add value to life.

Post-christians will be more amorphous than their forbears, they will not necessarily have a specific "Christian" identity but will be open to the gifts and insights of other world-views, religious, scientific, philosophical, political and so on.

This, (to quote from a previous title of a Lloyd Geering book) is the shape of The World to Come. It is indeed already emerging, it is (to quote another Geering book )'Resurrection, a Symbol of Hope'.

Alan M Goss

November 2006

Note: Some material from Ian Harris's paper "Is the Sea of Faith Drying Up?" presented at the 2006 NZ Sea of Faith conference is acknowledged.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Attack on Religion

There have been small and big revolutions in(western) human thought right throughout history.In the sixteenth century Copernicus startled the world by removing the earth from the centre of the Universe, then Darwin showed that we humans were just another animal but of course this has not yet been accepted by everyone.Not two hundred years ago we began to realise that slavery was not right,then a hundred years ago women's rights started to become the norm and just fifty years ago we started understanding the unfairness of racial discrimination and that there was no basis for it.

Then also in the last few decades the Environment has become important.Its not acceptable to kill elephants, rhino and other endangered species like it was just seventy five years ago, nor can ivory and rhino horns be imported. In New Zealand cutting down native timber in Westland is a no no but hypocritically we still import native timbers from the islands,like Kwila for outdoor furniture and that's OK, but hopefully that will change.

Homosexuals have been able to come out into the open and around the world in many countries are having their rights legally supported.Gay Marriages have been legalised. Divorce was severely frowned upon and only whispered about in polite circles, and single parents were almost unknown. All these things are now accepted to various degrees.

Now at the beginning of the twenty first century, which may be the century of religion, one way or another, religion is under attack. Of course there were hardy souls that have attacked religion before but mostly in a philosophical way which most ordinary folk didn't understand anyway. Bertrand Russell was one. Much earlier Giordano Bruno attacked the Church and was burnt at the stake for his efforts. But now suddenly religion is fair game, it can't claim immunity from attack,or from being put under the microscope and dissected and pulled apart. Atheists have been able to come out of the closet and are no longer embarrassed by their ideas and are legally protected, no longer to be burnt at the stake by the Church, in the west at least, though not necessarily in Muslim countries. Lloyd Geering in his talk said that he was attacked for just saying what many before him had already said. Now many in turn have lost their fear of attack from the church and are talking and publishing freely,probably in protest over the fundamentalism in the US ( the fundies)Daniel Dennett discussed here has recently published a book 'Breaking the Spell,Religion as Natural Phenomenon' . It is a philosophical treatment of religion which is difficult to get into and read right through without getting bored I never managed it all and did some skipping. Now Richard Dawkins has come out swinging in his book 'The God Delusion',( another review here) one may say he lost his cool, and is under attack from the fundamentalists in the US where it seems he has just been on tour to Kansas of all places. read here and hereTwo recent books by Sam Harris "The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation".continue the attack. And then on stage
Letting Go of God more gently,or as a physicist Sean Carrollhas just written.
These are perhaps the beginnings of a massive onslaught by the ungodly.Since the advent of the internet and blogging, scientists and ordinary people have been able to express their views in a way never before available to them, and in a way that anyone can read There is a very good blog by a Professor of Biology PZ Myers which will lead you to many other blogs which tie in with all that is going on, and understood in the light of what Bill Cooke said at the SOF conference in Marton. It all makes interesting and absorbing reading. There is no longer a narrow view or any view about anything that will not come under scrutiny.

I do not know if religion will eventually go the same way as the earth centred universe but maybe we are at the beginning of something enormous. We really are living in interesting times.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Lloyd Geering Workshop 2006 SOF Conference

From Supernatural Religion to Natural Religion

What does it mean to be religious? Is there a personal God;life after death, etc? In Buddhism there is no interest in an afterlife-aim to get out of the eternal problem of rebirth and attain Nirvana. Religion can be defined as one's commitment to a conscientious devotion to what matters most: to answer the question -what is the meaning of Life?

Two thousand years ago and before, religion and culture were the same. Each culture has a shared understanding of the world and its meaning,eg. a symbolic story and myth that told them how they came to be. For Maori-Papa(earth Mother) Rangi (sky father)They interpreted the forces of Nature as Gods. Before a totara tree could be cut down Tane's permission was required. Maoris show respect for their ancestors- and didn't separate religion and 'science'. It has been a huge challenge for them to come to terms with so much change (eg. the 'abandonment' of their Gods to Jesus Christianity) in the last 200 years compared with 2000 years of gradual change for European countries.

Three Great Ages of Gods

1) Primitive Ages- up to 500 BC.
2)Theological Age influenced by Budda, Confusius(500 BC) then Christ leading in to the
3)Humanistic Secular Age into which we have moved,gradually from once believing there were spiritual forces that surrounded one eg. elves, fairies, hobgoblins, angels. In the late 19th Century the idea of the devil was abandoned by many as well as the thought that God lived in the sky, this was influenced by the events of modern physics and the complex infinity of the world. We now explain Nature by concepts such as DNA, chromosomes, neurons etc. We create our own reality and meaning using language. Our old primitive, superstitious ideas of God should have gone. Life is one of change and the human race is at war with itself, eg terrorism, earth problems, population explosion, exhaustion of renewable resources like water and air pollution, destruction of the forests, and increase of deserts which cause interference with the ecological balance, depletion of the ozone layer etc. Being religious in the twenty first century is to be conscious of those issues and have a respect for the Earth and Life. In some ways we are inferior to Native people with our attitudes to Nature.

We need to discard

1)Idolising the Bible and the fundamentalist approach.
2)Idolising Jesus as Saviour of the world - see him as human
3)Priestly Hierachy- the future lies in the fellowship of people.
4)divine revelation as a source of knowledge
5)Idea of God as an objective personal being.
6)Prayer as just conversation with God
7)Exclusive claim of Christianity
8)Life after death

Funerals should be a joyful celebration of a person's life. Tolstoy believed that God is what we value-what makes us feel awe, wonder and gratitude etc.
We should marvel at his self evolving Universe,give thanks for the inheritance of culture, love and be loved and accept responsibility for the future of the planet and living things.
We need reshape our beliefs in the light of experience and make an appropriate individual response.