Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Grounded Scriptures: Wisdom and Milk

Exciting new developments in the world of biotechnology: Cows can now produce human milk. That's right. Read all about it on the UK's Telegraph.
Leaving aside issues of veganism, animal rights, and whether it's really desireable to nurse from other animals, when we were weaned off our human mother's milk decades ago... there are other questions.

Really, the bazillion dollar question is. "Just because we can, should we?"
We know how to do it. Well, sort of. More than half the first batch of genetically modified cows died, for unknown reasons, but that's probably a minor glitch in the system that can be worked out, eh?
We know that there are certain nutrients found in human milk that are lacking in cow's milk and in most baby formulas. For babies in need these are crucial. We can now turn cattle into living factories for essential nutrients. Awesome?

Genetically modifying plants and animals is a whole can of worms. My Material Theology class did a lot of work on debating their merits and dangers. My side (arguing against genetic modification) acted it out: we placed ourselves in a divine council, and God heard arguments against the dangers of GMO agriculture. In our heavenly council, there was an American farmer who had lost his land due to the monopolization process, an Indian farmer whose land was ruined by bad farming practices, and an activist talking about the agricultural-military-industrial complex. Jesus finally took center stage (in a kilt, to keep a bit of a gender balance - this is the GTU after all) and reminded people of the lessons of Job... to which I now turn.

The book of Job is in the genre of wisdom literature. It is a long debate about the merits of various theologies. How can you explain when bad things happen to good people? Job and his friends debate this for 37 long chapters. Then finally God speaks up:

YHWH answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements--surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

God further interrogates Job - he may know about domestic animals, being a man of many herds and flocks, but is he such an expert on the wild animals?

“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
Do you observe the calving of the deer?
Can you number the months that they fulfill,
and do you know the time when they give birth,
when they crouch to give birth to their offspring,
and are delivered of their young?
Their young ones become strong, they grow up in the open;
they go forth, and do not return to them.

We have plenty of the "words without knowledge." We can talk an endless talk about how we think the world works. Yes, we may understand enough to perform open-heart surgery, and fertilize ourselves in vitro, and drill for oil, but when the next earthquake is coming we really don't know. We can splice the genome apart and together again, but even the best-cared-for pregnancies often miscarry, and no doctor can explain it. We can attack HIV, but we certainly cannot conquer it.

In the face of the wonders created around us, we ought not to stifle our own creativity. But let us never forget the limits of our knowledge. Knowing that there is a God, a power higher than our best intelligence, reminds us to be humble with our creations.

The cows who survive long enough to produce the wonder-milk may have any number of health defects - we simply do not know what we have done to them when we spliced their genes. But for that matter, we choose not to know a lot about animals, as long as they do what we want them. We purposefully ignore the details of their gastrointestinal systems, feeding cattle on corn because it's cheap, and because given the right amount of antibiotics they'll survive anyhow. We know how to manipulate animals to our desires, but we truly do not know, with God's masterful knowledge, what it is that makes them healthy.
God is painted, in Job, as a caring and skillful creator. God is the one who DOES know when a wild deer crouches to give birth, and what a raven needs to eat, how to bring forth grass on the earth, and where the stars travel.

God is the one who truly knows. Let us not be satisfied with the kind of knowledge that gets results, well enough - but let us seek for the true wisdom that God can impart to us through intimate and compassionate ways of living with creation.

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