//a root question and that is: is there a criterion by which we determine one position or another to represent the truth?//
The Church. I have given you about a dozen statements from the Church, Catholic and Orthodox, whereby they all agree: fertilization is the traditional understanding of conception and is considered the beginning of life.
//I see argumentation, and even the H-word being used; and I find this frightening when the components being debated are subject to constant, even daily discoveries.//
‘Conservative’ and ‘liberal’ is used too, but those are political terms having nothing to do with ‘orthodoxy’ or ‘heterodoxy.’ Heresy in its base understanding only means a different opinion/position. Today, it has a distinctive antagonistic tinge to it. In the context of church teaching or instruction, one can certainly take a stand that isn’t in compliance with the mind of the Church. It doesn’t mean they are positively taking a heretical stand for the sole purpose of declaring church teaching wrong. They can place themselves in a position where their position is NOT in the ball park of church teaching. When the Church is unanimous across the Orthodox-Catholic spectrum on when life begins (and I am sure they use their scientific experts too) and one takes a position diametrically opposed to it, then we have a problem. Does that person know something that the entire church missed? Did this one medical professional discover something that no other medical professional was aware of in the rest of the Church? Inquiring minds want to know.
//I wonder if this is one of those questions to which there is no definitive answer possible on the science/theology axis.//
Science is still trying to determine an astrophysical explanation of the beginning of the universe. Big Bang? Oscillating Universe? Contracting Universe? Static Universe? All based on the same data, but different interpretations. There is a much longer tradition on the source of life outside the parameters of scientific inquiry. Consider the notion of ‘seed’ in the book of Genesis. Seed is intimately connected to the notion of promise to Abraham. The many genealogies in Genesis point to an intimate connection between generations. They didn’t know the technical aspects of how the seed brought new life, but they did know it took two people (a man and a woman). They knew what they knew form agriculture, hence the great number of pagan cults where acts of sex were done for religious reasons. Yeah, right! What is disturbing today is that thousand years of understanding of the connection between seed and impregnation is being disturbed. We, in our highly technical and medical knowledge actually believe that there is a void of life between fertilization and implantation. We actually believe that life ceases or holds its breath between the act of intercourse (and the few moments before fertilization) and when that new entity, having its own DNA identity, implants itself in its mother’s womb. An argument can truly be made that it IS truly the mother’s body and she can do anything to that new living entity. A mother’s womb no longer becomes a safe-haven in today’s advanced(?) civilization.
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Consider this article about Professor Plantinga:
"A letter from Plantinga, a philosophy professor, and Huston Smith, a religion professor at Berkeley, moved the National Association of Biology Teachers to remove anti-religious language from its statement on evolution.
For years, the association's official position read: "The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process."
Recently, after Plantinga and Smith objected that "unsupervised" and "impersonal" go beyond scientific evidence, the association dropped those words."
"There is so much heat in this area -- people's faith, people's ideology is involved-- that often straightforward, rational discussion doesn't work well." Plantinga and Smith are among a growing number of Christian scholars, including scientists, who challenge what they consider the unscientific presuppositions of modern culture with respect to evolution.
"I think the main thing to see about it is that it is by no means merely a scientific doctrine at all," Plantinga says. "It is about naturalism vs. theism, naturalism vs. American religious belief, naturalism vs. Christianity.
"They think science has shown that human beings are not really created by God. That's not true at all. That's not science. That's theology. It's bad theology because it's theology confused with science."
That's the point he and Smith argued successfully about the biology association's position.
"A good bit of it was theology, not science," Plantinga says. "There's no way, simply on the basis of physical science, that you could have discovered that the process is unsupervised or impersonal.
The entire article can be read here: http://www.southbendtribune.com/98/feb/022098/local_ar/41706.htm
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So, it was science that was playing the role of theology where it shouldn't.
Thank God for philosophers!
//And how can we determine when God bestows a soul upon the new life?//
It has been quite unanimous in Christian anthropology that man (in the generic sense) is not a dualistic entity, but rather a singular entity. If life begins, then ensoulment is included.
//Our current understanding of biology/medicine is bound to be superceded over the course of time; a hundred years from now, the people will look back at our 'understanding' as quaint,//
For years, the notion of “conception” has always been the beginning of life. As our understanding grew on the bio-physiological details, we understood fertilization to be the beginning of life. What is dangerous in our culture of death is the purposeful transfer of the beginning of life from fertilization to implantation. Consider the impact of doing such. Many in the science community STILL consider fertilization to be the moment when a new life begins. Planned Parenthood and pharmaceutical companies enjoy the idea of knowing their products or programs don’t push abortion. Contra-ception sounds better than abortion or the termination of life, especially with regard to ‘morning after pills.’ In many textbooks today, fertilization is still taught as the beginning of a new life.
//by being overly dogmatic based upon our current understandings, we place the Church in danger of publicly 're-interpreting' past teaching, and will force the Church to make emendations based upon future discoveries.//
Nobody is being dogmatic. I am personally unaware of any ‘dogmas’ being proclaimed in any cathedral. I think the West may have some problems latent from their days of Aristotle and Aquinas. The Greeks already knew that the earth was round and St. Gregory of Nyssa already stated the inseparable nature of body and soul. What would be dangerous, if not scandalous, is if the Church decided to teach that implantation was the beginning of life rather than fertilization. Can you imagine the public outcry and pew-tossing that would result?
Try this one too:
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"THROUGHOUT OHIO AND in one Georgia school district this year, children will be learning the creation theory of "intelligent design" in addition to evolution.
The Cobb County, Ga., science texts now include the following disclaimer: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."
Intelligent design, which has been touted as a crucial link between science and theology, is a theory of creation first espoused in the 1980s. Contrary to Darwinism, its premise is that nature displays abundant evidence of design by an "intelligent agent" rather than by undirected natural causes.
This approach also will be included in this year's science curriculum throughout Ohio, whose educational standards committee has voted to include more than just Darwin's theory of evolution in the state's classrooms."
The entire article can be read here: http://www.geocities.com/gregoryjrummo/evolutioncobbcounty.htm
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We often confuse theory with fact. Lately, it has been some sectors of the science community that has made their theories into dogma, especially in our school textbooks. Today, a number of challenges are being made regarding the dogmatic status of certain theories. A "theory" is just a "theory." We must recognize that.
//As Pius XII noted in 1952 (a congress on uses of the atom), there can be no conflict between theology and true science.//
And what is true science? The same goes for archaeology. Many archaeological discoveries are now challenging biblical dictums. Some suggest, like Tommy Thompson, that Abraham never existed.
//But let's not err in using current scientific knowledge to make definitive theological statements. The science will definitely change; the theological reality should not.//
How true. Science, in itself, can make NO theological statement. Such things are outside its nature and discipline.
Alvin Plantinga reminds us of the great divorce between philosophy and Christian/theistic belief that running current. Someone brought up the question of philosophy and such. So, I post this little blurb from Plantinga's reply to the Pope's encyclical on Faith and Reason (Fides et Ratio):
"Once we come to modern philosophy, however, with post-Kantian and post-Humean turning away from Christian or even theistic belief, doesn't it look as if much of philosophy is less an incomplete approach to Christian belief than arrogant apostasy? One branch of this apostasy culminates in the philosophical naturalism dominating most of the most important contemporary American philosophy departments, a naturalism that explicitly rejects not just Christian truth but theism generally. The other branch perhaps culminates in Friedrich Nietzsche's subtle and modulated observations that God is dead, and that Christian belief both fosters and arises from a sort of sniveling, servile, cowardly, evasive, duplicitous, and all-around contemptible sort of character that is at the same time envious, self-righteous, and full of hate disguised as charitable kindness. (Not a pretty picture.) Neither group is best seen as making an approach to Christian truth but just falling a bit short."
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Isn't this the common picture we see of the Church and Christianity in today's media? Unfortunately, this is what we have to work with.