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21st-Century Medicine: ‘Playing God’ or ‘Playing for God’?

While most would recognize that the charge of “playing God” is usually more of an emotive than reflective response to boundary situations, it is still a powerful expression in public religious discourse.

This phrase, usually spoken more emotionally than rationally, expresses a core conviction of Jewish and Christian traditions that there is a clear line between God and human, and humans dare not trespass that line. This tradition emphasizes humanity as caretaker of God’s creation, a theology of stewardship.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” /> 
Yet, deep within the heart of both Jewish and Christian theological traditions is an understanding that humans are but “a little lower than the angels” (or God, depending on the translation). This tradition emphasizes humans as responders with God in the midst of this broken world—a theology of co-creation. 
There is a joke making the Internet rounds that reflects our ambivalence about balancing the mysteries of stewardship and co-creation.
A group of scientists was discussing which one of them was going to go to God and tell him that they didn’t need him anymore. Finally, one of the scientists volunteered and went to tell God he was no longer needed. 
The scientist says to God, “God, you know, a bunch of us have been thinking and I’ve come to tell you that we really don’t need you anymore. I mean, we’ve been coming up with great theories and ideas, we’ve cloned sheep, and we’re on the verge of cloning humans. So as you can see, we really don’t need you.” 
God nods understandingly and says: “I see. Well, no hard feelings. But before you go, let’s have a contest.”  
“Sure,” the scientist says. “What kind of contest?” 
God: “A man-making contest.” 
The scientist: “Sure! No problem.” The scientist bends down and picks up a handful of dirt and says, “Okay, I’m ready!” 
God replies: “No, no. You go get your own dirt.” 
So, where is the line between playing God and playing for God? What separates an act of a steward’s hubris from an act of a co-creator’s healing? 
In the past some thought it should be drawn at the theory of the earth-centered universe. Some thought it should be drawn at the damming of rivers for hydro-electricity. Some thought it was the splitting of the atom, and then the splitting of the worm (or sheep, or human) gene.   
Today some believe the line is in genetically designed food crops. Is corn or rice with genetically induced qualities against God’s plan? Does it matter that those properties were introduced by planned, or unplanned, cross-fertilization as compared to scientifically produced in a laboratory? Is one method “playing God” and the other “playing for God”?  
Some thought the line was in vaccinations against polio or AIDS. Others claimed the line was in beginning or in withdrawing life-sustaining treatments such as respirators. Is it “playing God” or “playing for God” to sustain the life of Christopher Reeves when almost all people with his injuries would have long ago died? 
In January 2003 a new case of “playing God” versus “playing for God” began working its way through the courts of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Great Britain. The Hashmis three-year-old son, Zain, has a rare blood disorder that may respond to treatment through a bone marrow transplant. A suitable donor has not been found, so the couple is utilizing in vitro fertilization in order to birth a baby.   
In order to assure a match for Zain, they are screening the embryos’ genetics and will only implant matching embryos. After the baby’s birth, they will be able to take cells from the umbilical cord in order to treat Zain. 
The deeper ethical issues are numerous. Is it permissible to not implant all viable embryos created through IVF? Is it objectionable to use technology to provide treatment for a child through the birth of another child? How is this different than being grateful when a chance birth produces a child whose genetics are a close enough match for the transplant?   
While most would recognize that the charge of “playing God” is usually more of an emotive than reflective response to boundary situations, it is still a powerful expression in public religious discourse. 
Each would do well to reflect upon emotions and convictions regarding the range of choices, power and creativity available to people in the early 21st century. Perhaps we are not “playing God,” but “playing with God.” 
Steve Ivy is vice president for values, ethics, social responsibility, and pastoral services of Clarian Health Partners in Indianapolis, Ind.