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Crossing boundaries: virtue or vice for the twenty-first century?

The cloning of "Dolly" the sheep in 1997 is now old news. The ability to reproduce individuals through somatic cell nuclear transfer has been accomplished in at least five species, the latest being that of the cat. In November 2001, scientists at Advanced Cell Technology, Inc. in Massachusetts claimed that they had successfully cloned a human embryo, which had developed to the 8-cell stage. (1) Debates over genetic research and manipulation have moved well beyond the initial shock of Dolly's advent onto the scene and the prospect of human clones populating the earth. Nevertheless, the case of Dolly illustrates the visceral reaction--sometimes called the Yuk-factor--that arises when "natural" boundaries are violated. (2)

In his 1998 article, "A Cabbit in Sheep's Clothing: Exploring the Sources of Our Moral Disquiet about Cloning," Timothy Renick explores the reasons why so many have had feelings of repulsion at the notion of reproductive human cloning. (3) His contention is that the vociferous outpouring of opposition to human cloning after Dolly went beyond moral reasoning. Using the work of Jeffrey Stout on "moral abomination" and of Mary Douglas on "purity and danger," he comes to the conclusion that human cloning elicits the Yuk-factor because it challenges our very notions of reality, posing a "cosmological threat" more than a moral dilemma. (4) The issue is not over family values as such, since

This essay is taken from the authors Presidential Address to the Canadian Theological Society, Toronto, May 26, 2002. new forms of family have been emerging over the last century without such visceral repulsion. Instead, Renick argues, the set of roles and identifies that is at stake is grounded at a very primal level. These roles and identities are challenged at a depth that other modifications of family relations have not touched. Consider the following:

If Jennifer gives birth to a clone of herself named Rachel, then Jennifer is clearly Rachel's birth mother. And if Jennifer raises Rachel herself, then she is clearly Rachel's social mother as well. In genetic terms, however, Jennifer is not Rachel's mother, she's Rachel's identical twin. This means that Rachel's genetic parents are the same as Jennifer's genetic parents. (5)

If this isn't complicated enough, Renick brings in the extended family. Jennifer's mother becomes both the mother and grandmother of Rachel while Rachel's aunt (Jennifer's sister) is both her aunt and her sister. Rachel and her aunt/sister will have the same genetic parents.

Renick further insists that human cloning challenges the very line between self and other. This is the stuff of science fiction--the F.B.I. agent on the trail of a serial killer follows the leads to a seedy apartment where, when the door opens, he is confronted with--himself. (6) This is Renick's point: it is the cosmological threat--the fact that the clone is both self and other--that so shakes our foundations. "Who 'I' am is brought into question. Once again it is the visceral experience more than the intellectual concept which frightens; brought face to face with one's clone, one is left literally shaken by the experience of temporarily losing hold on who one is." (7)

Here we are at the point of boundary crossing. The Yuk-factor is at heart a visceral resistance to crossing boundaries, identities, and roles that we hold dear. Our very identities and cosmologies are challenged. Renick compares this revulsion to other accepted taboos, such as those against bestiality and necrophilia. Intimacy between man and beast, between living and dead--such boundary crossing is considered pathological at best. For example, the recent discovery of over 340 human bodies at a crematorium in Georgia elicits all the revulsion one could want. Though Ray Brent Marsh is charged with 200 counts of "theft by deception" most of the public is more shocked by this man's desire to harbor human remains than they are incensed at the injustice of his "theft." (8)

In this light, gut-level reactions, the Yuk-factor, seem to be authentic arbiters of moral value. And yet.... Renick recognizes that not all aspects of our dearly held cosmologies are valid. "The cosmological categories embraced by societies and individuals are not necessarily right, and they certainly are not static." (9) Renick cites the example of his great aunt, born and raised in the American South, who still recoils at the sight of an interracial couple. Here we have a case of boundary crossing that challenges the roles and identities embedded deeply in the psyches of many. For others, such boundary crossing is a sign of liberation, reversing illegitimate racial boundaries of an earlier generation. In this case, the Yuk-factor arises from a distorted affectivity that needs to be converted.

Thus Renick leaves us without a clear position on human reproductive cloning. He, instead, concludes: "[W]e must ask whether cloning is more like necrophilia or interracial dating." (10) In other words, how do we discern which boundaries arise from prejudice and need to be overcome, and which circumscribe areas that ought not to be violated?

The Question of Boundaries

My point is not to introduce an essay on genetic engineering, family values, or reproductive technology. It is, rather, to illustrate the deep ambiguity we confront, and will confront more and more in this new century, as we come up against boundaries that we are challenged to cross. I want to reflect, not so much on a list of boundaries that should or should not be crossed, but on the quandary we face as we confront two realities. The first is the legacy of the Enlightenment, and consists of the realization that social structures, and the cosmologies that buttress them, are not always as innocent as they seem. Boundaries, assigned roles, and social expectations are to be greeted with suspicion so that the vested interests of the status quo can be unveiled. The second reality is that boundary crossing, in and of itself, does not provide a very reliable moral yardstick.

Let me expand on this latter point. While we can all come up with instances in which we were disturbed by conservative attitudes or actions that thinly disguised racist, sexist, or class bias, the fact is that ascribed roles and boundaries provide safety and security. I am thinking here of family patterns and ecclesiastical roles, and the chaos that ensues when lines get fuzzy between adult and child. One of the greatest difficulties arising in child sexual abuse is the confusion elicited about who is who and what is expected of various parties. As recent media reports indicate, in cases of clergy abuse the child has been taught to respect the wisdom and authority, not only of his elders, but of this person in this role in particular. A child confronted with his or her own Yuk-factor at intimacy with such an individual is told to overcome such revulsion in favor of the wisdom of the abuser. Likewise, in cases of incest, the boundaries between parent and child break down. Other cases of family pathology likewi se involve a blurring of roles and responsibilities: young children whose parents are caught in addiction take on the role of parent and no longer know how to "play." In all these cases, claims that structured roles and responsibilities are constrictive and need to be broken are clearly wrong-headed. Indeed, the antidote for such situations is to restore the boundaries that ought to exist between priest and parishioner, parent and child, teacher and student. (11)

As a mother of teenagers, who considers herself about twenty years old at heart, I am always shocked that my children don't want me included in the important moments of their lives. At high school sports events, if I dare to show up, I have to hide from my son and his friends on the other side of the stadium. The night I wandered into the Homecoming dance to see what was up, was the worst night of my daughter's life, who declared that she would never speak to me again in her life! When an artist in residence at the local high school played the main role in a play, opposite an eleventh-grade girl, my daughter exhibited great sympathy for the poor girl who, at one point, had to kiss the "teacher." These kids know exactly who is supposed to do what, when and where. Boundaries, roles, and expectations provide personal and social space within which they are free to explore just who they are and what they are able to do. Break down the lines and the Yuk-factor sets in with a vengeance.

So, the boundaries established by social expectations and assigned roles provide important structure and meaning. They can, in fact, provide the very freedom that is necessary for personal and communal interaction and the exploration of identity. On the other hand, we also recognize that the borders established by such roles, expectations, and taboos often oppress human agents more than they encourage human flourishing. The "discovery of discovery" that emerged from the rise of modern science yielded the social and political realization that everyone can engage in empirical judgments. (12) Knowledge no longer became the domain of a few with access to divine revelation. "One man, one vote" was the democratic result, except that it took two centuries for the unexamined bias of this slogan itself to be unveiled. One, propertied, Caucasian male per vote held the day until Suffrage and Civil Rights movements insisted that the principles of the Enlightenment should be applied across the board. Freud and Marx unveil ed the naivete of assuming that conscious choices can be taken at face value. The Social Gospel movement and then Liberation Theology have added the Christian component so that now no self-respecting theologian, and few Christian practitioners, can ignore the fact that "natural" boundaries and God-given structures are often laden with human vested interests. Religion itself is most at fault in given instances, having buttressed the cosmologies and attitudes underlying some of the worst atrocities of human history.

Thus, we enter the twenty-first century, whether we like it or not, with an existential hermeneutic of suspicion. All is not what it seems. Our religious sensibilities, our social structures, our intimate relations are not to be trusted without severe scrutiny. At the same time, common sense urges us to trust our intuitions, and innate inter-subjectivity tells us that life ought to carry on as "normal." The Yuk-factor prevails, and in most situations we appeal to our gut-level reactions to serve as a moral compass. We recoil at necrophilia but learn to accept the interracial couple next door. How, then, do we distinguish between the boundary crossings that create community and freedom and the border infringements that violate the same? (13)

Lessons from Ecological Science

Rather than answer this question directly, I would like to meander around it with reflections from two different domains--that of ecological science, and that of ritual studies. Let's start with environmental studies and the case of pacific salmon. Salmon are one group of what are called "anadromous" fish--those that come from the ocean to spawn in freshwater streams. These fish challenge the boundaries that define ecosystems, at least the definitions that would restrict an ecosystem to a certain geographic or biotic region. (14) Salmon can be studied as part of the aquatic ecosystem of the oceans, but they also play a significant role in terrestrial ecosystems. Among other things, the decay of salmon in freshwater streams and lakes adds nitrogen, phosphorous, carbon, and other inorganic elements to the freshwater habitat. Spawning fish have higher levels of heavy isotopes of nitrogen and carbon, which can be traced throughout the food chain. One study showed that spawning salmon contributed 10.9 percent of t he nitrogen found in invertebrate predators and 17.5 percent found in plants. (15) Salmon "fertilize" freshwater life, both through decay of their carcasses and by providing a food source for other species. As one author concludes:

In southeast Alaska, over forty species of mammals and birds feed on salmon. Salmon migrations attract large numbers of predators to streams and lakes. Salmon and other anadromous fish appear to link the ocean, freshwater, and land to an extent that is only beginning to be appreciated. (16)

Salmon can thus serve as a metaphor of boundary crossing that "fertilizes" its habitat. In contrast, purple loosestrife stands as a prime example of border crossing that is "invasive." Purple loosestrife is a perennial plant that grows in wetlands. It is not indigenous to North America but was brought to this continent from Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century as an herbal remedy. Humans unintentionally introduced this species when its seeds were flushed out along with ballast from European ships. Without any natural predators or diseases to inhibit its growth, purple loosestrife quickly spread up the New England coast, and, due to the construction of canals and waterways in the 1880s, moved inland to New York state and the regions around the St. Lawrence River. By now it can be found throughout the eastern and Midwestern United States and Canada. (17)

A single plant can produce 2.5 million seeds each year. (18) The seeds can survive for long periods of time and are distributed through water and mud clinging to waterfowl and humans. Native species are unable to compete with such productivity. Mature plants shade other seedlings and its relatively tall height prevents other species from gaining ground. In addition, it is not palatable to grazing animals so that it has greatly reduced the carrying capacity of grazing lands and diminished agricultural productivity.

In sum, purple loosestrife is the quintessential "invasive" species. Though beautiful, it roots easily in any cleared or disturbed space, gradually eliminating its competitors yet providing neither sustenance nor habitat for other species. Unlike the pacific salmon, whose boundary crossing contributes to the well being of the whole, purple loosestrife has invaded the territory of other species and taken over the bull of the resources without giving anything in return.

The only way to curtail the spread of purple loosestrife is to pull it out by the roots, which is time consuming and expensive. Recently, a new method has been tried which, ironically, involves more boundary crossing. Three species of European insects, native to the original habitat of purple loosestrife, are being introduced as biological controls. These insects are parasites that live off the purple loosestrife, killing it in the process. In other words, what makes purple loosestrife "invasive" is not, merely, that it has crossed borders, but that it became isolated from a system meant to contain it. Reintroducing a parasite that will tale away the status of purple loosestrife as a "dominant species" will render this plant an asset rather than a liability to North American ecosystems.

Three basic kinds of interaction between species exist: competition, symbiosis, and predation-parasitism. Competition exists between species that have the same needs. The competitive exclusion principle states that, "two species that have exactly the same requirements cannot coexist in exactly the same habitat." (19) This differs from predation or parasitism in which one species feeds off another species. Symbiosis exists when there is a relationship between two species that is beneficial to both, such as that between the microorganisms in our intestines and ourselves. The case of purple loosestrife illustrates all three of these relationships. It competes with other species for light and soil. Some birds eat its seeds, distributing the seeds throughout the mud so that new plants arise--a symbiotic relationship. Finally, the insects brought in from Europe are parasites that kill the plant, curbing its dominance.

No one type of relationship is better than another. Predators or parasites ensure that no single species will absorb all the resources of a region. Symbiosis clearly benefits all involved in the network of relations, and competition has led to biodiversity as species excluded from one region adapt to or seek out new environments.

This last point can be nuanced to explain biodiversity. The competitive exclusionary principle--that two species with the same requirements cannot exist in the same habitat--would lead one to expect a limited number of species to have evolved over time. In fact, this is not the case. The reason is that, given the competition, species have evolved in order to survive in slightly different conditions--different species find different "niches." The classic example is the flour beetle. If one places individuals from two different species of flour beetle into a large jar of flour, one species will eventually take over the jar. If it is warm and dry, species "A" will proliferate and win out over the other species. If it is cool and moist, species "B" wins out. (20) However, in a mixed environment, both species may persist by using separate parts of the habitat. In other words,

Species that require the same resources can coexist by utilizing those resources under different environmental conditions. They are said to have different ecological niches. (21)

Now, how did we get from Dolly to flour beetles, and how we can possibly use flour beetles as a resource for theological reflection? My point here is to "thicken" our description of boundary crossing, to complicate it, perhaps. We have ecosystems, some with clear boundaries, some with porous boundaries, and some with vaguely defined boundaries. Within ecosystems we have habitats in which species exist in competition, in symbiosis, or in a predator/parasitical relationship. Within habitats we have great biodiversity due to the fact that competing species have managed to carve out niches for themselves. The conclusions for environmentalists are as follows:

If we are to conserve a species in its native habitat, we must make sure that all the requirements of its niche are present. Conservation of endangered species is more than a matter of placing many individuals of that species into an area; all the life requirements for that species must also be present.... (22)

Thus we see that if we want to save a species from extinction, we must save not only its niche but also its symbionts. The attempt to save a single species almost invariably leads us to conserve a group of species, not just a particular habitat. (23)

Furthermore, even predation and parasites have an important role:

In this way, predators can contribute to species evenness by keeping the dominant species from overwhelming others via competitive exclusions. For example, some studies have shown that a moderately grazed pasture has more species of plants than an ungrazed one. The same seems to be true about natural grasslands and savannas. Without grazers and browsers, there might be fewer species of plants in African grasslands and savannas. (24)

So we have the case of pacific salmon that cross eco-boundaries to the benefit of a complex set of relationships. We have purple loosestrife that has crossed a bio-geographic boundary to the detriment of wetlands habitats. In the latter case, what makes the boundary crossing invasive instead of fertilizing is not the boundary crossing per se, but the isolation of the species from a certain set of relations, including that of parasites. Thus it is the failure to contribute to the overall flourishing of the habitat, the dominance of the loosestrife, the elimination of biodiversity; that is problematic.

In sum, our metaphorical meandering yields the following conclusion. Good, advantageous, authentic boundary crossing is that which enhances diversity, provides complex conditions where safe niches can be found, and recognizes and sustains a complex web of relations. Oppressive or invasive boundary crossing involves the dominance of one person or group, fails to recognize interdependence within a web of relations, overlooks the safety of the niche, and disregards the ecosystemic nature of meaning and value.

Crossing the Divine/Human Divide

Let us turn to the religious dimensions of the issues at hand. As I have already noted, religious cosmologies account for a great deal of oppression that prevents healthy border crossings and can be blamed for much invasive dominance of one sort or another. Some conclude that the Judeo-Christian story must be abandoned altogether. On the other hand, many, including myself, can't ignore the fact that the heart of the Judeo-Christian legacy lies in a radical yet gratuitous movement across the border between the human and the divine. The distinguishing characteristic of Yahweh is that he initiated a relationship with Abraham, and sustained that unnecessary and "unnatural" bond with the nation of Israel through centuries of infidelity. The heart of the Christian gospel is, of course, the good news of incarnation and resurrection. The incarnational advent of Jesus signals a new world in which God has crossed over to identify with human struggle. Jesus' resurrection signifies the ultimate crossing over between deat h and life. Both have been understood to render "salvation" in that they establish a permanent access to the divine by human persons. The Holy is no longer an agent of destruction and fear but a source of forgiveness and meaning in the face of gross sin and despair.

Boundary crossing as the heart of the gospel is illustrated in Jesus' actions during his lifetime. One of the lectionary readings during Lent is the encounter of Jesus with the woman at the well. (25) A woman of Samaria, she was at the well in the noonday heat precisely because she was on the edge of society. Social roles and ritual purity laws left her on the margins. Jesus challenges such designations by asking her for water. In the course of the conversation, each dividing line between Jesus and the woman is both discussed and traversed. Jesus, a man, was approaching a woman. A Jew was interacting with a Samaritan. Jesus offers living water and indicates his ability to discern her shady past, yet he accepts her anyway. In the end, the conversation so changes the woman that she herself defies boundaries by declaring her newfound friend to local villagers.

Another reading from the Lenten lectionary illustrates the border between human and divine in a more graphic way. Jesus tales Peter, James, and John up a high mountain away from the crowd. There, Jesus is transfigured by a great brightness, so that his face shines like the sun and his clothes become white as light. Moses and Elijah appear, conversing with Jesus. A cloud descends and a voice speaks, confirming Jesus as God's son. (26)

In this case, social boundaries are not as prominent as the very line between Holy and profane, time and eternity. This kind of encounter exhibits the border crossing that is at the very heart of religious life. It is both terrifying and liberating. At the voice from the cloud, the disciples fall to the ground in fear. Jesus must revive and comfort them before they can return to ordinary life.

These two stories illustrate that the Christian message entails, inextricably, the traversing of boundaries, both social and existential. Encountering the divine can take place in the course of daily chores or in mystical ecstasy but in both cases it will radically alter those involved. In both cases crossing the Holy/human line will embroil one in breaching social definitions, mores, and categories. As Paul concludes in his passionate defense against the circumcision party: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (27)

Let us examine this human/divine boundary a little more closely. Clearly, crossing this divide is to be pursued, as hosts of pilgrims, converts, and religious adherents throughout history testify. Yet such a boundary is not to be crossed lightly, both on account of the great cost in social consequences, and because the chasm between creature and Creator is downright terrifying. Peter knows this in the story of the Transfiguration, when he suggests that he erect three shrines, for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Such a gesture, one presumes, would have satisfied both Peter's need to express awe and wonder as well as his need for a tangible vehicle of worship to protect him, if you will, from the Holy. His suggestion is denied in the form of the cloud and voice from on high, leaving Peter in an even more vulnerable state than when he began.

Here we have a boundary crossing that needs to occur. Indeed, many would say that such a crossing is the very stuff of salvation, and is the apex of, the whole point of, Creation in the first place. Still, it is a traversal that itself threatens to destroy us. Social structures and self-definition evaporate, sin is exposed, creaturely finitude revealed, life itself threatened when the human person dares to meet her Maker. Ironically, we have an incarnational cosmology that, at its heart, threatens our (socially constructed) cosmologies. Salvation lies in crossing a boundary that native instinct cautions us never to cross.

How do we manage this boundary crossing? We manage it through carefully constructed ritual. Ritual takes us out of the ordinary, provides a space in which we can let go of expectations, of the urgency of survival, and expose ourselves to intimacy with the Ultimate in an atmosphere of safety. Victor Turner defines ritual as follows: "Formal behavior prescribed for occasions not given over to technological routine that have reference to beliefs in mystical beings or powers." (28) Another anthropologist, interested in social rituals, makes the following interesting statement: "[R]itual is linked with social transitions, while ceremony is linked with social states." (29) Ritual has to do with transitions--in other words, crossing boundaries--while ceremony has to do with celebrating social states--maintaining boundaries. Both are no doubt important, but to the degree that we want to "cross over" to the divine, we might reflect on when our rituals, meant to facilitate boundary crossing, degenerate into mere ceremo nies.

There is a contradiction at the heart of good ritual with regard to the fluidity and rigidity of boundaries. While religious ritual is meant to make the line between human and divine more permeable, it is successful to the degree that it follows clearly prescribed rubrics. Thus, Victor Turner observes:

The unity of a given ritual is a dramatic unity. Observation of the rubrics of the ritual is deemed essential, for only by staying within the channels, marked out by custom, through which the collective action should flow...will the peace and harmony typically promised to ritual participants finally be achieved. (30)

In any good dramatic production, following the script and memorizing one's lines flawlessly provides the ground for creative license. So, too, careful observance of liturgical rubric allows an opening for the Holy Spirit to surprise us. While liturgical tastes vary, from highly structured to free wheeling openness, nevertheless, all ritual encounters with the divine must prescribe and proscribe, must set limits within which it is safe for us to open our hearts and minds to the Holy.

Another concept used in ritual studies can shed some light here. Arnold van Gennep, the first one to coin the phrase "rites of passage," also introduced the notion of "liminality." (31) The Latin, limen, means, literally, "threshold." Thus, those in a liminal state are "on the threshold" between one existence and another. Van Gennep used the term to refer to those in mid-transition during a rite of passage. Neither child nor adult, the pubescent girl or boy is betwixt and between. "Luminars," as they are called in the literature, are "stripped of status and authority, removed from a social structure maintained and sanctioned by power and force, and leveled to a homogenous social state through discipline and ordeal." (32) Their secular weakness can be compensated for by sacred power, however, and "much of what has been bound by social structure is liberated, notably the sense of comradeship and communion, or communitas." (33)

Now it would be untrue to assume that every time we darken the door of a church to attend a worship service we are engaging in a rite of passage or entering into a liminal state of some kind. Nevertheless, this notion of being "on the threshold" can "thicken up" our understanding of authentic boundary crossing, as did the ecological examples. Liminality involves a great deal of ambiguity and insecurity, while at the same time opening up new worlds of meaning, new identities and loyalties. What good ritual does is allow us the freedom to abide in ambiguity or "mystery," to experience the fear and trepidation of our finitude as well as our brokenness, in a well-defined and therefore safe space--literally, temporally, and psychically.

The goal of such authentic ritual is openness to the transcendent. In contrast, magic and superstition seek to control the transcendent. In the face of ambiguity, confronted with finitude, ritual can be counterfeited in an effort to produce the same effects without the liminality. Many crave the liberation or emotions that come with "crossing over" to the divine yet don't want to move into the marginal spaces required to become truly self-transcendent. I would insist that the difference between authentic ritual and mere magic is that ritual moves one into carefully constructed liminal spaces in which one remains open to surprise, to the radically liberating and new. Magic seeks to overcontrol the liminality in order to manage its outcome. Good ritual aims at self-transcendence in communion with the radically Other without guarantees of outcome. Magic counterfeits liminal experience in a disguised self-indulgence oriented, ultimately, to controlling the divine. Note, finally, that the latter is much more marke table than the former.


The twenty-first century, though young, has already seen a host of ways in which new boundaries have been crossed in disturbing ways. A human embryo has been cloned. Genetically altered soy beans fertilize neighbors fields despite cleverly devised patent restrictions. Most grievous, the images of planes flying headlong into the World Trade Center have seared our imaginations and assured us that no boundary-national, economic, cultural, or religious--can protect us from harm. The ensuing attempts to secure our boundaries challenge both our civil liberties and our identities as tolerant, liberal-minded people. The naivete of the modem quest for tolerance, for the eradication of prejudice and the overturning of bigotry seems to have been unveiled. Israeli tanks occupy Palestinian settlements while children with bombs strapped around their waists blow up pool halls. And just when the world needs to hear the voice of wisdom from religious sources, we find that children have been violated by priests and Bishops hav e betrayed the trust of their flocks.

So what conclusions do I bring from my meanderings in ecological science and ritual studies? It seems that crossing boundaries with the intent to control, to dominate, or to avoid suffering are the most destructive. Of course when boundaries are threatened we are most inclined toward domination, control, and the safety of magic. But the heart of Christian freedom indicates that it is precisely at this point of vulnerability that transformation can be the most fertile. Abiding on the threshold, even between death and life, can yield entirely new horizons.

Some of the conditions of possibility of such transformation, however, need to be articulated. First, one cannot overlook the ecosystemic quality of border crossings. By this I mean that an entire web of relations needs to be taken into account. No action creates only a single consequence. As the ecologists conclude, one cannot save a single endangered species without preserving its symbionts, its habitat, the other species required to let it live. The ethics of control that believes it can "fix" something with a single surgical strike--whether in war, medicine, or human relations-is misguided.

Second, the importance of peculiar and diverse "niches" needs to be recognized. While competition may rule the day, the creativity of the human spirit, the resilience of hope, the ability to find meaning-to sing songs, to dance dances, to celebrate life in myriad ways--provides safe havens for the human spirit. "Success" seems to be repeatedly defied by the few who find alternative ways to thrive. And such alternative niches serve as the ground of diversity, the locus of "communitas." And while not all diversity is authentic, nevertheless, one can seek and promote the good in the "anti-structure" of the margins. And a society (or church) in which people are free to create a niche for themselves has to be better than one in which secrecy and homogeneity abound.

Third, the boundary of creaturehood must never be forgotten. The aspiration of the human spirit must be allowed to thrive, and any roles, identities, or boundaries that prejudicially hamper such eros need to be challenged. But aspiration is not attainment, and we forget our finitude to our peril. Any boundary crossing that pretends omnipotence is doomed to end with dominance and, no matter how well intentioned, violence. Accepting--or finding--the fine line between creature and Creator, between finitude and an unrestricted longing for the Divine, is at the heart of transformative boundary crossing.

Such, finally, is the role of ritual. Good ritual reminds us of our limits while calling us into a horizon of the Transcendent in which our limits are, not violated, but exceeded. Good ritual provides a safe boundary within which we can yield to the deepest desires and griefs of the human heart without fear of demise. And the power of liminal spaces, the danger of moving between the safety of the ordinary and the peace of the Infinite cannot be overlooked. No matter what cause we celebrate, what injustice we seek to remedy, the sway of the psyche, the importance of the imagination, the role of the symbolic cannot be disregarded. In an era when religious imagination seems to have been hijacked by images of dominance, victory, and violence, the quest for authentic ritual, with life-sustaining symbolic catalysts, is essential.

In conclusion, I am not sure whether reproductive cloning is more like necrophilia or interracial dating. But I am quite sure that, while some boundaries must be crossed, not all boundaries are meant to be crossed. Human thriving demands the rejection of all boundaries that are prejudicial--that involve prejudgment, that jump to conclusions before all the questions have been asked. But crossing boundaries, however just or necessary, must be ecologically sensitive and ritually astute. Humans must take their place as one species among many and the drama of human actors must abide by an ethic of risk rather than an ethic of control. Reproductive cloning may make one, or even a few people happy, but it needs to be assessed in light of an ecosystem of values for the entire human family, including generations in the far distant future. And technological change must not go forward without regular, if not frequent, retreats from technique and competition to sacrament and contemplation. Indeed, expanding the boundarie s of religious imagination while carefully protecting the boundaries of sacred space may turn out to be the most important and requisite virtue for the twenty-first century.


(1.) See "Worcester Firm Clones Human Embryos," The Boston Herald, Nov. 26, 2001.

(2.) For an argument in favor of disregarding the Yuk-factor, see Oliver Morton (1998), "Overcoming Yuk." Wired 6 (1). Retrieved March 1, 2002, from

(3.) The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics 18 (1998): 259-274.

(4.) Renick cites the following sources: Jeffrey Stout, "Moral Abominations," Soundings LXVI, 1 (Spring, 1983): 7; idem, Ethics After Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), ch. 7; Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), 5, and ch. 3.

(5.) Lee Silver, Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World (New York: Avon, 1997), 169, as quoted in Renick, 267.

(6.) Apparently, this scenario was shown as an episode of "The X-Files." See Renick, n. 28.

(7.) Renick, 269.

(8.) See, for example, "crematory Investigation: Why didn't Tri-State just Cremate the Bodies?" The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Feb. 24, 2002; "crematory Probe: GAO Accepts Request to Investigate," The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, March 21, 2002.

(9.) Renick, 271.

(10.) Renick, 271-2.

(11.) On roles see Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality(New York: Anchor Books, 1967), 72ff.

(12.) For more on the "discovery of discovery" see my own work: "Women and The Social Construction of Self-Appropriation," in Lonergan and Feminism, ed. Cynthia S. W. Crysdale (Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1994): 88-113; Embracing Travail: Retrieving the Cross Today (New York: Continuum, 1999), ch. 4.

(13.) Nothing could illustrate this quandary better than life after Sept. 11, 2001. Borders, literally, are closing, in order to ensure safety. Surveillance at airports has been enhanced to protect passengers, yet at the same time, such surveillance creates an atmosphere of suspicion that makes passengers feel less secure.

(14.) In fact, it is quite difficult, at times, to define an ecosystem and to determine its boundaries. See Daniel B. Botkin and Edward A. Keller, Environmental Science: Earth as a Living Planet, Third Edition (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2000): 107-109.

(15.) See Botkin and Keller, 109. They cite H. J. Morowitz, Energy Flow in Biology (Woodbridge, CN, Oxbow Press, 1979).

(16.) Botkin and Keller, 109. Emphasis added.

(17.) See Botkin and Keller, 112ff.

(18.) Botkin and Keller, 112. They cite R. A. Malecki, B. Blossey, S.D. Hight, D. Schroeder, L.T. Kok, and J. R. Coulson, "Biological Control of Purple Loosestrife," BioScience 43 (1993): 680-686.

(19.) Botkin and Keller, 122.

(20.) See ibid., 123

(21.) Ibid., Botkin and Keller here cite T. W. Schoener, "Field Experiments in Interspecific Competition," American Naturalist 1222 (1983): 240-285.

(22.) Botkin and Keller, 125.

(23.) Ibid., 126.

(24.) Ibid.

(25.) John 4:4-42.

(26.) Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36.

(27.) Gal. 3:28.

(28.) V. Turner and E. Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), 243.

(29.) R. L. Grimes, Symbol and Conquest: Public Ritual and Drama in Santa Fe, New Mexico (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1976): 24, as quoted in Turner and Turner, in Image and Pilgrimage, 244.

(30.) Turner and Turner, Image and Pilgrimage, 243-4.

(31.) Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960). See discussion in V. W. Turner, "Liminality and Communitas," in Readings in Ritual Studies, ed. R. L. Grimes (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996), 512ff.

(32.) Turner and Turner, Image and Pilgrimage, 249.

(33.) Ibid.

Cynthia S. W. Crysdale is Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs in the School of Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America. She has just completed a term as the President of the Canadian Theological Society and is currently President of the Society of Anglican and Lutheran Theologians. She is the author of Embracing Travail: Retrieving the Cross Today (Continuum, 1999).
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Author:Crysdale, Cynthia S.W.
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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