Response to Dr. Elkins: On Playing God

Please excuse my annoying pedantry to follow…


I have always had difficulty considering any medical decision-making, or for that matter, any decision to justify the use of the phrase “playing God”. Usually when we (those of us involved in ethical discourse) use this phrase we are speaking of some special power with moral consequence over oneself or another. Or simply, meddling with things that are not in our realm.

While I do like the idea of what you (Gary Elkins) say, “I think we play God when we make crucial medical decisions (i.e. decisions with moral consequences) without taking God into consideration,” I find the phrase inadequately addresses the idea we are trying to communicate and that it may be detrimental to our larger cause, for a couple of reasons:

1.)  It seems that we do not take God, that is, as we understand His whole essence, into consideration when we use this phrase.

2.)  It seems that when we use this phrase we are indicating, “playing something other than God” rather than we are “playing God”.

From a Christian worldview we understand God to be loving, just, omniscient (all-knowing), while being (omnipotent) all-powerful. The phrase in question only allows for one part of the being of God, His Power. When we strip away the other attributes of God, we are left with something other than God.

If we were truly trying to, or in actuality, play God in these major decisions of life, we would not just be invoking or abusing power. We would be protecting and preserving life justly.

What we ARE trying to communicate in these situations is that we are attempting to reach beyond our God-given boundaries in support of our interests.

In sum, I think we should use a different phrase to communicate the idea “playing God”. One that conveys our concern for possible abuses, for human dignity, and, ultimately, for the true character of God.

Please excuse the coarseness of my argument in that I don’t offer a real solution, but we need to find new language to communicate this old argument against abuse of power.

I look forward to any thoughts that you may have in response to this proposal.

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Gary Elkins
Gary Elkins
9 years ago

Thank you, Chris, for your response to my discussion about playing God (see “Death and Dying in the Land of Paradise, part 3”). I found it beneficial for me to reflect on your rejoinder.

I may have misunderstood what you are suggesting. Here are a few possible interpretations and/or implications of your comments:

1. Expressions such as “playing God” should not be used because they don’t adequately present God for who He is (i.e., His “whole essence”).

2. Another interpretation, similar to the first one, is to suggest that the name “God,” on its own, even in the context of a complete sentence, isn’t sufficient. Instead, when we use “God” in a sentence then we must include some understanding of His “whole essence.”

3. A third interpretation or implication is that people who use “God” in a moral context should also communicate God’s “whole essence.”

4. A further interpretation is to encourage people who use God in sentences should be careful to explain who God is and include all His attributes in the conversation.

5. Another implication is to suggest that “playing God” focuses on only one of God’s attributes (i.e., His power), and this somehow “strips away the other attributes of God.”

After listing these options, I’m not in agreement with any of them. Sure, our common “God-speak” is frequently inadequate in moral discourse, but there is nothing to prevent a person who uses “playing God” from explaining a fuller understanding of God when called upon. In other words, if I say, “I think ‘Act A’ is an example of playing God,” I’m not claiming that my understanding of God’s nature is closed to further discussion.

Moreover, I’m not sure that I want to put myself into a situation that requires a full explanation of God’s “whole essence” whenever I use God in a sentence. First, it may not always be practical. So, for example, suppose I gaze at a sunset and feel amazed at God’s creative power. Indeed, suppose I make a comment to someone about the power of God. Does this mean that my focus on God’s power somehow “strips away” the other attributes of God? I hope not.

Second, I’m not sure that I (or anyone) can explain God’s “whole essence;” that act alone would be quite a feat. If I add, “God is all-loving and all-knowing,” this still doesn’t explain His whole essence. Indeed, stating these attributes without further explanation may also be inadequate. Perhaps it would be better to say, “It is always wrong to play an all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing God,” but, by adding these attributes, have I now defined His “whole essence?”

However, I think you hit the nail on the head when you summarized your thoughts in the following statement:
“What we ARE trying to communicate in these situations is that we are attempting to reach beyond our God-given boundaries in support of our interests.”

My understanding of playing God is similar to this statement. But I don’t see how it is an improvement because it also does not define God’s whole essence. Then again, is this necessary or even possible? However, I may have misunderstood your point.

chris audino
chris audino
9 years ago
Reply to  Gary Elkins

I fear I did not offer a coherent presentation of my thoughts in the previous blog. After seeing your response and reading my own, I see how you arrived where you did. I will make another attempt to clarify my thoughts on this thought (that has been looming in my mind for some time).

A response to your interpretations/implications…

1. I do fully recognize that no person could express the full essence of God. I also recognize that it would be silly to have to clarify the extent of God’s attributes when discoursing, especially about moral issues; this would be an endless, if not Sisyphean, task. However, my primary concern is that the use of the phrase “playing God” only increases ambiguity in a discourse.
2. This was not my intent.
3. My second concern is that using the phrase “playing God” in place of “attempting to reach beyond our God-given boundaries in support of our interests”, does nothing to clarify the moral issue at hand.
4. This would be impossible (comment 1). That being said we should make an effort to represent God’s essence well when we do use phrases like this. Example, Why would we ever use the phrase “playing God” when referring to abuse of power or reaching beyond God-given boundaries?
5. My third concern is that the phrase only wrongly acknowledges one of God’s attributes—His power. God does not reach beyond precipices and abuse His power. Humans do. So the lab technician who decides to do a little extra research on the embryo before discarding it is not really “playing God” after all.

In response to your response…

My concern is that when one uses the phrase “playing God” she is not representing God for who He is, but instead the opposite—one who is at risk of or is abusing power.

Therefore, as Christians I think using the phrase does nothing to promote a fuller understanding of our opposition to say the use of enhancing modifications in the germ-line. We do not necessarily need to offer a two word explanation of why we are concerned with this we could just simply say: “this is an effort to reach beyond our God-given boundaries in support of our interests.”

While the discussion is still open to further discussion on God’s nature after saying, “playing God” the representation that has been given of God is a misrepresentation. God is not good and powerful, He is instead a powerful being who intends good with his power to no avail.

Thank you for your thoughtful reply and engaging discourse!